Chinese beadwork, silk and gold embroidery to die for
The Penang Peranakan Mansion, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
I’ve read references to Chinese beaded slippers, but never really processed what they look like, until I visited the Penang Peranakan Museum in Georgetown. Peter Soon, the owner has done a wonderful job collecting so many examples of beadwork, there was a large room just full of displays. (once again, mindblown). There were slippers, curtains , covers and mats, all beautifully beaded in Chinese motifs.
Firstly, the size of the beads, we are thinking around 2mm or smaller. They were tiny. Apparently they were imported from Switzerland highlighting again how Penang was such a busy trading hub. Different types and styles of beads were used, but the most common seemed to be small round beads. The small size of the beds allowed fabulous detail and shading. We were able to use our mobile phones on the glass cabinets to take closeups of the beadwork and this is how it looks.
Here is a photo of a mother passing on the art of beadwork to her daughter.
The curtain headers were also beaded and the curtains were lavishly embroidered in gold and silk thread.
The gold was couched onto the fabric and wonderful subtle effects were achieved by changing the colour of the couching thread.
Now to the slippers: There were lots! There were two basic patterns for the style of the slippers. It was great to see the works in progress, because then you could see how the construction happened. The upper was beaded and then cut from the fabric and sewn to the sole. Peter Soon has collected many different slippers showing the range of style and artistry in the beadwork.
The motifs used all are symbolic and carry a lot of meaning. For example oranges symbolise happiness, pomegranates mean fertility, apples mean peace, pears are for prosperity and peaches for long life, good health and sex.
Animal symbols are also important: cranes stand for peace, hope, healing, longevity and good luck, turtles mean long life and carp are for good luck, lions mean good fortune and prosperity, deer represent wealth and a long life, horses and monkeys mean success and sheep are for a good beginning to the New Year.
Birds also carry a lot of meaning. The phoenix symbolizes strength, resilience, and transformation. Cranes mean longevity. Mandarin ducks represent devotion, fidelity and lifelong affection. Peacocks have many meanings including beauty, attraction and fame. Roosters symbolise prosperity and also hard work.
Flowers are very important and can be combined to create layers of meaning. So Peony means wealth and honour and crab apple is used to symbolise the home, then the two of them together mean “May the whole family achieve wealth and honour”. The additional layers of meaning are related to the pictogram script. To my understanding, a word is made up of multiple pictograms. The word becomes associated with the meanings of each pictogram.
The lotus, orchid, bamboo and chrysanthemum are the big four. Lotus flower is a symbol of feminine beauty and purity. Orchids symbolize scholarly pursuit and represent nobility, integrity and friendship. Bamboo represents the character of moral integrity, modesty and loyalty. Chrysanthemums are associated with longevity and wealth. Morning glory is a symbol of marital bliss. Red camellias are associated with joy and protection.
Ok, that was enough of a digression. I really felt I needed to understand more about the legends and symbolism and culture to really appreciate all I was seeing. There was so much more depth that I didn’t even get due to lack of knowledge.
Now for something quite startling. Look at this beautiful blue headdress and jewellery. It’s made of feathers set in silver with amber beads. It’s just amazing. In the detail you can see the feathers clearly.The feathers are from a kingfisher. I’m not sure how I feel about this - sorry for the kingfisher, amazed the feathers have lasted this long, in awe of the craftsman who did such delicate work. I think I still feel they became the bird better.
The last photo of the slippers I want to share is the really little slippers belonging to the times of foot binding, now thankfully well past. I know it makes your heart leap to your mouth, but I just want to share it to remind ourselves to challenge cultural norms that hurt people.
I really had a fantastic visit to this museum. The number of beautiful items was just overwhelming, and it felt like a home not a museum. If you are ever in Penang, make sure you go there. It was really an awesome experience.