Family Heirlooms: Grandmother’s Antique Silver Peranakan Nyonya Belts

I’m writing this post as a tribute to my grandmother. I did write another post about this, but it was too waffly and boring, and the photographs looked like crap. So I decided to rewrite it and use better pictures. Anyway, without further ado, this is the story of my grandmother’s silver Peranakan belts.

Grandma and the Peranakan

My grandmother grew up in Singapore in the 1910s and 1920s, during the heyday of the British Empire. Grandma was descendant from, and was part of, the vibrant Peranakan culture that existed in what was then called the Straits Settlements. It was for this reason that the Peranakan were also called the Straits Chinese.

My paternal grandmother. Bertha Fu Kui Yok. The original owner of these belts. 7th May, 1914 — 28th November, 2011. Aged: 97. This photograph was taken about six months before she died.

The Straits Chinese or the Peranakan were the descendants of trading Chinese, who migrated from China to Southeast Asia during the 1500s-1800s. They were traders and merchants, sailing back and forth between the Chinese mainland, and countries in the South Pacific, like Indonesia, Singapore, Malaya and Bali. Over time, Chinese traders colonised these parts of the South Pacific, intermarrying with the local indigenous peoples. The descendants from these unions were called “Peranakan” (which literally means: “Descendant of Intermarriage Between a Foreigner and a Local”)

The Peranakan were famous for intricately decorated works of art. Everything from their dresses, skirts, robes, slippers and shoes, furniture, floor-tiles, window-shutters, porcelain, tiffin-carriers, even their dessert-cakes and snacks, their dinner-meals, luncheons and houses, and especially their jewelry were all very intricately decorated.

Grandma’s Peranakan Belts

Although not wealthy, my grandmother was fortunate enough to grow up with a small selection of jewelry to her name. Sadly, most of this has now been lost. But the two items which have survived are probably the two most important, and therefore, most valuable and significant of them all.

Her silver Peranakan belts.

The gold and silver belts owned by Peranakan women (“Nyonyas”) were specially crafted to be worn with traditional nyonya dress – Sarong Kebaya – A light, form-fitting two-piece outfit consisting of the Sarong (wraparound tubular skirt), and the Kebaya, the short, close-fitting jacket or blouse. The belts were worn with Sarong-Kebaya combinations to hold up the Sarong and prevent it from unwrapping or falling down. Such belts were usually reserved for special events. Family events and such. Weddings, dinners, anniversaries and so-forth. Made by hand by Peranakan jewelers, these belts were works of art to be treasured and used only on rare occasions.

Here are some examples of Sarong Kebaya, which I photographed during a trip to the Penang Peranakan Museum:

The silver dress-belts would wrap around the top of the Sarong to hold it up and stop it from unwrapping accidentally.

Traditional Sarong-Kebaya. Photograph taken at the Penang Peranakan Museum.

This is probably why grandma’s two belts have survived for so long, despite the family fortunes and the trials and tribulations that attended them, because they were stored away and only brought out on extremely significant occasions.

And here they are: First up is the older belt. This one is of a more traditional, segmented design, with dozens of little silver pieces linked together by dozens of tiny silver rings. Each link has a small flower stamped into the silver. The whole thing is 35 inches long. The oval-shaped buckle is removable. If you were a rich Peranakan nyonya, then you would probably have multiple belts like this. Then you could chop and change and swap belts and buckles around, contrasing silver with gold, and favourite belts with favourite buckles and so-forth.

Solid silver Peranakan nyonya belt. Probably from my great-grandmother’s (ca. 1875-1970) time. This belt is the older one, and probably dates to the late Victorian era or early 1900s, ca. 1890-1920. I’ve seen Peranakan belts of similar style dated between the 1880s-1920s.
The (removable) buckle or clasp depicts a tiger and a monkey either side of a lotus bud. Above them is a butterfly, and surrounding them on all sides are lotus flowers, water and leaves.
Closeup of the links and details, showing the rings and panels, and the little silver flowers

The second belt dates to the 1930s. It’s comprised of silver chain, and a 1 Guilder coin (that’s Dutch, in case anyone’s wondering), from 1929. The coin itself is 75% silver, so the chain would also be silver. There are examples of Peranakan belts which are made entirely out of silver coins, taken from British or Dutch currency. As money the coins were then obviously useless, but the Peranakan wanted the silver value of the coins, not the face-value stamped upon them or what they could potentially buy with the coins themselves.

Silver guilder coin with a rod of silver (coiled into a setting) soldered onto the face of the coin. Silver chain is then run through the coin to make up the rest of the belt.

This belt is of course, adjustable, just like the other one, but it works in a different way…

The whole length of the belt

This belt has segments of chain connected with rings and the end of the belt has an S-hook on it. Adjusting the belt’s length is a matter of hooking the S-clasp onto one of the three belt-rings, to get the closest possible length to what is ideal. The belt is then wrapped around, and the coin clasp or ‘weight’ is slipped through the chain, looping around and holding everything together purely by gravity.

How They Survived?

Your guess is as good as mine!

These belts, at least 80 or 90 years old, lived through the Great Depression, the Second World War, the Japanese Invasion in 1942 and all kinds of other family hardships.

They were originally my great-grandmother’s. Then my grandmother’s. Then they passed down to my aunt. She had no interest in them at all, so when my father asked for them, she handed them over. That was a few years ago. But how did I come to own them? Read on…

The Finding of the Belts of Power…

A few years ago, I went back to Malaya for a family wedding. While I was there, we visited the Peranakan Museum in Singapore, where I saw this belt on display:

Solid gold antique Peranakan nyonya belt. Singapore Peranakan Museum

Walking a little further on, I came across this:

Solid silver antique Peranakan nyonya belt. Singapore Peranakan Museum

My father grabbed me by the arm and pointed at it, and said:

“Did you know that grandma has a belt like that?”

I was dumbstruck.

WHAT!? WHERE!? HOW!?…WHY!?

You have to understand that in our family, almost nothing of intrinsic value has survived. All our heirlooms have been lost. Grandpa’s steamer-trunk, grandpa’s pocket-knife, grandpa’s hand-engraved ivory chopsticks, grandpa’s Chinese encyclopedia from the 1920s. And almost all of grandma’s jewelry. All gone! The very notion that there was something THIS significant, THIS rare and THIS valuable still in family hands shocked me!

Then my father told me how he had retrieved the belts from his sister during a previous trip and that he’d taken them home! He knew she wouldn’t value them or look after them, and so had rescued them from her and brought them back with him. It took a lot of pleading, but I finally managed to get it out of his hands so that the belts could finally rest with a person who would take proper care of them, and cherish them, love them, and realise their rarity, and historical, cultural and familial significance.

Grandma’s belts, along with other documents detailing her life.