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ALL WOMEN, ALL WALKS OF LIFE, ALL NATIONALITIES

... stories, adventures and all things related to life in Singapore and Southeast Asia by AWA members

The Vibrant Colors of Kebaya

Faces Behind the Makers: Discovering Singapore's Heritage Trades
by Elena Boyce

Raymond Wong, one of the last few Peranakan kebaya makers, has established a reputation for his craftsmanship in kebaya making and Peranakan beadwork. In 2016, Raymond was commissioned by the Singapore government to create a Peranakan sulam shawl, which was gifted to First Lady Michelle Obama during PM Lee Hsien Loong’s state visit to the US.


Mr. Wong explains the importance of the kebaya as both a cultural heritage artifact, and a contemporary fashion choice: “Today, the kebaya is still being worn by many communities across Southeast Asia, including Singapore. The kebaya represents our region’s shared history and heritage; and common roots with our neighboring countries – Malaysia, Brunei & Thailand. I hope that Singaporeans would appreciate and value kebaya as a living heritage of our nation. The kebaya is also a symbol that shows how connected Singapore is to the people of Brunei, Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia in the shared history and heritage of our early fashion movements. “

Eunice Chua wearing a kebaya designed by Raymond Wong

Some trace the earliest form of kebaya back to Eastern Java in the 15th century. The Nyonya kebaya features a vibrantly colored blouse with fine embroidery along the edges. Popular motifs include birds, flowers, butterflies, dragons, and phoenixes. The blouse coordinates with a sarong (Indonesian skirt) highlighting various patterns. A kebaya is worn with decorative accessories, such as a silver belt to secure the sarong, cucuk sanggul (hairpin for buns) and kasut manek (hand-beaded shoes). In Singapore, the Peranakan kebaya or Nyonya kebaya variant is popular among Chinese Peranakan communities as well as descendents of Tamil traders emigrated from Malaysia (Melaka Chettis).


Raymond, how did you start to make kebayas? What inspired you?


In 2003, I came back from Melbourne after completing my Bachelor studies in Accounting and Finance. My parents had just bought two shophouses along East Coast Road, which they wanted to be our flagship store with a strong Peranakan Chinese image. It was meant to foster the younger Singaporean generation to appreciate us as a heritage business.


Rumah Kim Choo Pte Ltd, 111 East Coast Road

Rumah Kim Choo Pte Ltd, 111 East Coast Road

In the same year, I met the owner of Katong Antique House, Mr Peter Wee, who shared his personal knowledge of Peranakan food and material culture. I loved the food, but the material culture held my attention the most, so then I challenged myself to learn Peranakan beadwork from a church friend.


With deep respect for this Peranakan Chinese culture, Rumah Kim Choo Pte Ltd was founded in 2004 to complement our food business. We began humbly, by selling Peranakan Chinese-related lifestyle products including the Nyonya sarong kebaya, Peranakan porcelain, and batiks.


Even though Peranakan beadwork is not a difficult craft to master, it is time-consuming and requires a lot of patience and concentration as the beads have to be stitched individually to ensure the embroidery quality. The design and its colors in one shoe have to match accurately in its mirror image.

In time, I bought cross stitch software online and started to create my own beaded shoe designs and stitch them. It proved to be much faster, since the program handled the counting required to map colors in a patterned pair of shoes. Then I offered classes in this craft, and enrolled two Japanese ladies who claimed they had already tried beadwork from other teachers, and had found it too difficult. They wanted to give it a go when they saw my less complicated method.. I taught them and I was surprised they completed their FIRST pair finally in about five weeks. They were delighted with my simpler and more direct method. Again, the word spread, and more students, especially among the Japanese expatriate community, started to learn from me.

What are your favorite aspects of the kebaya-making trade?


My passion is, in fact, the designing of embroidery on the kebayas. Since young, I had always loved embroideries and since young I have always been amazed by the clothes worn by the Nyonya ladies. As the in-house kebaya designer for Rumah Kim Choo, I decided that working with available materials and commissioning the embroidery was limiting. Therefore, I decided to learn how to embroider the kebaya. My journey in mastering the craft has been challenging. In 2004 – 2006, there was practically no one in Singapore who taught the craft. Twenty years later, videos showing how free-motion machine embroidery works are easily available on YouTube.


I had to learn by trial and error. I came across an old sewing machine manual that described the removal of certain elements in the sewing machine, which would then facilitate the execution of free motion embroidery. I improvised by recreating the steps in hand embroidery books and magazines for application on the sewing machine. Much research and experimentation have stood me in good stead as I am now conversant in many techniques and applications.

My love and appreciation of fabrics and embroidery manifests in my collection of antique and vintage kebayas, photographs, fashion paraphernalia, first used only as samples but developed into valuable archival references. With these physical examples, I have been able to compile a body of information on the history and development of the kebaya.


In 2009, I was invited by Lasalle School of the Arts to be a guest practitioner and to inspire, lecture and tutor the Year Two Fashion Textile students to prepare for a fashion show collection to mark the Second anniversary of the Peranakan Museum.


