【亞太博物館連線專欄】娘惹珠飾及刺繡—文化轉譯的創意流動

Nyonya Beadwork and Embroidery –Transformation and Creativity

娘惹珠飾及刺繡—文化轉譯的創意流動

Nyonya Beadwork and Embroidery –Transformation and Creativity

作者:Cheah Hwei Fen(獨立藝術史學者)
圖像:所有圖像皆經Cheah Hwei Fen、荷蘭國立世界文化博物館、新加坡亞洲文明博物館、新加坡土生華人博物館和Don Harper授權,
   未經許可,請勿任意轉載。
責任編輯:田偲妤

土生華人的刺繡作品主要以色彩繽紛的珠飾為人所知,其實他們的刺繡作品尚有其他不同形式,皆有同等的重要性,既繼承傳統,又有藝術上的創新。本文將從歷史簡要討論、跨文化元素及近期的一檔娘惹針織展覽等不同角度,介紹娘惹刺繡的特色範疇。

關鍵字:娘惹針織、峇峇娘惹、珠飾、刺繡、工藝

The needlework of the Peranakan Chinese is known mainly through their colourful beadwork but other forms of their embroidery were equally significant, bringing together heritage and innovation in the art. This article introduces readers to the range of their embroidery through a brief discussion of its history, cross-cultural elements, and a recent exhibition of nyonya needlework.

Keywords: Nyonya Needlework, Peranakan, Beadwork, Embroidery, Craft

1675年,一位遊覽爪哇島西北部的丹麥旅人覺察,當地華人婦女能製作出「最華美的珍珠刺繡及針織品」(Cortemünde, 1953)。350年後,土生華人(峇峇娘惹)的珠飾及刺繡仍持續吸引著眾人的目光。本文將簡要介紹其歷史、文化影響和保存現況,從而帶領大家了解土生華人針線工藝之特色。

 

土生華人(峇峇娘惹)

直到19世紀下半葉,遷移到東南亞的華人女性仍然稀少,因此,丹麥醫生爾特芒迪(Cortemünde)所描述的女性較可能是土生華人,是中國南方人定居後與當地婦女所生下的女兒。久而久之,土生華人的小社區漸漸在幾個貿易城鎮成形,包括:馬來西亞半島海岸的馬六甲、蘇門答臘的巨港和棉蘭、爪哇的巴達維亞(今雅加達)和三寶壟等地。他們保留了中國姓氏、信仰和傳統,也接納了許多當地習俗。1 他們的日常語言充滿當地特殊詞彙,食材如峇拉煎(蝦醬)也讓菜餚具有鮮明的地方特色。土生華人男性(峇峇)維持中國式服裝,土生華人女性(娘惹;圖1)則穿上紗籠(未經裁縫的裹身裙)和baju panjang(長衣)或kebaya(合身上衣)。

圖1 刺繡師。伍德伯里和佩吉攝影師,爪哇,1870年代。蛋白版製版法沖印。荷蘭國立世界文化博物館(Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen)藏。Coll. no.: TM-60003370。

他們持續變化的身分,體現在兼容並蓄的居家內裝、服飾和物質文化中,在殖民國(荷蘭和英國)統治下建構生活的同時,也呼應了背景環境。娘惹刺繡包含了對中國傳統的致敬,也包括對細緻工藝的鑑賞力、創造力,及對所處時空的感受力。

 

針線和串珠的繼承及創造

運用絲絨、金線、亮片、瑣細的玻璃與金屬珠串,以及孔雀羽毛,娘惹們以「極具匠心、技術和獨創性」的精細工法,製作出「驚艷眾人」的刺繡作品(Vaughan, 1879)。做出的綴飾會用在衣服配飾(如衣領、袖口、頭飾披肩及皮包)和節慶家居裝飾上(包括出入門口和床頭帷幔、枕頭套、桌布、床包、窗簾綁帶、甚至是花瓶)。刺繡拖鞋是極其重要的新娘嫁妝,也循中國傳統,作為送給新郎家的禮物。

