In C. M. Woon's The Advocate's Devil (2002), set in 1930s Singapore, the first person narrator, Dennis Chiang, describes himself as a Baba, a Straits Chinese - "born and bred in the Settlements, and owing allegiance to the British Crown" (44). The novel provides a colourful portrayal of the Baba-Nyonya communities of the Straits Settlements, mapping not simply an erosion of traditions, but a commingling of old and new ways that is mirrored by the mixing of ethnicities as well as by the confusions over national allegiances. Contrasting with the frequently self-ironic representation of Dennis's perception of other ethnic groups or nationalities - British, Malays, and more recent Chinese immigrants among others - as stereotypes, the depiction of the Baba community of 1930s Singapore is affectionate, nostalgic as well as insightful, transcending both mere ethnographic realism and a sentimentalising of the disappearance of a unique culture.
Dennis Chiang speaks of "Babas" (the men, though also used as a general term), "Nyonyas" (the women), and "Bibiks" (elderly ladies) as well as of "Straits-born Chinese" and "the King's Chinese". Another term would be Peranakan, a Malay term for someone who is "born locally". The Babas are descendants of Chinese immigrants that settled in the Malay archipelago as early as the 17th century. Intermarriage with the native peoples of the region was common and engendered a unique culture that combined various traditions and customs.
In Woon's novel, the hero's great-grandfather came to the Straits Settlements in the early nineteenth century. Dennis is proud of his roots, even though his allegiances are brought into confusion by his schooling in England and later by his contact with Chinese communists. To his would-be girlfriend Siew Chin, his combination of the ideal English gentleman with his Baba background marks him out as "some strange laboratory specimen:” "The concept of a non-Chinese-speaking Chinese was evidently a contradiction in terms to her” (192). While his unfulfilled love for Siew Chin mirrors his at first indifferent and then conflicted feelings for China, Dennis increasingly draws his confident identification with the Baba community with its allegiance to the British into question. The experience of the Chiang family provides insight into the developments of an early Chinese diaspora. Dennis's retrospective musings on his changing perceptions of himself and his roots describe an important part of Singaporean history that has so far figured very sparingly in historical fiction:
Unlike most of his countrymen, [Dennis's great-grandfather] didn’t go home to China when he made his pile. It is the ambition of every Chinese coolie to become a towkay and go back to the ancestral village to put up a grand mansion and generally swank around. Great-grandfather didn’t. He stayed in the Straits, married and founded a family. My suspicion is that he couldn’t go back – the southern Chinese are notoriously rebellious, and I think that Great-grandfather may have trodden on the pigtails of some mandarins. Anyway, whatever the reason may have been, we became Babas – Straits Chinese, born and bred in the Settlements, and owing allegiance to the British Crown. We were the King’s Chinese, British subjects, whose loyalty was beyond question. [44-45]
Woon, C.M. The Advocate’s Devil. Singapore: Times Books International, 2002.
Last modified: 30 September 2002