Popularising Peranakan Culture Through a Renewal of Its Jewelleries

By Peter Soh

September 2023 FEATURE
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SINCE I WROTE “The Complex Task of Being Chinese Peranakan” (Penang Monthly January 2020 issue) to explore the discourse of being a Chinese Peranakan in 2020, I do not think much has changed — the colourful Sarong Kebaya is probably still the first thing many people associate with the community and culture. Melaka and Penang now have Kebaya rental services for locals and tourists who want to have a feel of being a Nyonya.

“Nowadays, the Sarong Kebaya is a costume. It is only worn on special occasions, rather than being a daily wear,” says Jonathan Yun, the founder of Jonathan Yun Sculptural Jewelry, who is a Penang Baba.

“The Peranakan culture is dying — even the Penang Nyonyas rarely put on their jewelleries now. If you are going to encourage the younger generation to continue this tradition, you have to modernise.”

I have noticed Yun’s contemporary Peranakan jewelleries and followed his social media for a few years now. I knew he was working on a crown for Dara Kenyalang [1] and had participated in exhibitions such as the Malaysian Fashion: A Journey in Colour in 2022 and Peranakan Penang Fashion Gala Show in 2021.

I just did not expect to bump into the man himself when I was admiring his creations in his shop located at Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling in March this year.

A Gifted Jewellery Artist Since Young

Yun graduated from RMIT Australia with a major in fine metals. Even when he was a student, he cooped himself up in the laboratory to work on his creations to earn pocket money.

It was during this time that Yun found that he has an affinity and flair for working with silver.

“The tones of silver create depth and shadow that are not found in metals like gold and platinum,” shares Yun.

Although career options were limited for Yun back then, he never regretted the choices he had had to make. His experiences in developing giftware and jewellery with both the now-defunct Penang Pewter and Franklin Mint paved the way for where he is today — Yun was awarded the Next Accessories Designer of the Year 2019 by Jimmy Choo at the 2019 Malaysia Fashion Week.

Breathing New Life Into Peranakan Jewellery

The early 20th century was the golden age of the Nyonya Sarong Kebaya.

“Nyonyas wore it daily and there were seamstresses or Kebaya makers who would design and sew according to the client’s preferences.

“The tradition thrived back then because there was a demand. Now, it is quickly diminishing because youngsters are more comfortable in modern clothing.”

In an attempt to invigorate the wearing of Peranakan clothing and jewelleries, Yun started to create contemporised Peranakan-style jewellery in 2009. He turned the kerongsang ibu, the “mother brooch” used to fasten the baju panjang, or long dress—a long sleeved, knee length, thin, transparent blouse—into a choker. Instead of embellishing the kerongsang ibu with the usual diamond, he opted for other stones such as the imperial jadeite.

“My earlier creations still mirror the old style very much. It was not until last year that I managed to create something entirely new while keeping the sensibility of the Peranakans.”

Yun dismantled old Peranakan jewelleries to learn how they were made.

“Peranakan jewelleries combine elements of Chinese and Malay cultures but were made by Indian craftsmen in the past. Understanding this is crucial to capturing the details that went into the making of Peranakan or Peranakan-inspired jewelleries.”

Asked whether his creations invited criticism, Yun paused before telling me that if there were any, they were not made to his face.

“Everyone is entitled to their opinions but they shouldn’t be clouded by personal taste.”

Yun exudes the gentleness of a Baba in his demeanour — I think it is this, as well as grace, elegance and pride of one’s culture and craftsmanship that make Yun’s pieces so beautiful. They have attracted people from all walks of life — foreigners, young graduates and future mother-in-laws.

At the end of the day, Yun hopes that his creations will be more familiar and approachable for young Peranakans who wish to understand their own culture.


[1] Dara Kenyalang is a 13-episode reality TV show which sees Sarawak maidens going through various challenges to compete for the title of Dara Kenyalang.

Peter Soh

is a Peranakan writer who is very interested in exploring the discourse and identity of the Chinese Peranakan. One of his short stories was featured in the Emerging Malaysian Writers 2018 anthology. He is currently the Head of Humanities in Maple Leaf Kingsley International School.