中國吉祥動物符號,諸如:龍、鳳、鹿、蝴蝶、老鼠、蓮花、葫蘆等,仍然在娘惹刺繡中扮演主要角色。不同的象徵圖案常聚在一塊,好似為了極大化隨之而來的祝福(圖2)。注重細節和細片技術,使娘惹作品顯得細膩且精緻。然而,這些象徵符號彼此間缺乏合理比例和對稱安排,反而讓設計具有特殊的原創性,顯現與中國刺繡的差異性。

 

圖2 繡有凸起金線和絲線的女性腰包。馬六甲或新加坡,19世紀末至20世紀初。新加坡鳳凰牡丹廳(Hall of the Phoenix and Peony)藏。請留意兩隻麒麟周圍的鮮綠孔雀羽毛和錢包的邊緣針織。腰包的背面(圖上沒顯示)也密集地以絲線刺繡。

源自道教的神話象徵和圖像也偶爾會出現。這塊女性典禮用的手帕(圖3)具象出十分迷人的詮釋。在手帕中,道教的長壽之神壽星君並不像平常描繪的模樣(通常在高額頭兩側,各有一小撮髮束),而是有了兩個突出的髮髻,反差地看起來有些孩子氣。手帕頂部有隻灰色的鱟,其尖尾是顯著地辨識特徵。在中國藝術中,鱟代表婚姻關係或孝道(在福建話中鱟與「孝」同音)。但在這裡,若透過地方俗諺來理解,可更恰當地詮釋其背後含意,因為鱟在爪哇語中稱為mimi dan mintuno(雄性與雌性稱呼不同)、在馬來語中則稱為belangkas,兩者都暗示著婚姻的忠誠。這件作品應是源自馬六甲,當地的新娘髮型會在頸背處留有一條稱為buntut(尾巴)belangkas的髮尾。

圖3 繡有絲線的女性儀式用手帕。馬六甲或新加坡,19世紀末。新加坡亞洲文明博物館藏。該類型手帕為婦女和女孩搭配禮服使用,用以懸掛在無名指的戒指上。該刺繡看上去有襯墊,是因為絲綢被縫在以圖樣形狀切割的小塊紙板上。

1896年,有位來自檳城的劍橋大學醫學院學生,帶著母親或姊妹為他製作的串珠銘牌。值得注意的是,銘牌上娘惹化的意象。在銘牌上可看到,劍橋大學伊曼紐爾學院上原本舉著花圈的猖獗獅子,被重新改鑄為中式獅子圖像。這種文化轉譯突顯的創意流動性,正是娘惹刺繡複雜文化層次的展現。

 

平凡的絲線,多元的展現

娘惹刺繡結合的元素靈感來自多樣化的文化來源。娘惹繡飾的靴子乃仿照1880年代最時髦的歐洲踝靴而來。靴子上浮凸的金色繡飾(在馬來語中稱為tekat timbul)運用在粗繩上鋪設扁金線或「金板」的技法(稱為kelingkam,該字源於荷蘭語klinkant),很可能是由歐洲儀式刺繡轉變而來。靴上的龍和花卉設計皆是為人熟知的土生華人象徵符號,其根源自中國藝術,但往往又另具當地特色。在圖示的靴子(圖4)中,牡丹的線條硬挺,風格更接近爪哇式的再現。儘管穿著中式服裝和裙子,土生華人的靴子彷彿嫁接起時尚和傳統、創新和傳承的橋樑。

