Nyonya Kebaya - A Timeless Symbol of Racial Unity

tepping into Butik Ang Eng at Dataran Palma Ampang, Selangor, is like taking a step back in time.

This heritage outlet lends rich insight into the Melaka Chinese Peranakan community, as depicted in a popular comedy drama series in the 1990s, ‘Baba Nyonya’.

The boutique transports visitors back to the home of the Babas and Nyonyas, a unique cultural hybrid with a cosmopolitan persona that flourished for centuries throughout Malaysia.

In the centre, rows of authentic nyonya Melaka kebaya tops in a rainbow of colours were neatly arranged, with a welcoming signage on the wall depicting its name, ‘Ang Eng’ engraved in red on classic black wood and antique Chinese furniture exuding a warm, cosy and rustic ambience.




The boutique is akin to an exhibition, allowing visitors to immerse themselves in the artworks on display.   

Mesmerised by the family collections which had been painstakingly preserved, this writer had the opportunity to enjoy an art and fashion experience that was educational, inspiring and completely breathtaking.

 “Welcome to Butik Ang Eng,” said boutique manager Lim Yu Lin, 53, who was stylishly dressed in maroon-coloured nyonya kebaya paired with jeans, as she warmly greeted this writer.

Lim Yu Lin, 53, Ang Eng boutique manager

Yu Lin, who was born in Alor Setar, Kedah with Hokkien background said the boutique was founded by her late grandmother, Lim Wah Choon in 1955 in Yan, Kedah; the legacy continued with the capable hands of her (Yu Lin) mother Lean Ong, who shared the same vision.

 “It was grandma who gave the name ‘Ang Eng’, The  word ‘Ang’ means ‘red’ while ‘Eng’ means bird in Hokkien. ‘Ang Eng’ or red bird is symbolic of the Chinese community especially among Babas and Nyonyas as it is believed to bring good luck.

“The embroidery on the Nyonya kebaya is embellished with intricate patterns and designs that incorporate traditional motifs depicting animals such as fish and dragons other than birds,” Yu Lin, who is the third generation successor, told Bernama.

Yu Lin and her husband Lim Chung Hau, 57, were running the business at the Great Eastern Mall prior to shifting its operation to the current outlet at Dataran Palma, Ampang last year.

Butik Ang Eng offers a variety of collections of Nyonya kebaya including Chinese traditional costumes, which made fashion statements at many international fashion runways.

She said despite the latest couture-related fashion collections taking centre stage at fashion shows in Malaysia and abroad, the alluring Nyonya kebaya, known for its timeless elegance and intricate design remains popular.

   “In the past, the Nyonya kebaya was generally regarded as more suitable for the older women, especially among the Babas and Nyonyas.

“The revival of the Nyonya kebaya was best attributed to the late Datin Seri Endon Mahmood (wife of the fifth Prime Minister Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi) who successfully turned the attire to a fashion statement.  She was also known for her role in promoting batik and songket, raising their national status while forging an international presence in fashion wear,” she added.

 (The late Endon, who was the founder and chairman of Yayasan Budi Penyayang (PENYAYANG) shared her impressions of the Nyonya kebaya in her 140-page coffee table book, ‘The Nyonya Kebaya’ devoted to this fashion icon, which was launched in November, 2002. The highlight of this book was a showcase of kebayas from Endon’s own collection. Endon died on Oct 20, 2005 at the age of 64 after a long battle with breast cancer).




Reminiscing the memorable years as a child, Yu Lin said she was brought up in a family who were actively involved in business.

"My grandfather was the owner of dried seafood while my grandmother was very passionate about the Nyonya kebaya and learned to sew the dress on her own. In 1955, she started her own baju kebaya business on the floor right above my grandfather’s dried seafood shop.  

"She hired local women from the neighbourhood, her nieces and her own daughters and my female cousins to help out with the sewing,” she recalled.

Ang Eng Boutique in 1955 at Alor Setar, Kedah (PIx courtesy of Yu Lin)

In 1975, her family decided to migrate to the city and open a small boutique at Ampang Park and was operating there for 20 years before shifting their operation to Great Eastern Mall.

"At that time, my grandmother had already started to receive orders from customers from Nyonyas in Melaka, and from there the sewing patterns were based on the original Nyonya kebaya designs, while my mother was mainly accepting orders from Malay customers,”  she shared.

 Following in her mother’s footsteps, Yu Lin had been trained at a young age to inherit the traditional kebaya sewing skills besides producing the handmade embroidery to complement the outfit.

 “Our grandmother was very firm and wanted her grand children to master the traditional art of sewing especially embroidered kebaya so that the future generation can appreciate the cultural kebaya heritage.

“The handmade embroidery is our signature, a product that we inherited over six decades as a maker of authentic Nyonya kebaya. We believe in every stitch makes a perfect piece.

