Straits Chinese Gold Jewellery – A Short Book Review
Peranakan culture is often described as a colourful culture. From the juxtaposition of vibrant hues and motifs that adorn the ravishingly beautiful kebayas and kasot manek, to the amalgamation of flavours and aromas from various ethnicities present in the plenitude of dishes both savory and sweet which defines what we know of today as Peranakan cuisine, the Baba-Nyonya heritage has often astound and impress upon many as one which is lavishly extravagant and vivaciously decorated. And speaking of being decorated, one cannot help but be in awe of the exemplary levels of intricacy and craftsmanship found in Peranakan jewellery, especially amongst old antique pieces. From the sanggols (hair pins) to the gelang kakis (anklets), Peranakan ladies in the past, be it the young nyonyas to more matured bibiks were often found “embellished” from head to toe quite literally. Yet so little of it has been documented in printed literature. As such, Nyonya Lilian Tong’s “Straits Chinese Gold Jewellery” is timely, in quenching a thirst long endured since the last publication written on this important aspect of Peranakan material culture. And for those who are unfamiliar with the genre of Straits Chinese jewellery be it in style or form , this book must surely be an eye-opener as well!
The “Straits Chinese Gold Jewellery” showcases the collection of Mr. Peter Soon, an avid and prominent collector of Peranakan artifacts and antiquities. Mostly known as “The Man behind the Pinang Peranakan Mansion” in Penang and more recently, the Straits Chinese Jewellery Museum in Melaka, the book is well represented by the pieces he has amassed over the many years of collecting, most of them heirlooms from Baba families across the Straits Chinese diaspora in Penang, Melaka and Singapore. It is penned by Nyonya Lilian Tong, known otherwise as the “Naughty Nyonya”, a fifth generation Penang Peranakan who is also the esteemed museum director of the Pinang Peranakan Mansion, as well as the Straits Chinese Jewellery Museum of Melaka and Penang. In fact, the book is published to commemorate the 10th year anniversary of the Pinang Peranakan Mansion.
As with many books dedicated to the Baba-Nyonya culture, Nyonya Lilian first explores in her introduction the notion on what it means to be “Straits Chinese” and who they were, lending the historical and anthropological context as well as cultural bearings of this unique group who came into existence in the Malay Archipelago a couple of centuries ago. She then broaches the topic of “Straits Chinese Jewellery” which many deem as the “crowning glory” of Peranakan material culture. The book then goes onto describing and displaying the wedding jewellery of the Peranakans, contrasting between those adorned by the brides of the northern Peranakans in Penang, to their southern counterparts in Melaka (and Singapore）. Special interest is also paid to the baju kahwin (embroidered wedding gowns) worn by the traditional bride, in contrast to the western wedding gown characterised by the heavy use of Victorian lace and embroidery which became progressively fashionable amongst the Peranakans, particularly the anglophiles at the turn of the last century.
What I particularly enjoyed about the book are the historical references made between many of the antique jewellery and the Peranakans of the past who wore similar pieces. Take for example Bibik Lee Cheng Soo, surely a dignified matriarch in her own right as portrayed in the photo above, exuding a deep sense of solemnity. The kerosang bintang (star-shaped brooches） she used to fasten her baju panjang most definitely added on to her majesty, inspiring reverence and admiration. On the right mirrors a similar trio of symmetrical starbursts, set in intans (rose-cut diamonds) and held together with a decorated double-chain rantay. The latter is probably meant for the relatively more recently evolved form of the kebaya instead.
The book systematically takes one through the various elements of Straits Chinese jewellery from the wedding pieces to more day-to-day ornamental ones. The approach is quite thorough, literally from “head to toe” starting from ornamental hair pieces like cucuk sanggol (hair pins) and the anting-anting (dangling earrings), further down to the rantays (chains and necklaces), lockets and pendants, kerosangs, brooches, cincins (rings), tali pinggang (belts), gelang tangan (bracelets and bangles) down to the gelang kaki (anklets).
Noteworthy are also some segments which are traditionally not regarded as jewellery but nonetheless part and parcel of the “beauty care” paraphernalia used by a Nyonya to upkeep her appearance. These would include items like combs and even korek kuping (ear picks)!
