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.
(photo credits: cucuk sanggul , kerosang, silver belt , beaded shoe to 'The nyonya kebaya' book by Datin Seri Endon Mahmood)
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
Tel: 012 490 5900
Kuala Lumpur Craft Complex
Sect. 63 , Jalan Conlay ,50450 Kuala Lumpur
tel: + 6 03 2162 7459