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“I have made it clear to you that we should understand why Babas put on the nyonya attire for plays; it was out of necessity in the old days because women are not allowed to be on stage. And once the play is over, the men get back to their usual selves. In that way, we respect the Nyonyas, the culture, and more importantly, ourselves!” said Alex’s father, fuming.
It was annoying to grow up as a Peranakan, at least for Alex. Like the Chinese and Malay languages that Alex spoke at home, it was either in masculine or feminine form and it has always been like that. Androgyny has never been a subject in Alex’s daily life. In fact, it was never been discussed by anyone he knows, except in his Form 6 Biology textbook that provided little information about the hermaphrodite earthworms. Born as a man, Alex was expected to behave in a masculine way since he was little. He was refrained from entering the kitchen or playing with his grandmother’s sarong and silver belt, or his mother’s beads for kasut manek. He grew up surrounded by embroidery of cute animals dancing lively on the colourful sarong kebaya and beaded shoes. There were butterflies, squirrels, peacocks, and goldfish. However, he could never get near them; he was not supposed to like them or he would be punished.
Alex has always thought it was totally unfair for him not to be able to indulge in such extravagant activities. He grew up watching his grandmother, mother and aunties dressing up carefully in their colourful, fine, and intricate sarong kebaya for various occasions; even during his grandfather’s funeral where cucuk sanggul and kerongsang embedded with pearls that represented tears were used to adorn their hair and on their black and blue kebaya. Unlike the women, the men could only dress up in a monotone batik shirt which was always loose. The men’s sarong is always checkered in design and never far from blue or brown in colour, and it can never be worn outside the house like the ladies’. The same goes for the men’s beaded shoes, though some were painstakingly sewn by Alex’s mother, the fate of those shoes were confined to the insides of the house, while the ladies proudly showed off their shoes with intricate designs such as the 12-horoscopes to the public.
Alex never liked to put on the batik shirt because he was petite and his arms looked like lidi as his late grandmother used to tease him whenever he was in his batik shirt. However, it was not without reasons why Alex was so thin when he was born. When Alex grew up to become a professional young man, he got to know from his mother that the family was poor when Alex was born. His mother did not get sufficient nutrition when she was carrying Alex, unlike his younger sister who was born fit. The family managed to obtain financial security when his sister was born. This way, the family was able to afford better treatment for both his mother and sister.
Though skinny, Alex has a pair of big eyes, tanned skin, and a beard that invited jealousy among his friends, especially most of his Chinese friends who possessed smaller eyes and rarely were able to grow a beard. However, Alex was never satisfied with his appearance and never stopped to imagine a man in a sophisticated outfit like the kebaya. He constantly questioned his cultural upbringing when he delved more into his studies of gender and culture, specifically about the hegemonic lifestyle that has been constructed and practised within the society that always favours men. The knowledge he gained was seemingly not applicable in the context of his Peranakan household where the women are more ‘visible’ than the men via their unique sarong kebaya image, and this kept Alex thinking.
Living away from his hometown Malacca, one day, Alex finally braced himself to put on a simple kebaya – blue in colour and checkered in design – over a white shirt, just like a blazer, for his course mate’s birthday party.
“You look so cool, Alex! Is kebaya worn by the males as well?” Jason, the birthday boy asked.
“Nah…It is traditionally a female attire, but well, I blend it into my own style,” Alex answered with a cheeky smile.
Praises over Alex’s creative idea of transforming a female kebaya into a male’s blazer were constantly heard that night. Alex found a sense of identity that he never felt before. Of course, Alex did it without his parents’ knowledge and not a single picture of him in the ‘cool kebaya’ was uploaded to his social media sites, for he knew that his kepoh aunties were watching over him on those sites since the Internet made it so easy to do so. Alex did not want to give them something to gossip about.
Since then, Alex became more confident and daring in dressing up in the way he likes. He started collecting a myriad of kebayas from the antique shops and flea markets. He especially loved the touch of the vintage kebayas which were mostly made from kasar rubia. While it was fun collecting vintage kebayas, Alex also liked to learn about the stories behind the designs, such as why the birds were embroidered in pairs and the Chinese characters were sewn onto the fabric. For Alex, the patterns and colours which told these stories were important factors when considering which ones he would take home with him. He wanted to dress with pride at social functions. Subtle colour and a less elaborate piece never failed to suit him anyway. His non-typical Chinese features and his macho persona overshadowed the typically feminine kebaya.
As time went by, people started to notice the way Alex dressed and carried himself, and this stirred a heated discussion among the conservative Peranakan community. Whispers of words had finally gone to the ears of Alex’s father. Usually, the two would never speak on the phone. Alex would get a daily call from his mother, asking about his wellbeing, but this time when he answered the phone it was his father at the other end. Immediately Alex sensed trouble. His father wouldn’t usually pick up his old Nokia to call anybody, so it must be something serious.