圖4 一雙繡有金線的女性靴子。爪哇,19世紀末。新加坡土生華人博物館藏。Lee Kip Lee夫婦所贈。

女性的繡花拖鞋形狀則像截斷的「船」,這可能部分受中國草編拖鞋的影響。在一本1829年出版的旅行雜誌中,展示了一雙帶有精緻金色刺繡的紅色天鵝絨拖鞋,類似於此處圖示中的這雙(圖5)。儘管它們通常被連結到娘惹文化,但作者注意到,爪哇和一些歐亞婦女(特別是nyai或妾室)也會穿類似的鞋子(Neueck, 1829)。這說法提醒著我們,娘惹刺繡不僅僅是土生華人所特有,早已成為更廣泛的奢侈品物質文化的一部分,在鄰近地區引起仿效。

圖5 有浮凸金線刺繡的女性拖鞋。印尼,1887年前。荷蘭國立世界文化博物館藏。Coll.no:TM-A-7092。類似的籃子圖案在娘惹金色刺繡中十分普遍(可與圖2對照),也常見於馬來刺繡。

刺繡者也會從其他紡織作品找到靈感。有時,他們透過珠飾和針線模仿蠟染設計或中國錦緞。其他時候他們會借用相同技術,形塑自己獨特的美學。在這塊帶有靛藍蠟染設計的手帕上(圖6)可看到鮮明的差異,手帕周圍已鑲上費工且用色大膽的鏤空蕾絲邊。花樣在縫入尚存的絲線之前,必須先除去細絲。像這樣的拉線刺繡(suji terawang)受到西蘇門答臘高原上米南佳保人(Minangkabau people)的歡迎,此種工藝可能是從歐洲的家用亞麻布或伊斯蘭刺繡發展而來。這種文化重疊性,正突顯出鄰近文化共享工藝的傳統。

圖6 編織珠飾板。檳城,20世紀初。新加坡亞洲文明博物館藏。此類珠飾板可能用來鋪墊枕頭或邊桌。

土生華人也使用網紋或串編的珠飾,而非編結的方式(圖7)。這可說是最複雜的娘惹「刺繡」技術,因其結構是由多條線穿過細珠而成。網紋和串編珠飾的靈感之一可能是流蘇,因為這也是這類織品最常見的功能。相關技術近來才揭曉,儘管對於娘惹串編珠飾的源起尚不清楚,但某些變化與中國珠飾明顯有相似之處(Hector, 2016)。

圖7 繡有繪畫作品的絲綢蠟染手帕。印尼蘇門答臘,19世紀末至20世紀初。Don Harper藏品。喬治亞州,美國。

有些娘惹珠飾和刺繡會繡上中文字。有時文字難以辨認,不排除是被刻意繡入,用來加強娘惹的中國傳承意味。在20世紀初,女性逐漸接受正規教育,像「Good Luck」(祝你好運)這樣的英文用詞開始出現在刺繡中,反映出刺繡者溝通方式的改變。在當時學校的刺繡課程中,最受歡迎的可能是花籃的設計。書籍和童書則可能啟發了小狗、貓咪和天鵝等刺繡圖像。從20世紀30年代中期開始,甚至連迪士尼角色都被繡入。

雖然娘惹珠飾和刺繡主要僅供個人使用,但娘惹刺繡在學校卻是商機蓬勃,娘惹和非土生華人都參與其中。基督教傳教士會鼓勵他們的學生(包括土生華人女孩)為新加坡、馬六甲和檳城的學校和孤兒院製作刺繡,用於慈善募款和聚會所用,從當時的宣傳來看,金色刺繡及珠飾拖鞋乃從爪哇出口到新加坡。「中國製造」的標籤則出現在芝加哥菲爾德博物館(Chicago’s Field Museum)的幾條珠飾腰帶上,這些腰帶可能為印尼的土生華人所製作,而強調中國(可能是中國南方)的標籤,也顯示當時中國是商業製作娘惹刺繡的另一個可能地點。2

 

如何欣賞娘惹刺繡:從過去與現在著眼

20世紀初以來,傳統儀式被簡化,服裝和裝飾的品味也發生了變化,因此原本有著社會及象徵重要性的娘惹刺繡,特別是金色和絲絨刺繡,漸漸式微。時尚選擇視野被拓展後,像紗籠和長衣、珠飾拖鞋都很少有人穿了。20世紀中葉以來,已經很少有人繼續傳承娘惹刺繡工藝。

