The Language Of Peranakan Beadwork

Bebe Seet’s book, Peranakan Beadwork – My Heritage, is a fine work that covers the history of Peranakan beading. It shows the different types of beaded slippers (kasot manek), describes the intricate skills involved in their making and includes illustrations of beadwork including shoes, ladies’ clutch bags, table cloths, bed covers and a host of wedding paraphernalia like sangkot bahu (ceremonial shoulder piece), handkerchiefs, knee pads and collars for both the groom and page-boy, bell covers, pouches, and wedding bed ornaments.


I have attempted to recall the Peranakan terms my grandmother, mother and aunts used to discuss beadwork, with reference to specific page numbers in Bebe’s book.


• Kasot hidong
My grandmother called them kasot tongkang (page18) or bumboat slippers, kasot hidong, or “nose-shaped shoes”, which refers to their distinctive snout-like front. She had a pair that she used to wear with her baju panjang and sarong when she was a young lass back in the 1910s. In 1944, during the Japanese Occupation, Grandmother gave them away to her nyonya neighbour, a very close friend of hers. It was the only time that I saw them.


Kasot hidong had silk threads (menang sutera) sewn over wooden or cardboard cut outs (bunga kayu) adhered to a velvet base (otanah jong). Tanah means background and jong refers to velvet. The motifs could include the peony (bunga botan), phoenixes (burong hong) or butterflies (kupu kupu). Gold and silver metallic threads were sewn over the cutouts using the Malay technique of embossed embroidery called sulam tekat timbul.

Kasot serek manek and kasot manek
Kasot serek manek were beaded slippers worn by bibiks in baju panjang and sanggol nyonya. Kasot manek refers to beaded shoes with heels (kasot ada tumit) (as seen on page 184 of Bebe Seet’s book) and worn with the sarong kebaya.

By the 1950s, the height of heels preferred by nyonyas came to about one inch or slightly higher. In the 1960s, the younger women who wore sarong kebaya preferred higher heeled shoes (kasot tumit tinggi) as seen on page.

Kasot chakiak
Open-toed beaded shoes are called kasot chakiak (clog-like shoes). There are variations of kasot chakiak as can be seen on the next pages.

Generally, the nyonyas used three types of beads: faceted beads (manek potong), rounded beads (manek tak potong or manek bulat) and glass beads (manek kacha). Tubular-shaped beads (manek panjang panjang) and glass beads are collectively called Penang beads or manek Puloh Pinang. They knew that beads were products of European countries (barang negeri Aropa). Beads were sold by the hanks (satu ikat, satu ikat manek). Each hank consisted of 12 strands of beads (dua belas rentap manek).

On most shoe faces (muka kasot) are motifs of flowers, animals or human figures, centrally placed (bunga di tengah muka kasot) against a background
(tanah). Naming the colours for identification purposes is important. Primary colours like red (merah), yellow (kuning), green (ijo) and also black (hitam) and white (puteh) and secondary colours like blue (biru) and orange (jingga) are similar to words found in the Malay vocabulary. Generally, for various shades of colour, the words tua (old), muda (young) and hidop (bright and lively) are used to differentiate between the darker and lighter or brighter shades. For example, a maroon background is tanah merah tua. Certain favourite colours are given specific allusory names. Light red is merah jambu. Pink is paru paru (lung-colored) while dark green is called ijo tua taik itek (green like duck’s shit)! Light green or apple green is ijo daun puchok pisang (green like the young shoot of a banana leaf). Purple is umu but dark purple is kelopak jantung pisang (dark like the sheath of banana flowers). Light yellow is kuning ayer (yellow water). Saffron is kuning kunyet. Navy blue is biru gelap and grey is orna bulu abu (feathery ash)!

A background of a single colour is called tanah penoh. To complete the stitching of the background is to tutop tanah or tutop penoh (fully cover the background).