In 2011, LaSalle later extended and elevated my role, by employing me as an adjunct Embroidery Lecturer for their Institute. It was a most fulfilling journey as I was able to promote greater awareness and understanding of this vernacular fashion. My students are both male and female, and of various nationalities.


Over my years of teaching, during the students’ portfolio consultation, their ideas inspire me. Their insights lead me to push personal boundaries and draft new patterns and embroidery textures that translate into the kebaya as a contemporary fashion item, not just a heritage novelty.

Raymond Wong during the reopening of the Peranakan Museum

Today, Rumah Kim Choo frequently conducts inhouse education with groups like People’s Association, Peranakan Association Singapore, Friends of the Museum, Primary/Secondary Schools (e.g., Racial Harmony Day), and with locals and tourists alike, to share about the Nyonya kebaya and its evolution. During these inclusive talks and discussions, there is active and lively sharing on topics including (1) how to bring vernacular wear, in particular, the kebaya, to be fashionable and worn, not just as a novelty or as “ethnic” fashion but as daily and festive wear; (2) how to make such fashion statements relevant to the community and enhance the appreciation of the materials, craft and techniques involved in the making of a kebaya.


How long does it take to make a Kebaya?

An elaborate kebaya can take between six and eight weeks to complete. Done correctly and well, it can be very durable, like the vintage kebayas. In contrast to the fast and throwaway fashion that is so prevalent today, the good kebaya takes time, effort and affection to produce. Thus, to render a kebaya is to create a one-of-its kind, decoratively beautiful, collectible and wearable piece of art.


You are one of the makers who is able to successfully preserve the Peranakan heritage and continue to develop the interest of others in it. Can you please share your secret?


We highlight how vintage kebayas and bespoke hand- and machine-embroidered kebayas are much sought after, the former for their scarcity, and the latter becoming appreciated as family heirlooms with great sentimental value. In all cases, the audiences always remark on the fine workmanship and artisanal quality of these beautiful garments.

Raymond Wong, designer, with Chenghan Giam who is dressed in head to toe in a vintage 1920s kebaya ensemble with antique jewellery and hairpins to complete the look

Kebaya can be worn on all occasions, so we explain and demonstrate ways to wear the kebaya, complete with accessories and traditionally paired with batik sarongs. We suggest contemporary forms of the kebaya, and how trendy and updated they can be.

Our openness to share with the community and visitors to Singapore is to heighten understanding of this elegant evergreen classic, which transcended all races, and which had, from the early 1900s until today fulfilled a social and cultural bond among all Singaporean ladies, who wear them with a sense of pride and belonging, whether at home or overseas.

If we rigidly insist that kebayas be worn only in the traditional manner and form, wearing a kebaya may become extraneous to the lifestyle of the younger generation. Therefore, we would share ideas on how we can wear kebayas in combination with modern clothes.


Raymond, do you have a reason to love spring?


Unlike countries with four seasons, Singapore is near the equator, with mostly warm and humid weather, like summer. Cooler temperatures are experienced at every change of monsoon winds.


Though there are no four seasons in Singapore, the Peranakan Chinese celebrate their festivities based on the Lunar Calendar. Like other Chinese in other parts of the world, we too celebrate Spring Festival (Chinese Lunar New Year), Summer Solstice (Duanwu Rice Dumpling Festival), Mid Autumn Festival (Lantern Festival) and Winter Solstice.

Kiera wearing Nyonya sarong kebaya made by Uncle Raymond

Spring Festival is one of my favorite festivals as we have gatherings with families and friends to reconnect our ties over good hearty meals. It is also the time we get to wear new clothes. I love that my eight year-old niece Kiera wants to dress up in her Nyonya sarong kebaya made by Uncle Raymond.


I let her choose the fabric and let her decide what flowers and colors she would prefer. This year she wanted a black kebaya with black embroideries, but black is seen as a somber color not suitable for Spring Festival, especially among elders. Hues of red would be the traditional choice of colors for Spring. Due to Singapore’s tropical weather, vibrant and contrasting colors are highly popular. Hearing all this, my niece then chose a turquoise blue kebaya with a pink sarong. This palette is also in use in the Peranakan Chinese porcelain wares, and is among my favorite color matches. My niece wasn’t entirely traditional though, when she chose to have white chrysanthemums with a hint of pink. The very refreshing cool color scheme reminded me of springtime Japanese cherry blossoms.


Rumah Kim Choo Pte Ltd

111 East Coast Road Singapore 428801

www.kimchoo.com

Whatsapp: +65 98550024


 





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. www.photoimpressia.com

Contributing Editor: Helena Cochrane


Since moving from Philadelphia in 2018, Helena has been active with AWA's Walking with Women, Writers' Group and International Vocal Ensemble, as well as with Urban Sketchers of Singapore. See her artwork on Instagram @helena_antolin_cochrane



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AWA members are women who come from many countries and life experiences but they all have one thing in common — they have chosen to live in Singapore. Some members are new to Singapore,  while some have been here a long time or have returned to Singapore after time away. Our magazine - written and curated by AWA members - focuses on a diverse range of topics including wellness and family, travel tips, cultural events and information, and other helpful tips around navigating and experiencing life in Singapore to it's fullest. 

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