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Keeping The Kebaya Alive.

Like its colorful exterior, hidden within the heart of Joochiat is a well known Peranakan Rice dumpling store with pieces of history well decorated in its shop. Upon entering the store, a closer look lies a trove of rainbow, known as Kebayas. Home to Rice dumplings, Peranakan Trinkets, Kebayas and one of Singapore’s last remaining Kebaya Designer, Raymond Wong.

Describing the Kebaya as a “Pot of Culture”, Raymond took us on a journey to see his adventures and explore the evolution of Kebaya & the Peranakan culture.

Tell us about yourself.

I’m Raymond Wong, I’m a third generation Singaporean Chinese and my family actually runs a traditional food business doing Peranakan food. Like peranakan rice dumpling, nonya chang, nonya kueh and biscuits. For myself, I actually sidetrack and went on to be a Kebaya designer. Being a Kebaya designer, this business is actually rather niche because there are not many Kebaya designers left inSingapore. it’s a niche business now but surprisingly it is sustainable.

How is that so?

What happens is though the older generation people have slowly retired and stopped doing the business somehow there are still people who demand for traditional made kebayas or better quality kebayas.

How did Kim Choo became known for selling Kebayas as well?

it’s rather coincidental because what happened was my family was running a peranakan restaurant back then. And we were having quite an number of tourists coming out to a place to eat here. however, we felt that we want to create more synergies in our shop. We decide to have a corner and make it into like a small souvenir shop selling Peranakan stuff.

So it becomes like a fringe business where customers not only get the chance to eat peranakan food, buy peranakan Kueys and biscuits home. They get to see Peranakan material items or souvenirs. so and they may want to buy one or two back as a form of memento that they ever been to Kim Choo.

Back then we  decided to buy up some mannequins and good kebayas to decorate our shops and surprisingly some tourists actually like the kebayas. So we actually decided say “okay why don’t we we just buy some kebayas and sell them and if customers wanted”. So it work out from there and as time passed people starts to come into Kim Choo to look for Kebayas surprisingly. Because according to them to find Kebayas that is the right color that they like it’s very difficult.

Maybe because I used to take arts and Chinese painting so my taste palate for colors are rather sensitive. when I purchase kebayas I thought I’d buy the ones that I feel that customers will like it and I like it myself..

so somehow another that case that taste for colors and styles have have brought  me into the kebaya business.

How did you went about being a Kebaya Designer though?

After about one or two years in this  line I got bored of the Kebayas because I felt that it though it’s all kinds of beautiful embroideries but the style is always rather stagnant there’s nothing fresh for it.

So that’s where I started my journey on wanting to design Kebayas and and later on in my career that’s where I started to experiment on using the sewing machines to do the embroideries.  

I came upon this lady she’s a frequent customer that comes in to buy kueh kueh ( Peranakan Cakes) from us I call her aunty Mok. People call auntie Kim Seng, even though Kim Seng is not her name. Later I found out that Kim Seng is actually her shop name.She used to run a business called kim seng kebaya embroiderer maker and I actually approached her and she said okay since you’re keen I’ll teach you how to make kebayas.

Surprisingly her mindset was very traditional, in the sense that if you want to be my  student, I need to get to know you very well.  So on the first lesson it’s not really a lesson at all, it’s just a sit down Kopi and teh session where we sit down and chat.She wants to know more about myself and when she found out that I actually graduated from Melbourne with an accounting degree and I was doing my CPA back then.

she rejected me out of good will.

She refused to teach me because she felt as a mother herself, she brought three kids up into adults and now they are working as professionals. As a mom , She do not want them to sidetrack from the professional job and do something else . So she felt  that if she taught me the kebaya art , I would sidetracked from accounting and it would do much injustice to my parents . So she declined to teach me .

So what happened after?

so sadly to say I had no one to actually give me the hints on how to do the embroideries.

Until a situation whereby a customer of mine, she broke the lace of one of our Kebayas.

So we were having a headache on how to repair the embroideries until a customer who happened to pass by and she said “do you have matching colored threads?”

She can try to repair it for us and while she repaired she was telling us that being a Kebaya maker or a Kebaya Seller ,I should know how to repair a Kebayas because there are times if Kebayas are broken like this we can’t possibly send it to Indonesia to get it repaired and send it back to Singapore again.

I need to know that basic skill. that’s where we found out that this lady, she used to work as a Kebaya maker but she stopped making Kebayas for many years and she could only give me advice saying that “you need to modify your machine in a certain manner into embroidering mode then you play around your tension” and that’s it .

So I got her to give me some advice, I bought an old Singer sewing machine which is the treader version she taught me how to modify it.

When I asked her to demonstrate for me, she said she can’t do it anymore. because she had an operation on her  chest and she can’t do that movement anymore. She only tried advise me to experiment on your own, anyway in her younger days under apprenticeship she would also observe and experiment on her own.

So it was a terrible two three-month period because every time when I experiment the old machine the tension is an issue is very hard to gauge the tension that’s the first difficulty and the second difficulty is we often forgot to engage the tension so somehow there’ll be a lot of treads being eaten under the sewing machine and its a disaster to unpick all the threads and thirdly because it’s a threader version you need to threader the correct speed, your leg and your hand needs to synchronize it and if that  synchronisation has a bit of imbalance of movement what happens is that threads may catch tightly and cause the clothes to pucker. Pucker means to get it crumpled .

So this was really frustrating to the point that I decided  to purchase my first electric sewing machine and the first machine wasn’t that effective because this speed is so fast that even though I can do the embroidery but the embroidery are very hard to  achieve the softness effect that I wanted.

So until I spend a four thousand over dollar sewing machine and that machine has a function that allows me to control the speed and that allowed me to start from scratch an experiment how to catch the speed of the sewing machine

I started out  first journey to learn how to do Kebayas on my own and I started out with no teachers. So a church friend of mine that you gave us an inspiration said: ”hey, people used to do embroideries by hand and if they’re able to create sewing machines to do embroideries the movement of the sewing machine must be almost similar to the way how we move our hand by the direction.” so what I did is I actually purchased my first book on embroidery and I observed the movement of how they actually catch the embroideries and I try to replicate it with the sewing machines. surprisingly it works, it’s done by hand but when I try to achieve it with the sewing machine it work.

so from there, I slowly build my knowledge on those different embroidery styles and cut work using that methodology, that mindset and till today. Now I have my own set of notes on how to achieve those embroideries and cut work.

It’s a long process but it’s a fun process because what happens is I ended up collecting vintage kebayas and I always read the vintage Kebayas and see how they achieve the embroideries .

I’ll try to achieve that effect with the sewing machine.

It is a learning journey even to till today, one of challenges most probably I’ll face is changing mindsets of the younger generation or the older generation. How they perceive Kebayas to be and what it means to us and them.

What do you think the future goal would be for the Nonya Culture?

I hope when people think about Nonya culture they think about Singapore first. this is the level we should move up to but not moving backward further . Hopefully not just end up in the Museum and let our culture extinct.


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