A patterned background is given a name that fits its description. Tanah potong wajek is a background filled with diamond shapes. Wajek is a steamed cake that is often cut into small diamond-shaped pieces when served. Tanah batu karang,  is a patterned background of rocks or boulders that are arranged close to one another. Tanah charang charang or ranting ranting is a background of branches as shown in the shoes with blue shades. A wavy background is tanah ombak ombak. Muka lauchian refers to white squares lined with red beads where each square features a figure of a small animal or flower that is never repeated anywhere else. Lauchian is the joker card in the game of cherki. A joker is considered a character of many faces. A background filled with motifs of a white star represents bunga tanjung, a small white flower circular in shape with many points. See the illustration of white stars alternating with blue crosses on page.


The central motif (bunga tengah) of a shoe face is often copied from friends’ shoes or taken from samples of cross-stitch patterns. The nyonyas had a rich vocabulary to describe the animals and flowers for the shoe face (muka kasot). Popular animals are anak kuching (kittens), anjing (dogs), rusa (deer), kepala arimo (tiger head), ikan mas (gold fish) and merak (peacocks). Flowers include bunga ros (roses), botan (peony), kek hua (chrysanthemum) and terateh (lotus). Favourite fruits are buah delima(pomegranates) which symbolise good luck and lemo jari (Buddha’s hand) which is considered sacred. Figures of European girls (anak mem) in various poses were also common: anak mem diri di kebun bunga would mean a girl standing in the garden, anak mem main piano (a girl playing the piano) or anak mem dudok di rumput (a girl sitting on grass).

There were also other motifs, including images from fairy tales like the seven dwarfs from Snow White, and these would be considered ‘modern’ designs.

The various items needed for beadwork, including beads in various colours, cross-stitched cloth (kain jait kasot), needles and threads (menang jarum) and graph paper were all typically purchased from a haberdashery at Arab Street in Kampong Java.

Sometimes, a Chinese man would come calling to sell beads and haberdasher wares. He would say repeatedly, mai dong xi (“buy my things” in Mandarin). In my family he was called Cheena mai dong xi, Cheena in the Peranakan vocabulary meaning a recent immigrant from China as when compared to the Peranakans or local born Chinese. He was also nicknamed Cheena kelentong which referred to the sound produced by an instrument he held in his right hand, actually a mini drum on a stick with two strings attached on either side, with a bead at the end of each string. To announce his arrival, he would twirl the drum, and the beads would beat the drum, producing the kelentong sound.

Before the beading could proceed, a template had to be set up (regang pidangan) with the use of string. The template is called pidangan. It is placed on a stand called kaki pidangan. To do the beadwork, the beader sits on the floor or on a bench with both legs folded inwards (dudok telepok or dudok bersila) or could choose to sit in a chair (dudok kerosi).

When the beadwork for the shoe face was completed it was time to send it to the haber dasher to set them into shoes (tapak kasot). The haber dasher was often the shoe-maker himself. Generally, the colour of the leather would be similar to the background of the shoe face. Any other colour would be considered a mismatch (orna sambar).

Mourning is regarded as a filial duty which had to be carried out seriously. Different mourning shoes (kasot tuaha) had to be worn according to the stage of mourning. For the first year of heavy mourning (tua ha berat) women should only wear black and white sarong kebaya. Their shoes should consist of white and black motifs only. During the second year of mourning (tua ha ringan or tua ha biru) the beaded shoes should be dark blue or dark green with some black and white beads. Brighter colours like red, brown and orange were prohibited. Towards the end of the mourning period (dekat dekat lepas tua ha),
about three months before the mourning is over, the overall appearance of the shoe face should be of lighter hues. By now, in some cases, yellow could be mixed with green, blue and black.

Kampet is a generic term for wallet, purse or a clutch bag or a handbag. Beaded clutch bags (kampet manek) were popular among the nyonyas. Usually the background is plain and the central motif is an animal like a peacock (merak) or tiger (arimo) as shown on page. Scenes of pastoral langour were also common.

Besides beaded shoes, there were also the kasot menang mas (slippers sewn with gold thread) and kasot menang sutera tanah jong (slippers sewn with
silk threads with velvet background). The terms supplied here may not apply for all Peranakans – different families may have their own names for these items, especially when describing colours and motifs.


Author: Team

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