當一般家庭開始默默處理掉刺繡手工藝品時,擁有藝術眼光的人開始收集這些藝品。何永萌(Ho Wing Meng)教授在1980年代出版了一系列有豐富圖像資料的《收藏家指南》,對於土生華人裝飾藝術的文化發聲至關重要。他在珠飾和刺繡方面出版的著作,為相關收藏奠定了基礎(Ho, 1987)。

與此同時,新加坡和馬來西亞的博物館也開始舉辦土生華人的物質文化展覽,盛讚其「和諧」的跨文化面向。3 新加坡土生華人博物館(Peranakan Museum)於2008年開幕,聚焦的亮點包括光彩奪目的娘惹刺繡藝品,這是30多年來精心蒐集的成果,廣度與深度兼具,已是國家收藏品的一部分。2016年,土生華人博物館更舉辦了「土生華人世界中的娘惹珠飾與刺繡」特展,展示了藝術如何承載文化及個人表現,成為多元且創新的文化形式(Cheah, 2017)。

圖8 新加坡土生華人博物館娘惹刺繡展覽設置圖。新加坡。2016年6月至2017年6月。圖片由土生華人博物館提供。

該展覽也包括從私人及機構借出的藏品,特別值得注意的是,從荷蘭國家世界文化博物館借來的藏品。這些藏品多於18701880年代購入或收藏,早於其他主要的土生華人文物收藏。這些「可追溯」的19世紀案例(例如圖5的作品),顯示出當時整個土生華人世界如何受流通的思想和物件之刺激,進而激發出刺繡樣式的變化、多元性與實驗性。

雖然特展將娘惹珠飾和刺繡的豐富歷史帶到大眾眼前,但當代的娘惹刺繡卻沒有獲得論述。4 就精神層面上來說,我們今天能如何論述這項技藝呢?對土生華人文化的興趣在1990年代重新燃起,有人充滿熱情地擁抱娘惹珠飾,然而絲線和金色刺繡仍然相當程度上被忽視。5 舊有的作品仍然被模仿,視為恢復遺忘技藝,並向過去致敬的方式。但在這樣做的過程中,當代的娘惹刺繡作品反而有可能因為「忠於歷史」而受到束縛。如果重建技術和式樣的過程,也能刺激刺繡者自身的創造性想像,那麼也許複製過去仍然有可能再次活化娘惹刺繡工藝。

註釋

1. 峇峇娘惹(Peranakan)一詞同時可指稱其他混血或在當地出生之族群,例如:印度峇峇娘惹(Peranakan Indians)、爪夷峇峇娘惹(Jawi Peranakans)等。本文提到的峇峇娘惹特指土生華人(Peranakan Chinese)。

2. 這些是約200件珠飾品的一部分,最初鑑定來自中國,由美國的東亞藝術收藏家於1926年和1936年分別捐贈。雖然中國生產娘惹刺繡的證據很少,但更廣義的中國出口珠飾類別在Valerie Hector的文章〈中國大陸出口之珠飾〉中已加以探討。《珠串》第29期(2017),頁59-75。

3. Othman Mohd Yatim & Raiha Mohd Saud(1986)。《峇峇娘惹遺產博物館》(頁1)。吉隆坡:遺產博物館。
Yoong, Jackie(2008)。〈峇峇娘惹藝術與文化:土生華人博物館歷史〉。Randall Ee(主編)《土生華人博物館指南》(頁16-17)。新加坡:亞洲文物博物館。
關於土生華人博物館的珠飾及刺繡藏品,請見:Eng-Lee, Seok Chee(1989)。《節日的表現:娘惹珠飾及刺繡》。新加坡:國立博物館。新加坡之國家收藏品可上roots.sg.搜尋。

