The Nyonya Craze Continues

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Precious Peranakan paraphernalia does not come cheap – and here’s why.

It has been a decade since the Singaporean drama, The Little Nyonya, hit airwaves in 2008. Set in the 1930s and spanning a period of 70 years, the melodrama follows the trials and tribulations of a Peranakan family. It was a huge success – not only did it receive the highest viewership ratings of Singapore’s MediaCorp TV Channel 8 since 1994, the drama also gained international following from neighbouring Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, Cambodia and the Philippines, as well as China, Hong Kong, France and the US.

Today, the film has been made available to a wider audience after it was subscribed by Netflix in 2016, and there is renewed interest in all things Peranakan. From the flamboyant sarong kebaya to beautiful porcelains, the craze for Peranakan artefacts is still going strong.

Don’t Throw Out That Dusty Basket!

“We managed to close a deal for RM42,000 once, for the bakul siah (lacquered Hokkien basket),” says veteran Peranakan antiques seller, Philip Siow.

Siow owns P & M Antique House on Jonker Street, Melaka. “The Japanese love art and they buy various Peranakan porcelains such as plates, vases and tea sets. They love the vibrant colours.

“We have customers from Germany and France as well – mostly expatriates working in Melaka. Gradually learning about Peranakan culture, they began to appreciate it as well,” says Siow.

Although Peranakan porcelains were made in China, these hand-drawn and highly detailed ceramics were specially made for the Peranakans, who detested busy designs. The production of Peranakan porcelains ceased after the Second World War, resulting in the scarcity of such items. “Peranakan antiques were already quite expensive in the 1970s and, more so now, in 2018,” says Siow.

Bakul siah.

Tengkat or tiffin carrier.

(Left to right) The Chinese chupu versus the Peranakan chupu.

“It is hard to source for genuine pieces nowadays, and with the passing of time, their value will continue to skyrocket,” says Siow, who began learning about Peranakan antiques at the young age of 10 when he worked at his uncle’s antique shop after school.

Indeed, the tengkat (tiffin carrier) has its starting price at RM1,000, and the more ornately embellished ones are valued at RM1,500 at the least.

A spittoon can go for RM300 or more, while a bakul siah typically ranges from RM1,500 to RM4,000 for the giant and multi-tiered ones.

A genuine Peranakan chupu (a small covered jar) can cost up to RM5,000, while the Chinese chupu can be obtained at RM300. This stark difference in price is not only because of its uncommonness, but also because of the design – Peranakan crockery are richly coloured while Chinese porcelains are much simpler in design and often comes in shades of blue and white.

More Than A Fashion Statement

While Siow is assured of the timeless value of Peranakan antiques, Joyce Ngiow of J Manik thinks that it is the service and quality delivered to her customers which has kept her business going since its establishment in 2000.

“It is not just about sewing the kasut manek (beaded shoes) or the shoes themselves; the after-sales service is equally important. It keeps your customers coming back,” says Ngiow, who is well-known for her great sense of matching the colours of the beads on the shoes.

In addition, Ngiow says that there are still a number of Peranakan families who will wear the sarong kebaya and kasut manek today, though these are mostly donned for weddings rather than everyday wear as in the old days. “The market is still there. The older Nyonyas are very concerned about their looks. The kebaya has to go with a sarong. They can’t accept youths today who wear the kebaya with jeans. And they prefer shoes made from manek potong (faceted metallic beads) as they look shinier due to the reflection of the beads,” says Ngiow.

Spittoon.

(Left to right) Manek potong versus usual beads.

A sarong kebaya sold at Philip Siow's P & M Antique House.

Manek potong were imported from the Czech Republic in the early twentieth century, but these are no longer produced today.1 According to Ngiow, contemporary manek potong are produced in the US, and the choice of colours has been greatly reduced.

Such demands do not solely come from older Peranakan ladies – The Little Nyonya has widened Ngiow’s customer base to Japan, Singapore, France, China and Malaysians abroad. “Even little girls want to wear the sarong kebaya after watching the drama. They ask their mothers to purchase a set for them,” says Ngiow.

But with increased interest in all things Nyonya, more artisans are needed. “The youngsters today who follow the trend want to wear (the shoes), but I don’t think they will want to pick up the skill of beading the shoes. It takes patience and a long time to complete one,” says Kok Chiew Lan of Colour Beads.

Kok’s family business was initially in making ballet shoes and high heels. When they were approached to complete a pair of beaded shoes, they began their foray into making this elaborate fashion item. “The Nyonyas know how to sew the beads onto the fabrics, but they need someone to stitch the fabric onto the slippers. We know how to do this,” says Kok.

For 25 years, Kok has been making shoes. She has since passed the knowledge and business over to her daughter-in-law, Joyce How, who has revamped the art of making beaded shoes to appeal to younger consumers: instead of using PVC and  leather, she uses silk as she thinks it is more elegant. In addition, she has made the heels higher.

While sales of her beaded shoes have increased by 50% – thanks to The Little Nyonya and her innovative daughter-in-law – Kok is somewhat pessimistic: “The demand is still there, but it will slow down one day as the art of making beaded shoes is quickly diminishing.”

Whether or not the interest for all things Peranakan will continue remains to be seen, but for the time being, ceramics and shoes continue to ride the wave.

1Wee, Peter. A Peranakan Legacy: The Heritage of the Straits Chinese. Singapore: Marshall Cavendish, 2009.

Peter Soh never expected to drop out of his PhD programme, but therein lies the beauty of life. The incident has taught him agility and patience, and has given him ample space and time to read and write. He is looking forward to his role as an English teacher in China.



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