Last month I wrote about the Hong Kong Shoe Store in Penang, Malaysia, where Jimmy Choo was an apprentice. Jimmy Choo cut his teeth making Peranakan beaded slippers as Hong Kong Shoe Store is famous for this type of footwear.
Peranakan is a Malay word that comes from the root word ‘anak’, which means ‘child’. Peranakan means locally born of a marriage between a native person and a foreigner. Originally, this term referred to the descendants of 15th and 16th century Chinese immigrants to the Malay archipelago. But Peranakan can refer to anyone born in the archipelago (which includes Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei and Singapore) who is the result of an intermarriage with a local. The term Peranakan can apply to descendants of intermarriages between Malays and Indian Hindus, Indian Muslims, Arabs or Eurasians, but it is most commonly used to refer to ethnic Chinese people who have assimilated and adopted the language and culture of Malays. The men are titled Baba while the women are called Nyonya. Their communities are found in the Straits Settlements – Malacca and Penang in Malaysia, and in Singapore.
The Peranakan have a unique hybrid culture which seems to be slowly disappearing. Their language is a mix of Malay and Chinese. Peranakan food is Chinese and Malay fusion, way before the term ‘fusion cuisine’ even existed.
The traditional clothing of Peranakan women is the ‘baju kebaya’. Female flight attendants on Singapore Airlines, Malaysia Airlines, Royal Brunei Airlines and Garuda Indonesia all wear a modern form of the batik baju kebaya. The traditional baju kebaya consists of a sheer top with a batik sarong. The traditional kebaya top or blouse had no buttons. Instead a three-piece linked brooch called a ‘kerongsang’ or ‘kerosang’ are used to fasten the blouse down the front. The traditional kebaya blouse was always beautifully embroidered all around the edges.
A variety of the kebaya is the Nyonya Kebaya, worn by Peranakan women of Chinese ancestry, especially in the Straits Settlements. Unlike other types of kebaya, the Nyonya Kebaya is worn with Peranakan beaded slippers, also called ‘kasut manek’ or ‘manek aey’. Peranakan beaded slippers are handmade using tiny beads. A design or pattern was usually cross stitched onto the front of the slipper, and then beaded over with beads called ‘manek potong’ or cut beads. This was all done by hand using very tiny, glass beads.
Peranakan beaded slippers can be in a peep-toe or covered style. They can be worn for happy or sad occasions. On sad occasions, the slippers had a simple pattern in sombre coloured beads like black, white or dark blue. For special occasions such as birthdays and weddings, the slippers were colourful and more intricate. In the past, it was the custom for young nyonyas to learn beadwork and embroidery. On her wedding day, it was an opportunity for the nyonya to show off her intricate beadwork in her own handmade beaded slippers, and to display her hand embroidered baju kebaya. These slippers were most popular in the 1930s.
In the past, Peranakan beaded slippers were worn by both men and women, but these days they are mainly worn by women.