The utilitarian wares used by the Peranakan are often very elaborate and colourful, unlike that of their Chinese cousins. This is visible in their wedding gowns, baju kebaya and furniture. It is the Peranakan’s love for art – in their dressing, food, as well as items of daily use – that is made visible in their elaborate designs.
The application of design found on Peranakan items was greatly influenced by the Europeans. You can spot British and French references in their furniture, the lace and embroidery on the kebaya recalls Victorian fashion and their infamous dazzling slippers (kasut manek) use coloured cut glass beads imported from Czechoslovakia.
Typical Peranakan Motifs
If you look closely, most Peranakan utilitarian wares feature the Phoenix, peonies and the 8 Buddhist emblems.
Early Peranakans, like their Chinese counterparts, were mostly Buddhist or Taoist, and in fact, they were more “Chinese” in their beliefs than the Chinese. The Phoenix (the “Queen of the Birds”) symbolises the Nyonya – the female or matriarch. The peonies represent springtime and beauty.
Peranakan were joyous people and they use coloured wares for dining, particularly for their “tok panjang” (long tables) when they invited their often European guests for meals. In fact, the colours on their tableware could easily blend in with any dishes they cooked. As the bright colours suggested jubilation, white and blue tableware were used for prayers and mourning.