4. 當代的娘惹刺繡有獲得認可。在教育領域中,有些當代作品及訪問刺繡師的影片。也有為特展攝製的公開節目,與幾位在地娘惹刺繡師合作。

5. 來自新加坡的Bebe Seet是最有影響力的一位。Seet, Bebe(2009)。《土生華人珠飾:我的繼承》。新加坡:Bebe Seet。

 

參考文獻
  • Cheah, Hwei-Fen(2017)。《娘惹刺繡》。新加坡:亞洲文明博物館。
  • Cortemünde, Johan Petri(1953)。Henning Henningsen編。《東印度群島旅行日記,1672–75》(Dagbog fra en Ostindiefart, 1672-75)(頁133)。Helsingør。
  • Hector, Valerie(2016)。〈土生華人世界的珠串串編與編結技術〉。《珠串》,28,66-91。
  • Ho, Wing Meng(1987)。《海峽華人的珠飾及刺繡:收藏家指南》(Straits Chinese Beadwork and Embroidery: A Collector’s Guide)。新加坡:Times Books。
  • Neueck, Pfyffer zu(1829)。《爪哇島素描》(Skizzen von der Insel Java)(第13版,頁33、66)。沙夫豪森:Franz Hurter。
  • Vaughan, J. D.(1879)。《海峽殖民地華人之風俗習慣》(頁38-39)。新加坡:Mission Press。

 


Nyonya Beadwork and Embroidery –

Transformation and Creativity

Author: Cheah Hwei Fen (Independent art historian)
Image credits: All images are by Cheah Hwei Fen, Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen, Asian Civilisations Museum,
Peranakan Museum, and Don Harper unless specified otherwise.
Editor: Sz Yu, Tian

 

In 1675, a Danish visitor to Banten in north-west Java noted that the Chinese women there made the “most beautiful pearl embroidery and needlework.” (Cortemünde, 1953). 350 years later, Peranakan Chinese beadwork and embroidery continue to captivate us. This article introduces readers to their needlework through a brief look at its history, cultural impact, and preservation.

 

The Peranakan Chinese

Few Chinese women migrated to island Southeast Asia until the second half of the nineteenth century, so the women Cortemünde (a ship’s doctor) described were probably Peranakan or “locally born” daughters of southern Chinese settlers and local women. Over time, small communities of Peranakan Chinese formed in trading towns like Malacca (Melaka) on the coast of Peninsular Malaysia, Palembang and Medan in Sumatra, and Batavia (Jakarta) and Semarang in Java. They maintained their Chinese names, beliefs, and traditions but adopted many local customs.1 Their vernacular was peppered with local terms, and ingredients like belacan (shrimp paste) lent their cuisine a distinct local character. While Peranakan Chinese men (the baba) retained their daily Chinese dress, Peranakan women (the nyonya; figure 1) wore the sarong (an untailored wrap skirt) and baju panjang (long blouse) or kebaya.

Figure 1 An embroiderer. Woodbury and Page photographers, Java, 1870s. Albumen print. Collection Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen. Coll.no.: TM-60003370.

Their evolving identities manifest in their eclectic domestic interiors, dress, and material culture as they responded to their environments while forging a life under colonial (Dutch and British) rulers. Their needlework entwines a respect for their Chinese roots, an appreciation of craft, creativity, and a sense of the times and places in which they lived.

 

Heritage and Innovation in Threads and Beads

With silk floss, gold threads and sequins, minute glass and metal beads, and peacock feathers, the nyonya crafted “exceedingly pretty” needlework with “great ingenuity, skill and originality.” (Vaughan,1879) They embroidered dress accessories (such as collars, cuffs, headdresses, shoulder-pieces, and purses) and furnishings (including valances for doorways and beds, pillow covers, tablecloths, bed covers, curtain ties, and even vases) for celebrations. Needlework slippers were significant items of the bride’s trousseau and as gifts to the groom’s family following Chinese traditions.

