Nonya needlework is a distinctive form of Peranakan Chinese art, but the embroidery and beadwork of Straits-born Chinese women tell stories beyond those of their own culture.
The new exhibition, Nyonya Needlework, at the Peranakan Museum aims to show this. It features close to 200 items of embroidery and beadwork from Singapore's national collection - the largest collection of Nonya needlework in public hands - as well as some loans from the Rijksmuseum and the National Museum of World Cultures, both in the Netherlands.
The museum's director, Dr Alan Chong, says: "The Peranakans are not just a little community living in the Straits Settlements taking up peculiar cultural habits.
"The Peranakan world is really a blended community that represents the best of South-east Asia where we live in relationship to many cultures and, regardless of our ethnic descent, we adapt the traditions and artforms of others."
Such cross-cultural dialogue is apparent in Nonya beadwork and embroidery.
He says: "Some of the forms are Chinese, some are Malay and many of the materials and techniques are in fact European. But the curators will be the first to concede that sometimes, they don't even know where certain techniques are from; they are a combination of many different things."
VIEW IT /NYONYA NEEDLEWORK: EMBROIDERY AND BEAD WORK IN THE PERANAKAN WORLD
WHERE: Peranakan Museum, 39Armenian Street
WHEN: Till March 26, 10am to 7pm, Sunday to Thursday, 10am to 9pm, Friday
ADMISSION: $10,$4 for Singaporeans and permanent residents
The exhibition's lead curator, Dr Cheah Hwei-Fen, says the "borrowing, copying and translation of methods and designs" from both regional and international textile are what make Peranakan needlework iconic.
She says: "With translation, something is always lost of the original. But in this case, so much more is gained. Nonya needlework evolves into a distinctive form of art and is recognised as part of Peranakan culture."
The exhibition includes immaculately embroidered and beaded decorative hangings and accessories that show how symbols are used to convey auspicious meanings in Peranakan culture, and how Nonya needlework from Java, Malacca, Penang and Singapore differ in style and form. It, however, transcends mere craftsmanship and visual splendour.
Dr Chong says: "These pieces of needlework are important because they represent an openness to other cultures. So rather than to try and pin them specifically to influence or community groups, we should look at them as wonderful examples of how many ideas came together to create something new."
RARE EXAMPLES OF NONYA NEEDLEWORK
1 Eight-panel table screen
Penang, early 20th century
Silk embroidered with silk floss
This eight-panel screen, measuring 42 by 88cm, is modelled on Chinese table screens and is a rare example of Nonya needlework.
It is finely embroidered and was probably a gift or commemorative piece for a patron well versed in Chinese culture. Chinese text, making reference to Taoist deities, is stitched on the panels at the two ends. It is not common for Nonya needlework to feature Chinese script and the length as well as the complexity and legibility of it in this screen make it even more notable.
2 Handkerchief or tray cover
Sumatra Palembang, second-half of 19th century
Silk, metal thread, glass beads and possibly coral
The subdued colour palette of brown, blue and teal green, and the restrained use of gilded thread in this piece of embroidery set it apart from other examples of Nonya needlework, which often come in bejewelled tones.
Its subtle appearance, however, belies the exquisite drawn thread embroidery and creative design, which mimics the pattern of another type of textile - batik. This method of embroidery is not widely associated with Nonya needlework although it was fairly common in Sumatra.
3 Woman's ankle boots
Java, late 19th century
Silk, lametta, metal, sequins, gold, brass, stucco
Nonya needlework in footwear is commonly associated with slippers, but wealthy Nonyas in Java also wore velvet boots with gold embroidery for weddings and on formal occasions.
This pair of boots borrows its form from European women's ankle boots that were in vogue in the 1880s.
Its gilded heels with pin-prick design, however, bear the influence of embroidered velvet slippers with high gold heels that were favoured by Eurasian women in Java at that time. The embroidery technique of lametta couched over a padding of thick cord and gold purl is similar to that of raised gold embroidery from Java.
The wearer of this pair of boots would have made both a fashion statement as well as an assertion of her identity as a sophisticate who dwelt fluidly between cultures.