Thienny Lee

PhD candidate
Supervisor: Professor Adrian Vickers
Associate Supervisor: Dr Dwi Noverini Djenar


Dress and Visual Identity of the Straits Chinese Nyonyas, mid 19th to mid 20th Century
This thesis researches the Straits Chinese in the former British Straits Settlement who came largely from Southern China. The Straits Settlements, comprising of Penang, Melaka and Singapore, were created by the British in 1826. This historical British political unit ceased to exist in 1946. The Straits Chinese womenfolk or Nyonyas are the focal point of this thesis, particularly their identities and visual approaches to identities constructed through their unique dressing that was adapted from Malay dressing. This thesis aims to write a cultural history on this unique dressing that presented the Nyonyas’ hybrid visual representations. And to analyse the cultural aspects of the Nyonyas’ identities that became a significant cultural marker for the entire Straits Chinese population. The fact that the Nyonyas had a very different visual approach than their men or Babas (who adhered to the Chinese costume initially and then Western attires in the colonial time) and how they presented themselves to the world through their dressing, suggest the possible intention of the women in using this visual representation as an outlet to express their identities. This research is the first attempt to interrogate Nyonyas’ identity issues separately from their male counterparts; challenging current literatures that have a tendency to assume Nyonyas identities were attached to their men. As the hybrid’ visual representations of the Straits Nyonyas' were most obvious during the time of the Straits Settlements, my research period thus goes back to the colonial period, the heyday of the Straits Chinese Babas and Nyonyas.

About the student

Thienny Lee is a PhD candidate at the University of Sydney. She graduated in Accounting at the University of Hertfordshire, England and later gained her MA in History of Art and Archaeology from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. At SOAS, she has lectured on the history of Indonesian and Malaysian batik art and the history of contemporary art in Southeast Asia for the post-graduate Diploma course. As a practising artist herself, she expresses her art by using batik as one of her painting medium. Her paintings have won wide critical acclaim and collected by art collectors around the world for her bold use of colours with the lushness and innocence of the natural world she depicts. She has exhibited as far afield as the Netherlands and Singapore.

Selected publications

Journal article

  • “Decoding the Forbidden Designs in Raffles Batik Collection” in TASSA Review, The journal of the Asian Arts Society of Australia, Volume 22, No.1 March 2013.

Conference proceedings

  • "Decoding the Forbidden Parang Designs in Raffles Batik Collection" in MPC2013, Third Malaysian Postgraduate Colloquium, 2013.

Conference presentations

  • “Is Lee Man Fong a Nanyang Style artist?” Indonesian Council Open Conference 2013, University of Tasmania.
  • “Decoding the Forbidden ‘Parang’ Designs in Raffles Batik Collection.” Third Malaysian Postgraduate Colloquium 2013, Australia.
  • “Dress and Visual Identity of the Straits Chinese Nyonyas, mid 19th to mid 20th Century.” Eastern Indian Ocean Circulations: people, politics, cultures, representations, trade and Tensions, 2013, University Technology of Sydney.
  • “Defining the aesthetics of Straits Chinese Nyonyas’ Batik Sarong from the Straits Settlements.” ISEAC (Island of Southeast Asia Centre) Cosmopolitan Conference 2012, Australian National University.