Chinese auspicious symbols like dragons, phoenixes, deer, butterflies, rats, lotuses, and gourds dominate nyonya needlework. A multitude of motifs were often crammed together as if to maximise the blessings they conveyed (figure 2). Detailed and miniaturised, they give the works a delicate and refined feel. However, the motifs’ lack of proportion to each other and symmetrical arrangements often lend the designs a naïvety that distinguishes them from Chinese embroidery.

Figure 2 Woman’s belt purse embroidered with raised gold thread and silk thread. Malacca or Singapore, late 19th – early 20th century. Collection of Hall of the Pheonix and Peony, Singapore. Note the bright green peacock feathers around the two qilin and the needle woven edges of the purse. The reverse of the purse (not shown) is also densely embroidered with silk threads.

Daoist mythical symbols and figures appear occasionally. A woman’s ceremonial handkerchief (figure 3) illustrates some charming interpretations. Instead of the usual thinning wisps of hair on either side of his high bald forehead, Shoulao, the God of Longevity, is given two protruding knots of hair that render him incongruously childlike. A grey horseshoe crab at the top of the handkerchief is recognisable by its spiky tail. In Chinese art, it represents marital bonds or filial piety (through the homonym hau in Hokkien). However, it is more aptly interpreted here through the local idioms where the horseshoe crab, known as mimi dan mintuno (which distinguishes male and female crabs) in Java or belangkas in Malay, connotes marital fidelity. In Malacca, where this piece may originate, the bride’s hairdo has a tail at the nape called buntut (tail) belangkas.

Figure 3 Woman’s ceremonial handkerchief embroidered with silk thread. Malacca or Singapore, late 19th century. Collection of the Asian Civilisations Museum, Singapore. This type of handkerchief was used by women and girls with their ceremonial garments. It was suspended from a ring worn on the fourth finger. The embroidery has a padded appearance as the silk was stitched over tiny pieces of cardboard cut in the shapes of the figures.

A beaded plaque made for a medical student at Cambridge University in 1896 by his mother or sisters in Penang is notable for the way in which the nyonya translated imagery. Here, the Emmanuel College crest with the figure of a rampant lion holding a wreath is recast as a Chinese lion. The transformation underscores the creative fluidity that underlies the richly layered identity of nyonya embroidery.

 

Common Threads, Diverse Expressions

Nyonya needlework combined elements inspired by diverse sources. The nyonya’s embroidered boots were modelled on fashionable European ankle boots of the 1880s. Their raised gold embroidery (called tekat timbul in Malay) involved laying a flat gold thread or “gold plate” (known as kelingkam, from the Dutch word klinkant) over thick cord, a technique probably adapted from European ceremonial embroidery. Their dragon and floral designs are familiar Peranakan motifs rooted in Chinese art but often take on a local accent. In the boots illustrated (figure 4), the peonies are stiff and stylised like the Javanese renditions. Worn with a Chinese dress and skirt, boots like these bridged fashion and tradition, innovation and heritage.

Figure 4 Pair of woman’s boots embroidered with raised gold thread. Java, late 19th century. Collection of the Peranakan Museum, Singapore. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Lee Kip Lee.

Women’s embroidered slippers shaped like a truncated “boat” may have been influenced partly by the form of Chinese straw slippers. Red velvet slippers with dainty gold embroidery, similar to the pair shown here (figure 5), were illustrated in a travel journal published in 1829. Although they are generally associated with the nyonya, the author notes that Javanese and Eurasian women, and in particular, nyai or concubines, also wore such footwear (Neueck, 1829). His account reminds us that nyonya needlework was not exclusive to the Peranakan Chinese but part of the broader material culture of luxury that resonated across communities.

Figure 5 Woman’s slippers with raised gold thread embroidery. Indonesia, before 1887. Collection National Museum van Wereldculturen. Coll.no.: TM-A-7092.The basket pattern was widespread in nyonya gold embroideries (compare with figure 2) and is also employed in Malay needlework.

