|A kebaya pageant in 1960s Brunei|
Once a year, the more socially active cousins – Abang Osman, Abang Omar, Abang Imat, Kak Pet, Abang Amzah – would lead the organising team for the Kerabat (family) gathering at one of the beautiful beaches of Singapore. Some time towards the end of 1965, before we moved up north, the Kerabat converged at Tanjong Katong*, a popular seaside retreat along the East Coast of the island.
There was a well-loved song about the blue waters of the cape:
Di Tanjong Katong, airnya biru
Di situlah tempat, dara jelita
Duduk sekampong, lagi kan rindu
Ini kan lah pula, jauh di mata
In Tanjong Katong, the water is blue
That is where you’ll find pretty damsels
Missing you, even when you’re here
What more when you’re out of sight
In the 1960s, the “Katong girls”, who lived in big, beautiful mansions that dotted the shoreline, were sought after marriage partners, not only for their upper-class pedigree but also for their morally-upright English education at the convents ran by the Christian nuns. A couple of our cousins - Kak Bibah and Kak Alimah - attended the Tanjong Katong Girls School, one of the prestigious single-sex schools in that wealthy suburb, known for its simple uniform of white shirt and dark green skirt. Our eldest aunt, Wak Enah, had somehow befriended some genteel Nyonya ladies of Katong, whose style of dress – starched batik sarong from Pekalongan, matching embroidered kebaya from the finest kasa rubiah, moonstone kerongsang (brooches) daintily decorating the bodice, matching star-shaped studs and rings, the ubiquitous linen handkerchiefs with tiny pastel floral embroidery, the twin gold hairpins to secure the sanggul tinggi (high, tight notch which was Wak Enah’s signature) or siput kuih keria (the low, doughnut style bun that Mak would not be seen out without) and cooking – asam pedas, pai tee (tophats), kuih talams (a variety of coconut-based cakes steamed in small and large round containers and cut into diamond-shaped pieces before they were served) – which they had in common. Unfortunately, their association with the Peranakans (Straits-born, English-educated Chinese, whose ancestors arrived in the Nusantara in the fifteenth century, married local women and absorbed their language, culture and cuisine) had jaundiced their views of the Sin Kehs (the newcomers, Chinese immigrants who came later in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as traders and coolies, who maintained their own dialects, costumes and cuisine).
The Kerabat gathering was filled with activities for the children as well as the grown-ups – there were greasy pole, tug-of-war, gasing spinning, kite flying and cooking contests – but the high point of the event for the female cousins was the Ratu Kebaya or Kebaya Queen beauty pageant. Kak Pet and Kak Aida, along with two other distant female cousins, had dolled themselves up in tight batik sarongs, long-line corsets and see-through lace kebayas with matching selendangs (shawls) and strutted their stuff in front of the roaring crowd and the panel of judges. Kak Aida seemed to be the audience favourite but Kak Pet was the choice of the jury. We concluded that Kak Pet’s buxom figure (36-24-36) and sensual moves had nailed her position as the winner.
* Tanjong means cape in Malay while Katong refers to the rippling effect of a sea mirage when looking at a shoreline.