For hours on end, a lady with the patience of Job makes some of the most exclusive beaded shoes and handbags found in the world.
In a small upstairs room above her shop – Rumah Bebe (it means Bebe’s house) - in the historical district of Katong on Singapore’s east coast - Bebe Seet’s nimble fingers sew thousands of bead designs on the shoes and handbags. Her signature beaded shoes can take her many months to decorate with as many as 20,000 beads. They can cost as much as A$2000.
But they are always a celebration of colour, textures and glamour.
A renowned beadwork specialist, she learned from her grandmother, who was also well-known for her intricate work.
“My grandmother was 73 when she started teaching me beading work,” said Bebe. “Beading is an art that goes back into the early 18th century after Sir Stamford Raffles founded Singapore. European traders first brought beads to South East Asian ports and the art of beading was taken up by the Nonyas – (female Peranakans).
“But after the Second World War a lot of people here lost their wealth and could not keep up with their traditions. It became a dying art, but was revived in the 1950-60s. It needs lots of patience and interest, especially when you can use a million beads a year.”
Bebe, a true Peranankan at heart, can sit for hours - from morning until night – creating her designs not only for shoes and handbags, but also kebayas, pillow cases, cushion covers – even organisers and spectacle cases which, from A$180, are the cheapest product you will buy at her flourishing business.
A pair of shoes or a handbag cost more depending on the type of beads used. “Those costing from A$1500 to A$2000 would be made from antique beads which, more often than not, I have to go out and search for. They are normally found in the older cities such as Malacca and Penang. But sometimes people bring in beads to sell that have been handed down from the 1800s,” she said.
“The less expensive shoes are made with beads from the Czech Republic and Japan. These are called faceted beads and although they are not as expensive as antique beads they are still of very good quality.”
Bebe’s inspiration, she says, comes from the colours of flowers and picture art.
Her business, which combines art, craft, fashion and cuisine, is a showcase of the many aspects of living Peranakan culture and heritage. It’s regularly visited by tourists from all over the world.
Katong oozes with colourful houses and shops of the Peranakans, which refers to the descendants of the early Chinese community who settled in the Malay Archipelago from the 17th century. The Peranakan culture is a rich blend of the Chinese and Malay cultures - with some influence from the Portuguese, Dutch, British, Thai, Indian and Indonesian cultures as well.
Architecture in Katong and neighbouring district – Joo Chiat - is also an eye-opener.
The typical Peranakan house is an eclectic mix of architectural details and ornaments from East and West. Corinthium columns and Mediterranean-looking windows and shutters are juxtaposed with Chinese glazed tiles – and plasterwork with ornamental Chinese symbols. Walk around Emerald Hill, Tanjong Pagar and Koon Seng Road – districts that showcase rich and baroque Peranakan architecture.
Article and images - John Newton
Read more of John Newton's Singapore experience made possible by the assistance of Far East Hospitality.
The Historic Katong District
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