Nyonya kasut manek (beaded shoes) – timeless objects of beauty

Nyonya beaded shoes © Adrian Cheah

English influence

The British presence in the three Straits Settlement states had a profound influence on Peranakan culture. Suddenly, the hitherto unknown suits and skirt became à la mode for men and women respectively.

Western techniques also influenced the art and craft of fashioning Peranakan footwear. The style of embroidery for example, once influenced by the Malays was in turn influenced by Western culture. The fine bead work for shoes with which the Nyonya is identified with is a comparatively recent invention from 19th century Britain and Continental Europe.

Slippers de luxe

Nyonya beaded shoes © Adrian Cheah

The most popular Nyonya object still found today is of course the beaded slipper, or Manek Eh in Hokkien, the lingua franca of the Peranakan. The technique of making such footwear is also one of the few crafts left over from the golden age of the Nyonyas. Amazingly, beaded slippers and makers are still available today, and courses are offered on fashioning them. In this day and age of modern ready-made footwear and hip designer brands, hand made beaded slippers are still sought after as a necessary luxury.

Nyonya beaded shoes © Adrian Cheah

For those unfamiliar with the wardrobe of a Peranakan woman, beaded slippers were elegant and delicate looking footwear made from fabrics like velvet or gauze, and decorated with tiny colourful beads, and gold and silver coloured thread. Needless to say, the finished product never failed to look stunning. Such shoes were de rigueur for social occasions like weddings and reunions and woe betide a Nyonya who wore anything else with her coiffed hair, accessories, kebaya labuh or Nyonya kebaya! After the shoes are used, they are carefully put away and wrapped in layers of soft, non-abrasive paper until the next special occasion. Beaded slippers are very fragile, and any break in the thread will slowly unravel the entire tapestry.

Local Nyonya expert and part-time curator Michael Cheah described how a bride had to craft an assortment of slippers to be presented as part of her dowry to the groom and his immediate family. To show off her expertise, a special showcase of embroidered slippers was even prominently displayed in the nuptial chamber. Ghulam Sarwar-Yousof, an expert on culture, added that it was also the custom to present a pair of beaded slippers to the matchmaker.

A life of leisure, but not idleness

Nyonya beaded shoes © Adrian Cheah

Not surprisingly, crafting a well-made pair of beaded slippers was a time consuming affair, and the 'face' for each pair could take several months to complete. The maker had to possess an infinite amount of patience and perseverance, a steady hand, good eyesight and of course a flair for aesthetic creativity.

Even if she came from a wealthy background, it was considered improper for a Nyonya woman to have a professional career back in the old days (such a thing was actually unheard of) and she had to find ways to occupy and improve herself. The upbringing of a Nyonya, as eloquently described by art historian Dr. Khoo Joo Ee went something like this: she was guarded and confined to utter domesticity, spending all her time acquiring housekeeping skills. Tasks like sewing and cooking were done over and over in order to prepare the Nyonya for her ultimate role – that of a perfect housewife. If her parents could afford it, the Nyonya was home tutored by British women. She never went anywhere without a 'bodyguard' in tow, and the only time an unwed Nyonya was seen in public was on the 15th day of the Lunar New Year.

Aside from lessons in wifely and home making duties, grooming and cooking, a Nyonya woman also learnt genteel crafts like flower making, embroidery, fashioning food covers, handkerchiefs, pillow ends, bags, assorted decorative items, and many other objects of beauty.

Given such a strict, letter-perfect and unblemished upbringing, it was only natural that the Nyonya would be endowed with one very distinguishable feature – her attention to the minutiae of everyday life, which encompassed everything she was responsible for. Her handicraft had to be perfect, meticulous, refined and beyond reproach; anything less would indicate sloppiness and reflect badly on herself.

Embroidery and shoe styles

kasut sulam © Adrian Cheah

The once-popular old style of embroidery called the kasut sulam which used gold thread was replaced by bead work later on. As mentioned earlier, this bead work was partly influenced by the West.

As a result, Peranakan bead work took on European motifs and patterns such as the English rose and the swan, but also retained the more traditional Chinese symbols such as the phoenix, goldfish, chi ling, flowers, children and others. It is interesting to note that the Peranakan manek and potong beads were all imported from Europe, chiefly Vienna, Germany and Venice.

Michael Cheah © Adrian Cheah

Michael Cheah described several styles of Nyonya footwear over the years, starting with the kasut kodok (toad shoes), which were flatties with upturned toes. The whole foot, barring the toes, were exposed. The main feature of such footwear were the infamous Peking knots which decorated the face. Peking knots were also known as the "forbidden stitch" because they were first worked in the Forbidden City. They were reputed to have caused blindness among the Royal Embroiders.

