For Penang Chinese womenfolk, mastery of the classical Jiu Hu Char was one of the requisites that maketh a bonafide homemaker. If a wife failed in that skill, she would probably be retrenched and served fried cuttlefish — 被炒鱿鱼. Just kidding.
When my mum was around I used to help her, slicing the “mengkuang” and red carrots into thin sheets and then further into fine strips (these days we use a shredder). With added strips of meat, mushrooms, onion, and of course, fine slivers of dried cuttlefish, and then stir-fried with some bean paste….hmm, the final mesh of supreme savory delight was sure to send taste buds quivering in sensational expectation.
Better still was to have a handful wrapped in raw lettuce laced with sambal belacan — rasanya betul2 meletup !
The Kerongsang Kebaya Peranakan, that is. (I think some call it Kerongsang Rantai)
The ladies who donned the Kebaya Peranakan would need to garnish the front with a three-piece brooch that was intra-linked with a chain (usually of gold or silver). The brooches came in a huge variety of intricate and exquisite designs and were often adorned with precious stones of various colors too.
This fashion accessory-cum-pin fastener was an essential item to complete the Kebaya outfit. But as these were expensive pieces of jewelry, the ladies in less well-off families could only afford a set in their lifetimes – often the relatives would mutually exchange among themselves for different festive occasions (usually weddings).
Kebaya Peranakan – high fashion of the Nonyas of old.
The upper half was usually a translucent – I would say nearly transparent – long sleeve blouse, with intricate embroidered patterns on the front. The variety of embroidery patterns and colors was only limited by the imagination. However, the distinguishing feature of the blouse was that the front hem tapered down to a pointed triangular end, which could be as much as 8 inches lower than the straight back hem. Hence, the Penang Hokkien people called it “The Half-Long-Short” (半长短)
The two flanks of the front were usually held together with several pieces of brooch linked with a fine gold chain – something called “kerongsang“. Actually, these were intricate pieces of jewelry “masquerading” unabashedly as buttons or safety pins.
The lower half was usually a matching sarong kebaya – more or less conventional.
Complementing the Kebaya Peranakan were of course the Kasut Manek, or Beaded Shoes. These were mid-to-high heelers, covered on the front top with tiny colored beads – painstakingly and lovingly stitched into place by hand – arrayed in a variety of exquisite patterns.
These were masterpieces of art, and back in those days, were highly sought after by all ladies, regardless of age. But they were not cheap. Most of my female relatives could only afford a pair or two of these in their life-times. When matched with the Kebaya‘s – wow, you’ve got a stunning combination.
These shoes are still being made today, by specialist shops to custom orders by well-heeled connoisseurs with dainty feet.