Tok wi like this one were made in Java for the Peranakan or Baba-Nyonya ethnic group, who largely reside in Malaysia and Singapore. They are descended from Han Chinese settlers (mostly male) and the brides they contracted both from around Malaysia and the Indonesian archipelago (the latter historically purchased as slaves with the connivance of the British colonial authority.)
Perhaps more commonly known as the Straits Chinese to those outside the region, the Peranakan form a distinct creole culture famed for their cuisine, mercantile prosperity and the corresponding richness of their aesthetic, an intriguing blend of Chinese and local Straits techniques and imagery. The image to the left depicts the wedding of a Peranakan couple from Penang. (Wiki)
This tok wi is an example of one culture interpreted through the creative lens of another.
The drawing exhibits the joyous irregularity that is such a definitive characteristic of coastal Javan batik, entirely distinct from the batik kraton produced for local nobility with its often static, abstract formality.
You could argue that this composition is a bit crowded and slightly chaotic in contrast to some other, exceedingly elegant examples in limited palettes.
Personally I find a lot of formal Chinese arrangements boring and prefer the challenges to symmetry and the projection of numinous energy in this lively piece.
It's difficult to pin an exact date on this piece. These colours could be either natural or synthetic. I'll take a stab and place it in the second quarter of the 20th C just from the look and feel of the cotton, which is fine, dry and slightly irregular, possessing that flattened, tell-tale weariness of something with a good half century of use under its belt. That being said, traditional practises survived up til the present day in Indonesia, so all chronological attribution is just inexpert conjecture on my part and might turn out to be complete bollocks.
Some collectors balk at any wear or signs of use on prospective acquisitions but I like to see stuff like the votive wine(?)stain visible in the lower right hand quadrant. Tok wi are ritual objects and shit happens at weddings and funerals.
As a general snuffler and appreciator of things unusual, I find this cloth particularly beguiling on a number of different levels. It reminds me of our family trips to Peranakan strongholds (Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Penang, Phuket, Indonesia) as a kid and the distinctive otherness of their cultural expression. The icecream-coloured townhouses crammed against each other in the older neighbourhoods. Eating pork buns (char siu bao) from a tin cart whilst visiting my Indian-Malay aunt's house in the middle of KL, a resolutely Muslim city.
> Holding this tok wi up to the window infuses our slanting winter sunlight with the pressing golden qualities of a south-east Asian afternoon. Few objects speak to me as plainly of their origins.
< You can see the strictly nominal difference between the 'right' side of the cloth in the upper half of this folded example and the reverse, another diagnostic element of true batik.