 “Besides our hand-stitched kebaya, we also produce embroidered Nyonya kebaya using electric sewing  machines. Customers can choose between kebaya made of soft Japanese kasa cotton or Swiss voile,” she said.




According to Yu Lin, the classic Nyonya kebaya is the short kebaya (kebaya pendek) designed with the top covering the shoulders until buttocks and are short-sleeved or three quarter-sleeved.

“The classic Nyonya kebaya does not have any button as it is designed like the Japanese kimono, with the central opening of the blouse fastened by kerongsang and dokoh (brooches) where the flaps of the blouse meet.

"The kerongsang complements the Nyonya kebaya which is worn over a batik sarung, adding a touch of sophistication and elegance to the wearer’s overall look,” she said.

 Yu Lin said the kebaya is tailor-made to suit the customer’s request and in addition, it should be suitable for the wearer’s skin colour, body shape and type of job.

Nyonya kebaya is a symbol of unity.

"For example, Malay customers prefer the long kebaya, a knee-length, long-sleeved tunic, with the embroidered design using flora and fauna motifs, with dark colours to cover the wearer’s body perfectly.

 "Chinese Peranakan customers in particular prefer vibrant colours such as turquoise, yellow, pink and emerald green, and is paired with embroidered  motifs of animals that are believed to bring good luck to the wearer such as dragons, birds and chicken,” she said.

Nyonya kebaya is also gaining popularity among the younger generation of all races, she said, noting that besides its elegance, it can also be worn with a long skirt, pareo and pants.

 “While the Nyonya kebaya is often regarded as more suitable for older women and worn over batik sarung, the younger generation prefers to pair it with jeans, making kebayas a more fashionable outfit.

 “However, what remains till today is that the kerawang (cutwork) embroidery for every Nyonya kebaya collection highlights the uniqueness and the Chinese Peranakan heritage. The kerawang design is usually chosen to accentuate the wearer’s personality and is then matched with the fabric before it is sewn,” she said.

 For a pair of Nyonya kebaya, Yu Lin would assign the sewing and embroidery stitching tasks to her workers, and these usually take about one to three months to complete, depending on the complexity of the design and based on the customer’s request.

  “We’ll start with the dress first; the cutwork will be in the final stage before it is matched with the outfit     especially at the bottom section of the kebaya and the sleeves,” she said, adding that over 300 Nyonya kebaya collections are readily available at the boutique for sale at prices of between RM500 to RM12,000 each.




Contrary to perceptions that the Nyonya kebaya is only suitable for slim women, Yu Lin opined that anyone can wear the kebaya or cheongsam as it can accentuate their beauty.

 “While the Malays, Chinese and Indians have their own traditional attire, the Nyonya kebaya is often the choice as it is comfortable to wear not only during festivals, but also at official events including weddings, engagements and dinner functions, and in fact, it can be worn daily.

"This indirectly proves that the Nyonya kebaya is a symbol of unity as all women irrespective of their backgrounds, can wear it,” she said.

Butik Ang Eng is open from Monday to Friday based on appointments, said Yu Lin adding that during festive seasons such as the Chinese New Year and Aidifitri, the outlet is usually overwhelmed with customers’ orders.

 “I’m very fortunate to be born in a family who are skilled in sewing Nyonya kebaya and for inheriting the embroidery craftsmanship, which is a dying art as many do not have the knowledge in embroidery stitching. 

 “I was at first not really interested in acquiring the sewing skills after spending almost every day behind the sewing machine, and I was determined to enrol in a fashion design course at an international private college after completing my Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia in the 1990s,” said Yu Lin, who is often invited to promote her Nyonya kebaya collections at fashion shows and beauty pageants.




Last April, the Ministry of Tourism, Arts and Culture (MOTAC) has said that Malaysia will be leading an initiative to nominate ‘Kebaya: Knowledge, Skills, Traditions and Practices’ as an intangible heritage under the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation’s (UNESCO) Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity for 2023.

It said the nomination effort is to ensure the kebaya remains protected through the delivery of knowledge, promotional efforts, and documentation or research efforts with the support of the other countries involved in the nomination.

Malaysia will be doing this alongside Brunei, Indonesia, Singapore and Thailand as the kebaya represents and celebrates a shared historical legacy and is still worn in communities across Southeast Asia, MOTAC said in a statement.

Meanwhile, the founder and president of Miss Malaysia Kebaya (MMK) Dr Jason Hee said in addition to organising various programmes to promote kebaya-wearing among the local women, the organisation has also showcased the kebaya through beauty pageants and international fashion shows.

“We are also working together with fashion students at several local universities to produce kebayas that can make the cut for international fashion shows.

“We are also collaborating with several parties including the fashion designers’ association and individuals who keep and preserve old kebaya collections to be exhibited for educational purposes,” he said, adding that his organisation proposed that MOTAC decide on a date for celebrating the National Kebaya Day to show the nation’s commitment towards preserving the Malaysian kebaya heritage as a national identity.




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