“I remember playing with my mother’s beaded slippers in my youth but never gave them much thought,” Bebe Seet reminisces. Now running her own fashion boutique, Rumah Bebe, this true-blue Nyonya (Peranakan lady) wasn’t always the artisan she is today. Turning her interest into her life’s work with more than 25 years of practice under her belt, step right into Bebe Seet’s world of fashion — Nyonya-style — and discover a whole new dimension of Singapore’s Peranakan culture to add to your travel stories.
1. Who are the Peranakans and where are they from?
The word Peranakan refers to people of mixed Chinese and Malay/Indonesian heritage and literally translates to “locally born”. The women are called Nyonyas and the men Babas. We can trace the origins of these “Straits-born Chinese” back to the 15th century. Chinese traders (mostly men from the province of Fujian) came to the Malay Peninsula for business. They ended up marrying the local women and settling down here, and the result was a melding of both Chinese and Malay cultures.
2. Tell us more about Peranakan fashion.
The traditional Peranakan dress is called the Nyonya Kebaya, and it’s really unique because of how it has evolved with time. Initially, they were loose, straight outfits, but younger Nyonyas wanted something more fitted — so they introduced the slimming princess cut. When lace was very popular, it was also incorporated into the design. The Kebaya is a garment that isn’t stagnant; it’s constantly reinventing itself.
The Kasut Manek (beaded slippers) also play a great role in Peranakan fashion. The tradition of beaded shoes started in the early 1800s. Most girls did not have the opportunity to go to school, so mothers would prepare them for marriage by teaching them how to bead. That way, when they were of age, they could display their works as a symbol of their patience and skills. If a young lady could bead such intricate designs, surely, she will make a diligent and patient wife!
3. How did you start your journey in Peranakan fashion?
In 1993, I was walking around the streets of Malacca, Malaysia, and in this antique shop, I found the loveliest pair of shoes. The faceted beads were so beautiful, but the owner told me they were part of his private collection and not for sale! I was so envious and really wanted a pair, so I decided to try and make one myself.
I sought the help of a friend’s mother, who was an expert in beading. The 74-year-old Nyonya was so glad to know someone wanted to learn the craft of beading from her! Unfortunately, she became ill five months later and couldn’t sew anymore, but loved listening to the sound of the needle ‘popping’ during the process of stitching. So, I would sit by her bed and sew every day. When she passed, I realised I was on my own. That’s when it occurred to me that there is something about the Peranakan heritage worth preserving.
4. What about your boutique, Rumah Bebe? What inspired you to set it up?
I never had any intention of setting up a business; it started as a hobby! Then I found out that there were many others like me who were interested in learning how to bead, but there were no instructors. So, I opened up a space for lessons. While doing the demonstrations, I realised that people were interested in my Kebayas, so I started to design and sell them. Then guests asked about gifts for loved ones so that was how I began to stock up on heritage products. I also wanted to honour the Peranakan culture beyond fashion, so I began to prepare traditional Peranakan dishes like Ayam Buah Keluak (a thick chicken casserole stewed in a blend of local spices and herbs with tamarind juice) and desserts like Almond Sugee Kuih (semolina cake) for my customers as well. It was actually all very organic!
5. You also hold private tours and workshops, tell us more about that.
All our tours and workshops are customisable. It all depends on the individual — their familiarity with craftwork and what they are interested in achieving. Ideally, it would be best if they have at least two sessions with me. That said, we also have one-day crash courses for those who may not have a lot of time. I have had foreign clients who aim to complete an entire shoe, and those who prefer simpler projects like coasters. On a larger scale, I’ve been engaged by Chanel to run a beading workshop for their employees too! Generally, our customers just drop us an email and we’ll arrange something that works for them.
6. Besides Rumah Bebe, where else can we immerse ourselves in Peranakan culture in Singapore?
The Peranakan Museum on Armenian Street is definitely worth a visit; it holds a huge collection of Peranakan art and is well curated. But if you’re looking for a more intimate experience or a cultural immersion trip, you can also visit the Baba House on Neil Road or The Intan at Joo Chiat. Both are great preserved Peranakan residences cum museums!
While these are great places to explore, the Heritage Zone and the Peranakan Gallery at Terminal 4 also makes for an interesting introduction to Peranakan culture right in the airport!
An all-encompassing group, the Peranakans have found a unique way of incorporating different cultures into something they call their own. And part of keeping this rich heritage alive, lies in the hands of expert artisans like Bebe Seet who imparts her knowledge and skills to locals and tourists alike. So, spend a day in Singapore by stepping into the world of the Peranakans and discovering the intricacy of their crafts, unique traditions and rich culture.