Kasut manek today

The original kasut kodok later metamorphosed into other designs like mules, open-toes, cross-straps and heels. Whatever shape or style they may assume, beaded slippers still exude an aura of magnificence. Unlike modern footwear which are cut from fabric and sewn together, the kasut manek is a composition of jewel-like beads and crystals to form an amazingly intricate mosaic of textures and rainbow colours. The art of kasut manek literally transforms footwear into objects of captivating and timeless beauty. Each pair of shoes features the individual and highly creative signature of its maker and designer. Kasut manek is the perfect compliment to any elegant outfit, traditional or modern.

These days, beaded shoe makers are mostly concentrated in Penang, Melaka and Singapore (coincidentally the three Straits Settlement states).

There are several kasut manek crafters in Penang. While one or two shops are well-known, others are more difficult to locate because they operate 'anonymously', and finding them requires word-of-mouth information. Bear in mind that shops only fashion the sole and you have to provide the face. Making the sole and fastening the face to it may take up to a month to complete.

Nyonya beadwork is not limited to footwear alone but also applied to tapestries, belts, handbags, comb holders, bedspreads and mosquito nets.

It is safe to say that the demand for Nyonya beaded slippers has not waned. In fact, it may even be on the upswing, says May, as more and more young people are showing interest in this traditional technique. A pair of hand-made beaded slippers is like a wearable luxury, practical and unique at the same time.

Make your own …

Interested in learning how to craft your own kasut manek? Not only will you learn a unique craft, but you will also be preserving and revitalising a Peranakan culture and tradition. There are several people based in Penang who are teaching the craft.

One popular teacher is the aforementioned May.

Michael Cheah © Adrian Cheah

Another kasut manek guru is Michael Cheah, a name quite familiar to Penang historians. An avid collector of Nyonya memorabilia, Michael owns several pairs of authentic beaded slippers, some of which are shown here. They form an impressive collection used for exhibitions and for sale.

Michael is a proud teacher having taught hundreds of students in the art. They have since gone on to teach others what they have learnt from him, as a way of propagating the craft of beaded shoes.

Finished manek faces can be fashioned into footwear of your choice by sending them to shoemakers specialised in the craft. After measuring the length and determining the shape of your feet, the shoemaker will produce a pair of comfortably fitting soles onto which the manek face can be attached. You can choose your favourite colour and heel height.

George Bernard Shaw once said that "he who can, does; he who can't, teaches." This remark, as witty as it may sound does not, however, apply to May Lim. You see, not only has she proven her skill in the intricate craft and art of beaded slippers, but she teaches as well!

May Lim © Adrian Cheah

While others carry a book with them wherever they go, May Lim brings along her sewing kit – coloured beads arranged in little circle containers, quilting thread and cross-stitch cloth. She spends approximately two to three hours daily on her beaded slippers (with intervals, of course).

At the moment, her prized collection numbers about 20 pairs for personal use – flat slippers, court shoes and cross straps. Each face she makes can last for a long, long time. This durability, she said, is due to the way the beads are sewn on to the cloth. Instead of threading about 10 beads in one go, she painstakingly sews bead by bead. If at all the thread breaks, the beads don't fall off. The sign of a well made pair of beaded faces, she added, is the smoothness of the backs. Her method of sewing the beads do not have any knots on the reverse of the face because they will cause discomfort to the wearer.

For the total look, May also applies bead work to clutch bags, belts and cellphone pouches.

Nyonya beaded shoes © Adrian Cheah

Besides crafting, she also teaches the art, having organised several classes at the Penang State Chinese Association, the Senior Citizens Club and also under the auspices of the state Projek Anjung Wanita.

There is no fixed schedule for May's classes as she holds them as and when requested. To get young people interested, May incorporates modern geometric shapes into her repertoire. She teaches students to create their own designs, making each pair of shoes sewn an original. These she said, are far easier to make than traditional patterns. Response has been very encouraging. 

She has taught students not only from Penang but also from Singapore, China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, Australia, USA, England, Germany, Spain and Turkey. She also have local and overseas university students spending part of their internship learning shoe beading from her.

A fee is charged for May's classes and participants are expected to pay for materials, like beads, fabric and threads. More important to May is that the knowledge she imparts will be passed on to others, continually creating interest in beaded shoes.

Written by Raja Abdul Razak
Photographed by Adrian Cheah © All rights reserved
Updated 27 May 2019