G.T. Lye standing inside the NUS Baba house.

Transforming Into
A Matriarch

Supported by
Logo of the National Heritage Board
Logo of the National Heritage Board
Location courtesy of
the NUS Baba House

Female impersonation in theatre can be traced as far back as 400 years ago during Elizabethan times where boys would play female roles in Shakespeare’s plays.

The art of female impersonation is a distinct feature of wayang Peranakan. In the 1910s, when the first Peranakan wayangs were staged, it was taboo for females to act in plays as it was viewed as “improper”. Just as in Japanese Noh theatre and Chinese opera, female roles in Peranakan theatre were played by men. G.T. Lye revived the art in 1985 when he took on his first female role in the play, Buang Keroh Pungot Jernih (Let Bygones Be Bygones) staged by the Gunong Sayang Association.

“The first time I walked on stage as a matriarch, no one believed I was a man.”

The revival of wayang Peranakan had just begun in the mid-1980s after a hiatus of more than 25 years. When the Gunong Sayang Association tried to cast a woman for the role of matriarch in their new play, they could not find any suitable actresses. The then president of the Association, Baba Kwek Choon Chuan, encouraged G.T. to take on the role. G.T.’s father, Baba Gwee Peng Kwee, was a lifelong member of the Association and a well-known master of dondang sayang and panton composer, but even he objected. 

“My parents were strict, and they did not want me to take this female role,” he says.

Although he faced much criticism for taking on the role, on opening night, his critics were silenced when he received a standing ovation for his performance. 

“I was so convincing because I knew how the matriarchs of old walked, talked, the way they sat and even how they wrapped and chewed their sireh (betel nut). Their mannerisms, speech and gestures are still so fresh in my mind, even today, long after all of them have passed away. I’m also lucky that my voice can sound very feminine, so when I acted, everyone thought I was a real matriarch.”

“My advice to young actors who want to be female impersonators is that you have to mentally transform yourself into the matriach. It is not just about putting on the clothes and make-up. You must forget that you are acting and believe that you are this woman. So that you will be transformed into genuine femininity and convince your audience.”

Who was his inspiration?

“I grew up surrounded by all types of Peranakan matriarchs – the good, the bad and the ugly. In the typical Peranakan household the woman is the head, the kepala rumah. A perfect matriarch is loved and feared at the same time. Some of them may seem very garang (fierce) and demand perfection in everything, but deep down, most are good hearted and only want the best for their children and families. I have of course also known some who were truly wicked and vengeful! The words that came out of their mouths are so horrible I can’t repeat them.

Most of the matriarchs I knew were very kewat, fastidious about everything from appearance to manners to how food is prepared, they insisted on the proper way to do things. I remember one  lady in particular who was extremely refined. Even the way she spoke was so elegant. She was famous for making nasi kunyit (yellow rice) and came to my home for special occasions like birthdays and weddings.”

GT’s transformation into a stage matriarch involves various stages. 

The first step is to have his hair done.

For G.T., one of the most elaborate steps in transforming into a stage matriarch is having his hair done.

“The matriarchs of old were very particular about how they styled their hair. Wearing the hair loose or messy outside the bedroom was seen as a sign of laziness. They kept their hair very long, waist length, and used hair oil and aloe vera to keep it in place. They would oil and then twist and coil their long hair into an elaborate sanggol (hair bun) on the top of the head then fasten it with three heavy hair pins. The hair was scraped back and pulled very tightly. This was done daily, so by the time they were old, many ladies had severe hair loss.”

In the past, nyonyas used hair oil soaked with a type of dried tree bark (Lark Tau) which had medicinal value. They bought this from the Cantonese ladies in Chinatown. They also used aloe vera to smooth down stray hairs. Some made their own coconut hair oil. The santan (coconut cream) was cooked until the oil separated from the cream. Then the oil was scented with pandan and star-shaped bunga tanjong (Spanish Cherry) flowers like for fragrance. From the 1960s onwards some nyonyas used Brylcreem.

Parts of a sanggol (hair bun)

Parts of a sanggol (hair bun)

Tombong (coconut apple or cotyledon)

The small and round top knot which resembles a coconut apple.


The coil around the top knot.

Ayam Mengeram (like a hen laying eggs):

Viewed from the front, the hair on both sides of the head should flare out slightly, like the wings of a hen laying eggs/

Buntot Belangkas

The bottom of a sanggol should be pointed and sharp, like the tail of a horseshoe crab.

Types of sanggol

Singapore and Melaka nyonyas preferred these three types of sanggol:

Sanggol Melaka

Sanggol Tiga Batang

(with three thick, heavy hair pins). This is most common for older ladies and G.T. uses this style for stage.

Sanggol Nyonya

The Penang and Southern Thai Nyonyas preferred:

Sanggol Thoe Kee Hua

(Peach Blossom Buds) with a small circlet of white flowers at the crown.

