Sarongs Of The Nyonyas
The intricate detailing reflects their rich heritage, writes Sushma Veera
By Sushma Veera | 18 September 2013
Source: NST Online
Lee Jun Yen in lace kebaya and sarong.
The nyonya kebaya is a beautiful and distinctive traditional garment worn by women of the Peranakan community.
The intricate and absolutely exquisite kebaya comprises a brightly coloured, figure-hugging translucent blouse with embroidery, 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 too, is not short on intricate motifs.
Dr Lee Su Kim, founding president of the Peranakan Baba Nyonya Association Of Kuala Lumpur And Selangor, says the sarong is part of the traditional costume of the nyonyas (Straits Chinese women).
It is worn with the nyonya kebaya, a delicate long-sleeved blouse made of rubia voile and embroidered at the edges.
The Pekalongan sarong complements the Nyonya kebaya. The details of an embroidery panel of the kebaya are shown here.
“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,” she says. “Babas also wear sarong but only at home, never in a formal setting. These sarongs are usually in light colours or in patterns of checks or stripes.”
Lee recalls that her paternal grandmother wore the sarong all the time whereas her mother only wore it for special occasions.
She says: “Grandma wore casual ones with simple cotton blouses to match at home. She never owned pyjamas — she wore comfortable old sarong to sleep. Then she would change into a beautifully crisp starched sarong to complement her kebaya when she went out to play cherki with the neighbours.”
Her mother too wore gorgeous and colourful sarongs with embroidered kebaya.
“My father loved to see her in the sarong kebaya rather than contemporary attire for special events. I never met my maternal grandmother but, from photographs of her, she was always in a sarong which she wore with baju panjang, rather than the shorter nyonya kebaya.”
The sarong comes in two sections — the badan (body) and kepala (head) although, of course, there are sarongs that do not have the latter at all. Nyonyas wear the sarong featuring the kepala. A sarong is fastened around the waist with a silver belt.
The sarong is secured round the waist with a silver belt.
The beauty of the sarong lies in the quality of its workmanship, the design, colours and motifs.
Lee says: “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.”
Nyonyas favour batik sarong from the Persisir or coastal region of North Central Java, especially Pekalongan, known for its flamboyant colours and flora and fauna motifs.
A Pekalongan sarong with flower motifs which belonged to Lee’s mother. Pictures courtesy of Lee Su Kim
“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.”
In the past, says Lee, author of Kebaya Tales: Of Matriarchs, Maidens, Mistresses And Matchmakers, Pekalongan sarong was made in batik workshops run by Peranakan Chinese for the local Peranakan community. They were called batik engchim.
Her latest book, titled Sarong Secrets: Of Love, Loss And Longing is due to be out in November.
She says: “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.
“Even characters from fairytales such as Little Red Riding Hood or Snow White And The Seven Dwarves were used. Sarong with Indo-European influences also incorporated lighter pastel colours.”
Many local batik makers also produce beautiful batik sarong which are popular with the Peranakan. Vintage sarong is rare and has become a collectors’ item.
“Batik tulis sarong has gone up in price because of the intricate and labour-intensive work involved in producing it,” says Lee, who is also chairperson of the Baba Nyonya International Convention 2013.
THEMED The Babas And Nyonyas: Beyond Borders, Across Oceans — Resilience, Resurgence, Reconnection, the annual Baba Nyonya International Convention will be held from Nov 29 to Dec 1 at Holiday Villa Hotel and Suites in Subang, Selangor.
For the past 25 years, the Peranakan community has been hosting the event and the fraternity of Peranakan associations has increased over the past 10 years. There are now 11 sister associations with more waiting to join the network.
These are based in Singapore, Phuket, Kuala Lumpur, Selangor, Kelantan, Malacca, Penang, Australia and Indonesia.