Nyonya beaded shoemaker delights in passing on legacy


AGE does not matter as long as you stay young at heart. That is the attitude shown by Penang’s very own Nyonya shoe beader May Lim Siew Seng, 77.


Lim, who is of Peranakan descent, makes beaded shoes with distinctive patterns.


The former principal of Convent Light Street primary school is passionate about passing down the art of Nyonya shoe beading (known as ‘Kasut Manik Nyonya’ in Bahasa Malaysia) to anyone interested in picking up the unique skill.


A sought-after teacher of shoe beading art, Lim is not only imparting her knowledge to the locals but also to foreigners.

Lim is very much loved by all her students as they still keep in touch with her


“I have students who come from countries like Singapore, Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan, the UK, Australia, and Europe. Because they come for a short period to learn the art, I teach them to do smaller embroidery during the internship.


“Some of them may be pursuing multimedia and fine arts.


“Of course, I have local students who come from all walks of life. The youngest is seven years old and the oldest is 72,” Lim said during a recent interview with the Buletin Mutiara team at the Penang State Chinese Association.


Many of her former students still keep in touch with her after graduating.


To attain mastery of the art, Lim said there are three levels to go through in learning Nyonya shoe beading.


“The first level is learning to sew a straight line; the second level is to do the toe cover and the third level is learning to sew the curve.

Lim showing the curve, which is the third level in the mastery of the shoe beading art

“Each student needs to complete two pairs of beaded shoes at each level.


“To complete doing two pairs of shoes at each level, it might take weeks, months, or even years. I do not set the time limit for them to complete it, as my main objective is for them to learn and for me to pass on the knowledge.


“Currently, my maximum number of students is five people per session. I want them to have a quality learning experience,” she added.


Besides that, Lim makes items such as key chains and fridge magnets which she wants to give her family as keepsakes.

Peranakan-themed keychains and fridge magnets done by Lim

After her retirement as the school principal, she taught single mothers and housewives how to bake cakes and pastries at the Caring Society Complex.


Later on, she was requested to teach shoe beading and since then, she has been conducting shoe beading classes for more than 20 years.


While having the zest to preserve the Peranakan culture, Lim also has a charitable heart.

Lim uses glass beads for her shoes

She works closely and actively with non-governmental organisations (NGOs), helping them to raise funds via her handiwork.


A beautiful gesture that benefits the community at large!


Touching on the aesthetic aspect of the Nyonya beaded shoes, Lim said they are purely handmade, and each pair takes an average of two weeks to one month to complete.

Some of Lim’s Nyonya beaded shoe collection displayed at her office at the Penang State Chinese Association

She said the shoes have high-selling value.


“The craft can also be used as an additional source of income for some families, and I always encourage my students to try their own designs and put their initials on their beaded shoes.


“Nyonya beaded shoes are sold for hundreds of ringgit in the market as the Peranakan artwork is valuable,” Lim added.


According to Lim, shoe beading can be a stress-relieving activity as it requires tons of patience and a focused mind.


“It can make someone who is hot-tempered to be a lot calmer.

Lim is doing the beadwork meticulously

“There was once a medical doctor who attended my class. She found it to be stress-relieving and then recommended it to her psychiatrist sister


“That is why I always encourage, especially the senior citizens, to learn shoe beading,” said Lim, who also teaches shoe beading art to the senior citizens at the Senior Citizens Association of Penang on Scotland Road.


Coming from a Peranakan family in the old days, Lim said it was customary for girls to learn domestic skills and learn them well.


“My mother has four daughters, and she was very strict with us. She made sure that we learned knitting, cross-stitch and embroidery.

Lim’s extraordinary 5D glass art

“I learned this (shoe beading) from my grandaunts through observations. When I was asked to teach shoe beading after my retirement, that is when I started to recall how it was done,” Lim said.


Even though she is a septuagenarian, Lim always keeps herself abreast with technological advancement.


She uses Microsoft excel to draw the embroidery patterns, apart from using the squared papers.


“In those days, I used to go to computer accessory shops at shopping complexes, to learn about computer programmes.


“I will say nothing is impossible. And age is just a number when you have the will to learn something,” said Lim, who is also well-versed in using the laptop.

Lim showing the pieces of squared papers used to draw the pattern for the shoes

Those who are interested can contact the Penang State Chinese Association (PSCA) at  04-226 9560.


The PSCA is located at No.13 Jln Perak, 10150 , George Town Penang.


Story by Tanushalini Moroter
Pix by Siew Chia En