Book review: Once Upon A Kamcheng

Lillian Tong and Jewel Tan

Once Upon A Kamcheng


This book is an anthology of Penang Straits Chinese Baba Nyonya memoirs, biographies, and collected stories. The compilation was inspired by life growing up in a Baba Nyonya home and the stories told to me by my mother, Tan Chooi Bee, and my friends. Beyond the nostalgia of resplendent gold and gilded lattice screens and gracious living are behind the scenes expose bothering on the ridiculous to the tragic, where antics, escapes, indulgences and misadventure reign.

Lillian Tong

Once Upon A Kamcheng

The Straits Chinese Babas and Nyonyas are ordinary people in extraordinary times. Their courage, sense of adventure, innate resilience and resourcefulness stood them in good stead through displacement and diaspora as they are buoyed along through centuries of dynamic and transitory history of the world.

The significance of persons and families as agents of history in affecting and causing the development of alternative history makes up the kaleidoscope of the memoirs and stories of Baba Nyonya life and experiences in this book.

We invite and welcome you to delve beyond gilded lattice screens, behind embroidered silk curtains, and immerse yourself in their eccentric and extravagant, if curious, strange, and wonderful world!


Once Upon A Kamcheng

This book is a collection of short stories by Helen Yeo, Doreen Lim Swee Lin, Jewel Tan, Lillian Tong, Melinda Song, Michael Cheah, Pat Lim Chooi Ewe and Tan Kean Teong.

Beautiful photographs and collages provide an insight into the rich and decadent lifestyle of the Chinese Peranakan from not such a distant past. They help to illustrate the stories and bring them to life. The stories are entertaining and I would recommend the book to all who would like to know about what life was in a Chinese Peranakan family. For those who have lived through those experiences, this book will warm the cockles of your heart.

Once Upon A Kamcheng

Being a superstitious lot, I found the story on Sintok and Kemenyen to be enlightening. It was a ritual common in my household when I was growing up as well. The 'sintok' ritual was a must to 'buang soey' (dispel bad luck) so that life would start afresh with boundless possibilities. Reflecting now on this ritual, I feel that it might have left a far-reaching effect on me, much more that I realise. As I bathed with refreshing cold water filled with flower petals, I would step out of the bathroom knowing that all bad luck would be happily washed away. I would start the day positively and this optimistic attitude has stayed with me ever since. Perhaps this why my life somehow seems like a fairytale, unfolding with enchanting encounters as the days go by.

Only when I reflect on such stories and my childhood, do I see the connection that has shaped the way I am today, over half a century later. I am glad I bathed in colourful-flower petalled water!

Kudos to Lillian and Jewel as well as all to all who have contributed to the book for these nostalgic stories.

Adrian Cheah
26 April 2021


Once Upon A Kamcheng


Preface 4
Boyfriends, Beaux, and the Belle 9
Sin Ban Guan Estate 21
A Lot of the East with Plenty of the West 29
The Peacock with a Flower Basket 37
Concerto Pas De Deux 51
Polo, Planes, and Playboys 87
A Nyonya Matriarch's Final Odyssey 93
Ouan Tor Boey 99
Nasi Lemak and Sambal 127
One Moment in Time 133
Beyond the Smoke Curtain 151
Sintok and Kemenyen 161
Mother and the Moon Goddess 167
Acknowledgements 180
Once Upon a Nyonya 182


About the editors/authors

Once Upon A Kamcheng

Lillian Tong is a cultural advocate and an animated storyteller of the Straits Chinese culture history, arts, heritage and practice, both locally and abroad.

This Penang Nyonya is curator, choreographer, Nyonya craftsman and performer at World Expositions, conventions and exhibitions abroad, among them, the Shanghai World Expo 2010, the Dr. Sun Tat-Sen Memorial Museum in Taiwan 2011. She was the cultural representative for Malaysia in the ASEAN-China (Guiyang) One Belt One Road Cultural Exchange 2019 and also curator for the 'Peranakan Diaspora-Classical Taiwanese Literature's Southward Dispersion in the Early 20th Century' Exhibition at the National Taiwan Museum of Literature 2019-2020.

Besides being the Museum Director of the Pinang Peranakan Mansion (Penang) and Consultant Curator of Georgetown Mansion and the Straits Chinese Jewellery Museum (Malacca), she is also President of Persatuan Peranakan Baba Nyonya Pulau Pining and vice-President of the State Chinese (Penang) Association.

She received a grant under the UNESCO-GTWHI World Heritage and Museums Programme and contributed to the UNESCO-GTWHI Intangible Cultural Heritage Inventorying for George Town.

She was awarded the Penang State 'Darjah Johan Negeri' in recognition of her work and service which led to her being featured in 'Successful People in Malaysia', First Edition.

Lillian Tong is also the author of 'The Straits Chinese Gold Jewellery', 'Straits Chinese Embroidery & Beadwork' and a journal diary, 'The Gilded Age: Penang Straits Chinese Baba Nyonya Wedding'.

Once Upon A Kamcheng

Jewel Tan dressed in her first baju panjang at the age of five. As a child, her Nyonya mother and grandmother acquaint her with their Baba Nyonya family's stories. They also deemed it necessary to groom her in the Nyonya art of kasot manek and sulam Nyonya kebaya embroidery. She learnt sulam kebaya embroidery from her grandaunt, sulam kebaya master craftsman Madam Lim Swee Kim, and her aunt, Ean Koid. At that time, Madam Lim told her she is the youngest sulam kebaya embroiderer in Penang.

At nineteen years old, Jewel made her internatinal debut as kasot manek craftsman and Baba Nyonya wedding performer at the Malaysian Pavilion at the International Shanghai Expo 2010.

Jewel is a dentist in a small town in the remote interior of Borneo. She continues to enjoy beading kasot manek for leisure at home by the Rejang River, Sarawak.


Once Upon A Kamcheng
Lillian Tong & Jewel Tan
Jubilee Edition, Persatuan Peranakan Baba Nyonya Pulau Pinang
2020, Published by Tan P'Shun-Jie Joshua
Softcover. 13.2 cm x 20 cm, 184 pages
Language: English
Illustrated throughout
ISBN 978-967-177111-2-9