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Tokwi Altar Cloths

Altar frontal (tokwi), Chinese, exported to Java. Early 20th century. Altar frontal (tokwi), Chinese, exported to Java. Early 20th century. National Gallery of Australia, acc. no. NGA 81.1162.

A tokwi is a decorative Buddhist altar frontal used by Peranakan Chinese in Indonesia and Malaysia. The Peranakan Chinese are descendants of early overseas Chinese communities in Southeast Asia, where they adopted various aspects of the indigenous cultures.

Tokwi are almost square. The standard domestic Buddhist altar table is generally 100 cm wide and 90 cm long. These cloths were commonly used to decorate the domestic altars during important occasions, such as weddings, birthdays and funerals, as well as on important Chinese feast days.

Almost all of the embroidered altar frontals found in the former British Straits Settlements of Singapore, Malacca and Penang were imported from China, between the early twentieth century and World War II (1939-1945). They are normally elaborately decorated with motifs in floss silk, predominantly using Peking knots, and outlined with couched gold thread. Better quality pieces are often embroidered on a silk damask ground, with the principal motifs being padded to make them three dimensional and worked in satin stitches. Some examples are executed entirely in goldwork.

Altar frontals for auspicious occasions are usually embroidered on red silk cloths, often with designs of dragons, phoenixes and Buddhist lions; some have stellar gods of good fortune, prosperity and longevity. Those for funerals are generally in sombre colours, especially blue and violet, with cranes, deer, butterflies and floral motifs.

Altar frontals for the Peranakan Chinese in Indonesia were often made of cotton batiks; the decoration is not created with needlework, but by a process of multiple wax-resist dyeing. These cloths were produced by Chinese-run ateliers in places along the northern coast of Java, mainly Pekalongan, Ceribon and Lasem. There is a wider range of designs on batik altar frontals - from traditional Chinese designs to motifs with European influences, often with the artisan’s personal interpretation, than on the embroidered forms. The decoration for both batik and embroidered silk cloths is often divided into two horizontal sections. The upper section is generally about a quarter of the entire width of the cloth – this upper section takes the form of a hanging flap for embroidered versions. The principal motif is on the wider section below.


  • AUGER, Timothy (2008). Peranakan Museum A-Z Guide, Singapore: Editions Didier Millet
  • HO, Wing Ming (1987). Straits Chinese Beadwork and Embroidery – A Collector’s Guide, Singapore: Times Book International.
  • KNIGHT-ACHJADI, Judi, and DAMAIS, Asmoro (2005). Butterflies and Phoenixes – Chinese Inspirations in Indonesian Textile Arts, Jakarta: Mitra Museum Indonesia.


Last modified on Wednesday, 17 May 2017 11:45