This thesis examines the identities of the Straits Chinese women presented visually through their dress in the former British Straits Settlements from the mid-nineteenth to the early-twentieth century. The Straits Chinese were the Straits-born Chinese who were British subjects; their women were often called Nyonyas during the period under study. For that reason, the identities of Straits Chinese women are frequently assumed to be the same to that of Nyonyas. This thesis challenges that assumption and argues that the Nyonyas, unlike their men, did not visually present themselves as Straits Chinese women in the way they dressed, until a later point in time. It is the main argument of this thesis that their identities presented visually through their dress switched from being ‘local Nyonyas’ to being ‘locally born Straits Chinese women’, consequently revealing a visual gap in identity between Straits Chinese men and women before the twentieth century.
Straits Chinese men or Babas initially adhered to Chinese costume before adopting western attire in the later part of the colonial period. Nyonya dress, on the other hand, was unique, hybrid and adapted from the local dress styles of insular Southeast Asia in the period before twentieth century. Since the Nyonyas had a different visual approach to the men in the way they presented themselves to the world through dress, this thesis argues that the Nyonyas developed separate identities to the Babas, visually. The early twentieth century witnessed a process of change in dress among the Nyonyas, from local dress styles to Chinese and Western styles. This thesis demonstrates that the Nyonyas identities also changed visually, along with their dress styles. The identities portrayed visually switched and enabled the Nyonyas to join their men and be ‘Straits Chinese’, that is both (Straits) ‘Chinese’ and ‘British’ (subjects).
This thesis employs a visual approach to interrogate the identities of the Nyonyas, in a context where written sources by the Nyonyas are scarce. Specifically, this thesis reconstructs the Nyonyas’ visual identities through their dress relying mainly on the evidence captured in portrait photographs and paintings, as well as dress materials that survive today. This thesis demonstrates that the changing identities of Nyonyas can be observed visually through their dress and that the Nyonyas did not associate themselves with the ‘Straits Chinese’, visually at least, until the early twentieth century when they visually asserted themselves as such.