Nyonya embroidery: The decline of Malaysia’s best symbol of multicultural harmony

Nyonya embroidery: The decline of Malaysia’s best symbol of multicultural harmony

AMONG ethnologist Dr David Neo’s many prized possessions of Peranakan Baba Nyonya heritage is his collection of Nyonya embroidery.

His living room itself looks like a museum set of Baba Nyonya heritage pieces such as a lacquered long chair inlaid with a mother-of-pearl, screen and lanterns. On the table lies his collection of kebaya and handkerchiefs, replete with Nyonya embroidery, as well as design tracings from the 1950s.

Intricate embroidery adorns the kebaya and handkerchiefs – some of the designs are simple and others more complicated.

“So you can see the ‘sulaman’ (embroidery) and how ‘halus’ (fine) it is. It’s very old and it’s not like the ones you get today, which is very generic,” he told Bernama, tracing the embroidery on a piece of kebaya with his finger.

The kebaya, he added, was about 100 years old.

ethnologist Dr David Neo’s many prized possessions of Peranakan Baba Nyonya heritage is his collection of Nyonya embroidery. – via BERNAMA

Neo, who is an associate fellow at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia’s Institute of Ethnic Studies, is passionate about Nyonya embroidery, with fond memories of seeing Nyonya ladies wearing their embroidered kebaya when he was a child.

Other than its aesthetic value, the Nyonya embroidery was also a status symbol in the Baba Nyonya community and played an important role in society. In fact, said Neo, prospective in-laws would judge the suitability of a potential daughter-in-law based on her embroidery.

What he loves about the traditional Nyonya embroidery is how the colours seem to blend into each other seamlessly and represent aspects of other cultures in Malaysia that his ancestors came in contact with and adopted.

“Peranakan is an example of multicultural harmony,” he said, himself a 10th-generation Baba Nyonya from Melaka and Singapore.

It now saddens him to see how the beloved embroidery is less likely to be handcrafted and more likely to be mass-produced, feeling like it has largely lost what made the embroidery unique.

Declining art

The Baba Nyonya or Straits Chinese culture is a mix of the Chinese culture brought from China and the local culture in Malaya and elsewhere in Southeast Asia where the Chinese settled. They were also influenced by the cultures of European countries during the colonisation era.

For example, peonies and goldfish, which are popular motifs in Nyonya embroidery, are Chinese-influenced, while the floral motifs are Malay-influenced and roses British.

In a way, the embroidery, which is one of the most visible and well-known aspects of the Baba Nyonya culture, is emblematic of Malaysia’s multicultural experience.

“It is very ‘muhibbah’ (coexisting harmoniously),” agreed Lilian Tong, president of Persatuan Peranakan Baba Nyonya Pulau Pinang.

Despite the importance of Nyonya embroidery to Malaysia’s cultural heritage, most experts and advocates consider it a dying traditional art.

One reason is that the artisans concerned are getting older and their hands are becoming less agile and their eyes less sharp, and they are unable to find anyone to pass on their art.

Another is the lack of payoff as embroidery is very labour and time intensive. The embroidery is done with a needle in a hoop and using an old pedal sewing machine to embroider by running the cloth back and forth, a method called sulam goyang. Amid colourful depictions of flowers and butterflies to dragons, lattice-like filigrees crisscross and connect the images.

“These people are working. Like me, I cannot devote myself to making the embroidery even though I can embroider,” said Tong.

Embroiderers Bernama talked to said a piece of traditionally handcrafted embroidery costs between RM2,000 and RM5,000, depending on the complexity of the artwork, which can take months to produce.

They also said the art requires passion, to make the hard work for relatively low pay worth it.

To prevent further decline of the art, the government has initiated several programmes to encourage artisans to develop the skill and to preserve and promote the art.

Nurlaili Mohamad Mohed, director of the Craft Conservation Section at the Malaysian Handicraft Development Corporation (Kraftangan Malaysia), said the agency has acknowledged experts in Nyonya embroidery as well as trained a new craft community to preserve this heritage craft.

She added it also appointed Lim Swee Kim as the Nyonya embroidery craft master in 2006 to train a new generation of experts. Fondly known as Auntie Kim, Lim passed away in 2014. To date, no one has been appointed to fill her shoes.

Embroiderers said a piece of traditionally handcrafted embroidery costs between RM2,000 and RM5,000, depending on the complexity of the artwork, which can take months to produce. – via BERNAMA

Living on

The passing of Lim encapsulates the issue at hand: how do you ensure the continuous survival of the art?
Although she managed to train several new embroiderers, such as Yuliana Erya Surya of Arsyila Balqis Fashion, who are carrying on the art form, there is always a concern that no one from the next generation is willing to pick it up.

Yuliana agrees that despite Kraftangan Malaysia’s efforts, handcrafted Nyonya embroidery is a dying art.

“Not many do Nyonya embroidery anymore. There are plenty of fans but not enough makers,” said Yuliana, who hails from Johor.

Only 46 years old, she is already worried about who she can pass on her knowledge to and who would be willing to continue the art. She hopes to pass on her knowledge to her daughter who is currently six years old.

She also said for the art to survive, it needs to expand and not restrict itself to one culture.

“I don’t care who takes it up, be it a Malay or Chinese, I don’t care. As long as they like to embroider, anyone is welcome to try,” she said.

“The important thing is that they must be passionate about it or else the heritage will disappear. No one wants to do it,” her husband Razali Shariff piped in. He helps make the filigree in her embroidery.

Tong agreed, saying refusing to grow and adapt was against the spirit of the Baba Nyonya culture. She said the practice of Nyonya embroidery in Malaysia can be too rigid, stifling creativity.

“If the Baba Nyonya had not moved out of anything, you know what they’d be wearing? They’d still be wearing baju panjang (instead of kebaya Nyonya),” she said. Baju panjang is a long and loose-fitting tunic, similar to baju kurung, worn over a sarong and fastened with three brooches or kerosang.

— BERNAMA

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