Family keeps nyonya kebaya heritage alive

The passage of time has not worn away the appeal of the nyonya kebaya — a part of Peranakan Chinese culture — and women today continue to be drawn to its classic and timeless beauty


FOCUSING intently on the embroidery pattern she was drawing on a sheet of oil paper, Emmy Sahar’s mind suddenly drifted to the distant past when she and her siblings used to play at their mother’s boutique that specialised in stitching the exquisite nyonya kebaya.

Ezrizikri showing the sketch pattern to be sewn on the nyonya kebaya at Toko Ce Rose boutique

The late Roslalainy Marhum had opened her Toko Ce Rose boutique way back in 1959 on Jalan Laksamana in Melaka, which is now part of Melaka’s historical quarter. 

Roslalainy’s fee for stitching a pair of nyonya kebaya was about five dollars (as the ringgit was known then) and she had a steady stream of customers from the Baba Nyonya or Peranakan, Portuguese, Chetti and Malabar (people from the Malabar coast on the southwest coast of India), as well Indian and Chinese communities.

Today, Toko Ce Rose still stands proudly, with Emmy, 62, having taken over the business and perpetuating the nyonya kebaya heritage left behind by her mother.

“When I was a little girl, many a time I sat beside my mother and observed how she drew the flora- and fauna-inspired patterns for her kebaya tops. She was so meticulous, perseverant and diligent,” recalled Emmy.

Symbol of Unity
The passage of time has not worn away the appeal of the nyonya kebaya — a part of Peranakan Chinese culture — and women today continue to be drawn to its classic and timeless beauty.

Paired with a batik sarung and appropriate accessories, the figure-hugging embroidered nyonya kebaya — usually sewn from soft, sheer fabric — certainly makes the wearer look more graceful and alluring.

Miss Melaka Kebaya 2019 Noor Sheryl Aida Mohd Ropian (left) and Mrs Melaka Kebaya 2019 Nur Shafira Mohamad Dahlan posing with their nyonya kebaya in Ayer Keroh in September. Paired with a batik sarung and appropriate accessories, the figure hugging embroidered nyonya kebaya certainly makes the wearer look more graceful and alluring

“Although the Malays, Chinese, Indians, Portuguese and Malabaris have their own traditional costumes, the nyonya kebaya still remains their choice as it can be worn not only during festivals, but also when attending weddings, engagements or dinners. In fact, it can also be worn daily.

“This proves that the nyonya kebaya is a symbol of unity. Any woman, regardless of race, can wear it. The easiest way for us to appreciate one another is by wearing the costumes of other races,” Emmy told Bernama in an interview recently.

Assisted by her youngest son Ezrizikri Kamarazaman, 31, and 60 tailors who have more than 100 embroidery designs in their collection depicting flora, fauna, geometrical and abstract motifs, Emmy said her boutique offers both ready-to-wear and made-to-order kebaya pieces.

She receives a lot of orders during festive seasons and the school holidays, and her customers comprise people from all over Malaysia and even China, Singapore, Indonesia, Brunei, Japan and the US.

Emmy said she has been exposed to the Baba Nyonya culture since she was two years old as many Peranakans, who spoke Bahasa Melayu fluently and practised Malay customs, resided in the neighbourhood in Bandar Hilir where she lived with her mother and grandmother.

“My late mother had many friends from the Baba Nyonya community. When she was about 23, she started getting orders from her close friends to sew the (traditional) costumes worn by the (Peranakan) men and women. Later, her clientele expanded because many people were satisfied with her stitching,” she said.

Keen Interest in Embroidery
This single mother of three said her interest in the art of embroidery deepened after her mother taught her to draw embroidery designs when she was still very young.

Emmy (second from left) and Ezrizikri attending a customer at their boutique

“When I was in my teens, I started helping my mother (at her boutique). I started by learning to do scallop embroidery and then went on to do bigger things like cutwork and motif embroidery,” she said, adding that her 60-year-old boutique’s nyonya kebaya collection features both handmade and machine made embroidery.

Customers can have their nyonya kebaya sewn from either Japanese rubia gauze fabric or Swiss voile fabric.

The kebaya feauturing,handmade embroidery is, naturally, of higher quality and takes six to eight months to complete, with the price ranging from RM1,000 to RM4,500.

“Those that are embroidered using the electric sewing machine take only a week to complete and are priced at between RM100 and RM300.

“It takes less time to embroider a nyonya kebaya using an electric machine because only three types of coloured thread are used. In the case of embroidery done by hand, we use 21 types of coloured thread that are interchanged to create a more vibrant pattern,” explained Emmy, adding that her Toko Ce Rose boutique has targeted sales of RM100,000 by the end of this year.

Third Generation
To keep the family heritage going, Emmy has “transferred” her skills and knowledge to her three children who are now well versed in embroidery works right up to sewing the entire kebaya.

“Every year, my children and I would prepare embroidery patterns by drawing on A4 sized oil paper first and then on the rubia gauze fabric. We need to make sure that the patterns we create are different from one another,” she said.

Emmy (right) explaining the embroideries for the nyonya kebaya to the visitor

Ezrizikri, who has been involved in creating embroidery designs since he was 10, said he counts himself lucky to have been born into a family of embroidery artisans who are also skilled in nyonya kebaya.

“The art of embroidery is fading because not many people have knowledge of embroidery. I will pass this knowledge to my children and grandchildren, so that it doesn’t disappear altogether over time. Even if they are not interested, we must hone their talent in order to perpetuate our legacy,” said Ezrizikri, who has a degree in electrical and electronic engineering and whose sister Ezriawiwin, 39, and brother Ezwandi, 35, also help out with the family business.

Nursuhaizah Ahmad, 28, a private-sector employee, is a fan of Toko Ce Rose boutique as she is smitten with their delicate and beautifully embroidered designs.

“Their kebaya may be pricey, but it is worth the price as these days it is quite difficult to find nyonya kebaya featuring handmade embroidery,” she said.

Ng Hui Yen, 22, who studies at a private college, is also fond of the nyonya kebaya and has 10 pieces in her wardrobe.

“I was in secondary school when I started admiring women wearing the Peranakan costume. My festive celebrations are now incomplete if I don’t wear the kebaya and, furthermore, it is part of a cultural heritage that should be preserved,” said Ng, who likes to pair her kebaya top with pants.

Asma Mansor, 55, who is from Perlis and boasts a collection of more than 10 pairs of nyonya kebaya, said she likes to wear the kebaya top with a sarung featuring fan pleats.

“In terms of design, there are not many differences between the kebaya worn a long time ago and those worn these days. It is a beautiful attire and is never out of date,” she added. — Bernama