Kebayas were worn by nyonyas from the different ‘Peranakan’ communities, Malay and Indonesian ladies. The Thai ‘Baba’ ladies from Phuket Island in southern Thailand and the surrounding areas also wore them because of the Penang influence. Today, it is no longer exclusive to these communities.
I believe nyonya kebayas evolved from either the kebaya panjang or white blouses worn by Indonesian Dutch ladies during the colonial rule. After all, most traditional ladies’ attire from the East…. the Japanese kimonos, Korean hanboks and Chinese robes were long flowing dresses with simple overlapping front openings.
My paternal great, great grandmother was photographed in a beautiful Chinese silk hand embroidered robe on her 81st birthday in the late 1920s. She wore it with a long skirt. She was a typical Penang born nyonya, sanggul and all.On less formal occasions, she and her daughters and later her granddaughters (one was my paternal grandmother) wore the kebaya panjang/”t’ng sar“(Penang Hokkien for long blouse), a style very similar to her richly embroidered garment. These were simple, below the knee length robes worn over white short blouses/”tay sar” (Penang Hokkien for short blouse). They were paired with Indonesia batik sarongs. On a daily basis, nyonyas wore these short white blouses at home and would wear the kebaya panjang over them when they go out.
Fabrics used for kebaya panjang then were cotton Javanese batiks with small patterns or cotton chequered weave. Transparent printed organdie and voile were later used. These printed floral fabrics were imported from Europe and India. Penang nyonyas also wore kebaya panjang made from pastel coloured organdie fabrics with delicate white factory embroidery in an overall pattern.
The Indonesian Dutch ladies wore white blouses over their batik sarongs. They appliquéd lace trims which were later further enhanced with embroidery. The local Indonesian ladies and those from the Chinese community adopted these blouses as their own. After all, they were producing those beautiful batiks in districts such as Pekalongan, Cirebon, Lasem and Kedungwuni.
I believe nyonya kebayas evolved from these. Our local young nyonyas shortened the long kebaya panjang and called them “pua t’ng tay” (Penang Hokkien for ‘half way between long and short’) The rest is history.
There were no “poor” nyonyas then. To be considered a nyonya means you had “arrived”. Traditional kebaya makers were not nyonyas. Embroidered kebayas were specially commissioned by nyonyas who could afford to pay others for this labour intensive skill. Most were either Indonesians from Medan, Sumatra or Javanese from Bandung. The local Chinese also distinguished themselves as master embroiderers, probably from skills they inherited from mainland China and adapted to the requirements of a kebaya. Some nyonya maidens later picked up the skill of machine embroidery to pass time. Singer Sewing Machine Company conducted sewing and embroidery classes to promote its sales of sewing machines.
Today, local master kebaya makers are a dying breed. The ladies of Indonesian origins have retired or simply vanished. As a child, I followed my mother to her kebaya maker on Macalister Lane, Penang. This wonderful Indonesian lady from Medan had many young Chinese girls doing all the beautiful embroidery work. Age has caught up with the very few remaining Chinese in this trade. Mr. Yeap, a Penang kebaya designer died more than 4 years ago. He and his late wife were a team. While he designed the different motifs, she and her team of embroiderers produced the beautiful kebayas. She took customers’ measurements, drafted, cut, transferred motifs and embroidered… basically transformed plain fabrics into works of art. She not only produced these beautiful garments, she taught the skill to others and many have benefited. I have inherited kebayas from her little workshop and others started kebaya businesses of their own. The skill is still being practiced by her descendants.
Kebaya making is more a team effort now. Very few are skilled in the whole package. Some can just embroider while others can only pattern draft. While I have learnt the basics of machine embroidery for the kebaya motifs, I am a seamstress of Indonesian embroidered kebaya fabrics. Together with my team, we have produced many nyonya kebayas that have graced weddings, graduations, parties, grand dinners, annual company celebrations, corporate functions, special themed affairs, multi cultural ceremonies, gala openings and conventions. I wear them often simply to keep my tradition and heritage alive.