Birds and flowers.
Blooming and fleeing in freedom.
Women in and around Malacca Strait; Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia have always been struggling to set themselves free – no matter their ethnicity and roots. Their rebellion can be seen from the evolution of Kebaya. The bustling in Malacca port brought together the influence of Portuguese, Arab, Chinese, and Javanese. The origin of Kebaya remains unclear; some says it comes from Kobaya; a Portuguese lace trimmed blouse, some says it comes from Arabic Abaya; a long tunic fastened at the front.

From baju kurung, baju panjang, kebaya renda, kebaya biku, to kebaya encim, the blouse got shorter and shorter – and at some point, kebaya uses sheer fabric made of cotton or silk. Kebaya was mainly produced in Java for locals, however, it was also worn by Encim (women of chinese-descent in Java) and Nyonya (women of chinese-descent in Singapore and Malaysia).

This sheer, elegant, and breathable outfit gives a sense of freedom to them. With a majority of them coming from Hakka region, the nomads of China,
many women from this origin did not bind their feet. The freedom they tasted after fleeing from the mainland and the disappointment to Chinese government at that time has shaped them to have their own culture while keeping the traditional ritual.

In Indonesia, women like Hang Le Hoa, Khoe Trima Nio (Aster), and Tan Lam Nio (Dahlia), are prominent journalist and Chinese women novelist from Indies (Indonesia). They wrote poems and stories with theme such as “rebelling against oppressive marriage”, stories of being the second wife of a Baba, or a rebellious daughter raised in well-educated background: By picking pseudonyms, they protected their real identity.

Pseudonyms in flowers names are common – many of them picked
Chinese flowers as it becomes prayers to them.

Rose; a woman in full bloom

Dahlia / Chrysanthemum / Peony: Maturity

These flowers, along with birds, also appear in Kedungwuni’s batik – a batik house in the outskirt of Pekalongan, owned by Chinese-descent family. The migration of birds and flowers are common in Batik made in North coast of Java. Phoenix as transformation and longevity, Glatik as the nomad bird of Java (as many of them are Hakka descents), and Bai Niao Chao Feng (a thousand birds) for luck.

This batik is not just fashion, but also identity, prayers, and resemblance of politic and economy situation at that time. With less cotton, many Batik have two motifs in one; Pagi Sore – the one these Encim could wear in the daylight and evening. Buckled up with a Pending (belt) and Kerongsang (brooch) on the kebaya for party.

Pending (belt)

As the Batik developed into more colors, motifs, the Kebaya grew shorter, Encim is a symbol is of Peranakan women, unbinding their feet – writing their own story – respecting their ancestors and making path for future female generation.

“Aku percaya dengan gunakan kau punya pena punya ketajaman, kau bisa bekerja banyak guna kaum perempuan di ini jaman. Kau bisa bebasken kita orang semua dari segala aturan kekejaman. Kau bisa bikin kita orang punya kesedihan terganti oleh senyuman”, Dahlia
*Puspita: bunga, flower.