Hand-Made Nyonya Beaded Shoemaker in Penang

Nyonya beaded shoes


Intricate and ornate Nyonya beaded shoes are integral part of Nyonya culture. Popular in the past, today their glory has paled. But some shoemakers remain loyal to this craftsmanship producing unique pieces. Mr. Tan is one of a few artisans in Penang making traditional hand-made Nyonya beaded shoes.


Right in the middle of Georgetown’s Armenian street, popular with tourists, and hidden by stalls with souvenirs and drinks, is Mr. Tan Kok Oo’s shophouse. Despite its decrepit appearance, the place is famous among Penang’s locals. This is where Mr. Tan has been tirelessly making his famous Nyonya beaded shoes since 1970s.

Mr. Tan Kok Oo, Penang traditional artisan at work

Mr. Tan Kok Oo, Penang traditional artisan at work

We found Mr. Tan sitting around a table cluttered with leather swatches, trimmings, pots of glue, wooden shoe lasts, scissors and hammers, pattern drawings, and bottles of beads. Put off by “No photos” policy implemented by one of the Nyonya beaded shoemakers in Melaka, we hesitantly approach the man. But, proud by his craftsmanship, he is open to visitors. “I am happy for people to come and see my shoes, and take photos to show to their friends,” he explains.

Mr. Tan Kok Oo making Nyonya beaded shoes

Mr. Tan Kok Oo making Nyonya beaded shoes

Mr. Tan momentarily disappears to come back with a pair of beautiful Nyonya beaded shoes he made for one client. Expressing the creativity of the shoemaker, the beaded pattern is intricate and ornate, and each pair of shoes is a unique creation.

Nyonya beaded shoes

Assembling the pieces of leather, Mr. Tan, who learnt the skills from his uncle, explains that making Nyonya beaded shoes is a time-consuming and tedious process, in particular, the beading. Because of its intricate design, it takes about three months to make a pair of Nyonya beaded shoes.

He starts making shoes by choosing a design and colours of glass beads. To make the beading, one by one, miniscule beads, called manek potong, are sewn by hand onto a piece of cross-stitched cloth clamp onto on a rectangular wooden frame before it’s nailed to the sole. The smaller the beads, the more refined and more beautiful are the shoes. But also, more expensive. The beading process is very eye-straining, and today, the 60 years old man has some students helping him out with the beading. But the design is always done by Mr. Tan himself.

Mr. Tan Kok Oo making Nyonya beaded shoes

Mr. Tan Kok Oo making Nyonya beaded shoes

The art of making Nyonya beaded shoes originated from the Straits of Melaka in Malaysia. Beaded shoes, known as Nyonya shoes, Peranakan shoes, or kasut manek in Malay, are integral part of Nyonya culture. Nyonya are the descendants of early Chinese immigrants, who settled in Penang, Melaka and Singapore formed a unique culture, which is a mix of Malay and Chinese.

Making traditional Nyonya beaded shoes

Making traditional Nyonya beaded shoes

Nyonya women are known for their embroidery and beadwork, which they learn in their early age. If in the past, Nyonya beaded shoes were worn by both Peranakan men (Baba) and women (Nyonya), today, they are worn by women only. Symbol of status, women wear colourful beaded shoes for special occasions such as wedding, birthday’s celebration and Chinese New Year. For sad occasions, the shoes are made using beads of Chinese mourning colours – black, white or blue.

Beading for Nyonya beaded shoes

Beading for Nyonya beaded shoes

If Nyonya beaded shoes were popular back in the 1930s, today Mr. Tan barely breaks even despite high prices of shoes starting from USD180. But he does not compromise the quality by using expensive beads from Japan and natural leather from Singapore instead of now popular and cheap PVC. He has his regular customers ordering custom-made shoes, square, round, or pointed, made with low or high heels. They choose motifs from the catalogue or show to Mr. Tan their preferred pattern and colours for beading, soles and heels.

Mr. Tan Kok Oo, Nyonya beaded shoemaker in Georgetown, Penang

The Nyonya beaded shoes are not only beautiful and unique. They look like a piece of art. Unfortunately, their popularity is fading in favour of cheap but impersonal shoes. But some passionate Nyonya beaded shoemakers, like Mr. Tan, keep the tradition alive, and maybe one day the beaded shoes will become again a popular fashion trend.


Practical Information

Location: Mr. Tan Kok Oo can be found at the following address: 4, Lebuh Armenian, Georgetown in Malaysian state of Penang.


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Written by
Errol & Olga

Written by ANYWAYINAWAY

Olga and Errol are the Swiss-Russian couple behind ANYWAYINAWAY. Passionate about unique culture and traditions, they decided to take career breaks and explore the world with the intention to expand awareness and provide new perspectives to the understanding of ethnic minority people, customs, traditions and culture. They also show the beauty of our planet and try to find something interesting in the ordinary.

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6 Comments
  • Parvez Shaikh
    Posted at 05:10h, 06 August Reply

    Nicely written article, Olga and Errol. I love these photographs, especially.
    I recently visited Malacca where I met a Baba Nyonya couple keeping the art of beaded shoes alive. Wasn’t able to get much in photos because they wouldn’t allow, but it was worth listening to their story.
    I just published an article about them and I’d love it if you read it and leave some feedback.

    • Olga
      Posted at 01:08h, 26 August Reply

      Hi Parvez, nice article and nice blog! I think I saw this shop in Malacca. Or maybe there are two of them. It’s a pity that they don’t want the photos to be taken. The art of Nyonya shoes making is dying. Not only would the images be the testimony of this unique art but they could possibly revive the interest in the shoes. I still believe that a picture is worth a thousand words.

      • Parvez Shaikh
        Posted at 05:51h, 02 September Reply

        Photos can definitely be some help for them. Lim told me why they wouldn’t allow anyone to take pictures — sharing with me how some his designs got stolen after he allowed someone to do some photography at his shop. I had no choice but to respect their decision.
        You did a great job documenting the process though!

        • Olga
          Posted at 12:52h, 15 September Reply

          I read on your blog about the reason for not allowing to take photos. It makes perfect sense …. except that there is almost no one to copy the design. The number of Nyonya shoemakers in Malaysia is now counted on the fingers of one hand. Same as you, I respect the people’s choice. I never take photos of people don’t want to. But even without images, your story is rich in detail and conveys well the atmosphere and the feeling.

  • Sarah
    Posted at 05:08h, 05 July Reply

    We went there but wasn’t successful in locating his shop. The address 4 Lebuh Armenian = a souvenir shop.

    • Olga
      Posted at 09:51h, 08 July Reply

      It’s a pity that you missed the shoemaker! I used the same address to locate it, and I was also confused by souvenirs on display. Luckily, I asked the local shopkeepers, and they pointed me to the same place – it’s actually quite hidden behind the souvenirs.

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