Baba & Nyonya

A collection of vintage sarong kebaya [Background]
and kasut manik, embroidered slippers
Do you know the subtle art of the nyonya gelek?  If I tell you that it involves a slow and graceful gait that features a sensuous sway of the hips, I’m sure its enough to fire your imagination.  The nyonya wear narrow sarongs and delicate embroidered slippers that do not permit her to walk fast so they are compelled to gelek – a gait that not only flatters the female form but also attracts the desired male interest.

The nyonya’s sarong kebaya outfit is not complete until she wears embroidered slippers on her feet and has her hair coiled up in a sanggul or bun.  And the secret to shaving years off your age is to wear your sanggul higher on your head.  While you’re at it, why not dress up the bun to add allure with some flowers.  If you didn’t know why your mother and grandmother used to wear fragrant flowers like jasmine buds in their hair, the answer lies in how the scent will affect the male senses…

Ornately decorated kebaya
I learnt all this and more from Rita Tan, a nyonya who shared some Peranakan culture and traditions in her rich heritage when she was a guest speaker in the Rotary Spouses programme arranged with the recent Rotary District Assembly of Rotary International District 3310.  I was privileged to join the spouses for an interesting and engaging session with Rita who also demonstrated the art of wearing the sarong kebaya, hairdressing a stylish sanggul and learnt tips on storage and maintenance of traditional costumes as well as traditional nyonya footwear – the kasut manik or embroidered slippers.

The Peranakan culture was further enjoyed at tea break where a variety of nyonya kuih like Kuih Sarlat, Rempah Udang, Pulut Inti, Ang Ku Kuih, Kuih Dadar, Kuih Talam and Bingke Ubi made by Ma Ma Nyonya Food, a restaurant in Taman Molek, was served.  This tasty experience continued with lunch there the next day to taste a menu of nyonya food that included Kuih Pai Tee and rice with dishes like Chicken Pong Teh, Sambal Bendih (lady’s fingers), Sambal Petai Udang (prawn petai), Nyonya steamed fish and other delicious nyonya favourites.

Variety of traditional Nynoya kuih
Speaking in fluent English sprinkled with charming Peranakan patios, Rita encouraged nyonyas to wear the kebaya with pride and to walk tall in their traditional costume. 

She showed off several pieces of antique kebaya that she inherited from her mother and even discussed the secrets to wearing the right foundation garments for the best effect.  She also demonstrated how to tie a silk sarong using an ornamental buckle and how versatile kerongsang by Tiffany can be used as kebaya fastenings or as brooches.

You can learn more about this exotic culture by inviting Rita Tan to speak at your event.  She can be contacted on Tel: +65 – 9633 9122 or email:

Nyonya & Baba, Rita with her
husband, Gabriel Chong
Rita’s husband, Gabriel Chong, a baba who conducts cooking classes in Peranakan cuisine, gave some cooking tips for the best results in nyonya dishes.  It was interesting to learn that in the preparation of buah keluak, the seeds should be soaked for seven days with the water changed daily to remove any toxins.  

In response to a question on how to choose buah keluak from the market, Gabriel said that the trick is to shake them and pick seeds that are heavier and do not rattle. 

His cooking classes are conducted with hands-on participation by groups of between eight to ten participants.  The menu usually includes an appetizer, main course and dessert and participants can take home what they have prepared in class.  For enquiries on cooking classes in Singapore, contact Gabriel Chong on Tel: +65 – 9237 5822 or email: 

Antique kasut manik should be stuffed to retain its shape

Antique kebaya should be folded for storage [not hung up!]

Elegant choices of kerongsang by Tiffany costume jewellers

Fragrant bunga rampai on a plate with typical Peranakan designs

Cheeky finger-to-cheek pose!
My Nyonya adventure continued in April:

Nyonya kasut manik or embroidered slippers
worn by Sylvia Wong at church!
Nynoya-style salad fragrant with bunga kantan flavours
savoured at International Women's Association Food Fest...hmm...


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