Embroiderers found inspiration in textiles. Sometimes, they imitated batik designs or Chinese brocades in beads and thread. In other instances, they manipulated shared techniques to suit their particular aesthetic. On this handkerchief with an indigo batik design (figure 6) a starkly contrasting, boldly coloured openwork border has been laboriously added. Fine silk threads had to be removed before designs were darned into the remaining threads. Drawn thread embroideries (suji terawang) like this were also popular with Minangkabau people in the West Sumatran highlands, where they may have developed from European drawn work for household linens or from Islamic embroidery. Such overlaps highlight the shared craft traditions of neighbouring cultures.

 

Figure 6 Panel of plaited beadwork. Penang, early 20th century. Collection of the Asian Civilisations Museum, Singapore. Panels like this might have been used as a cover for a pillow or side table.

The Peranakan Chinese also made use of a type of beadwork that was netted or plaited, not stitched (figure 7). It is arguably the most complex of the nyonya “needlework” techniques as the structure is formed with multiple threads linked through tiny beads. Fringes may have been one of the inspirations for netted and plaited beadwork, as that was a frequent function of these pieces. The techniques have only recently been unraveled and although the impetus for nyonya plaited beadwork is unclear, certain variants have suggestive parallels with Chinese beadwork (Hector, 2016).

Figure 7 Silk batik handkerchief embroidered with drawn work. West Sumatra, Indonesia, late 19th – early 20th century. Collection of Don Harper, Georgia, USA.

A few examples of nyonya beadwork and embroidery bear Chinese text. The characters were sometimes illegible – perhaps some were inserted simply to reinforce the nyonya’s Chinese heritage. In the early twentieth century, formal education for girls was gradually accepted. English phrases like “Good Luck” filtered into needlework, reflecting changes in the way embroiderers communicated. Sewing lessons at school probably popularised designs like flower baskets. Books and children’s verses may have inspired embroidered images of puppies, kittens, and swans. From the mid 1930s, even Disney characters were beaded.

Contrary to the widespread perception that beadwork and embroidery was mostly made for personal use, a cottage industry for nyonya needlework thrived and involved both the nyona and non-Peranakans. Christian missionaries encouraged their pupils, including Peranakan girls, to sew for the fund-raising bazaars that supported their schools and orphanages in Singapore, Malacca, and Penang. Advertisements indicate that gold embroidered and beaded slipper panels were exported from Java to Singapore. “Made in China” labels appear on several beaded belts in Chicago’s Field Museum. The belts were probably made for Indonesian Peranakans and the labels highlight China (probably southern China) as another possible place where nyonya needlework may have been produced commercially.2

 

Appreciating Nyonya Needlework, Past and Present

After the early twentieth century, ceremonies were simplified and tastes in dress and decor changed. As a result, the social and symbolic importance of nyonya needlework, especially gold and silk embroideries, diminished. Fashion choices widened and, like the sarong and kebaya, nyonya beaded slippers were seldom worn. Few continued the craft after the middle of the twentieth century.

As families quietly disposed of their embroidered artefacts, those with an eye for beauty began to collect them. Professor Ho Wing Meng’s richly-illustrated “collectors’ guides” published in the 1980s were pivotal in giving a voice to Peranakan decorative arts. His volume on beadwork and embroidery laid the foundation for collectors of the genre (Ho, 1987).

At the same time, museums in Singapore and Malaysia started to exhibit Peranakan material culture, celebrating its “harmonious” cross-cultural aspect.3 When Singapore’s Peranakan Museum opened in 2008, its highlights included splendid examples of nyonya needlework, part of a national collection that had grown in breadth and depth over 30 years of dedicated collecting. In 2016, it held a special exhibition, “Nyonya Needlework: Beadwork and Embroidery in the Peranakan World”, that showcased the art as a diverse and innovative form of cultural and personal expression (Cheah, 2017).

