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The Chinese have a long history of trade and religious contact with the Indonesian archipelago. During the 18th and 19th centuries, Chinese traders and artisans settled along the coastal towns of the archipelago. Their descendants, known as Peranakan Chinese, adopted aspects of local culture and spoke a colloquial form of Malay, but maintained Chinese beliefs, dress and rituals such as wedding customs and practices of worship. Two embroidered valances acquired by the Australian Museum were collected in the early 1970s in Palembang - a city on the east coast of Sumatra with a sizable portion of Chinese residents.
The valances are examples of traditional Chinese textiles used by the Peranakan Chinese. Embroidered with motifs to attract good fortune, they were suspended over doorways or alcoves during celebrations such as birthdays and the Lunar New Year. The layout - with the two horizontal panels - is typical for valances as well as altar cloths. As with many of the festive Chinese textiles used in the region, mirror discs are attached along the borders. Also birds, flowers and animals are commonly depicted motifs with symbolic meaning.
One valance (E85846) depicts, in the upper panel, the lion dogs or “dogs of fo” - associated with Buddhism and protection. The lower panel shows a narrative scene that may have been based on woodblock illustrations of popular plays and novels. These illustrations were often showing scenes from The Romance of the Three Kingdoms [San Guo or Sam Kok] - about the end of the Han dynasty in the third century; Journey to the West [Xiyou Ji or Seh Yew] - a fictional tale of the Buddhist monk Xuan Zang’s journey; and The West Chamber [Xixiang Ji] - a popular romance. The figures in these illustrations typically show the gestural and dress conventions from Chinese opera. From the late 19th century, Romanised Malay translations of these Chinese epics were published for the Peranakan Chinese readers. It’s interesting to note that representations of the main characters were based on same visual conventions as Chinese printed books.
Another valance (E85847), probably intended for birthday celebrations, shows two children paying respect at an altar, flanked by an elderly man and woman, perhaps representing parents or grandparents. The character representing longevity, shou, is placed prominently above the altar and on the front of altar. Above, two lion dogs hold a banner inscribed with wishes for honour, wealth and longevity - fui gui chang chun.
Although some embroidery pieces were produced locally, many of the Chinese needle-worked textiles in Sumatra were imported from southern China, where significant silk embroidery industries were concentrated around Guangzhou and Chaozhou. Designs were outlined on silk in ink and embroidered in satin stitch, knot stitch and flat metallic thread couching. Somewhat quick and coarse stitching of these two valances suggests that they may have been made in southern China and subsequently brought to Sumatra.
Researched: Dr Hweifen Cheah
Valance - an ornamental drapery usually hung across a top edge of a bed, table, window or canopy.
Couching - a technique of embroidery where a pattern is created by holding down threads with other threads passed through the material
Joo Ee Khoo, The Straits Chinese: A Cultural History, Amsterdam: Pepin Press, 1996.
Valery Garrett, Heaven is High and the Emperor Far Away: Mandarins and Merchants in Old Canton. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.
Claudine Salmon, Literature in Malay by the Chinese of Indonesia: a Provisional Annotated Bibliography, Paris: Éditions de la Maison des Sciences de l'Homme, 1981
Libby Wibisono (eds.), Indonesian Chinese Peranakan: A Cultural Journey, Jakarta: Intisari, 2012