Thursday, June 5, 2014

Kasut Manik Nyonya (Nyonya Beaded Shoes) - An Art of Timeless Beauty

To understand, appreciate & finally fall in love with the beauty of the Nyonya Kasut Manik, one has to delve back into the annals of Malaccan history a little.

Way back in the 15th century when Malacca (a historical town in Malaysia which was     declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008) was a thriving port, traders from all over the world would converge at its river mouth to ply and trade their wares.

In 1409, Admiral Cheng Ho (Zheng He), the head of China's trade fleet and his chiefs arrived in Malacca to strengthen ties between the two countries.  Some of the men settled down  and  married  local  women  thus  starting  a new ethnic community  called  the  PERANAKAN.

“Peranakan refers to the descendants of the early Chinese community who settled in the Malay Archipelago and who has integrated with the Malays in this region."

The men were called ‘Babas’ and the womenfolk ‘Nyonyas’.  While the menfolk could go about freely, the womenfolk of 
era went about their daily activities behind closed doors. Even if she came from a wealthy background, it was considered improper for a Nyonya to have a professional career back in the old days (such a thing was actually unheard of) and she had to find ways to occupy and improve herself.

The upbringing of a Nyonya, as eloquently described by art historian Dr. Khoo Joo Ee went something like this: she was guarded and confined to utter domesticity, spending all her time acquiring housekeeping skills. Tasks like sewing and
cooking were done over and over in order to prepare the Nyonya for her ultimate role – that of a perfect housewife.  If  her parents could afford it, the Nyonya was home tutored by British women. She never went anywhere without a 'bodyguard' in tow, and the only time an unwed Nyonya was seen in public was on the 15th day of the Lunar New Year.

Aside from lessons in wifely and home making duties, grooming and cooking, a Nyonya also learnt genteel crafts like flower making, embroidery, fashioning food covers, handkerchiefs, pillow ends, bags, assorted decorative items, and many other objects of beauty.

Given such a strict, letter-perfect and       unblemished upbringing, it was only natural that the Nyonya would be endowed with one very distinguishable feature – her  attention to the minutiae of everyday life, which encompassed everything she was responsible for. 
Her handicraft had to be perfect, meticulous, refined and beyond reproach; anything less would indicate sloppiness and reflect badly on herself.

As such, the making of the Nyonya’s beaded shoe was a meticulous exercise in patience and precision.  Crafting a well-made pair of beaded slippers was a time consuming affair, and the 'face' for each pair could take several months to complete. The maker had to possess an infinite amount of patience and perseverance, a steady hand, good eyesight and of course a flair for aesthetic creativity. 

Such shoes were ‘de rigueur’ for social occasions like weddings and reunions and woe betide a Nyonya who wore anything else with her coiffed hair, accessories, kebaya labuh or Nyonya kebaya! (traditional costumes of the Nyonyas)

The art of making these shoes are still kept alive today by the descendants of those who settled down in the Straits of Malacca centuries ago.  Designs have evolved in tandem with current fashion trends, but the precision in which the beads are hand-sewn to swatches of cloth  are  fiercely  maintained. 

The original kasut manik has metamorphosed into more modern designs like mules, open-toes, cross-straps and heels. Whatever shape or style they may assume, beaded shoes still exude an aura of magnificence and are exquisite engineered works of art. Unlike regular modern footwear which are cut from fabric and sewn together, the kasut manik is a composition of jewel-like beads and crystals to form an amazingly intricate mosaic of textures and rainbow colours.

The art of kasut manik literally transforms footwear into objects of captivating and timeless beauty. Each pair is intricately designed and requires many hours of stitching, one bead at a time, hence the expensive price tags. 

A pair of shoes can take weeks to months to complete.  But these historically &culturally-rich shoes are worth every cent. Moreover, a good pair of beaded shoes lasts a very long time and can be re-soled many times over once the cloth wears out. These timeless pieces could even be passed down through the generations. Just like good old wine, the longer you keep it, the better it tastes.  Kasut manik is the perfect compliment to any elegant outfit, traditional or modern.

Steppin’ Out ( is proud to offer our customers our line of Nyonya beaded dance shoes.  Take a piece of art, history and culture onto the dance floor with you, whether it be for a party or a dance competition!

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