The Nyonya Beader

30 June 2016

In efforts to protect Penang’s intangible heritage, the state has started to provide a platform for its aging artisans to showcase and transfer their skills to the next generation. We take a look at the intricate art of Nyonya beadwork and the woman trying to preserve it.

May Lim is 71 years-old this year. She tells us that she was raised by her Peranakan mother to “be seen and not heard”. It seems like the years have either undone that teaching or it was never really meant to be taken at face value.

May Lim cannot stop once she starts talking. It is evident during the interview and also admitted by Lim herself. A teacher at heart, Lim started out as just that – a teacher in a public school. She later joined the education ministry; working in curriculum design.  Today she is accompanied by one of her students during our interview, albeit one that she gained through teaching Nyonya beading.

After her retirement, most of her Sundays are spent giving beading workshops or at the Occupy Beach Street flea market where another one of her students has a beadwork booth. She is the go-to person for Nyonya beadwork here on the island. In 2006, she spent 10 days in Paris showcasing her beading at an expo under the Penang Heritage Trust.

Growing up with a Peranakan mother and a Sinkeh father, Lim was raised with the meticulousness demanded of Nyonya women. Known for their distinctive culture reflected most prominently today through their food and handicraft, Peranakans are early Chinese immigrants (as opposed to Sinkeh – new immigrants) who assimilated and drew from both local Malay and their inherited Chinese heritage to form one that is uniquely their own. 

All her sisters were trained to cook and sew. She rattles off sewing and handiwork techniques that would sound like foreign language to a teenaged girl’s ears today. She reports that even though they had a servant, they were all required to wash their own laundry. When the girls entered secondary school, they were sent to the market every weekend to do the shopping for the household. When their house had guests, all of them would run to hide for they “knew where they stood.”

Her father was the owner of a coffee shop. When communism hit China, he fled to Singapore to avoid recruitment and finally ended up settling in Penang. Lim remembers how her house always had extra live-in guests as her family would host children of other poorer relatives, giving them jobs at their coffee shop. Mr. Lim and his wife would also pack free lunches every day for the shop’s garbage collector and his child.

This generosity modelled to her by her parents stands apparent today in Lim’s own life. Her transition into beadwork instructor started out when she retired at the age of 42 and got into volunteerism; teaching cooking and sewing to single mothers all across Penang. Perhaps that has influenced her views on getting her students to be self-sufficient if they needed to, using the skills that she taught them.

As a beadwork instructor, she understands her role in keeping this dying art alive and also pushes her students to create their own designs as opposed to following templated ones (in the early days, Lim mapped out original designs using Excel sheets saved onto floppy disks). This way, they not only gained the satisfaction of producing something uniquely their own, they could name their price and make a living out of selling their own handiwork.

She proudly tells us of a student who has gone on to establish three shops today – one in Penang and two in Malacca. But not all her students have entrepreneurial intentions, some just want to learn a new skill and some just find beading therapeutic. Lim shares with us how one of her students is a doctor and does beading during night shifts in order to de-stress.  

Full of anecdotes, Lim has managed to marry her gift for gab and her perfectionism in handicraft in her life’s work. One gets a sense that Lim has given much of herself to her students. It is not so much of the beading that drives her but the relationships that she has built through it. Her verve certainly proves that with age, this Nyonya is indeed someone to be seen and heard.

May Lim was discovered via one of Artisan Market’s monthly workshops/events. She also runs workshops under Penang Heritage Trust’s PAPA (Penang Apprenticeship Program for Artisans).

By Adeline Chua

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