Altar cloth: Phoenixes, dragons, and letters


Indonesia, early 20th century
Cotton, 106 x 103cm
2012-00082, Gift of Matthew and Alice Yapp

Altar cloths, or tok wi (zhuowei, 桌帏), the Peranakan term, are hung over the front of altar tables during occasions such as weddings, funerals, and feast days. Dragons, phoenixes, and crabs are traditional Chinese symbols that decorate the cloths. However, the use of the Roman alphabet – instead of Chinese characters – is unusual.

The letters in the borders might be surnames: "Hoe" (or "Koe") and "Sioe", if read from the centre. The middle line might be "hong" and "leng". In Hokkien, hong is phoenix and leng means dragon – both depicted on this cloth. The creatures are often used as symbols of a bridal couple, which suggests this cloth was used for a wedding.