II: Memoirs of a Little Nyonya

While working on the Peranakan Culture x Wes Anderson video, I was truly captured by the beauty of this hidden gem in our nation.

My parents were Kampong kids so I’ve heard endless stories about the Old Singapore Kampong life — spider catching, running around barefoot, playing soccer in the mud… But I wanted to hear from someone who has seen and lived the dainty, delicate side of olden Singapore.

So, while on the hunt for the Kebayas my colleague and I needed for the short video feature, I met Auntie Jocelyn through my friend, Hannah, and she graciously allowed us to borrow her family’s kebaya collection for our video.

While chatting with Hannah, she told me about how her family still celebrates Peranakan culture by cooking traditional Peranakan dishes and having kebaya photoshoots in which Auntie Jocelyn plays a huge role thanks to her love for dressing people up. Auntie Jocelyn even urged Hannah to teach me how to wear the kebaya.

Well, her excitement was infectious.

I knew that Auntie Jocelyn was my best bet for getting authentic stories of Peranakan life. So instead of getting the kebayas from Hannah, I headed straight to Auntie Jocelyn’s and stayed for a little chat…

Auntie Jocelyn, who lived with her immediate family and her uncle (her father’s brother) and auntie in what they called “quarters” back when she was in Primary school, was very close to her aunt as she was her aunt’s “little kitchen helper”.

“Every day at 5 o’clock I’ll have to be in the kitchen ready to help her,” she said.

Her job was to prepare the sauces and dress the table for dinner.

“Peranakans love it when things are beautifully decorated! My auntie wasn’t full Peranakan but she would still wear the kebaya every day as she went about her daily duties,” she added.

Auntie Jocelyn still cooks Peranakan dishes today but sadly, not with her aunt’s recipes as back then the thought of getting them didn’t cross her mind at all.

At this point, she excitedly took out Mrs Lee’s Cookbook (which had multiple page tabs sticking out of it) and told us that every woman in her family owns a copy for reference to master traditional Peranakan dishes.

“Like Babi Pongteh and Ayam Buah Keluak!” Hannah piped up excitedly.

Mrs Lee’s cookbook was a collection of the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s mother’s Peranakan recipes.

“My auntie used to cook chicken gizzard with pineapple and WOW it was so good. She will also put mincemeat and prawns in the Buah Keluak nut and stuff it back in the shell to serve.

“Peranakan food requires a lot of work because there are so many flavours and spices, you know!” Auntie Jocelyn claimed.

Aside from being a kitchen helper, she also helped to clean the quarters, which was something that her mother was in charge of in the household then.

“The doorknob must use Brasso (a metal polish) to polish until you can see your own reflection one!

“My mother will always announce that Mr Lee Kuan Yew is going to visit our house. Then me, my siblings and my cousins will all rush to clean the house… but after some time we know she bluff one la,” she recalls fondly.

Still, most of her time was spent with her aunt, either shopping at Robinsons and TANGS or buying groceries at the market. Auntie Jocelyn’s favourite childhood memory was “being rewarded with a nice bowl of Mee Rebus for carrying my auntie’s market basket for her”.

When asked about her academic life, she immediately brings up her grandma, who would sit at the head of the table with a cane, watching like a hawk as all the children in the quarters to do their homework before dinner.

“She would also cane us girls for saying the word ‘shiok’ because it was not ladylike,” she laughed.

Being raised in a Peranakan household has opened Auntie Jocelyn’s eyes to the importance of taking pride in her home, beautifying it and keeping it sparkling clean.

According to Hannah, Auntie Jocelyn would always take extra care to display dishes nicely on the table during family gatherings.

“Even her plastic cutlery must be the shiny ones. She will also teach us how to bai mei mei (arrange nicely), fold napkins and all,” she added.

A handmade kebaya usually costs $200-$300 in Singapore as a lot of effort has to be put into the minute and precise stitching of the motifs and patterns.

Their family would also occasionally have Kebaya photoshoots, thanks to Auntie Jocelyn’s love for dressing people up.

“These are all machine-made. My auntie used to sew her own Kebayas, cut all the little holes herself. Nowadays hand-sewn ones are very expensive!” said Auntie Jocelyn.

Much to Auntie Jocelyn’s glee, I ended up as her Barbie doll for the day… not that I was complaining. It was my first ever Kebaya fitting and I was honoured to have a Peranakan help me with it!

Step one: Putting on the sarong

The sarong has to be tied high up to accentuate a lady’s waistline.

This was actually harder than I thought. The complicated patterns were supposed to be placed at the back and the skirt overlap had to be aligned slightly to the right. After a few adjustments, we finally got it right.

Step two: Fastening the brooches or the kerosang

Kerosang — three delicately adorned pins connected by a thin metal chain.

To my surprise, the kebaya does not have buttons. Auntie Jocelyn said that it was important to make sure the patterns at the seams match before pinning on the kerosang.

Step three: Secure with a metal belt.

(I had to suck in really hard to make sure I had a visible waistline beneath all that cloth.)

When Auntie Jocelyn said makeover, she really meant a total makeover — hair styling, a little bit of blusher and lipstick…

and voilà!


After some persuasion, Auntie Jocelyn donned her own Kebaya too, a pastel pink number with a beautiful orange sarong. She even taught me how to “pose like a lady”.

We finally bade Auntie Jocelyn goodbye after our mini photoshoot and a little Tau Huey (beancurd) treat from her.

From left: Rachel (me), Hannah and Auntie Jocelyn.

It was a rather eye-opening experience for me. The first thing that caught my attention when I stepped into Auntie Jocelyn’s house was how her home looked like it was fresh out of an IKEA catalogue — the fake flowers on the dining table complementing the table runner, matching photo frames of different sizes all lined up neatly… She even has a wooden rocking chair sitting silently at a corner of the room. Based on what Auntie Jocelyn had shared, most Peranakan homes were decorated with the same immaculate beauty.

On the other hand, my family, like most Chinese families, is all about practicality and convenience. We don’t use chopstick holders or floral design napkins. We just place all the chopsticks in one bowl and a box of tissue next to it.

What the Peranakans view as beautiful and mandatory for their homes might be deemed frivolous and unnecessary by us Chinese. But the chat with Auntie Jocelyn had taught me to understand the importance of taking pride in beautifying my living space.

This experience not only showed me how a little Nyonya lived, it also opened my eyes to what I feel is the best part of Singapore — our multi-cultural background.

Every person you encounter carries a brand new opportunity for you to learn something new — whether it is a religious practice or a cultural norm — and that is something we should always treasure.

The next time I go Christmas shopping, I’m definitely going to get decorated napkins too!

By Rachel Lim

Photos credits: Sheoli Biswas