My Kebaya shirt – a journey where novelty meets sublime beauty

Kebaya shirt © Adrian Cheah

Having grown up in a Chinese Peranakan household, I have always been intrigued by the beauty of the kebaya. It is not just about how the entire ensemble – when matched with a traditional floral sarong is wearable art, one that gives a veritable statement on the opulent cultural heritage of the Nyonyas.

Kebaya shirt © Adrian Cheah

There is also such enchanting craftsmanship that goes into designing the resplendent embroidery masterpieces – all traditionally done by hand. Whether they are colourful flowers, intricate perched peacocks or golden fishes swimming in a coral garden, each motif contributes to an amazing set of kaleidoscopic shades.

Well, I recently had an opportunity to take a journey to celebrate the gossamer-like Nyonya kebaya textile in a novel way to transcend even gender boundaries. It was premised on one simple question. Can I use kebaya material of the very same kind used by Nyonyas for their blouses to craft a shirt of equally stunning measure, one that a man would be proud to wear without feeling emasculated?

I felt almost certain this would be a simple task. But if this was so, why have men not done this before? To date, I have yet to come across a shop selling a shirt made of kebaya material or seen any man standing tall dressed in one.

Thus, I set out to ascertain for myself if this could indeed be possible. All I needed was to select the colours preferred by men, find a good tailor and collaborate with him in designing a veritable masterpiece.

Kebaya shirt © Adrian Cheah

I began looking for the right material. Where else did I end up but at the bustling Jual Murah bazaar at George Town’s Chowrasta marketplace? I saw many ready-made kebaya blouses; however, I could not spot any "untailored" materials. Not discouraged, I enquiring around and soon came across only one shop that had what I was looking for. There were about a dozen varieties on offer, with colours ranging from bright lemon yellow to soft pastel shades of lavender to even raw cyan.

I stood for more that half an hour mulling over the choices. Finally, I decided to go with a black-base material that had beautiful goldfishes.

Kebaya shirt © Adrian Cheah

I took the material home to marvel over its elaborate motifs and soon approached my tailor to start work on the shirt.

To my horror I soon discovered a problem. The front of the kebaya tapered into a ‘V’ shape at the bottom when what I needed was a flat end at right angles. Cutting the shirt straight at the bottom meant that I would be chopping off much of the embroidery. To make it even more ponderous, half way across the front, the needlework of the design switched to face the reverse. Women would fold this part out to form the collar and fasten both sides of the blouse together with a set of kerongsang (brooches).

Kebaya shirt © Adrian Cheah

After much deliberation with my tailor, we came up with effective solutions to the dilemma. Mofazzal Hossain from Dhaka has been my regular tailor for many years. His workmanship is impeccable and I enjoyed his enthusiasm in joining my quest to tailor the shirt.

After a couple of days of tense anticipation, I was thrilled when Mofazzal dropped by my office with the creation. His smile assured me that he had outdone himself once more. When I tried on the shirt, I was absolutely delighted that he could make 19 goldfishes swim with glee!

The whole project made me deeply nostalgic. For I not only reconnected with my cultural roots, but also found a way to celebrate the re-creation of a Peranakan tradition. Perhaps it is time too that new Nyonya dishes are created, new poetry, songs and dances are discovered and new sarong designs are conceived, all breaking away from the customary floral patterns.

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Written and photographed by Adrian Cheah
© All rights reserved
First published in 1 August 2015

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PS: Find a good tailor and you could start creating your own elegant kebaya shirts.
Updated: 6 March 2021