Monday, November 9, 2009

The Nyonya kebaya

Our artisans are the treasures of our Malaysian heritage. Seeing them at work, keeping the traditions alive, makes us proud of them. After all, one's heritage is too precious to be lost .

I chanced upon Kim, a Nyonya kebaya expert at work at the Kuala Lumpur Craft Complex, Jalan Conlay, Kuala Lumpur. The Centre is located in the 'golden triangle' of KL business district. It is one of my favourite places to visit when there are gifts to buy, especially for friends overseas

Kim was taking part in a bridal exhibition. I saw her engrossed at her sewing machine moving the hoop around to embroider some flowers. She hails from Penang and is keeping the tradition of embroidering the Nyonya kebaya alive.

She started as early as age 12 and the business still continues there. 'Dedication is part of the discipline in this job. Of course, loving the craft too'. I couldn't agree more with her. Seeing the wonderful, intricate art before me.

I couldn't take my eyes off the lovely blouses. The colours were so stunning and the work so intricate that mastery of one's art says it all. Mind you, the price tag is hefty but think of the hours spent. Beauty has a price !

The Nyonya kebaya is a glamorous, eye-catching , translucent, figure - hugging embroidered blouse. It is worn with a batik sarong by Peranakan ladies. You can even wear it for formal occasions . The Nyonya kebaya lady completes the look with the cucuk sanggul (hair pin), the kerosang (3 pin brooches) to fasten the kebaya, the silver belt and the beaded shoes.

cucuk sanggul


silver belt

Beaded shoes
(photo credits: cucuk sanggul , kerosang, silver belt , beaded shoe to 'The nyonya kebaya' book by Datin Seri Endon Mahmood)

Exquisite kebaya on a model.

The usual floral motifs are on the collar edges, lapik( 2 triangular front panels that fall over the hips of the wearer) and back. Flowers such as daisies, tulips, roses, chrysanthemums, jasmines and orchids are common motifs besides animal designs like phoenixes and dragons.

Kim is a master embroiderer herself , an art which she has at the tip of her fingers to sew the intricate patterns I saw on the models and hanging on the rack. An apprentice can learn how to sew within 2-3 years but mastery of the skill takes a lifetime!

For some, the Nyonya kebaya form their owner's precious heritage, so they are kept within the family and not loaned to others.

The fabric for the Nyonya kebaya is voile, sheer light weight material which comes in an astounding array of colours. Nowadays, the cost is kept down by using organdie/organza or sheer polyester. High quality cotton , silk threads from Japan, France and Germany are used .

When the patterns are sewn, it is truly a harmony of riotious colours. Colour is very important in determining occasions. The wearer can never fail to get a string of compliments as the Nyonya kebaya accentuates a woman's feminity :)

The finer the cut-work , the more expensive the Nyonya kebaya. Thread scissors do the cut -work process whereby a piece of material is cut out of the fabric after the material has been embrioidered thus creating 'holes'. This helps to emphasize design and translucency of cloth.

I had to go through piles of photos taken years back when I took part ( small !) in a musical play , 'Reunion', staged at the Petaling Jaya Civic Centre in 1994. Those were the heady days when anything was possible!! Here I am with my friends, part of the Peranakan clan.

Me as Jee Chim ( Second Aunt)
Chan Nyim as Mak (Mother)

Wilson as one of the teenage sons of the various members of the Khoo family

A very brief background of the Nyonyas. It is always in the same breath one hears Babas (men) and Nyonyas (women) , when there is mention of this special group of people known as Peranakans.

'Peranakan Cina (Peranakan is a Malay term meaning that a person is native by birth, usually of mixed blood)are a sub- ethnic group of the Chinese community whose culture and lifestyle is a fusion of Chinese and Malay influences.'

Many traders came from China to Malacca, one of the 3 Straits Settlements, former British trading posts. It's hard to know for sure how the Chinese adopted the ways of the Malays to give us a heritage culture of which we know as Baba Nyonya. In the mid 19th till early 20th century ,the Babas and Nyonyas enjoyed the high life and dressing well was required to maintain the status in society . To this day, the culture of the Babas and Nyonyas is very much alive in Malacca, Penang and Singapore.

Reference: the nyonya kebaya
Showcase of nyonya kebayas from the collection
of Datin Seri Endon Mahmood

Kim fashion and trading
Nyonya Kebaya Embroidery
170 -4-77 Gurney Plaza
Penang, Malaysia
Tel: 012 490 5900

Kuala Lumpur Craft Complex
Sect. 63 , Jalan Conlay ,50450 Kuala Lumpur

tel: + 6 03 2162 7459


  1. kebaya skrg dh mahal..
    dulu mudah jer nak dpt..
    skrg mau cecah RM 200++ kan??


