Penang’s vibrant Nyonya ‘kebaya’ continues to draw visitors


Cecelia (right) helps Ong with the fit of her Nyonya ‘kebaya’. — Malay Mail photo

GEORGE TOWN (April 24): Within the narrow confines of a shoplot in Prangin Mall, Cecelia Lim is busy attending to a customer.

She picks up swatches of multicoloured sarong material and holds it up against the waist of the teenage girl clad in a bright embroidered Nyonya kebaya top and shorts.

“This goes very well with the kebaya top,” Lim said.

Lim herself is clad in a red elaborately embroidered Nyonya kebaya paired with a matching multicoloured batik sarong.

She pulls out another sarong for the girl to consider while the girl’s mother and sister are busily selecting several kebaya tops from the racks to try.

“You choose the top first and I will find the matching sarong for you,” Lim reminds them.

Lim’s shop, named County Fair, is chock full of racks of vibrant and elaborately embroidered kebayas of every colour possible, the signature of a Penang-style Nyonya kebaya.

“The Nyonya kebaya has to be bright and colourful with busy and loud embroidery that captures the eye the moment the wearer walks into a room,” said Lim.

The 68-year-old comes from a long line of Baba Nyonya, or Peranakan Chinese, and naturally, inherited the Nyonya kebaya embroidery skills from her Nyonya grandmother and mother.

Lim started her shop back in 1987 but at that time, other than the Nyonya kebaya, she also made evening gowns, cheongsams, baju kurung, the Malay kebaya, the kebaya panjang and bespoke dresses.

She said the Nyonya kebaya was not very popular at that time so she had to offer other options.

Thanks to the Singapore series ‘The Little Nyonya’ which was released in 2008, there was a small cultural revival of the Peranakan Chinese in Penang, Melaka and Singapore.

This translated to a surge in popularity of the Nyonya kebaya, especially among Singaporeans, many of whom made a beeline to Penang to order their own sets of Nyonya kebaya.

“I have been getting many Singaporean customers,” Lim said.

Incidentally, the customers she was serving the day we visited were from Singapore. Sharon Ong and her family were in Penang for an immersive trip into the Peranakan culture here.

They had decided to stop at Lim’s shop on the last day of their trip, right before their flight home.

Ong, who comes from a Peranakan family with roots in Melaka, said her daughters wanted their own sets of Nyonya kebaya too.

“There are very few Nyonya kebaya designers in Singapore and the designs aren’t as creative and colourful as the ones here,” she said.

She said they will be wearing their Nyonya kebayas for special occasions such as wedding dinners.

“I hope I can get mine in time for my birthday,” she said.

Lim had earlier helped them choose their own kebaya and sarong sets before taking their measurements so that she can alter the kebaya sets to fit them.

“The kebaya and sarong must fit according to the body of the wearer,” she said.

Due to the increasing number of Singaporean customers, she makes trips to Singapore to deliver the kebayas to her customers.

“I must make sure it fits them perfectly so I will personally deliver to them, let them try again and if it doesn’t fit well, I will alter it there, I don’t compromise on this, this is why customers keep coming back,” she said.

Lim’s Nyonya kebaya designs are so popular that she has even received offers to set up shop in Singapore.

She is also making an entry into the Australian market soon as her daughter, who lives there, will be setting up an online store for her.

“My daughter is part of a Peranakan community who lives in Australia and they are interested in my kebayas, so she is helping me set up an online store,” she said.

Lim designs the embroidery for all of her Nyonya kebayas, mostly of flowers, birds and fish, and has a team of embroiderers — including her aunt — work on them.

“Sometimes I embroider it myself when I have the time,” she said.

Lim’s flourishing Nyonya kebaya business today reminds one of the once thriving Nyonya kebaya and tailoring industry in Penang a century ago.

At the turn of the 20th century, rich Peranakan families from the region, namely Singapore, Southern Thailand and Indonesia, made trips to Penang to shop for kebayas.

“My grand uncle owned a large tailoring business at that time with a team of 30 to 40 tailors between 1910 and 1920,” said Kenny Loh of Kenny Loh Couture.

He said Penang was a hub for the Nyonya kebaya at the height of the industry right before it all came to a halt during World War II.

After the war, the tailoring industry gradually picked up again and that was when Nyonya Lim Geok Mui set up the Chew Chew Girls Dressmaking and Tailoring School in 1953.

In this undated photo, Geok Mui (standing, third right) is seen with her students at her tailoring school. — Photo courtesy of Susan Tan

Geok Mui’s daughter Susan Tan said her mother came from Padang, Indonesia and had learnt her Nyonya kebaya embroidery skills in Indonesia.

She said her father would travel to Indonesia and bring back Nyonya kebaya embroidery designs drawn on stacks of tracing paper.

“My siblings and I would spend our time tracing out the embroidery designs on more tracing paper every day after school,” she said.

She said her mother also sold those embroidery designs to Penang Nyonyas who made their own kebayas.

“She taught a lot of women and young girls the skill of dressmaking, and this included the Shanghai dress which was trendy at that time,” she said.

Apart from teaching, Geok Mui would sew custom-made dresses and kebayas for customers too.

Tan said her mother could skilfully ‘shake’ the embroidery pattern on her sewing machine.

The term ‘shake’ (often described in Hokkien as ‘chek’) describes the fast-paced movements of the hands when embroidering a kebaya using a manual sewing machine.

The practice of embroidering the Nyonya kebaya using the manual sewing machine started in the 20th century while hand-embroidery was practised in the 19th century before the manual sewing machine was introduced.

Till today, Nyonya kebaya embroidery can only be done on a manual sewing machine to achieve the elaborate and fine embroidery designs.

Geok Mui continued to make dresses and Nyonya kebayas while teaching till the 1970s before she retired.

Ironically, she did not hand down any of her skills to her daughters.

“She always told us that it is better that we get an education and get a career, she said sewing is hard labour and didn’t want us to go into this business,” Tan said.

Geok Mui was an active figure in the Penang Peranakan community and participated in many of the State Chinese Association of Penang’s events before she died in 2019 aged 99. – Malay Mail