Ashrey Ch'ng (middle) and several Nyonyas performing for Chap Goh Mei.
Ch'ng with the late Datuk Kenny Chan.
“People say Peranakan culture is very colourful, but it didn’t start out that way. The earliest – and now outdated – Peranakan costume was the baju panjang, made from kain Bugis, which was often brownish in colour. It was not until European organdie came to replace the dull-coloured baju panjang that the long blouse took on a colourful and glamorous pattern. It was from there that colours seeped into everyday Peranakan life,” says Ashrey Ch’ng.
Ch’ng is one of the few Peranakan female impersonators in Malaysia, keeping alive the tradition that stemmed from men playing women’s roles in the past because women were prohibited to act.
He began to get involved in the cultural scene when he was a university student in 2000. While completing his internship in Penang, he was on the lookout for a part-time course to fill his weekends. This led him to the then Kumpulan Giat Budaya, a dance troupe managed by Rumah P.Ramlee.
“I took up the dance class and I was the only Peranakan dancer amid all the Malay dancers. In 2001 I graduated from both my diploma course and the dance troupe,” says Ch’ng.
After that, he joined Kumpulan Giat Budaya as a full-time dancer for three years. In 2004 he met G.T. Lye, arguably the last doyen of Peranakan female impersonators. Ch’ng performed his first female role with Lye at Padang Kota Lama. “I was playing the role of sang keh mm (mistress of ceremony) while Lye was in his usual matriarch role. I remember the kebaya was white in colour and the flowers were pink.”
Following the performance, Ch’ng was invited by the State Chinese Association to be a dance choreographer and fellow performer – usually as a bibik (an elderly Nyonya). He still performs for them today.
Ch’ng’s destiny to perform as bibik became clear when he got to know the late Datuk Kenny Chan in Melaka during a performance. “Chan had been my idol since I was small. I used to watch his shows on TV and I wanted to be like him – dispensing laughter to the audience while appreciating my own culture. And it is even more important to keep the culture alive these days because it’s dying,” says Ch’ng.
While he started going full force with his bibik role and constantly travelled between Penang and Melaka for performances with Chan, Ashrey’s family was having a hard time accepting what he was doing.
“Even though it was tradition for men to play women’s roles, it still felt weird when your son ‘acted’ in a female role. I had to convince my mum that it was solely for performances. Slowly, she began to understand where I was coming from and today, she is very proud of me whenever she sees me in the newspapers or on TV.”
Soon, Ch’ng began to appear with a stage name, inspired by his fair skin colour: Bibik Puteh.
“It is spelt ‘puteh’ instead of ‘putih’ because that was how the Peranakans pronounced it, and I wanted to reflect the culture even in the name.”
Ishak Mohd Nor does Ch'ng's make-up and hair.
Ch'ng's hand-sewn kasut manek and purse.
Cucuk sanggul and bunga chot.
From initially having to borrow costumes, Ch’ng now owns more than 20 pieces of baju panjang. He took up classes to bead his own kasut manek and purse to match the requirements for his bibik role and, throughout the years, he has also perfected the skill of tying the sarong. “Lye once told me, ‘In order to be a successful bibik, you have to learn their quirks very well’,” recalls Ch’ng.
“I also learned a lot of things from the late Cikgu Bahroodin, or Bibik Hitam. He taught me how to naik sanggul Nyonya and the meaning of placing the bunga chot – a circlet of flowers – at the base of the bun. If you see a Nyonya wearing the bunga chot in full circlet, it means she is unmarried. When she is married, she wears the flowers in two semi-circlets. When her husband passes away, she wears one semi-circlet either on her left or right.”
To transform from a man into a woman, Ch’ng first had help from his friend, Ishak Mohd Nor, whom he got to know from Rumah P. Ramlee. Until today, Ishak still does Ch’ng’s hair and make-up, which takes about one and a half hours to complete.
Their skills made such a perfect combination that in 2012, they started their shop, K’baya Houz, to share their love of Peranakan culture with everyone who may be interested. “It is arguably the cheapest kebaya shop in Penang. One can obtain a kebaya for RM85 – you can hardly find one for this price nowadays,” says Ch’ng.
K’baya Houz operates both in Penang and Melaka, and the duo’s clothing are constantly scouted for beauty pageants, photo shoots, modelling and even for dance classes in various schools around Penang. “We’ve taught dance in schools such as SMJK Convent Datuk Keramat and SMK Convent Light Street, and we’ve won many competitions,” says Ch’ng.
When asked how he juggles between his business, teaching and performing at the same time, he simply says, “I love my jobs.”
Peter Soh has published his works in Eksentrika, Malaysian Indie Fiction, Ricepaper Magazine and Penang Monthly. One of his short stories was featured in the Emerging Malaysian Writers 2018 anthology.