Lily Yew

Lily Yew: The Last Tailor? This interview documents the changing experiences of Straits Chinese identity by one of the last Straits Chinese tailors living in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia – Lily Yew.

The Straits Chinese or Peranakan Chinese have been in Southeast Asia since the 15th century. Peranakan is a Malay word that translates as ‘person born here, descended from elsewhere’. It is used to describe several communities in Southeast Asia whose descendants married into indigenous populations and have since developed their own distinct cultures and languages.

The Peranakan Chinese, as distinct from other Peranakan communities, migrated from Mainland China’s southern provinces and settled in ports in the Dutch East Indies, Thailand, the Philippines, and the colonial British territories known as the Straits Settlements that now form part of Malaysia and Singapore. These latter populations who lived in ports along the Straits are also known specifically as the Straits Chinese.

Culturally, linguistically, and economically they are distinct from other Peranakan Chinese communities such as the Chetti or Indian Peranakans whose descendants travelled from Tamil Nadu, or the Kristang Peranakans who are descended from Portuguese colonialists.

Straits Chinese communities were multilingual, often able to speak Malay, English, a Southern Chinese languages such as Hokkien or Hakka, as well as a Malay-Chinese creole particular to the local population. During the European colonial occupation of Southeast Asia, the Straits Chinese rose to prominence as businessmen acting as middlemen between local, Chinese, and colonialist traders. Their economic and social status reached its height during British rule in the Straits when many Straits Chinese men, known as Babas, rose to prominence taking jobs as civil servants in the British administration.

Straits Chinese culture is usually described as hybrid or multicultural but these terms often have a flattening effect by failing what is looking at what is actually being mixed. When we actually look at specific aspects of Straits Chinese culture such as clothing, we begin to see the many different influences which are brought together to create something unique and new. The rise of independent nations in Southeast Asia – Indonesia in 1945, Malaysia in 1957, and Singapore in 1965, saw many influential elements of Straits Chinese culture subsumed into nationalist narratives of identity. Today, Straits Chinese culture is often taken to be a historic phenomenon and the object of preservation rather than practice.

One of the most recognizable aspects of Straits Chinese culture is Nyonya clothing. Straits Chinese women, known as Nyonyas, traditionally wear a Sarong Kabaya for both informal and formal events. The sarong [hover over video footage of Lily Yew demonstrating how to fold], which in Straits Chinese culture, is folded in a very particular way, and is also worn by Babas but only in privacy of the home. The kabaya is a lace jacket fastened by a brooch known as a kerosang.

The sarong kabaya is now usually only worn by Nyonyas for family celebrations or formal events, most of which have been inherited from previous generations because the tradition of Peranakan tailoring is dying out. Though the preservation of Straits Chinese culture has transformed it into an object of the past – best suited for museums, exhibitions, or special events – Straits Chinese culture is still alive and kicking in across Southeast Asia though we have to look a little harder to find what this really means today.

Lily Yew’s stories – concerned, as much with the past as the future – is a glimpse into what it means to live as a modern Nyonya.