Holding a size 12 needle between his left thumb and forefinger, Lim Tian Seng meticulously stitched one Japanese cut bead after another onto the piece of pattern that he had drawn earlier, that is pegged tightly with a round wood frame.
To craft a pair of Peranakan beaded slippers, one needs plenty of creativity and patience, besides a steady hand and good eye-sight. After all, it takes at least three to four days of continuous stitching of eight hours a day to complete one pair, with the bulk of the time spent on beading the “manik face”, or the uppers for the slippers. For intricate designs using fine cut beads, it could even take up to a month.
These handcrafted beaded slippers or “manik shoes” are Malaysia’s proud heritage originating from Malacca since the 1930s. As the beads are sewn one at a time, either using fine or cut beads, and onto different patterns, each pair is unique and one is hard-pressed to find two of the same design.
In a craft that is dominated by Peranakan (Straits Chinese) women who are famed for their skills in embroidery and bead-work, Lim, of Teochew descent, has made a name for himself in the art, even receiving the National Craft Award and the UNESCO Award of Excellence for Handicrafts in 2012.
According to Lim, 54, his foray into beading was based solely on interest and the love for its intricacy. He said, “To supplement our household income, my mother Cheong Dik Kia, used to bead at home and sell the beaded uppers to shoemakers. I can still remember her hunched over her bead-work. It was tough but it was something that she enjoyed doing, what more when she was able to earn from it.
“Of all her seven children, I was the only one who picked up the skill from her. She’s over ninety years old now and can no longer bead, although she would have loved to continue as a hobby.”
In the year 2000, Lim established his business T.S. Lim Trading in his home state of Malacca, and has never looked back since. Although there are about five makers of beaded slippers in the state, until today, Lim is the only maker who also does the designing and beading of the manik face.
Assisted by his wife, Susan Hau Fong Lian, popular motifs that T.S. Lim Trading produces are along the lines of nature, such as flowers and animals.
Susan, who picked up beading only after marriage, took to it like a duck to water, thanks to her childhood hobby of cross-stitch. “I’ve always loved to stitch so I felt that beading was a natural progression for me. I was thrilled when I sold my very first manik face, and since then, there’s no stopping me,” she laughingly said.
Beaded footwear, sporting either Japanese beads or European cut beads which had been produced 30 years ago, peep-toed or closed-toed, with or without heels, sold off the shelf at T.S. Lim Trading are priced from RM200 each pair. However, a pair of cut beads could carry a price tag of RM2,000 and above depending on its elaborateness, design significance and colours.
Vintage beaded slippers of at least fifty years old, which the Lims do not trade in, could command an even higher price as they are admired for their fine stitching.
Apart from making new slippers and mules to replenish their stocks or to fulfil orders from customers, Lim and Susan also repair frayed or worn shoes by resoling the manik face. Lim added, “Beaded footwear are exclusive and cannot be machine-manufactured. Like prized family heirlooms, they are passed down from one generation to another, and yes, a pair of well-made slippers could last that long!”
Although some women may think that beaded slippers are old-fashioned and should only be worn on special customary occasions or Peranakan festivals to complete her sarong kebaya, Susan has noticed that the art is beginning to be appreciated by the younger generation too. She said, “What used to be souvenirs for tourists have now become an accessory to complement a woman’s outfit.”
With this trend catching on, Susan is hopeful that one day, her daughter would pick up the craft and revive the dying art by taking over the business, although thus far, her three children, who are in their early twenties, have yet to indicate any interest in beading.
Note: An edited version of this article [A STITCH back in time] was published on 25th July, 2015, in the now-defunct The Malay Mail.
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