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Peranakan kebaya maker Raymond Wong: Passion for a dying art brings him world fame

Mr Raymond Wong, who has a bachelor's degree in accounting and finance, taught himself kebaya sewing techniques, after he was turned down by the late kebaya maker Moi Tai Ee. Madam Moi did not want him to waste his life by going into a dying trade.
Mr Raymond Wong, who has a bachelor's degree in accounting and finance, taught himself kebaya sewing techniques, after he was turned down by the late kebaya maker Moi Tai Ee. Madam Moi did not want him to waste his life by going into a dying trade.ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

One of the last few Peranakan kebaya makers here strives to keep the traditional craft alive

His famed nonya kebaya creations have travelled the world.

In Singapore, the President's wife, Mrs Mary Tan, has worn them. In Moscow, models donned them on the fashion runway during the Formula One race events. In South Korea, they were exhibited in the Seoul National Museum.

Mr Raymond Wong's distinct embroidery designs have also made their rounds through diplomatic visits. Last year, for instance, former United States first lady Michelle Obama received a shawl designed by him from Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's wife during a state visit. The wife of Indonesian President Joko Widodo also received an embroidered bag of his creation.

Mr Wong, 37, is believed to be one of the last few commercial Peranakan kebaya makers in Singapore, according to industry experts.

The nonya kebaya from the Peranakan culture is a translucent, figure-hugging blouse that is decorated with embroidered motifs and traditionally paired with a batik sarong skirt.

The baron of this dying craft, surprisingly, has no "shifu" ("master" in Mandarin). When Mr Wong, a third-generation Chinese Peranakan, started out in the trade more than a decade ago, the young man was armed only with an irrelevant piece of paper - a bachelor's in accounting and finance. After returning from his studies in Australia in 2003, he decided to join the well-known Kim Choo family food business as it needed help.

His grandmother is the late matriarch Lee Kim Choo, who is renowned for her kueh chang, or nonya dumplings, that were sold in Joo Chiat Place and East Coast Road.

But he grew restless after helping out with the accounts and paperwork of the business and began toying with the idea of working on the Peranakan crafts of beadwork and embroidery instead.

"I am a crafts person at heart. I did batik art for O levels and have always been fascinated by the effort that goes into these traditional art forms," said Mr Wong.

Still, he knew he needed to start somewhere. So, the fresh graduate went knocking on the door of one of the last few kebaya makers in Singapore, the late Madam Moi Tai Ee, owner of Kim Seng Embroideries in Joo Chiat.

Over a cup of tea, he opened up to her and begged her to teach him. She refused.

"She learnt that I was an accounts and finance graduate and didn't want me to waste it by going into this dying trade. She had a hard life and she didn't think it would be good for me," said Mr Wong.

"I was so sad because if that is the mindset of the older generation of artisans, it is no wonder that the craft is disappearing," he added.

Madam Moi later took in an apprentice when she was in her late 70s - Mr Heath Yeo, 45, one of the remaining kebaya makers - and imparted her skills to him in the last three years of her life.

However, Mr Wong was not derailed by Madam Moi's rejection. He started collecting vintage kebayas and "deconstructed" them in order to unearth their "secrets". By undoing the stitches and seams, he taught himself the sewing techniques in reverse.

He also bought stacks of hand embroidery books to read and consulted some church friends to refine his sewing expertise.

Slowly, he became familiar with the techniques and lexicon of kebaya making, be it kerawang (lacework), kerawang gunting (cutwork), sulam penuh (thread painting embroidery) or sulam biku (embroidered scallop trimmings).

"The next challenge was to be able to do all these on a machine because sewing by hand was too laborious and time consuming," said Mr Wong.

So it came to be that perseverance and a deep love for all things Peranakan motivated Mr Wong to learn the trade from scratch and see it through the years.

And he has earned a name for himself, even among the old practitioners in Malaysia. Well-established kebaya makers - such as the Ang Eng sisters from Kuala Lumpur and Auntie Kim from Penang - paid him a visit to find out who Raymond Wong is.

Today, his boutique shop Rumah Kim Choo in East Coast Road offers a broad range of kebayas, from traditional ones with flower motifs of peonies and orchids, to modern renditions that feature lace, Swarovski crystals and sleeveless halter cuts.

After the Little Nonya drama series was screened in Singapore in 2008 and later in the region, there was renewed interest in the kebaya and sales soared. He sells about 50 kebayas a month, both off the rack and customised ones.

To pass on his knowledge and skills to the younger generation, he also lectures part-time at Lasalle College of the Arts to fashion and textile majors.

Mr Wong's latest innovation on the traditional art form is coming up with a block-cut, or a straighter- cut, kebaya for those who do not want to accentuate their figures.

"We need to stay relevant because fast fashion is killing a lot of traditional brands. We are surviving now because the kebaya has become a memorabilia, but what about the future?" asked Mr Wong.

"If we lose it, it is more than... fashion. It is about losing a part of our history and culture."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 01, 2017, with the headline 'Passion for a dying art brings him world fame'. Print Edition | Subscribe