I was recently exploring Arab Street with friends and wandered into a store called the Little Shophouse (43 Bussorah Street). I’ve been inside before, but on this day I noticed something particularly beautiful: slippers.
These ain’t no ordinary slippers, and this ain’t no Cinderella story. These slippers are painstakingly crafted, highly treasured and worn for generations by women of the Peranakan community.
Peranakan culture developed during the 15th century as male Chinese immigrants settled in Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia, and married local women. Peranakans (or descendents) of these cross-cultural families historically refer to themselves as Baba-Nyonya, with Baba meaning gentlemen and Nyonya meaning ladies.
Initially, most Peranakan men were traders among the British, Chinese and Malay. As a result, most Peranakan men were multilingual — speaking the languages of their trade partners (i.e. Chinese and English) as well as Baba Malay. Baba Malay is a creole dialect of Malay, unique to Peranakans. It is a dying language, yet some Peranakans are trying to preserve it along with their cuisine, dress and customs.
So… slippers. Here in the shop was a dying Peranakan art in progress, knowledge on display. Irene, the Peranakan shop owner, was arduously stitching a fine tapestry of minute glass beads. The colors and patterns formed an illustration of a woman in a kebaya, holding an umbrella in front of a house. Stretched taught on a piece of white fabric, her creation was a combination of beading (with the tiniest of beads) and cross-stitching. Having done a fair share of both (the latter in sixth grade), I marveled at her perfection and attention to detail.
Irene explained that these beaded half-moon shapes would be cut from the fabric and sewn into slippers as the toe box. The size of the beaded portion of the slippers never changes. If the slipper being made is small, the extra beaded area is gently tucked and concealed inside. If the slipper being made is large, the stitching follows the outline of the beaded area. This allows the slippers to be passed down, re-sized and worn by generations of women in a Peranakan family.
These hand-made slippers aren’t cheap, retailing at the Little Shophouse for $600 SGD and above. But they sure are beautiful and worthy of a place on my shortlist of potential family heirlooms I might someday take away from this endlessly fascinating part of the world.