“Hey, pa!” Alex answered the call, trying to sound calm though he was shocked. He braced himself, expecting the worst.
“I know you want to tell the world you are unique, but this kind of respect has to be earned. It is only proper for the female to put on the kebaya, not a man like you! Watch your behaviour! Are you going to be songsang?!” his father put it straight to Alex’s face with a furious voice, thinking if his son was turning into a girl.
“Huh? No, I did not do that! Where did you hear this from?” Alex denied his father’s allegations while pretending to be calm to not create any more unnecessary trouble.
“You better make sure you did not. You are the only son in the family and you are the one who is going to bathe my body and cover my coffin! There is a reason that this will not be your sister’s job!” father hung up the phone without saying goodbye.
“Why am I being targeted, Pa?” Alex continued the conversation in his head, half knowing the answer he would get. He fell into deep thinking not even getting out from his hostel for brunch.
“What do you mean by proper? If the kebaya has to be properly worn by the ladies, why don’t you look at some of the ladies who clad it with jeans, or those who don’t even comb their hair the nyonya way?” Alex ended his thought and decided to take a nap as he was starting to feel lethargic.
Nothing happened after his father had called him. No one talked about kebayas and his mother did not mention the topic either. Life went on as usual for Alex and his family although Alex kept looking for vintage kebayas in the antique shops at Campbell Street for his personal collection. He did however stop wearing them at social functions. He still cherished the beauty of the kebaya that he collected, carefully hand washing and folding them the way he had seen from his grandmother and mother. He learned that the kebayas can be preserved for a long time if they are kept folded; to hang a kebaya will alter the shape of it – particularly the shoulder part – as the kebaya is starched before it is dried under the sun. Alex admired the old school wisdom and finally got to practise the methods by himself, keeping his collections in two huge storage boxes. Of course, his father never expected Alex would continue indulging in such a “feminine affair” after the call was made.
After being away for six months, Alex went home. The plaque on the door was crossed with two white stickers. The altar offered to the Goddess of Mercy and the family’s ancestral altar was covered with white cloths. Even the television was covered because people believed that the television or any mirroring object would reflect the soul of the deceased – which might not bring peace to the deceased as the old folks claimed. Alex’s mother had suffered from systemic lupus erythematosus for the past 20 years, and she could not make it when the disease recurred for the fifth time.
Many of the relatives turned up to the funeral to offer prayers and comforts. Sounds of chanting and the smell of incense occupied the living room. There were many faces that Alex could not recognise. Alex’s father remained quiet at the corner of the living room and his eyes looked empty over his wife’s coffin.
“I did not know mum had such a massive number of extended family members and friends,” murmured Alex while bowing himself to all visitors. His eyes could barely open due to the heavy smoke from burning incense papers and the many joss sticks offered. His eyes were filled with tears and Alex was confused whether those were from burning incense or sadness as he could not stop himself from sobbing since he reached home the day before. He started to feel numb and exhausted from kneeling and crying. He excused himself and went to the kitchen to wash his face.
“I am sorry for you, Michael,” Alex overheard the conversation between a man with a familiar voice and his father at the back of the house. Perhaps due to the loud noises outside – crying, gambling, chit-chatting, chanting – they did not notice the presence of Alex.
“Since when does father go to the backyard?” Alex thought.
Through the wooden window, Alex could see his father and the man. It was Uncle John, his father’s best friend since they were young. Peeping through the window and trying to get himself closer to hear their conversation, Alex heard something that puzzled him.
“I think you know the rumour about Alex is true. He did put on the kebaya. Haha… Like father like son!” said Uncle John in his rough voice.
“Stop it, John. It is over. You know we cannot go back to those days! I am married! Though it was by my parents’ arrangement.” From the window, Alex could see his father’s face turning red, projecting an embarrassed and disappointed look.
“Well, don’t you remember the excitement of you donning the complete set of sarong kebaya on stage for plays…and also for dates? At least your son is only putting on the upper kebaya and we are not sure of his motive for doing so,” teased Uncle John while touching his father’s hand.
Alex could not believe what he had just heard. He stood rooted in the kitchen and failed to process the conversation. He was left in shock and wondered how his father could have accessed and fully dressed in the sarong kebaya, not to mention his role as a female impersonator on the stage – something that a well-to-do Peranakan family would have prohibited the family members to watch, even it was just for the sake of pleasure.
And suddenly Alex remembered the family’s favourite kebaya maker. It was Uncle John.
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