Sunday, October 13, 2013

The Nyonya Kebaya

A nyonya friend in kebaya 

On September 18, 2013, the New Straits Times featured a Lee Su Kim article on the "sarongs of the nyonyas". I am going to reproduce the said write-up and add some because I want to promote the Peranakans’ rich heritage and in so doing, I hope to discover anew a culture that has long disappeared from my own memory. 

The nyonyas are Peranakan (or Straits Chinese) women and their traditional garment is the nyonya kebaya – which in itself is a charming piece of elegant artwork. The intricate and exquisite kebaya comprises a brightly colored, translucent, figure-hugging and embroidered long-sleeved blouse – made of rubia voile – tapering to lacy points at the front, and worn with a batik sarong. While the emphasis is on designs – from flora to fauna – of the blouse, the sarong which is a length of fabric, often wrapped around the waist and worn as a "skirt" by men and women, is not short on subtly striking motifs too.

“Today, the nyonya sarong kebaya is still worn on special occasions like weddings, celebrations and community events. For variety or possibly comfort, sometimes, a nyonya, usually younger ones, may opt to pair her kebaya with a pair of pants instead of the sarong,” Lee (left) wrote. 

Babas also wear sarong but only at home, never in a formal setting. These sarongs are usually in light colors or in patterns of checks or stripes.” The beauty of the sarong lies in the quality of its workmanship, the design, colors and motifs. Hand-drawn batik or batik tulis requires a tremendous amount of work and a long and complicated process. These sarong stand out from those made of batik cap or screen printed batik. 

Lee noted that nyonyas favor batik sarong from the Persisir or coastal region of North Central Java, especially Pekalongan, known for its flamboyant colors and flora and fauna motifs. Other popular sources were Kedungwuni, Ciribon and Lasem. Pekalongan sarong comes in vivid pink, red, blue, green, orange and purple, and motifs show influences from Java, India, Europe as well as China. Chinese motifs such as bat, phoenix, dragon, bird, insect and flowers were sometimes incorporated.

A Pekalongan sarong with flower motifs which belonged to Lee’s mother. Picture courtesy of Lee Su Kim

She added: “In the 19th Century, European influences, especially Dutch, also crept in, in the form of motifs such as garlands, floral bouquets and flowers from cool climates such as tulips, roses and lilies. 

Kebaya of the olden days came without buttons down the front, and the “kerongsang” is used to pin the lapels of the kebaya together. Kerongsang usually comes in sets of three. The typical three-piece set comprises of a kerongsang ibu (mother piece) which is larger and heavier. The other two is called the kerongsang anak (child pieces) and is worn below the kerongsang ibu. More often than not, the three pieces that make up the kerongsang set is attached to each other with thin fastenings of silver or gold, but these can be disconnected should the lady wish to wear just one piece of the kerongsang set as a brooch.

The sarong is wrapped around the waist and held in place with the “tali pinggang” or waist belt and it is usually made of silver or it is gold-plated.

Jewelry items like cucuk sanggol, anting anting, subang, rantay, cincin, gelang tangan are also worn. And the kasut manek or beaded slippers and a matching beaded purse complete the nyonya look. 

[Dr Lee Su Kim describes herself as a “cultural activist”. She is presently Associate Professor of English at the School of Language Studies and Linguistics, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia and she is the founding president of the Peranakan Baba Nyonya Association of Kuala Lumpur and Selangor].

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