By Anthony Oei:
(Oct-Dec 2000 Issue of the Peranakan newsletter)
Ask not what the Association can do for you
“So you are a Baba,” my Chinese-Chinese friends would say (somewhat disdainfully) when they discover that I don’t know the lingo. Some would even label me “half-past-six Chinese” or “Chinese celup” and laugh loudly. Good thing for them that I can laugh with them. Yes, I am a Baba although that is not the reason why I don’t speak Chinese because most Peranakans I know do. The reason is my ethnic origin and the un-Chinese environment in which I grew up. Let me give you the tedious details. I was born in Jakarta. My late father was an English educated Singapore Baba who worked mostly in Indonesia and who had the spelling of his surname changed from Wee to Oei (now you know why I am not related to the late Indonesian Sugar King Oei Tiong Ham). My late mother hailed from Javanese Chinese parentage from Solo with the surname of Houw. Neither of them knew Chinese nor Peranakan customs and traditions. Indeed, my mother tongue is Sundanese, a Javanese dialect that only a few Indonesians know. But among ourselves, my brothers (I have no sisters) and I and our father rattled in Bahasa Indonesia, before we went to school, that is. Being a Westernised Baba like many of his contemporaries however, my father gave us only English names and, after moving the family to Singapore after World War II, only English education. So from an Indonesian environment we were transplanted to the Western world, taking us further away from our roots. That is how it is and that is why I now speak, think and dream only in English which I suppose makes me a WOG (westernised oriental gentleman), or a Baba WOG, if you like. I took a stab at learning Hokkien and even Mandarin to prove my Chineseness but soon gave it up because everyone laughed when I opened my mouth. I envy my Singapore Peranakan wife Teresa who is forever boasting that she is 110% Nyonya and crazy about sarong kebaya, kasut manek and all the rest of it. She is a Nyonya WOW (westernised oriental woman) but speaks Hokkien and so is a lifesaver when it comes to dealing with say, Chinese shopkeepers and fishmongers. And thanks to Singapore’s education system, my three children know Mandarin, which is also useful should I need it. At least there is some semblance of Chineseness in my family. Anyway, not knowing Chinese doesn’t bother me. I don’t hide in the closet in shame or fear. I go about with my life normally. I am a Baba. We are in a class of our own with our own character, our own aptitude and our culture. We can hold our own in society, whether we special chinese or not. Ours is a culture worth preserving.
I believe every Baba and Nyonya can play a part by joining and helping The Peranakan Association in its mission to protect and advance our rich heritage, not by asking what the Association can do for us as many do when invited to come aboard. Unity is strength, as they say, so the more the merrier. The Association is in good trim with a strong leadership at the helm and doing sterling work. It commands a large following with volunteers willing to serve in the management committee and sub-committees to manage the assorted business. They sacrifice their time and leisure without hoping for anything in return, all for the love of the cause.
There is much to be proud about belonging to an organisation that has withstood the test of time for 100 years and whose centenary we are now triumphantly celebrating. That is a long time by anymeasure. Hardiness, my 110% Nyonya wife says proudly. Yes, hardiness under the waves of the economic, social and political changes rolling relentlessly through Singapore in the past century.
There is much to be proud about belonging to a clan which has contributed immensely, and which continues to do so, to the building of Singapore into what it is today. I have read about the exploitsof the Babas of yore. They were trailblazers in the economic, social and political fields. They went regionally in business and pushed for better living conditions, the study of Mandarin in school, independence and other weighty national affairs, long before these became hot topics in Singapore. They were men of industry, courage and vision.
There is much to be proud about a culture that has survived for centuries, some say 600 years. It is a living culture and gaining more disciples. We can see this in the Association’s healthy membership of more than 1,500 about half of whom enrolled in the past two to three years. And I see within the fold a growing population of young Babas and Nyonyas. They are the new generation of Peranakans bolstering the Association’s strength and offering hope for the future. It says much about a culture that is pulling in the young hitherto caught up in the whirlpool of Western fads. We can see how fascinated they are by their lineage, customs and traditions, and how enchanted they are by the exotic cuisine, attire, footwear, music, furniture and so on. The Youth Group they have formed is a testimony to their burning enthusiasm. The renaissance is refreshing. I am sure that our culture will continue to survive if we stop asking what the Association can do for us and instead, rally round the flag and help the Association to make it happen. This is the thought of a Baba for this centennial year as we begin our journey into the new century to preserve our age-old cultural legacy for posterity.