On the last day of my trip through Malaysia, Singapore and Tokyo, Japan I decided to make the most of the last few hours that I had before making the customary mad dash for the airport at the eleventh hour.
To make this a reality, I as usual, headed out bargain-hunting! I wasn’t expecting to find anything – antiques in Malaysia are usually pretty pricey and outrageous as far as value for money goes. But with nothing else with which to occupy my time, I went hunting anyway.
I’d spent about an hour or so at the Amcorp Mall flea-market (the only such market really worth visiting in KL), and was beginning to give up hope until I took a detour into a shop called “Teh Collectible” – big red sign with swirly, yellow letters on it.
The shop was jammed with all kinds of antiques, from suitcases to typewriters, sewing machines to cameras, tiffin-carriers, furniture and all kinds of dusty, kitchy junk. The display-cabinets were full of all kinds of miscellaneous bric-a-brac, from watches to porcelain and novelty drinkware.
In amongst all this detritus, I stumbled across a pair of nondescript yellow-metal items. I freely admitted that my heart skipped a beat – I knew what these things were – but I also knew that they were rare, and therefore, likel to be expensive. Like I said, most antiques in Malaysia are heavily overpriced.
Anyway, I tried my luck and after a lot of haggling, I was able to chip down a third off of the price, and came away with these:
Never seen them before? No idea what they are? Curious? Interested? Intrigued?
I’m sure you are! After all, these haven’t been made in about 100 years! But what are they? Earrings? Brooches? Hairclips?
Not even close!
What we’ve got here is a pair of Straits Chinese or ‘Peranakan’ keyholders! I wouldn’t be surprised if you’ve never heard of, or seen them before – most people haven’t. Even those of us who are into antiques! So how do they work? What do you do with them? Why do they even exist??
Peranakan Keyholders – What are they?
Keyholders like these were made by Peranakan ‘baba’ silversmiths and goldsmiths for the Peranakan communities of southeast Asia – specifically those living in Singapore, Malaya and the Dutch East Indies. The Peranakan were famous for their desire to decorate and ornament everything that they owned – even their keyrings!
Keyholders like these are made up of a repousse frontpiece, a flat backpiece, a free-hanging keyring, and a long, flat fastening hook or clasp on the back, used to attach the keyholder to one’s clothing.
How do they work?
Keys were fitted onto the ring at the bottom of the holder. The long metal clip on the back of the holder was slipped onto a person’s belt, or the hem of their trousers, if they were men, or skirts – usually a sarong – if they were women. Here, the keyholder would remain until it was needed. Obviously holders like these could only hold a few keys at a time, but as with most things Peranakan – form tended to come before function. How pretty an item appeared was just as, or even more important, than what it actually did!
How old are they?
Keyholders like these became redundant with the increasing embracement by the Peranakan, of European-style clothing. Trousers and shorts with pockets, and different styles of dressing made such accessories and trinkets as decorative keyholders unnecessary, and by the second quarter of the 20th century, only Peranakan men or women who still retained more traditional dress-styles would’ve been able to wear such keyholders with their outfits.
This being the case, Peranakan keyholders like these would’ve dated from the late 19th century up to around 1910 or 1920. Hallmarked silver Peranakan keyholders which I’ve seen online have been dated back to the 1890s. Keyholders were unlikely to have been made beyond the start of the 1930s – the Great Depression hit many Peranakan fortunes hard, and it would’ve been hard to justify spending so much money on a keyholder!
What are they made of?
These specific keyholders are made of copper or brass, but Peranakan keyholders were also made of silver – sometimes gilt (plated in gold) to make them more attractive. Many keyholders included intricate repousse designs to their fronts, and elaborate decorations to the fasteners or hooks behind them. Holders made of silver would’ve been manufactured in the Peranakan enclaves of Singapore, Penang and Malacca. They usually had Chinese-style hallmarks stamped onto the clasps at the back, generally composed of the fineness mark denoting purity of silver, and the silversmith’s maker’s mark in Chinese characters.
Although you could buy, or have commissioned just one keyholder, they also seemed to have been sold in sets. The ones I have are a matched pair. That said, most of the others which I’ve seen online appear to be singles, each one of a unique and individual design, made of either gold, silver or copper. The sheer variety of styles in which something as simple as a key-hook could come in just shows the incredible levels of artistry to which Peranakan silversmiths and jewelers could reach.
Anyway. There we have it! Peranakan keyholders! So, are these things rare? Special? Unique? Why am I writing about them?
I’m writing about them because my grandmother and her family were all Peranakan, and their culture has fascinated me ever since I was made aware of this fact. Peranakan antiques are getting incredibly rare these days, and I really wanted to try and collect and preserve all that I can find.
Peranakan porcelain, silverware, clothing and jewelry are all pretty rare, but even if they are rare, some items are still better-known than others. Slippers, kebaya, sarong, belts, kerongsang (sets of three brooches on a chain) and tiffin-carriers are pretty well-known Peranakan antiques – keyholders on the other hand?? Not so much! That’s why I felt that they were deserving of their own post! I hope you enjoyed this and that you’ll return again soon! I’m always looking for new things to write about and post.