Sanggol Chak Suan Hua

(Higher crown of diamond flowers) for formal occasions and portrait-taking.

Younger ladies preferred more “modern” styles like Sanggol Dua or Sanggol Telefon (two coiled or plaited buns at the sides of the head). The Sanggol Siput (Snail Bun) was also popular with younger women. It has a smaller hair bun positioned middle of the head or lower, not that elaborately coiled and adorned with only one hair pin.

Hair accessories

Younger ladies wore fresh flowers to scent the hair, but older ladies rarely did. For stage, G.T. wears bunga chot (paper flowers) in addition to his three cocok sanggol (hair pins). He favours the thick and heavy hairpins which the real matriarchs used, cocok sanggol korek kuping, so named because it is shaped like an ear digger.

Younger ladies preferred hairpins with open/filigree work encrusted with stones like Batu Yacob, Batu Delima, Batu Ceylon or Intan.

Anak darah or young unmarried girls or new brides styled their hair in Sanggol Topek, designed to cover part of the forehead.

As fashions changed from the baju panjang to kebaya, younger nyonyas began to shun the older hairstyles. Older ladies who no longer had enough hair for an elaborate sanggol, styled their hair in the simpler Sanggol Siput.  Some attached a cemarah or hairpiece to their own hair to achieve a fuller bun.

G.T. uses a cemarah when he transforms into a stage matriarch. He always keeps his own hair a bit long so that the hairpiece can be attached. With age, his hair has thinned a lot, just as the real matriarchs lost their hair over years due to daily pulling and tying their sanggol so tightly.

G.T. uses a 1930s synthetic hairpiece made in France. As the hairpiece is black, he sometimes he sprays his own (white) hair to match.

Who does his hair?

Madam Chia Kin Geok and Baba G.T. Lye

Madam Chia Kin Geok, 90, has been doing G.T.’s hair for stage for the last 30 years. She lives in Marine Parade and used to run her own hair salon in Katong Shopping Centre until she retired. 

“When I first started acting, I didn’t have anything, no baju, no accessories to play the role of matriarch. Even though I had observed the matriarchs of old, I didn’t know how to style my own hair into the sanggol. Moreover, I had short hair. I was guided by Baba Lee Yok Poh, a gentleman from Melaka. He taught me how to tie the sanggol properly, where to get the accessories like hair pins, even how to sew a baju panjang with the correct cut. So I bought a hairpiece and practiced until I could do the perfect sanggol.

I met Madam Chia in the 1990s. She was introduced to me by one of the nyonyas who went to her salon. I taught her how to tie my sanggol properly, and she has been doing it ever since. I also taught her how to position the three hairpins correctly and attach the bunga chot at the sides.”

G.T. remembers that the real-life matriarchs of old almost never wore make up. They did however have beauty rituals to keep their skin smooth and fair.

A favourite was bedak sejok (loosely translated as “cold powder”), dried, fermented rice powder beads which were sold in glass bottles. The beads were crushed and mixed with water to form a paste and applied to the face. It was left on for some time to dry, then washed off, leaving the skin smooth and fair. It was believed to tighten the skin and remove impurities, leaving the skin cool and fresh.

Due to the popularity of Korean and Japanese rice-based beauty products and skin care in Asia, modern studies conducted by Malaysian and Thai researchers have shown that fermented rice contains fatty and amino acids that promote cell regeneration and keep skin moisturised. Jasmine rice powder also was found to contain high concentrations of phenolics which are a source of antioxidants and have anti-microbial and anti-ageing properties.

Some matriarchs made their own bedak sejok at home as the only ingredients required were rice, water and patience. They would even utter jampi (a strong wish or sort of spell) while making it to enhance its potency and beauty rendering properties.

Stage Make-up

To transform into a stage matriarch, G.T. relies on make-up artists. “Usually when I am in plays, the group I am performing with will provide a make-up artist to do my make-up. The make-up has to be thick and heavy to look good under stage lights. But if I do short appearances I will do my own make-up with just lipstick and face powder.”

“In wayang Peranakan, the costumes are what real nyonyas would wear. There are no shortcuts, no velcro or zips. For the Matriarch’s costume, I always wear a full set of baju panjang with baju dalam and sarong with all the accessories like kerosang and belt. So you can imagine how fast we have to be when it comes to costume changes. I can change my whole outfit in less than three minutes.”

G.T. wears the baju panjang instead of the sarong kebaya when he appears as a stage matriarch as he feels that this is more authentic. “It is what the old matriarchs wore. Even when the sarong kebaya became more fashionable, they preferred to stick with their baju panjang,” he says.

