Hoarding can be a good habit especially if one’s career is dependent on studying the hoards of others. I found these beautiful 1960s-70s Nyonya kebaya blouses on my last research trip back to Singapore. They belonged to my late grandmother – whom my doctoral thesis is dedicated to. My paper on the Peranakan Matriach presented at the 26th Baba Nyonya Convention in Kuala Lumpur last November is also in her memory. (The fuchsia pink kebaya on extreme left was specially made by the talented Nyonya Joyce at J Manik boutique in Malacca for the convention)
My grandparents were survivors of the Japanese Occupation and raised a family of six daughters and two sons. Gone were the days of extravagance and excess of the colonial days. My grandfather pampered himself with a Ford (not the one below), and my Mama, kebayas. Fair enough.
Although the family lived simply and frugally, Mama had a kebaya for every occasion – but never to excess.
White was usually worn during mourning (paired with a blue sarong – Toa Ha Biru). However my grandmother wore a white lace kebaya for her baptism in the late 1970s at the Church of St Stephen in Singapore. For years, I have been using this kebaya as a teaching aid, telling my students that this was worn during mourning. I guess that needs to be revised!
The dark turquoise kebaya (extreme right of the first image) had a rather memorable provenance. According to my eldest aunt, my grandmother would only wear this kebaya on the weekly Sunday trips to the wet market. I still have fond memories of those weekly trips to the wet market (this was before health and safety regulations required butchers to have air conditioned fridges). The entire family would be mobilised for this mission. I marvelled at how my grandmother managed to traverse the treacherous market grounds with ease even in her dainty kasut manek (beaded slippers). The typical wet market in 1990s Singapore is probably better described as an abattoir: the cacophony of variety of dialects, the various odours and scents of spice and mice – now, a thing of the past. As the turquoise kebaya was her darkest coloured blouse, Mama would not have to worry about being distracted as she fished out the freshest choicest catch, prodding at as many bloodied freshly gutted fish as she haggled with not only the fishmonger but also other kiasu bibiks.
Mama was always impeccably dressed, even in her final years, always looking nothing less than mas sepuloh (twenty four carat gold). I don’t think I have ever seen her dressed in anything but the Nyonya sarong kebaya (except for the photograph below where she is dressed in what looks like a cheong sam!).
Her face perfectly powdered with bedak sejuk (rice face powder) and not a crease was permitted on her batik sarong. According to Low Jui Lat in her 2013 article ‘The ‘Lecheyness of a Divine Culture’ (Suara Baba: 2013), ‘an incorrectly worn sarong, described as a ‘thor chik’ (tongue out), which meant that the inside layer is inappropriately outwardly displayed.’ A metaphor To her it was not vanity, but a mark of halus (to be refined). I always thought her words to be rather harsh and judgemental, i thought wrong. She used to single out undesirable (female) examples whist we watched TV, shaking her finger and mumbling to herself, “Itupa! Tengok dia mia grenyeh-granyah sua tau dia tak seronoh mia orang!” (Look at her unbecoming behaviour, surely she is improper). She would reprimand my tomboyish behaviour, saying, “Budak jangan gedebak gedebong! Prompuan mesti seronoh!” However, she always warned me of the deceptive appearances, “jangan lu ingat dia orang ada ada, baniak suit, selalu ni orang ho kia bo ho jiak” (Don’t be fooled by wealth, all that glitters is not gold)
To be seronoh (proper) was the hallmarks of a lady. She always believed that the work of a woman’s hands is reflective of her character, be it cooking a meal or raising her children. “Embok-embok mia kreja alus sama seronoh” (The Nyonya’s workmanship is reputed to be fine and proper). Once established, everything else would fall into place.
“Hidup di dune kalu ada bikin baik, selalu nanti orang chakap harimau mati tinggalkan belang, orang mati tingallkan nama.”
If in life one has performed good deeds, one will be remembered with the saying that ‘the deeds a good man does will be remembered long after his death’.
– Quotes from William Gwee, Mas Sepuloh: Baba Conversational Gems, Singapore: 1993, pp.13