The traditional Nyonya Kebayas of Malaysia

The traditional Nyonya Kebayas of Malaysia

Philbert Tiki Yong

Nyonya Kebayas are a hot commodity among fashion designers but the sense of tradition is either missing in many of the new fusion designs or lost in the hefty price tags of over RM1000 (US $263). A Kebaya is a traditional blouse worn by Malaysian and Indonesian women made from sheer material, in Malaysia, Nyonyas usually wear the Kebaya with a Javanese batik sarong. To be properly dressed, a Nyonya will have her hair in a “sanggul” (chignon) with flowers and gold pins. The lapel of the Nyonya Kebaya is held together with a set of three “kerosang” (brooches) while the sarong is folded and secured with a gold or silver chain-link belt. Kebayas are used on various occasions and functions, such as dinners, weddings and formal functions.

In other countries, the Kebaya is worn with batik or other traditional knitted garment such as a songket with a colorful motif. Batik (or batique) is an Indonesian-Malay word and refers to a generic wax-resist dyeing technique used on fabric. The word originates from a Malay word for dot or point, “titik” and the Javanese word “amba”, meaning “to write”. It is found in several countries such as India, Sri Lanka, Iran and Thailand but is most popular in Malaysia and Indonesia, in Malaysia, the states of Kelantan and Terengganu are well known for its batik.

A sarong, on the other hand, is a large sheet of fabric, often wrapped around the waist and worn as a skirt by men and women throughout much of south and southeast Asia, including Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand. The fabric is often brightly colored or printed with intricate patterns, often depicting animals or plants, checkered or geometric patterns, or resembling the results of tie dying. Sarongs are also used as wall hangings and other forms of clothing, such as shawls, baby carriers, complete dresses or upper body clothing. The dyeing technique of batik is associated with sarong production.

Kebayas are believed to originate from China hundreds of years ago. They then spread to Malacca, Java, Bali, Sumatera, and Celebes. After hundred years of acculturation, the garments have become adjusted to local customs and culture. On Java Island before 1600, Kebayas were sacred clothing to be worn only by members of the Javanese monarchy. During the period of Dutch control of that island, European women began wearing Kebayas as formal dress. During this period, Kebayas were transformed from only using mori fabric to using silk with colorful embroidary. The Kebaya began as a long sleeved blouse with lace appliqued around the edges. It is the traditional costume of Straits Chinese ladies and other Peranakan women from Indonesia and Thailand.

A similar garment called the “Nyonya Kebaya” was first created by the Peranakan people of Malacca. Peranakan, Baba-Nyonya and Straits Chinese (named after the Straits of Malacca) are terms used for the descendants of the early Chinese immigrants to the Nusantara region, including both the British Straits settlements of Singapore, Malacca and Penang and the Dutch-controlled island of Java among other places, who have partially adopted Malay customs in an effort to be assimilated into the local communities.

The word Peranakan is also used to describe Indonesian Chinese. In both Malay and Bahasa Indonesia ‘Peranakan’ means ‘descendants’. Babas refer to the male descendants and the Nyonyas the female. The Nyonyas wear the Kebaya with a sarong and beautiful beaded shoes called “kasut manek.” Nowadays, the Nyonya Kebaya is going through a period of revival, and is also becoming popular among non-Asian people. Datin Seri Endon Mahmood, the late First Lady of Malaysia, has inspired the Nyonya Kebaya industry. She played a great role in reviving and developing the Kebaya industry in Malaysia during her lifetime. She published a book, “The Nyonya Kebaya,” in 2004.

Apart from traditional Kebayas, fahion designers are looking into ways of modifying the design and making Kebayas a more fashionable outfit. Modified Kebayas can even be worn with jeans or skirts. For the modern look, the Kebaya can be worn with pants, over a simple sleeveless or spaghetti-strapped dress or even used over a tank top as a jacket.

The Kebaya is part of Malaysia’s Peranakan cultural heritage. It is a piece of art that deserves appreciation and recognition equal to Da Vinci or Van Gogh’s masterpieces.

After looking back at my Peranakan ancestors and the history of the Kebaya, the creativity and art involved in the birth of the Kebaya was no ordinary feat. As a conclusion, the beauty of the Nyonya Kebaya can be summarized in three words–grand, authentic and elegant.

Philbert Tiki Yong, wearing a bow-tie in a family wedding photograph, is an ICAF Youth Board Member and a science student in Malaysia.

COPYRIGHT 2006 International Child Art Foundation

COPYRIGHT 2006 Gale Group