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The Baba Nyonya Culture

All that is fascinating in the Baba Nyonya culture is illustrated in two rooms. The central piece is the splendour of the wedding bed and the paraphernalia decorating the wedding room. Overall, the furniture, jewellery and crockery of this era are unsurpassed in their beauty.

The Straits-born Chinese often intermarried with the local Malays. From this alliance, the illustrious Baba Nyonya culture evolved, combining some of the most colourful aspects in the culture and lives of both ethnic groups.

In her dressing, the Nyonya often adopted the Malay style, both thesarong and baju being utilised. The materials chosen to fashion the baju ranged from cotton to silk, voile and organdy. From the 1880s, the baju panjang was popular until the shorter kebaya gained vogue in the 1930s, especially among the younger women. The embroidery on the kebaya involved intricate and extensive work.

Both the porcelain and jewellery owned by the Nyonya were unsurpassed in their beauty, richness of designs and artwork. The highly decorative yet utilitarian porcelain reflected their colourful lifestyle. Polychrome enamelware was extremely popular in their households. The phoenix-and-peony motif (known as the famille rose) often came in a variety of colours – green, rose pink, white, blue, coral red and yellow. Under-glazed crockery in the blue-and-white floral or floral-and-insect motifs as well as Japanese Kakiemon enamelware, Yi-hsing brown stoneware and opaque polychrome stoneware were likewise popular.

Nyonya jewellery was the pride of many of their households. Women were usually bedecked in extravagant jewels which revealed a complex mixture of influences. As the Nyonya wore Malay costumes, the Malay-styled star-and-crescent pendants, earrings and kerosang were favoured. The contribution of Indian jewellers was their unique methods of setting precious stones. The Chinese silversmiths were, in turn, responsible for much of the important silverwork still in existence today.

At their best, Nyonya jewellery featured extravagant applique work, illustrating traditional Chinese motifs like the phoenixes, dragons and other animals.

Nyonya cuisine was an exotic art in itself and inevitably combined Chinese preparations and the spiciness of Malay cooking.

Nothing highlighted the glamour of Baba Nyonya culture as a wedding which lasted for days with the observance of detailed rites such as the hair-combing ritual and the tea ceremony.

 Notes On My Native Land

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. . . from the early days

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The Museum Courtyard

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 The History Gallery

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The Captain Robert Smith Room &
 The William Daniell Room

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The Many Faces of Penang

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The Malays of Penang

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The Indians of Penang

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The Chinese of Penang

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The Baba Nyonya Culture

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The Streets of Penang

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For enquiries and feedback regarding the Penang Museum & Art Gallery, kindly e-mail us at muzium@po.jaring.my

STATE MUSEUM BOARD: 2nd Floor, Dewan Sri Pinang, 10200 Penang
(Tel. & Fax. No: 604-2613144)

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