Artwork by Heidi Koh
“Eh Alex, you see, you see. This is my late grandmother. This means that I am also a Peranakan – I just did not realise I am one!” Boon Leong proudly “informed” Alex as he showed off a picture of a lady clad in baju panjang and her flamboyant fineries.
Although the picture was in black and white and had its edges eaten by silverfish, the lady in the picture looked poised and regal. She came from a rich family for sure; her baju panjang was decorated with rabbit fur, and the kerongsang used to fasten her baju panjang was as huge as Alex’s palm. Her fingers were not spare of diamond rings, there were countless necklaces over her even though her hair was already combed to hold numerous cucuk sanggul and a crown that seemed a little too big, and was probably too heavy, for her small head.
There was a reason why a lady like her would pose with a mirror at the back in pictures. By reflecting the fineries used to adorn the hair – ones which could not be clearly seen from the front – the mirror could show the lady’s social status in her family. This however, could be staged. Alex had heard from his parents that in the old days, it was common for one’s family to borrow fineries through familial kinship, so that the bride and the family could look better in other people’s eyes.
The act of borrowing fineries and jewelleries, shallow as it might seem to be, was reasoned in those days as a chance for the bride and the groom to become raja sehari, a Malay idiom to denote the newlyweds being considered royal on the day they got hitched. It is no wonder then, why a Peranakan wedding could last up to 12 days, with different ceremonies carried out throughout the celebration. The most important ritual is none other than the chiu thau (hair-combing ceremony), in which both the married pair would put on their chiu thau white garments, that would later be kept unwashed until they died, afterwhich the garment would be buried with them in the coffin. A lavish wedding affair, infused with auspicious symbolism pointed to the idea that a lot of money was spent and the Peranakan family could afford to do so. However, be it a Peranakan, Chinese, Malay or Indian wedding, it has never been regarded a cheap task. In fact, it would be funny to associate the culture of displaying wealth exclusively with the Peranakan, just because they have an eye for details and love to exhibit from head to toe. Weddings were and still are expensive affairs, which is nothing to brag about – since every ethnic group tends to have their own wedding style.
Being a Peranakan is not something Alex had left in the past. He had never shied from the subject of his heritage among friends, even among his Peranakan friends, although he had been teased as orang cina bukan cina due to his poor proficiency in Mandarin.
A Peranakan born person would hardly think of taking out their grandparents’ photos, bring them to school and tell friends “Hey, I am a baba nyonya.” If one were to ask “Are you a nyonya?” to someone spotted in the sarong kebaya, would likely had received remarks like “lu siao ah?” (are you mad?).
This reaction to the question considered bizarre is especially common among ladies in Malacca– regardless whether she has Peranakan background or not. Alex’s teachers, be they Chinese, Malay, Indian, Portuguese or Peranakan, regularly wore colourful sarong kebaya on Teacher’s Day and other occassions. On any given routine school days, they were accustomed to don the highly versatile sarong.
Alex had never felt it was anything special to be Peranakan, not until the hit drama, The Little Nyonya made appearance in Singapore and Malaysia. The cultural-themed drama that featured a sea of beautiful actresses in tight-fitted sarong kebaya – who wore it even in the kitchen while pounding sambal belacan – had drawn great interest from the publictowards the Peranakan culture, specifically the vibrant sarong kebaya, which was deemed aesthetically enchanting and alluring. Since then, all things labelled “nyonya” became a guarantee of good business as the community became worshipped for their products that were perceived as the greatest of all, no questions asked. From nyonya kebaya to nyonya kaya to nyonya soymilk, people also started appearing from nowhere, claiming themselves a share of the Peranakan birthright.
“Alex, let me show you these kebayas. All these belonged to my grandmother,”
“But why are they so different in size?” Alex took the kebayas and compared the length of the shoulders of the kebayas.
“Oohhhh. My grandmother was petite when she was young and she had gotten rather plump when she got older,” explained Boon Leong while rummaging through other kebayas to search for more with similar sizes while avoiding Alex’s eye contacts.
“I didn’t know one’s shoulder length can be so different throughout one’s life and you are so mean in describing your grandmother,” Alex kept the thought to himself while looking at a mustard yellow kebaya that was embroidered skilfully and harmoniously with brown, yellow and green threads that painted a beautiful blooming daisy garden on the kebaya.
“That is my favourite kebaya,” Boon Leong pointed at the kebaya Alex held in his hands.
“This is really beautiful and I didn’t know you are a baba. You just…do not look like one!” laughed Alex awkwardly so that the topic could be changed.
Like everyone else, Boon Leong joined the bandwagon of “being the Peranakan” and would hashtag “#gobacktomyroot” on his Instagram and Facebook. Being a Peranakan has become an attraction that fishes “Like” on social media and if one could post a picture of their dead great-grandparents in their baju panjang made of kain bugis, one will instantly be hailed as the true-blue Peranakan even though the Peranakan is a melting pot of heritages and cultures consisting Malay, Chinese, Indian, Javanese, Portuguese, European and even Dutch.
But, to some, being a Peranakan is a memory that is better left untouched.
“When I married your father, I was the only daughter-in-law staying with your late grandma,” said Alex’s mother, a graceful nyonya who was known best in the neighbourhood for her chilli paste.
Fondly known as aunty Lillian, Alex’s mother is popularly known for cooking delicious kari ayam, rendang ayam and ayam cili garam. These dishes were once only served during festive seasons such as the Chinese New Year or on the death anniversary of Alex’s grandparents, but they are now served as common dishes whenever Alex and his sister, Jasmine came home from Penang and Kuala Lumpur. When they are away from home, Alex’s mum will make some chilli paste and store it in the refrigerator or if she is in a good mood, she will gladly give some to her lucky mahjong kaki. The chili paste is so fine and seronoh, just like her demure but strong character and her brownish sarong that was peppered with an outstanding mauve colour. She is definitely a great nyonya in everyone’s eyes; so fine that no one could tell she had not been born Peranakan –that she was in actual fact only married to one.
