This dynamic and lavish altar cloth or tok wi (literally, ‘altar skirt’) is of red velvet (with a red linen backing) that has been elaborately and meticulously embroidered and couched with silk thread and gold-wrapped and other metallic threads. Auspicious Chinese motifs are illustrated.
The lower panel is decorated with the stellar trio Fu, Lu and Shou as well as attendants and children. The upper panel is decorated with the Ba Xian or Eight Immortals.
The cloth is in typical form in that there is a lower and an upper panel, with the upper panel covering a quarter or a third of the lower panel. Altars in Straits and Peranakan Chinese homes typically comprised a long, high altar and before it would sit a front alter (known itself as a Ba Xian or Eight Immortals table) to which this cloth would be attached. It, like the front altar, are square.
Such cloths were attached to the front of altar tables in the family home during significant occasions. The red background and the colourful motifs suggests that this altar cloth was used for festive occasions.
These were used by the Straits Chinese of what is now Malaysia and Singapore as well as the peranakan (localised) Chinese of Sumatra and Java. They were either commissioned locally or commissioned from China. and were made in Chinese specifically for the Southeast Asian market. This example with its use of velvet and so on, might have been made in Java.
The cloth is in almost perfect condition. There are very minor, almost imperceptible losses only.
NOTE: to see the detail on this cloth keep clicking on the image below until a high resolution version appears.
Cheah, H.F, Nyonya Needlework: Embroidery and Beadwork in the Peranakan World, Asian Civilisations Museum, 2017.
Ee, R., et al, Peranakan Museum A-Z Guide, Asian Civilisations Museum, 2008.
Knapp, R.G., Chinese Houses of Southeast Asia: The Eclectic Architecture of Sojourners and Settlers, Tuttle, 2010.
Lee, P. et al, Auspicious Designs: Batik for Peranakan Altars, Asian Civilisations Museum, 2015.