“Good combination,” said Bibik Swee Neo to herself while fastening her navy blue kebaya sulam with her favourite kerongsang rantai given to her by her late parents as a wedding gift in 1960. Her kerongsang rantai which consists of three-linked brooches was extraordinary; it was a ballerina design and the tutu of the ballerina was encrusted with intan. The rose diamond is a common and widely used gemstone among the Baba Nyonya community which is the descendant of predominantly mixed heritage of the Malay and the Chinese. The men are called the Baba and the women are called the Nyonya. Though intan was deemed by some fastidious nyonya as a second-grade stone due to its irregular shape compared to the meticulously shaped diamond which did a better job in reflecting light, this specially commissioned ballerina kerongsang was the most cherished piece of costume jewellery by Bibik Swee Neo.
Not only it carried a sentimental value to Bibik Swee Neo, but the intricacy of the kerongsang stood out from the common floral designs as worn by many nyonyas. And this unique kerongsang was taken by Bibik Swee Neo as the ultimate choice to go with any of her huge collections of kebaya. It breathed sophistication to the everyday- kebaya biku, a blouse with simple scallops embroidered along the neckline and hem of the blouse, and the kerongsang also went well with her kebaya sulam, those that were heavily and extensively embroidered, a result of the brilliantly imaginative mind of a kebaya maker.
For her whole life, Bibik Swee Neo emphasised the genuine looks of a nyonya – she’d rather got her ensemble mismatched or spent an hour to don herself, than putting on the modern buttoned kebaya and ready-made sarong which was cut and sewed with a zipper. While undeniably it could take an hour for Bibik Swee Neo to don herself and an hour for her to hand-wash, starch and dry the sarong kebaya after wearing them, she would do it with no complaints for such a troublesome process was economical; a nicely starched and kept sarong kebaya could last for a lifetime or generations.
Growing up in the 1940s, the desire to pick up tips needed to make herself presentable and the skills needed in maintaining a functional house was so deeply entrenched in Bibik Swee Neo’s mind since a potential mother-in-law could gauge her endeavour by just tuning in to the rhythm of her pounding the sambal belachan or to look at her beading works. When one could already risk herself to be a spinster for the rest of her life just through the assessment of the sounds of the mortar and pestle and a glance at the products of the needle and threads, Bibik Swee Neo could not bear to imagine one failing to master the aesthetic sense of matching the sarong kebaya, not knowing how to pin the kerongsang ‘the Nyonya way’ or leaving a strand of one’s hair untied.
The importance of being a nyonya – both externally and the internally – did not become loose even after Bibik Swee Neo got married. She would continue to wake up at 5am, this time, to start preparing meals for her husband and her parents-in-law instead of learning to fix her appearance and honing her embroidery and cooking skills. However, so strong a fear, or perhaps it could be the need to prevent herself from becoming a not respected matriarch in the community, Bibik Swee Neo continued to strive for excellence in her beading works and cooking skills even she hardly had any time left for herself after giving birth to her son. It was not until when she reached the age of 60 and her eyes could no longer bear the strain from having to do the bead works at night. The European glass beads were too tiny to be seen by her and she did not want to end up like her close friend, Bibik Annie who suffered from hemifacial spasm due to the over stressed nerve around the eyes. Bibik Swee Neo certainly did not want to harm herself because she was yet to see her grandchild.
“Any news on your daughter-in-law?” asked Bibik Kim Neo while waiting for the foods to be served at the wedding dinner of Bibik Annie’s youngest son.
“Macam sial, not at all. It has been two years since they got married and the stomach is still flat,” Bibik Swee Neo swore at the inability of her daughter-in-law to conceive and what a bad luck she was.
“Oh mak lu! Did she go for a medical check-up?” Bibik Kim Neo adjusted her brown Pekalongan sarong that was specially bought for this wedding dinner while expressing her shock through the phrase ‘for one’s mother’s sake’.
“The doctor certified that they are both healthy. My son must be healthy because my food consists of so much spices! The cinnamon, turmeric, and lemon grass that are used in his favourite food – chicken rendang and beef curry – are all good herbs in maintaining the general well-being. But I have doubts about his Cina wife,” Bibik Swee Neo vented her frustration as she had no confidence with the well-being of her Chinese daughter-in-law.
While waiting for the arrival of the newly wed to commence the dinner, Bibik Swee Neo was distracted by the laughter and noises coming from a group of youngsters. They were taking selfies, ‘groupfies’ and numerous pictures of their Outfit of the Day against the stage which was decorated with red lanterns and red cloths. Bibik Swee Neo glanced around them and quickly initiated a new topic with Bibik Kim Neo who was busy chit-chatting with other lady folks over how ridiculously pricey a kebaya could cost nowadays as compared to the 1960s and 70s.