A baju panjang is a loose fitting, long tunic with a front opening from neck to hem, tapered long sleeves with no buttons or closures. This makes it suitable for hot and humid weather while looking modest. It is fastened with three brooches known as kerosang and worn over a sarong. For stage, G.T. prefers wearing a batik sarong (which has been stitched into a tube) instead of a kain lepas (a long, unstitched piece of batik cloth).

With the introduction of the more figure-hugging sarong kebaya in the early 20th century, the baju panjang fell out of favour with younger nyonyas and became associated with older women.

Like the matriarchs of his youth, G.T. prefers baju panjang in a voile fabric known as kasar rubiah (Swiss voile) which is light, smooth and strong.

“The cut of the baju panjang must be good so it is comfortable to wear. The pesak (gore) and kekek (triangular underarm gusset) have to fit well. The sleeves also cannot be too tight, nor too loose, especially at the wrist. The sleeves must be short enough because the old nyonyas ate with their hands. I don’t think there are anymore tailors in Singapore who can cut the baju panjang the old way. The only one who can do it is Radhiyah Aljunied of Toko Aljunied. Otherwise I get mine made in Melaka,” says G.T.

Because the fabric is sheer, an inner blouse called a baju dalam is  worn under it. The baju dalam preferred by the matriarchs of old is a long sleeved high-necked blouse made of white cotton. A bejewelled or gold decorative button or button cover (butang baju dalam) is fixed on the topmost button on the collar of the. “Matriarchs in Singapore and Melaka prefer to wear collarless baju dalam or ones with a low collar. Whereas in Penang, they preferred high collared baju dalam,” says G.T.

He also shares that at home, the matriarchs wore baju telok blangah which were collarless and cut like baju dalam but were made from patterned light cotton (usually floral) instead of white cotton. They were worn over sarongs. “Usually they would wear the baju panjang at home only when they had guests coming, or if they were going out.”


Jewellery is an essential part of the matriarch’s outfit with the kerosang being the most distinctive piece of nyonya jewellery.

Kerosang (Brooches)

Her baju panjang is fastened with three brooches known as kerosang. Unlike kerosang rantay (brooches connected by chains) which is popularly used with a kebaya, a matriarch would usually wear three separate brooches with her baju panjang. Often, the three brooches would have a similar design. Sometimes, these came in a set with one very large brooch worn closest to the neck, known as ibu (mother) and two smaller circlet brooches known as anak (child) worn in succession below the ibu.

A matriarch would usually have three sets of kerosang: one for everyday use, one for grand occasions, and one for tua har (mourning period). Every day kerosang could be made from any metal including brass and gilded silver. Fancier kerosang meant for grand occasions were often made with gold and rose-cut diamonds known as intan. Kerosang for mourning were made of silver and set with white seed pearls, which symbolised tears.

For stage, G.T. prefers to wear large gold and diamond kerosang as they catch the light and sparkle.

Rings, earrings, bangles and anklets

G.T. recalls that the matriarchs of old preferred diamond stud earrings (anting anting kerabu) over long dangling earrings. They also wore multiple rings (chinchin) on their hands. Popular shapes were the chinchin wajek (lozenge shaped), chinchin mata tiga (with three diamonds), and chinchin ikat bunga tanjong (with diamond clusters). They would also wear bangles on their wrists and ankles.

For stage, G.T would wear all these accessories except the anklets.


Glass beaded slippers (kasut manek) are essential to complete the matriarch’s outfit. On stage, all the beaded slippers that G.T. wears are from his own collection. Each pair of women’s kasut manek has approximately 15,000 individually sewn glass seed beads, while men’s shoes have about 22,000 beads. Most of these beads are faceted glass, so they sparkle in the light. Popular designs include auspicious symbols, fruit, flowers, insects and birds.


A matriarch always had a sapu tangan (handkerchief) neatly folded and tucked into the top of her baju panjang. This was not only practical in the hot weather, but was waved about for dramatic effect when she wanted to emphasise a point. G.T. uses the sapu tangan on stage to recall the movements of the old matriarchs.

Sireh Set

A special item that G.T’s stage matriarch often has is a sireh set. Betel nut or sireh chewing was a very popular practice among Peranakan women especially the matriarchs. They even had portable sets and spittoons which they brought with them every where they went. Sireh was offered to welcome guests into a home. It was also offered as part of a wedding invitation.

Shavings of areca nut, which has medicinal properties, was traditionally chewed with a mixture of slaked lime, gambir and betel leaf. This stained the mouth bright red. Betel nut chewing was an important social ritual in Peranakan culture. It was commonly practiced by women during social events, such as weddings and engagements, where it was used as a way to break the ice and create a comfortable atmosphere. It was also believed to have a soothing effect on the nerves and was often used to relieve stress and anxiety.

G.T. shares, “During a traditional Peranakan wedding of old, the bride was symbolised by the sireh box. Should her groom or her mother-in-law suspect that she had been impure before marriage, they could topple the box over the wedding bed and the wedding would be annulled.”