|The opulent Nyonya
Wearable art that knows
"When in Rome, do as the Romans do" is an oft quoted
maxim about the importance of adapting oneself. Whether or not this bit of
wisdom was known to the early Chinese immigrants to Malaysia, some of them
eventually married the local folk and adopted Malay customs. The result of
this union was the Peranakan Chinese (more commonly known as Babas and Nyonyas),
a unique cultural class that flourished for centuries throughout Malaysia.
Penang Nyonyas in all their kebaya
Mum is standing at far left.
Little remains of Peranakan traditions today and
what's left is barely recognisable. Still, the Nyonya influence is still
very much prevalent in food, like acar hu and nasi kerabu. Other things like
clothing and accessories (kebaya, kerongsang, beaded slippers and ornamental
belts) are considered luxuries and worn only by a lucky few. Most of the
Pernanakan Chinese in Penang today have blended into the social fabric. They
are not as recognisable or as distinctive as before, and the only way of
identifying one is to ask!
Peranakan influence in the family
The Nyonya factor in my family probably came from
my maternal grandmother Emily Elizabeth Surin (picture right) the
name given to her by her guardian, the Mother Superior of Light Street Convent.
It was here that she grew up, among other orphans, not knowing her roots
let alone her parents.
As far as I could recall, my grandmother showed
all signs of Peranakan heritage she spoke fluent Malay, tied her hair
in a bun and wore the traditional baju kedah a round-neck floral blouse
worn with a colourful batik sarong. She loved sambal belacan. The buttons
of her blouses were sometimes made from the Malaya-era five cent silver coins
with the portrait of Queen Victoria. Like most Nyonya women, my grandmother
was resourceful despite her petite stature, and saw to it that all her six
children were never left hungry during the Japanese Occupation. It was from
grandma that my mother inherited her Peranakan habits.
The baju kebaya
Besides the food and language, another interesting feature
of nyonya culture is the baju kebaya. As each outfit is hand made with great
skill using the best materials, Nyonya kebayas can be described as traditional
haute couture. The intricate embroidery is equivalent to the best
Venetian lacework. The pièce de résistance is a delicate
needlework technique called tebuk lubang (literally to punch holes).
This involves sewing the outlines of a floral motif on the fabric and cutting
away the inside. When done correctly, the end result is a fine lace-like
embroidery on the collar, lapels, cuffs and hem and the two triangular front
panels which drape over the hips, known as the lapik. The choice material
used is usually kasar rubia (voile). Other materials suitable for
making the kebaya blouse include muslin, silk and georgette although these
look less impressive. As the kebaya top looks rather transparent, it is usually
worn over a camisole.
According to my mother, a kebaya could be tailored
for about RM150 back in the 60s a princely sum back then. Materials
were available from Boon Company in Campbell Street from RM12 a meter.
Approximately 1.2 meters of cloth is sufficient to sew a kebaya.
Kebayas haven't gotten more affordable these days,
as a well made set of kebaya blouse and sarong can set you back several thousands
of ringgit, particularly those designed by the likes of Bernard Chandran
and Melinda Looi. Despite the cost, a well made kebaya is actually an investment
and if preserved well will appreciate in value.
Imagine my surprise when, by sheer stroke of luck I found
a tailor in KOMTAR who was willing to sew a kebaya for RM220. I wasted no
time talking my wife Yvonne into tailoring one. Possessing a fine eye for
colour and detail, she chose a powder blue georgette fabric with colourful
embroided flowers. A matching blue sarong with gold print was selected to
match. After taking her measurements, we were told to come back in a week
to collect the kebaya.
When we returned to collect the first kebaya, Yvonne
(pictured left with our daughter Jean) could not resist ordering another
this time she chose a pink-based design and paired it with a vibrant
red and gold sarong.
A Nyonya dame caught wearing a kebaya without the
essential accessories is instantly doomed. Accessorising includes the
kerongsang (ornamental brooches usually consisting of intan
set in suasa, an alloy of gold and copper), silver belt, beaded slippers,
necklace, earrings, bracelets, bangles, rings, anklets and a few hairpins)
in her carefully coiffed hair. Nothing is left to chance and all accessories
must match to perfection.
Two belts, one of silver and the other of copper embellished with flower,
foliage and animal outlines to produce an intricate pattern of interlaced
Being heirloom objects, they will be handed down to my daughter
when she comes of age to appreciate the value of fine things.
here for full story.
Acar Awak (spicy mixed vegetable pickle)
here for full story.