The article isn't about my work but that of the special women in my life. I have edited and expanded the original article to encompass and explain more of my unique creative cultural heritage. Note that all the photos submitted to the magazine were taken with just my iPhone 5!
I was born and spent much of my childhood on a tropical island called Pulau Pinang (Penang) in West Malaysia. The eyebrows of currently snowbound readers are probably shooting upwards as they wonder, "And you left?"
I grew in tropical South East Asia and assumed as a child that everyone was creative. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I realized the women who most influenced my formative years – my maternal grandmother and mother – were extraordinarily talented.
|Beaded shoes made by my mother|
My family belonged to an unusual fusion cultural population known as the “Peranakan” (“descendants” in the Malay language) or Straits Chinese. We are the descendants of Chinese immigrants who settled in Indonesia and the Malay Peninsula area (now known as West Malaysia and Singapore) probably from about the late 15th to the 19th century. Few women were among those early settlers so a number of the men married local Malay women.
|Beaded bag by my mother|
The male Peranakan became known as Chinese babas and the women, nonyas or nyonyas. The blending of the founding families led to an extraordinary intermixing of language, customs, cuisines, fashion, architecture, jewelry, home décor to a harmonized style uniquely their own. Later on, the Peranakan were also influenced by the British who colonized that part of the world until 1957. Indeed the patois spoken at home was a mix of Chinese, English and Malay.
|My maternal grandparents in 1948 : Grandmother shown in her nonya kebaya|
|Embroidered Nonya Kebayas|
Before then, the nonya wore simple dark brown cotton print blouses called baju panjang (long dress in Malay) adorned with a set of triple brooches (kerosang) with top knot hairdos to match. But these gave way to starched kebayas made of transparent material, typically voile, of different hues, adorned with intricate machine embroidery.
|Grandmother in her baju panjang and wearing kerosang jewelry c.1930's|
|Cutwork embroidery of my grandmother's nonya kebaya|
Joining the pieces was also beautifully done with a cutwork stitch called ketuk lubang (“forging holes”). The tiny perforations along the seam lines are so delicately even! Many of my grandmother’s kebayas were given to me after she passed away and are now treasured heirlooms.
|Ketuk Lubang : perforated seam embroidery|
|My grandparents on their wedding day c. 1930|
Like many nonya brides, Grandmother embroidered her own wedding slippers called kasut seret (literally translated as “shoe drag”) using a fabric base and metallic threads. But the kasut seret went out of style not long after she got married in 1930.
|Grandmother's wedding slippers|
The kasut manek (“shoe bead”) became much more popular. Fashionable nonyas would make new pairs to match new outfits. The typical shape of both the kasut seret and kasut manek was a rounded closed toe style but open toed and pointed toed versions also came into being.
The beadwork featured 19th century Chinese motifs but gradually western influences crept into the designs. For example, where peonies once dominated, roses now prevailed. Even geometric patterns were included.
The most common bead work technique was the one in which each bead was sewn down on a piece of fabric which had been stretched on a frame. A grid was drawn on the fabric to aid bead placement. Shoe vamps were always worked on in pairs to ensure the pattern remained correct especially if one side was the mirror image of the other.
|My mother's completed beaded shoe vamps|
This kind of bead work almost died out but has, like the nonya kebaya, seen a revival in recent years. My own mother began to make beaded shoes, bags and pictures after she retired as a teacher. She bought up vintage nonya beads as much as she could! But had to admit that using some of the tiny beads from the past was impossible because no one made needles small enough to go through them anymore! Today she uses Japanese seed beads. Instead of having to draw out the grid, she uses appropriately sized aida cloth.
My mother was lucky as there were still artisanal shoemakers around who could give her the vamp templates so she could make vamps for more modern shoe styles. Shown above are shoes, bags and a picture she made for me. Unlike my grandmother, my mother does not sell her work but enjoys the creative process immensely to the delight of many family members who are privileged to receive those gifts.
The Nyonya Kebaya: A Century of Straits Chinese Costume
The Peranakan Chinese Home: Art and Culture in Daily Life
Before You Go:
- Malaysian Bead Work and Traditional Costumes
- How Bali Silver Beads are Made
- 4 Ways to Create Surface Bead Embroidery
Original Post by THE BEADING GEM
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