The Straits Chinese
The existence of a Chinese-Malay sub-culture, now nearly extinct, is little known in the West.
Philip Courtenay, Friday, 1st October 2010
The single most important border decoration of Nonya ware – commanding a place as central as that accorded to the pheonix and peony flower – comprises the Eight Auspicious Symbols (Ashtamangala) of Buddhism: the Wheel of Law, Conch, Umbrella, Victory Banner, Lotus Flower, Treasure Vase, paired Golden Fish and Endless Knot. These motifs are likewise often found on Ming and later Chinese ceramics. In addition to dinner services, examples of Nonya ware include components of the bride’s toilet – water basins, soap dishes, covered boxes, cosmetic bowls – as well as flower vases, water containers, food-carriers, goldfish bowls and pillows. The kamcheng (covered jar), for example, although variously employed as a container for water, saffron rice, pickles and other everyday consumables, was used especially as a receptacle for the sweetmeats that helped sustain the bride and groom throughout the days of their wedding celebrations.
The symbolism and design of Nonya porcelain, however extravagant for some tastes, may be distinctly Chinese, but regional eclecticism is also evident in a small variety of porcelain items that do not feature among the traditional Chinese repertoire – in particular, egg-cups, soap dishes (Fig. 8) and European-style tea sets (complete with teapot, cups with handles, saucers and milk jugs). An example of the latter, dating from the late 1920s, has been described as an ‘unhappy combination’.12 In 1976, Ho Wing Meng wrote: ‘The works of Chinese silversmiths of the former Straits Settlements...are largely unknown to many people...including collectors of the arts and crafts of Malaysia and Singapore; outside these countries, Straits Chinese silverworks are probably not even heard of.’13 This statement has certainly become less true in the decades since it was written, during which the stylistically distinctive silver (and gold) artefacts of the Baba-Nonya community have become, like Nonya ware, increasingly sought-after by collectors, with prices rising as a consequence.
During the 19th century, Chinese silver-smiths turned out a vast quantity of work – especially for Nonya, who cultivated a taste for small, finely crafted luxury articles. As a rule, these items – such as bolster pillow plates, curtain hooks, betel nut receptacles, large buckles and intricate jewellery – are essentially Malay in form; once again, their decoration is distinguished by the use of traditional Chinese motifs in place of Malay floral designs. The silversmiths were either Hokkien or Teochew immigrants or local non-Baba Chinese who acquired their expertise from master craftsmen hailing from south China’s Fujian province. Straits Chinese silvercraft was a robust industry until the 1930s, with some work still being undertaken even after the Second World War. Alas, untold quantities of it have been melted down over the years to recover their bullion value. Straits Chinese women enjoyed conspicuous, daily displays of family wealth, not least through adorning their hair, ears, necks, chests, waists, arms, fingers and ankles with jewellery. Indeed, Khoo describes Nonya on festive occasions as ‘bedecked from head to toe like a Christmas tree.’14 This jewellery also served, in place of independent earning power, as a form of personal social security.
Nonya jewellery was manufactured from either gold or silver, the former sometimes alloyed with copper and the latter sometimes adulterated with nickel. The three most common techniques employed in the decoration of the metal were repoussé, granulation and filigree. Diamonds were the most favoured precious stones (Fig. 5), with rubies, emeralds and sapphires also popular among wealthier families. Box and open-back (à jour) settings were frequently employed, the latter to allow light through the stone and maximise the impact of its colour. For more everyday ornamentation, semi-precious and colourless stones were generally used. The general forms of Nonya jewellery were typically inspired by old Javanese styles. As with almost every other aspect of Baba-Nonya material culture, however, traditional Chinese motifs were used as decorations and symbols. The inclusion of anklets in the personal jewellery of Nonya distinguished them from their other Chinese compatriots, reflecting Malay and possibly Indian influences. (The likelihood of an Indian influence is reinforced by the frequent appearance of peacocks as decorations on these anklets’ terminals.)
In contrast to Europe, and likewise Hong Kong and Shanghai from the later decades of the 19th century, Straits Chinese gold and silver work was never stamped to indicate purity, place of origin or year of manufacture. It is therefore difficult to determine the precise age of individual items of Nonya jewellery. Nevertheless, it is not unreasonable to date most of them to the late 19th and early 20th centuries, during the heyday of Britain’s colonial economy and the prosperity of the Straits Chinese alike. Photographs of Nonya from that period wearing items of jewellery help to confirm this conclusion (Fig. 4). The Straits Chinese community went into decline during the Great Depression, when many family businesses were forced into bankrupcy. The Second World War and the slump in commodity prices of the mid-1950s had similarly adverse effects. Moreover, as a result of Malaysia’s and Singapore’s independence the Baba-Nonya have by now become almost fully absorbed into the larger nations of which they are a part. The appeal of the material records of this small, nearly extinct Southeast Asian sub-culture is currently maintained in museum collections, antique shops and a few surviving streets in Singapore and Malaysia, which in Malaysia’s case are protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Philip Courtenay was formerly Professor and Rector of the Cairns Campus of James Cook University, Australia.
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