The Star Online, October 6, 2007
Nyonyaware, which is also known as “Straits Chinese porcelain”, refers to a unique type of ceramics made in the 19th century and early 20th century in China for the South-East Asian market.
They were meant for export specifically to the Baba Nyonya or Straits Chinese of Penang, Malacca and Singapore, as well as similar communities in Indonesia.
As traders and merchants, the Baba Nyonya in Malacca became very wealthy by the 19th century. In fact, they financed or lent money for Kuala Lumpur and Singapore to be developed.
The origins of the Baba Nyonya can be traced back to the common practice of intermarriage between immigrant Chinese men and local women on both sides of the Straits of Malacca. The exact origin of the community has yet to be determined by historians.
But by the time of the formation of the Straits Settlements in 1826, this unique group of people, whose mother tongue was Malay but culturally Chinese, were commonly referred to as “Straits Chinese” or “Peranakan” (local-born).
These “Straits-born” Chinese distinguished themselves from the newly-arrived Chinese labourers or sinkehs at the time. (Nowadays, such terms have become anachronistic because the Straits Settlements ceased to exist after 1946 and everyone born on this side of the Straits of Malacca are all Straits-born. The politically-correct term of reference for the Straits Chinese today is Baba Nyonya.)
By the turn of the 20th century, due to their accumulated wealth and education, the offspring of the merchants later became part of the British Colonial administration and gained greater status as social elites. Even before that, with their money, they distinguished themselves in the development of a highly refined culture. That gave rise to exacting standards in their lifestyle. Such standards dictated that even their cuisine, their crockery and their embroidery must conform to the concept of refinement or halus.
Technically, their preferred type of crockery – what is now known as Nyonyaware – was difficult to make in the late 19th century and early 20th century. Wood-fired kilns depended heavily on the skills of artisans. The firing process of the ceramics in the preferred colour combinations such as green, blue, yellow, brown, orange, red, pink and even lilac or mauve, required technical finesse.
The rendering of the motifs, too, required the steady hand and artistic eye of a skilled artisan. To this day, collectors would pay much more for a technically superior piece fired in a rare colour.
But there are Nyonyaware with sloppy motifs and colours that seem to “run”. Generally, Nyonyaware was made with vibrant colours and decorated with exotic motifs, usually dominated by the mythical phoenix depicted against rockery and peony.
Of great value
Although the product of a bygone era, these objects reflect the rich legacy of the vanishing Baba Nyonya culture of Malaysia and Singapore. Such ceramics range in price from about RM100 for a tiny saucer to tens of thousands for a large lidded pot or kamcheng.
Besides significant collections in Muzium Negara (the National Museum) in Kuala Lumpur and the Penang State Museum, important collections have ended up in Singapore.
Some years ago, the Asian Civilisations Museum I at Armenian Street (closed for renovations indefinitely) showcased a grand exhibition of Nyonyaware. That exhibition included the dining set commissioned for the wedding of a wealthy Malacca nyonya (lady) to Kapitan Yap Ah Loy, the man who developed Kuala Lumpur in the mid 19th century.
According to Nyonyaware expert Eric Tay, the best definition of the ceramics, is found in the 1981 publication by the South-East Asian Ceramic Society, West Malaysia Chapter entitled Nyonya ware and Kitchen Ch’ing.
Explains Tay: “It is difficult and unwise to be overly specific in defining Nyonyaware. Items which do not conform to the standard design genre or format are surfacing from time to time. These are specially commissioned pieces by the Peranakans and manufactured in the United Kingdom and Europe. One must be open-minded through research, discussion and investigation to define Nyonyaware.
“Sadly, most collectors today will only define Nyonyaware as those pieces they have encountered in antique shops, in friends’ homes or in their own family collection. Specially commissioned pieces according to design layout, colour scheme and motifs by wealthy families of a bygone era are seldom seen as they form family heirlooms. But they are still considered Nyonyaware.” – By JOHNNI WONG