12 June 2016: Phoenix Rising – Narratives in Nyonya Beadwork from the Straits Settlements

“Nyonya beadwork provides snapshots of the changes in society and culture as the ideas, attitudes, and aspirations of the producers and consumers of beadwork were distilled into these intricately worked items.”

phoenix cvrPhoenix Rising: Narratives in Nyonya Beadwork from the Straits Settlements is an eloquent, well-researched and gorgeously illustrated book by Hwei-Fe’n Cheah. Like a richly painted triptych, the writer describes significant aspects of Nyonya beadwork in three sections: its social role, its development through time and space, and its significance in the present. A short preface introduces the main theme underlying each part. Put them all together, and the book tells you the intriguing story of Nyonya beadwork as a “multifaceted and richly coloured narrative, which, through its very tangible existence, accumulates meaning and connects the present and the past.”

Viewed along the long-established timeline of textile creation in Southeast Asia, Nyonya beadwork is a relatively recent phenomenon, with a significant history that appears to reach back not more than 150 years or so. “Yet, in the course of its comparatively short life, Nyonya beadwork has come to play an important role in the cultural imaginary of the Peranakan Chinese,” says Hwei-Fe’n. The topics covered in the book delve deeply into the past of Peranakan culture and society. They include the motivation and sources for the historical and contextual approach to Nyonya beadwork; the complexities involved in examining Nyonya beadwork from the Straits Settlements; the role of history in the evolution of beadwork; the techniques used in examples of dated and partially dated pieces, and discussions that revolve around culture, gender, modernity, preservation, continuity, and change.

Of particular intrigue is a chapter entitledDomesticated Daughters, Dutiful Wives, where the writer postulates that beadwork was also used as a means to control and to ‘measure’ a Nyonya’s ultimate ‘desirability’ as a wife. The exacting demands of fine needlework – patience, industriousness and artistry – were often translated into wifely virtues. Thus many Nyonyas were taught, from a young age, to craft intricate beaded and embroidered slippers, wallets, purses, belts, children’s shoes, headdresses, collars, ceremonial handkerchiefs and shoulder-pieces. Each tiny bead, made from glass and metal, measures less than 2 millimetres in diameter.

Through the writer’s attempts to explore the manifold meanings of Nyonya beadwork as art, craft and history, she hopes that this book will “contribute towards the wider efforts that seek a deeper and richer understanding of both Peranakan Chinese culture and decorative needlework in Southeast Asia.”

About the author: Hwei-Fe’n Cheah’s Peranakan roots date back to 18th century Malacca.  She studied art history at the Australian National University where she currently teaches Asian art and textile history. She is particularly fascinated by needlework and its infinity of tiny details.

If you find Phoenix Rising fascinating, you may want to also check out Lillian Tong’s Straits Chinese Embroidery & Beadwork and Straits Chinese Gold Jewellery from our online store. Both books showcase the magnificent and valuable collection of Straits Chinese art history, priceless craft, textiles needlecraft and jewellery of the Straits Chinese community.