by Lena Sharp
Photography by Elena Boyce
It all began with a box of colored pencils and a child-like fascination with the mythical phoenix. A five-year old Bebe Seet would lie on her tummy, etching out these beautiful birds carved onto the wooden legs of a marble-topped table at home. “My mum just left me there, happy with my box of colored pencils. And then I started drawing the birds,” the renowned Peranakan fashion guru reminisces. “That’s something I will always recall.”
It was not until years later that Bebe Seet’s artistic gift found expression in the form of her signature beaded slippers known as kasut manek – a sparkling medley of colors and textures - worn by traditional Peranakan women (Nyonyas) and modern-day fashionistas alike.
Bebe Seet is a true-blue Nyonya whose work encapsulates the unique Peranakan culture of South-East Asia – a fusion of Malay, Chinese and European influences which evolved in the Straits Settlements. Her vivid creations are adorned with bursts of flowers, the mythical phoenix and other radiant birds – brought to life through her exquisite beading technique.
Her interest in beading was sparked by a visit to an antiques shop in Jonker Street, Malacca. “There were rows and rows of shops touting factory-produced beaded slippers,” she recounts. “But this particular shop had an antique collection. There was one pair that attracted my attention - and that was what inspired me.”
She went on to learn the craft through a friend’s mother, one of the few remaining experts in beading. “I visited this lady frequently. She was in her 70’s and was not in the best of health – but she was just so happy to have someone come and spend time with her… even on those days when she wasn’t so well, just lying in bed, I’d be sitting there and she’d say, “I just love to hear the sound of the needles going pop, pop, pop…” It reminded her of what she used to do.”
Armed with her newfound skills, Bebe went on to create her own enchanting works of art. What makes her creations stand out is her use of only the finest hand-crafted antique beads - unlike the factory-produced versions widely available in the marketplace. “I didn’t have a good collection of beads but there were old pieces of beadwork which I would unpick, just to salvage the beads. I wanted to work especially with the antique beads – so pieces like this would come in a bottle all mixed up. I would sort them out, wash them, and - being made of glass - they would sparkle again, as good as new.”
A true ambassador of Peranakan heritage, Bebe has masterfully honed her craft over the years, to produce some of finest beaded pieces in the region. Her famous embroidered slippers now take pride of place in the homes of fashion connoisseurs, as well as those who simply love to wear her brilliant art.
Bebe’s favorite pair of slippers are now permanently on display in the Peranakan Museum, a testament to her extraordinary contributions to Singapore’s cultural heritage “They offered to buy them. I told them it’s priceless! Let them go to a good resting place.”
Learning to bead from the leading lady
Dedicated to passing down her skills to future generations, Bebe Seet – the doyenne of traditional beading - now holds regular workshops teaching craft-loving individuals of all levels to turn tiny glass beads into exquisite pairs of slippers, purses, and other decorative items. Her classes are held in the charming house of Bebe - where friendships are formed whilst keeping the beading tradition alive.
Rumah Bebe – the home of Peranakan art
Steeped in Peranakan history, Rumah Bebe (meaning house of Bebe) is a beautifully restored Peranakan heritage ‘shop in a house’ in Katong. This landmark building of 1928 captures the sights, sounds and scents of an almost forgotten era and is richly adorned with Peranakan architectural features.
Rumah Bebe showcases the best of Bebe’s beadwork, taking visitors through the process of beading in a charming old-world setting. The house is also dedicated to preserving a vast array of authentic Peranakan art forms – from embroidery, batiks and jewelry to porcelain, silverware and more.
Savour the flavours of yesteryear at Nyonya Nosh
A woman of many talents, Bebe has successfully turned her hand to running her own cook and bake shop, Nonya Nosh@Rumah Bebe. More than just a visual feast, Rumah Bebe offers the best of Nyonya cuisine with her own distinctive twist. Visitors are greeted with the aromas of time-honoured dishes wafting out of the kitchen. Her mouthwatering offerings are prepared from scratch in the old-fashioned way, using only the finest natural ingredients.
Rumah Bebe is located at 113 East Coast Rd, Singapore 428803
Telephone: +65 6247 8781
Visit the website at https://www.rumahbebe.com/
Elena Boyce is currently working on her new photographic project "Faces Behind the Makers" that aims to create awareness and revive an interest in Singapore's heritage trades. See www.photoimpressia.com
Lena Sharp is a freelance writer who was born in Singapore and resides in the UK.