The opulent Nyonya Kebaya

Wearable art that knows no seasons

"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.

Little remains of Peranakan traditions today and what's left is barely recognisable. 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!

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.

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. 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. 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.

Written and photographed by Adrian Cheah
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