“Eh, look at the young girls! It is so unladylike. How can the sarong flare out in that way? She must be jalan tak cukup tanah!” Bibik Swee Neo presumed the young girls to be exceedingly outgoing because a properly tied sarong restricted the ladies to walk fast and far. Bibik Swee Neo thought that the young girls’ sarong could just drop off anytime.
“Kus semangat, I do not want to see any obscene scenes today,” Bibik Swee Neo emphasised her concern to the rest of her friends through the phrase ‘for God’s sake’.
“The embroideries of their kebaya look dead as well. Aiyooo, I would have thrown it into the dustbin if my daughters dare to wear such rubbish,” Bibik Kim Neo further pointed out that those kebaya was mass produced and could never measure up to those hand-embroidered ones.
“This kind of button-up kebaya is so ugly to be worn. And look at the girl in pink kebaya biku, how can she match that with a choker and jeans?!” Bibik Putih pointed at a young girl for her modern interpretation of kebaya as a jacket puzzled Bibik Putih.
“This is all nonsense. Such matching is utterly gross! Macam anak sundal! My daughter-in-law wore such rubbish during Chinese New Year! Tak seronoh langsung!” Bibik Swee Neo described those young girls as ‘kids of the unkind ladies’ for failing to adhere to the governed rules and she criticised her daughter-in-law as not proper for the daughter-in-law did the same thing.
Bibik Swee Neo shook her head looking at these youngsters and she reflected the time where mastering the colour coordination between the sarong and the kebaya was as essential as knowing how to fold the sarong and pinning the blouse with the kerongsang. The sarong should remain straight and the colour of kebaya shall complement with the sarong’s in creating a soothing and harmonious image although age played a factor in selecting the colours too. From the striking red to brown and black, Bibik Swee Neo gradually preferred the muted colours such as the navy blue kebaya and the maroon sarong that she wore now. She was proud to accessorise her sarong kebaya with her favourite kerongsang, gold rings, gold necklace and a pair of hong buey earrings that had its name from the shape of the phoenix’s tail. The thesis was to look like a Christmas tree – colourful, flamboyant, and dangling with various ornaments. Pairing the kebaya with jeans was like a cowboy – nothing feminine and what are women if one exudes no femininity!
“Let’s give a thunder of applause to the newly wed, Ben and Christina and their parents!” the deep voice of the emcee made Bibik Swee Neo recovered from her own deep thoughts. Amid the applause and chaos, Bibik Swee Neo noticed the frail Bibik Annie trailing behind her son and daughter-in-law. The frail look of Bibik Annie reminded Bibik Swee Neo about how vulnerable life could be and hence, she needed to make sure that her daughter-in-law gave birth to at least a son before she pass away. And it was at this moment that Bibik Swee Neo thought she had to consult the famous fortune teller at Cheng Hoon Teng Temple since the fortune teller was revered for his accurate predictions. After all, she had lost her patience after two years of disappointment and she needed to make sure that she left a good name – a responsible matriarch – when she exhales her last breath one day.
“Give me your name and your birthdate,” the fortune teller was ready to pen down on a pink paper.
“Khoo Swee Neo. I was born in 15 November 1941 at 5.05pm,” Bibik Swee Neo replied softly as it was a taboo for others to know about one’s birthdate. They believed one can use it for black magic if someone manages to collect your hair and nail as well.
“The Year of Snake. So, what’s the name and the birthdate of your daughter-in-law?”
“Lim Seow Ting. 19 October 1983 at 9.29am,”
“She was born in the Year of Pig and you are a Snake. Snake and Pig are naturally not compatible. And you were born at the time of You. So, you are blessed with wealth but you will have difficult relationships with your family members. And your daughter-in-law is a Pig, so the strained relationship between you two is doubled,” the fortune teller flipped through his astrology book while jotting down the details in an illegible manner.
“What do you want to ask?” he looked at Bibik Swee Neo who was dumbfounded by the allegations.
“May I know when will my daughter-in-law get pregnant?” Bibik Swee Neo tried to stay calm but her palm held the handkerchief so tightly that it betrayed her.
“Your zodiac sign dictates that you are a powerful one. You have a great power of observation and analytical skills and you rarely show it. Your daughter-in-law was born with a friendly persona and she is good at socialising. You will think that her personality is childish and for her, she thinks that you are incomprehensible. What’s your son’s zodiac?”
“He was born in the Year of Tiger,”
“There you go. Snake is in opposition with both Tiger and Pig. It is a destined fate. Your daughter-in-law will give birth, but you won’t see it. You will be born as a human again in your next life but just one kind advice: Be kind to others who are different from you and learn to go with the flow. Kindness can change your destiny,”
“Good combination. Her eyes look like you and her lips look like mine!”
“And she has a mole at the right cheek just like mother’s. Mother would be thrilled to know because she said the mole at the cheek brought luck. Oh no no no, stop crying you little baby,” said Jimmy, the son of Bibik Swee Neo while the radio in the hospital sang:
Looking back on how it was in years gone by, and the good times that I had, makes today seem rather sad. So much has changed.