As the eldest daughter in her family, Lillian ended her studies at Standard 6 when she was forced by her own father to look for a job to sustain the family of seven. She had no choice, as her father threw her out from the house with a bag. Lillian left her hometown Ipoh all by herself at the tender age of 13 and found her first and also last job, as an apprentice hairdresser in Sea Park, a suburb in Petaling Jaya.
“My monthly salary was RM80. It was a lot of money at that time. I was not afraid to travel alone as life was so harsh and death was so much better than staying alive,” said Lillian, while beading a pair of kasut manek for her future daughter-in-law.
“Your dad came to the shop for his haircut and that’s how we met,” Alex’s mum blushed, projecting a shy smile while examining the colourful beads.
“Your dad was a handsome policeman. He would use the ticket that he confiscated during a police raid to treat me for a movie,” Alex’s mum smiled whenever she talked about his father.
“Oh my goddddd, I didn’t know dad was so romantic!” Alex sounded astonished, as his dad was a man of few words in Alex’s memories.
“And this was one of the reasons I kept my head down in the house,” Alex’s mum sighed, as she never thought she would tell Alex an unpleasant past, while putting the beading work aside.
It was a past that Alex’s mum did not wish to talk about, or more accurately, she had no idea where to begin her story in this house as it happened more than two decades ago – and many things had happened in between. It was not because she took a longer time to learn how to wear the sarong, how to prepare the chilli paste, nor figuring the way Peranakan speaks, but it was all due to Alex’s aunties who stayed under one roof with Alex’s family.
“There was a year when Malacca was hit by a severe drought. And you were only a toddler at that time and no one wanted to take care of you for me as I was considered tak secocok with your dad. So I had to bring you along to fetch water from a nearby well and luckily you are not a mischievous boy. You sat silently at the trishaw and waited for mummy,” Alex’s mum tried to keep her pain to herself but her eyes betrayed her, registering a sorry look.
Alex knew that his family used to run a laundry shop in Taman Kota Laksamana when he was small and the shop no longer exists. It is now converted to a Sports Toto shop where people gamble the four digits.
“When we almost reached home, your tua-koh waited at the door. My left leg was not even stepped out from the trishaw when she yelled: “Have you prepared the dinner?””
“What?! Did you tell dad what happened to you?” exclaimed Alex as he could not believe his tua-koh – a kebaya maker who appeared courteous all the time to her customers – would behaved so. None of the ladies in the family helped fetch the water. They would rather sit at home playing their favourite cherki.
“No, I did not. Your dad sayang me a lot and so I did not want to trouble him with family matters. And your tua-koh behaved differently whenever your dad was present.”
It was not until when Alex’s grandmother passed away that Alex’s father discovered the long hidden ugly scenes that had been all swept under the carpet in the ancestral house. Alex’s uncle sold off the ancestral house willed to him and Alex’s koh-koh discarded their Pekalongan sarong and vintage kebaya in the name of freedom and modernity. It was during the wake of Alex’s granny that Alex’s father finally learnt the horrible experience that Lillian went through, when he accidentally heard Alex’s ji-koh say to Lillian: “You should tua har for the entire Soh family because you are the most suitable candidate. You are the only one with a different surname in this house and this is the time for you to show your filial piety.”
20 years after Alex’s mum married into the Soh family and her only attachment throughout the years remained no other than Alex’s father, Alex and Jasmine. So strong a love Lillian held for her family, that she could withstand the harsh treatment and even master the skills needed to manage the household, and cook a table of Peranakan dishes to satisfy the appetites of the different family members, sewing pairs of wonderful kasut manek and embracing a culture that was once so alien to her. She now lives a genuine life of the Peranakan, as compared to Alex’s koh-koh who did not value the culture and Boon Leong who now publicised his grandparents’ photos to authenticate a culture that lent him bragging rights instead of searching for its deeper meaning.
It was the 11th of June, 2017. Lillian took out from the cupboard her nicely starched chilli red kebaya with auspicious dragon and phoenix lively embroidered on it. Pairing it with her favourite earth-tone Pekalongan sarong and a pair of yellow kasut manek beaded with a reindeer motif, she sat down on the mother-of-pearl chair which was placed in front of the ancestral altar dedicated to her husband and her parents-in-law. She looked at Alex and his wife, recalling the time when she got married to her husband but no blessings were given.
Lillian fished out the beaded shoes from a bag and gave it to her daughter-in-law after the tea ceremony, telling her that:
“You don’t even need a kebaya to be a Peranakan because it is in your blood. But your late papa and I will be very glad if you can pass down the family recipe of preparing the chili paste to your kids one day.”
Michelle nodded while performing her sohjah to her mother-in-law – Aunty Lillian – whose life as a nyonya remains unknown, unquestioned, and envied.
Inspired by real-life events, Peter can’t help but think that being a Peranakan is more than just appearing in the sarong kebaya. He gets annoyed whenever he is asked by the “Peranakan enthusiast” about how many pieces of Peranakan antiques he has and is sometimes deemed unfriendly when he replies by questioning the significance of having or not having such items.
To him, being a Peranakan is a way of life and he believes that the nuggets of wisdom passed down to him by his parents lasts longer and wears better.
Peter’s first short story A Man’s Kebaya is published on Eksentrika and was also featured by Bringbackthekebaya in Malaysia and The Peranakan in Singapore. Being a Peranakan is his second Peranakan short story.
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