As one would have noticed, the dedication on the artwork put into this book is actually quite commendable. The jewellery pieces are beautifully photographed, allowing one to make out the finer details on each piece and often set against a black background for good visual contrast. The accompaniment of old photographs in black and white as well as sepia reflecting age was also done in good taste, lending an artistic flair to the presentation.
The profiling of the jewellery was also very well choreographed, some substantially magnified to occupy the page space significantly and sing solo, while other pages like the one above with the full regalia of pendants in a assortment of designs and motifs being put together creating a different intention to bedazzle and impress.
And the Babas are not forgotten as well. Compared to the Nyonyas, Peranakan men are far less fastidious when it comes to jewellery but their reverie however restricted they might be, is by no means less sparkling and attention-inviting. A large bintang brooch as the one shown in the photo above could very well make a typical jacket and trousers western suit look far more interesting. Otherwise, it could also be pinned onto the hemispherical caps worn by the Babas on their wedding day.
Apart from bintang brooches, rings and pendings (belt buckles), other pieces being put together as part of “baba bling” in this book also includes tie-pins, collar pins as well as time pieces like pocket and fob watches, thought I am not entirely sure if the rest of the Peranakan community and other collectors of Straits Chinese artifacts would agree readily with this means of classification.
On the whole, I find the efforts put into producing such a piece of literature on Straits Chinese jewellery highly commendable. The writing of Nyonya Lilian Tong was particularly lively and fluent, very pleasurable to read. And of course the professionally taken photographs that accompany the text was an added bonus., literally jewels on a crown, with pun intended!
Over the last couple of years, we see a gradual revival of interest in the Straits Chinese culture which brings a sliver of hope for the continuation and perpetuation of Peranakan related practices, be it ritualistic, culinary, down to the day-to-day ways of life. What was once thought to be a dying culture seems to give a new lease of life. There are now numerous interest groups over the internet which help to bring like-minded people from all walks of life and all over the world together to “chakap chakap Peranakan”. The Straits Chinese material culture scene is still pretty much alive, be it over the internet or along famous antiquity streets in Melaka and Penang. That said, one should be very mindful of a surge in the number of replicas and fakes, be it in porcelain or jewellery which have surfaced in recent times to catch the unwary new collector. Seek the guidance and opinion from more experienced collectors whenever possible and when in doubt, do not touch! That said, I too know some veteran collectors who have been spoofed and caught off guard. Seeing (and hearing) is not always believing. “All that glitters is not gold. And even if it is, it may not be old” Caveat emptor.
Publications like this work by Nyonya Lilian which aim at invigorating discussion on Straits Chinese material culture are far and few in between. It is even more so for Straits Chinese jewellery. Dr. Ho Wing Meng’s work on “A Collector’s Guide to Straits Chinese Silver” has a section dedicated to jewellery but not specifically to pieces crafted out of gold. Furthermore, Dr. Ho’s book despite being an epic in this particular genre is in dire need of revision. Mr. Edmund Chin’s “Gilding the Phoenix” was published more than 20 years ago and has long gone out of print. It has since become a collector’s item quite literally, much sought after by folks in pursuit of an interest in Straits Chinese jewellery. As such, Nyonya Lilian Tong’s “Straits Chinese Gold Jewellery” is both apt and timely. In the words of the President of the Singapore Peranakan Association, Baba Peter Wee who penned the book’s foreword, “This book is not only meant for those interested in Peranakan material culture, but is also a legacy for future generations of Peranakans and non-Peranakans alike.”
The “Straits Chinese Gold Jewellery” – Gold Jewellery from the Straits Chinese Jewellery Museum: The Private Collection of Peter Soon will be available at bookstores, as well as the Pinang Peranakan Mansion in Penang and Straits Chinese Jewellery Museum in Melaka by late March 2014. So do keep a look out for it!
NOTE: The photographs used in this blog post are intentionally blurred to protect the intellectual property rights of the original author and publisher. The resolution was also set low with the intention that they cannot be enlarged and magnified without losing details and clarity. Please do not reproduce these photos without permission. Respect the original work and get a copy of it when it becomes available.