For the unaware, the beaded patterns hanging in wooden frames in Robert Sng’s Little Shophouse might seem nothing more than pretty craft displays.In actual fact, those intricate pieces are designs to be made into a famous part of the Peranakan iconography – the kasut manek (beaded shoes).
No traditional Peranakan sarong kebaya is finished without a dainty pair of kasut manek. The detailed beading elevates the simple slipper to an understated elegance piece of status, with patterns that dance in the light as the nyonyas walked. This crafting stood out due to its unique mosaic design that filled even backgrounds, using striking contrasting colours.
These footwear first appeared in the early twentieth century, not only as a fashion accessory, but also to showcase the skills of young girls. Single nyonyas used to have limited freedom, and their time spent at home were used to train their skills in cooking and sewing. An expertly beaded shoe represented the virtue of the girl, promising patience and sincerity to the interested groom. Back then, good shoes meant a good marriage.
Traditionally, tiny glass Peranakan cut beads (or manek potong) were sewn onto a gridded fabric, stretched over a wooden frame. One bead to one stitch, the painstaking design once completed on a shoe vamp, is sent to the shoemaker to be finished into the final kasut manek. Though originally featuring a rounded close-toed design, the shoes started evolving into sharper designs and even open-toed ones. After a while, even designs started to reflect the times.
Believing that the initial designs had Chinese influences, Robert shares that, “during my search for the beadings, doing my research, I have found a few pairs of beaded shoes that were made in China.” He describes them as having used bigger beads with different designs on them.
“The Chinese immigrants coming to this region (Nanyang) to trade, they might have brought their wives from China here,” Robert suggested. “And their wives could have brought the pair of beaded shoes, which was originally Chinese-style, and the Peranakan might have borrowed the patterns, and went a bit Western-style.”
That’s the reason why popular motifs like peonies and animals, soon graduated into the more commonly seen roses and even geometric patterns today, while retaining their aspirations of beauty, wealth, joy and longevity.
At 43 Bussorah Street, Robert Sng continues to improve upon the dying art. Every shoe pattern you see at Little Shophouse is designed by him and hand-beaded by himself and his sister, Irene.
Averaging $1,000, the handmade shoes are not cheap, but a quick understanding reveals the tedious process and the time that goes into one pair.
“A pair of beaded shoes take around 100 hours to complete,” Robert confesses.
Sharing about his shop, he says, “I started this shop in 2003, during the SARS period.I retired from my job as a flight attendant with the Singapore Airline, and then I bought this shop. I wanted to do something for retirement.”
“These (beading) are the crafts I have been doing before I actually retired, as a hobby. Because of the shop, I got some Peranakan porcelain for sale, thus incorporating my hobby into the shop,” he continues as he waves at his array of tea-sets, crockery, vases, handbags and jewellery. “I started 1-to-1 teaching as there are people interested in this craft,” he adds.
Robert conducts one-to-one beading workshops, lasting five hours and starting from $360. He counts many foreigners as his students.
“The Japanese came, wanted to learn, and they introduced their friends,” he recounts. “It keeps me going.”
“Because I am running a shop like this, any tourist that visits my shop, if they show interest and ask, I will talk to them (about beading).”
Students will get the opportunity to glean from Robert’s rich experience – one that started when he was 10.
“My neighbour was doing this beading, but they had to do a living because they are not well-to-do. I believe they came to Arab Street to pick up the patterns, materials, and they just went back to do the beading,” he shares. “Later they returned the finished beaded shoes patterns to the owners who were selling the shoes in Arab Street.”
“They were paid $7 per pair of shoe for the workmanship. That was in 1960s.”
Today, Robert honours the tradition by keeping to quality materials.
With authentic beads hard to procure, Robert strives to keep the delicacy of the art alive by adhering to similar materials. He says, “For me, I only use beads from Czech Republic because they have very fine beads. And all these sewing frames are done locally. I asked the carpenter to do it. This is a traditional Peranakan sewing frame.”
With such a passion for the craft, it’s not surprising that Robert feels that this vanishing trade should be considered a “national treasure”.
“A lot of crafts in Singapore are dying and running out of fashion. I am not sure what Singapore is going to do, because we are always quite slow in preserving heritage,” he wearily intones.
“(With) vanishing trades, people with influence should come in and give them a push.” He recollects, “In Singapore, there is no brochure about vanishing trades. If you go down to Malacca or Penang, surprisingly, they do have brochures for vanishing trades, and they will tell you the few places where you can visit.”
“We don’t have it here. We will only cry when the thing is gone,” he shares. “I am a Singaporean. I feel that this is part of Singapore culture.”
And this lack of interest is also why Robert focuses mainly on his other Peranakan wares to sustain the business. As he explains, “because there is no profit in doing vanishing trade.”
“Nobody needs a pair of shoes that costs $1200. So, there’s no market and business for beaded shoes,” he admits. “100 hours, it means $9.50 or $10 per hour on my side, so it is not a business.”
He says, “I am selling other stuff to keep the shop going. If you bring in the porcelain at $10 and you sell it at $20, you are making a $10 profit.”
“The porcelains are what attracted most people to come in and take a look. Maybe it is just a Peranakan porcelain spoon, (but) it is a good souvenir for the tourists to bring home. It is affordable.”
He admits that, “Peranakan beaded shoes just make the shop looks more attractive, but they don’t sell.”
Robert’s dedication to Peranakan beading may not be lucrative, but it’s certainly an admirable hallmark that is a testimony to the grace, resilience and timelessness of the craft.