Figure 8 Installation view of the Nyonya Needlework exhibition at the Peranakan Museum, Singapore, June 2016–June 2017. Image courtesy of the Peranakan Museum.

Exhibits were supplemented with private and institutional loans. Of particular note were a number of pieces lent by the National Museum of World Cultures in the Netherlands. They were acquired or accessioned in the 1870s and 1880s, considerably earlier than for other major collections of Peranakan artefacts. These “dateable” nineteenth century examples (for example, figure 5) showed the dynamism and diversity of needlework styles and the experimentation stimulated by the flow of ideas and things across the Peranakan world.

While the exhibition brought a rich trove of historical nyonya beadwork and embroidery into the public eye, contemporary nyonya needlework was not addressed.4 As food for thought, what can we say about this craft today? When interest in Peranakan culture rekindled in the 1990s, a few people enthusiastically took up beadwork although silk thread and gold embroidery remains largely neglected.5 Old pieces are still emulated as a way of recovering forgotten techniques and to pay homage to the past. In doing so, contemporary nyonya needlework risks being straitjacketed by faithful reference to historical artefacts. But if the process of reconstructing techniques and designs also stimulates the embroiderers’ own creative imagination, then perhaps copying the past still has the potential to transform nyonya needlework into a living craft once again.

 

Annotations:

  • The term Peranakan can also refer to other mixed-race or locally-born communities such as the Peranakan Indians and Jawi Peranakans (Indian Muslim Peranakans). In this article, Peranakan will refer to the Peranakan Chinese.
  •  These were part of some 200 items of beadwork, originally thought to be Chinese, donated by an American collector of East Asian art in 1926 and 1936. While evidence for the Chinese production of nyonya (or nyonya-style) beadwork is scanty, the broader category of Chinese export of beadwork is discussed in Valerie Hector, “Mainland Chinese Export Beadwork,” Beads 29 (2017), pp. 59-75.
  • Othman Mohd Yatim & Raiha Mohd Saud (1986). Warisan Baba dan Nyonya di Muzium Negara (p. 1). Kuala Lumpur: Muzium Negara. Yoong, Jackie (2008). Peranakan Art and Culture: A History of the Peranakan Museum, in Peranakan Museum Guide (pp. 16-17), by Randall Ee et al. Singapore: Asian Civilisations Museum.On the National Museum of Singapore’s beadwork and embroidery collection, see Eng-Lee, Seok Chee (1989). Festive Expressions: Nonya Beadwork and Embroidery. Singapore: National Museum. Singapore’s national collection can be searched on roots.sg.
  • But it was acknowledged. A few contemporary works and a video with interviews of embroiderers were included in the educational space. The public programmes for the exhibition involved several local nyonya embroiderers.
  • Bebe Seet from Singapore was one of the most influential. See Seet, Bebe (2009). Peranakan Beadwork: My Heritage. Singapore: Bebe Seet.

 

References:

  • Cheah, Hwei-Fen (2017). Nyonya Needlework. Singapore: Asian Civilisations Museum.
  • Cortemünde, Johan Petri (1953). Dagbog fra en Ostindiefart, 1672-75 [Diary of a Voyage to the East Indies, 1672–75] (edited by Henning Henningsen) ( 133). Helsingør.
  • Hector, Valerie (2016). Bead Netting and Plaiting Techniques in the Peranakan World. Beads 28, pp. 66-91.
  • Ho, Wing Meng (1987). Straits Chinese Beadwork and Embroidery: A Collector’s Guide, Singapore: Times Books.
  • Neueck, Pfyffer zu (1829). Skizzen von der Insel Java [Sketches of the Island of Java] (plate 13, pp. 33, 66). Schaffhausen: Franz Hurter.
  • Vaughan, J. D. (1879). The Manners and Customs of the Chinese of the Straits Settlements (pp. 38-39). Singapore: Mission Press.

 

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