  2. Hi Keats, Great post here. My grandma is a Nyonya from Penang and I still have her kebaya, those days completely hand stitch..though honestly, I would very much hope to wear it one day, but at the rate I am eating..I seriously doubt so. The Kebaya is so elegant and beautiful. Happy week

  3. Oh Keats, you must compile all your posts into a book. This is priceless, there are so many things I did not know till now. Although I had always admire the kebayas. The handwork is truly an art and the cloth material so delicate. A lady in kebaya exudes all all feminity. No other dress will do to a lady like a kebaya.

    I believe that is one reason Singapore Airlines and Malaysian Airlines have chosen them.

    Excellent job Keats, as always.

  4. Hi
    Sumijelly,thanks for dropping in. A well sewn kebaya is rather priceless, hence the cost. Keep a lovely one in your wardrobe to treasure and wear again and again:)

    M.Kate, thanks! aha! there is an incentive here to wear a hand- me- down kebaya. Try, lah!!

    Ocean Girl, thanks for the great suggestion. I agree, the Singapore and Malaysian Airlines girls look smashing in their kebaya outfits.

  5. For me its all ART ;)
    So beautiful and all handcraft, Wow!!
    Its a unique post today
    really beautiful ....
    Have a wonderful day

  6. This is exceptional art. It's a wonder it's not more widely distributed.

  7. Every women that wear Kebaya look so elegant and polished:) I know that Nyonya Kebaya is a hot commodity among fashion designers. And your article stands as an example to prove this. Big thanks that you introduced the art of Kebaya with close-ups. Thanks especially for your time you dedicated on this way.

  8. What beautiful, intricate work. Thanks for the close-ups!

  9. I'm a big fan of the beaded shoes.

    Thanks for the pics!!

  10. Hi everyone, thanks so much for popping in. Do keep voting. The 2nd month competition is running and your votes matter. For those who didn't manage to vote for the previous posts, I understand the votes are taken for Nov 5 - Dec 5) tabulation. Thanks so much!

    Anya, you're right. It's BEAUTIFUL and it's ART!

    Ann Lyken-Garner, Yah! it needs promoting to the world.

    Nihal, I'm glad you're among those who know and value the nyonya kebaya - stunning works we cannot ignore :))

    adrienne, you're welcome.

    Veronica Lee, betcha, you own a few pairs??? Those 'manik' ( beads) are so lovely when sewn together.

  11. I recognised you right away, Keats! You are still so pretty -- those smiling eyes, I'd know them anywhere!

    Those beaded shoes made me cry. My late grandmother loved those. We would buy them for her birthday. Now whenever I walk past the shops in Petaling Street selling these shoes, I have to look away.

    I loved this post, my friend. There is a section on Kebaya in my Encyclopaedia of Malaysia. It truly is a Malaysian art form and part of our very rich cultural heritage.

  12. Oops all the time thought it's like the Sound of Music song - "'so' sew a needle pulling thread" by hand not aware they use sewing machine. Thanks ക

  13. Beautiful kebaya! I love to find out new facts about you, my dear. I didn't know that you had participated in a musical play. Have a wonderful week :).

  14. Wonderful art! I enjoyed reading and learning - and seeing the pictures. Merci

  15. Hi ~Covert_Operations'78~,thanks! this rich cultural heritage is ours to keep and to promote to the world.

    Bananaz, it's painstaking work , even using the machine. The thread scissors play an important part in cutting the 'holes'.

    ROSIDAH, yeah, it's so long ago!! They needed someone to play a small role and I was available!! Imagine that, stage struck! LOL!

    Laura in Paris, glad you found it informative. I too enjoyed finding some facts myself and looking at the gorgeous kebayas in the books:)

  16. I've been wanting to write a post about kebayas but haven't had the time to get around to doing some research & photography. So nice to see this post up on your blog! Are you a nyonya as well? It's a heritage I'm so very proud of ;-).

  17. Hi petit nyonya,thanks! Do post one on the nyonya kebayas to add to the info for all to enjoy. My mum used to wear those kebayas but we are do not belong to the perananakan clan. The Baba and Nyonya heritage is one that we cn be very proud of.

  18. My goodness, that's a beautiful art skill! I love looking at the intricate embroidery!

  19. Hi Icy BC, it makes the wearer feel so special too:)))

  20. Baru sempat mampir nih!
    Liat-liat dulu....
    Situsnya bagus nih!
    apalagi kalau disuguhi makan!
    Kunjungan balik ya sob, ini blog saya
    Salam kenal....

  21. lovely kebaya, each hari raya i will consider to have one. its uniqueness make me felt in love. Felt free to visit me at then be nicer to become one of follower.leave a comment too!! :)


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