BABA AND NYONYAhe first Chinese immigrants to settle in the Malay Archipelago arrived from Guandong and Fujian provinces in the 10th century C.E. They were joined by much larger numbers of the Chinese in the 15th through 17th centuries, following on the heels of the Ming emperor's reopening of Chinese-Malay trade relations in the 15th century. In the 15th century, some small city-states of the Malay Peninsula often paid tribute to various kingdoms such as those of China and Siam. Close relations with China were established in the early 15th century during the reign of Parameswara when Admiral Zheng He (Cheng Ho), a Muslim Chinese, visited Malacca and Java during his expedition (1405-1433). According to a legend in 1459 CE, the Emperor of China sent a princess, Hang Li Po, to the Sultan of Malacca Mansur Shah (reigned 1456-1477) as a token of appreciation for his tribute. The nobles (500 sons of ministers) and servants who accompanied the princess initially settled in Bukit Cina and eventually grew into a class of Straits-born Chinese known as the Peranakans.
Due to economic hardships at mainland China, waves of immigrants from China settled in Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore. Some of them embraced the local customs, while still retaining some degree of their ancestral culture; they are known as the Peranakans. Peranakans normally have a certain degree of indigenous blood, which can be attributed to the fact that during imperial China, most immigrants were men who married the local women. Peranakans at Tangerang, Indonesia, held such a high degree of indigenous blood that they are almost physically indistinguishable from the local population. Peranakans at Indonesia can vary between very fair to copper tan in color.
Chinese men in Melaka fathered children with Javanese, Batak and Balinese slave women. Their descendants moved to Penang and Singapore during British rule. Chinese men in colonial southeast Asia also obtained slave wives from Nias. Chinese men in Singapore and Penang were supplied with slave wives of Bugis, Batak, and Balinese origin.The British tolerated the importation of slave wives since they improved the standard of living for the slaves and provided contentment to the male population. The usage of slave women as wives by the Chinese was widespread.
It cannot be denied, however, that the existence of slavery in this quarter, in former years, was of immense advantage in procuring a female population for Pinang. From Assaban alone, there used to be sometimes 300 slaves, principally females, exported to Malacca and Pinang in a year. The women get comfortably settled as the wives of opulent Chinese merchants, and live in the greatest comfort. Their families attach these men to the soil; and many never think of returning to their native country. The female population of Pinang is still far from being upon a par with the male; and the abolition therefore of slavery, has been a vast sacrifice to philanthropy and humanity. As the condition of the slaves who were brought to the British settlements, was materially improved, and as they contributed so much to the happiness of the male population, and the general prosperity of the settlement, I am disposed to think (although I detest the principles of slavery as much as any man), that the continuance of the system here could not, under the benevolent regulations which were in force to prevent abuse, have been productive of much evil. The sort of slavery indeed which existed in the British settlements in this quarter, had nothing but the name against it; for the condition of the slaves who were brought from the adjoining countries, was always ameliorated by the change; they were well fed and clothed; the women became wives of respectable Chinese; and the men who were in the least industrious, easily emancipated themselves, and many became wealthy. Severity by masters was punished; and, in short, I do not know any race of people who were, and had every reason to be, so happy and contented as the slaves formerly, and debtors as they are now called, who came from the east coast of Sumatra and other places.
John Anderson - Agent to the Government of Prince of Wales Island
Peranakans themselves later on migrated between Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore, which resulted in a high degree of cultural similarity between Peranakans in those countries. Economic / educational reasons normally propel the migration between of Peranakans between the Nusantara region (Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore), their creole language is very close to the indigenous languages of those countries, which makes adaptations a lot easier. In Indonesia, a large population of Peranakans can be found in Tangerang, West Java.
People of Chinese ancestry in Phuket, Thailand make up a significant population, many of whom having descended from tin miners who migrated to the island during the 19th century. The Peranakans there are known as "Phuket Babas" in the local tongue, constitute a fair share of members Chinese community, particularly among those who have family ties with the Peranakans of Penang and Malacca.
For political reasons Peranakans and other Nusantara Chinese are grouped as a one racial group, Chinese, with Chinese in Singapore and Malaysia becoming more adoptive of mainland Chinese culture, and Chinese in Indonesia becoming more diluted in their Chinese culture. Such things can be attributed to the policies of Bumiputera and Chinese-National Schools (Malaysia), mother tongue policy (Singapore) and the ban of Chinese culture during the Soeharto era in Indonesia.
In old times the Peranakans were held in high regard by Malays. Some Malays in the past may have taken the word "Baba", referring to Chinese males, and put it into their name, when this used to be the case.This is not followed by the younger generation, and the current Chinese Malaysians do not have the same status or respect as Peranakans used to have.