In Singapore, we celebrate Racial Harmony Day on the 21st July every year. This takes place on the anniversary of the 1964 racial riots in Singapore where a celebratory procession (following the president Yusof bin Ishak’s formal address) in honour of the Prophet Muhammed’s birthday turned violent, leading to the death of 23 people and leaving 454 people injured. These riots exposed the serious racial tension between the many races that make up the Singapore population.
On Racial Harmony Day, school going kids are encouraged to wear traditional ethnic costumes to school and the day is set aside to celebrate Singapore’s success in building a racially harmonious society with a rich and diverse cultural heritage. In Little E’s kindergarten, they will have the opportunity to sample traditional snacks during class.
Usually, I put Little E in her Chinese New Year cheongsam, but as we did not celebrate Chinese New Year this year, I was at a loss as to what to do.
The Barn Owl and I at our engagement celebration
Then I remembered that I needed to get her a special outfit for A Becky Lee’s wedding dinner later this year and I was planning to get myself measured up for a new sarong kebaya for the occasion (having outgrown the kebaya that I wore for my own engagement celebration more than 10 years ago).
So why not get her a little one to match? Additionally, it would be appropriate to celebrate our family’s Peranakan heritage on Racial Harmony Day!
I had purchased my sarong kebaya many years ago during a trip to Malacca with the Aged Ps, but this time, I decided that I would look for a kebaya shop locally.
I asked around my network of friends and found out from Delphine (from Life in the Wee Hours) about Toko Aljunied, which is a very well-established Batik and Kebaya shop, located on Arab Street. She’d been there a few years ago to buy outfits for herself and her daughter, and had been very impressed with them.
I had no idea at the time, but Toko Aljunied has tailored traditional Peranakan wear for local stage and television productions such as ‘Emily of Emerald Hill’ and ‘The Little Nyonya’, and is generally favoured by our current Prime Minister as the place to get beautiful one-of-a-kind silk batik shirts for formal functions!
Shopping for a mini-Kebaya at Toko Aljunied (91 Arab Street)
Parking at Arab Street is normally a nightmare, however, Toko Aljunied is two minutes walk from the Golden Landmark Shopping Centre which has a nice basement carpark. Win!!
At Toko Aljunied, the Makcik who owns the store kindly brought out a few ready-made tops in Little E’s size, saying that she would adjust the sleeves on the spot if they were too big for her. I noticed that the material used to make the sheer tops were all traditional cotton robia, which is a very fine, light cotton voile, and the lace-like embellishments (known as ‘sulam’) along the collar, hem and cuffs were all embroidered directly onto the material – that is, they weren’t appliqués that were stitched on.
The tops came in a variety of colours, and Little E chose a delicate pink shade which received a nod of approval from the Makcik. I was about to open my mouth to protest (WHY PINK WHY) when the Makcik fixed me with a stern gaze and said, firmly, “This one is good for her – very chantek!”
Now comes the difficult part – matching the kebaya top with a sarong skirt! With my poor colour sense, I would get lost and confused in the multitude of colours and swirling motifs that make up the batik print so I was very pleased when the Makcik proceeded to expertly pair the top with a variety of sarongs, each making the whole outfit look more beautiful than the last.
Eventually, the Makcik picked out a sarong with red, purple and gold ‘ikat’ print which really made the colours of the kebaya shine. The Makcik advised us to get the sarong in a longer length and fold it over at the waist, saying “Let her wear it for longer otherwise so sayang, what a waste.”
Although the child-sized kebaya top is conveniently fastened together with hidden popper buttons, no sarong kebaya ensemble is complete without the ‘kerosang’, a fancy three-piece brooch joined together with a long chain. The Makcik picked out two types of ‘kerosang’ for Little E, one with gold with rhinestones in the shape of a flower and one set with purple stones. Little E went with the purple stones, so the Makcik went to the front of the store and picked out purple flower hair clips to match!
All in all, the whole ensemble set us back SGD$80, which is very reasonable! Best of all, Little E loved it. You can see her happy little face in the picture above, as she clutched the shopping bag with its precious cargo!
She could not WAIT to put her kebaya on for Racial Harmony Day! Look how happy she is! She was going about proclaiming, “I’m wearing a kebaya because my Ah Kong is a Baba so I am a Little Nyonya girl!”
Little Nyonya proudly wearing her kebaya!
I am so glad the Little E is embracing her Peranakan heritage! I am now thinking of revisiting the shop to get J a traditional batik shirt…and I must remember to get the Aged Ps to bring them to the Peranakan Museum again.
Toko Aljunied is located at 91 Arab Street, Singapore 199797
Opening Hours are from 1100-1900 on Monday to Saturdays and from 1100-1700 on Sundays