Sarawak handicrafts: Preserving a heritage threatened by extinction

In recent years, amid rapid modernisation and industrialisation, the handicraft industry in Sarawak, despite its richness in culture and tradition, has been performing under par. With fewer from the younger generation interested to learn the craft and skills, the industry strives to survive under the threat of extinction.

BizHive Weekly speaks with key players involved with the preservation and the continuation of the local handicraft industry to get their insights on the many challenges it faces.

SKILLED CRAFTING: Photo shows a women weaving at Sarakraf Pavilion. Sarawak, with its 27 different tribes, is the most prominent Malaysian state when it comes to handicraft, as the numerous tribes derive from their different backgrounds and traditions a plethora of patterns, motifs and designs to create unique and beautiful products, rich in culture.

SKILLED CRAFTING: Photo shows a women weaving at Sarakraf Pavilion. Sarawak, with its 27 different tribes, is the most prominent Malaysian state when it comes to handicraft, as the numerous tribes derive from their different backgrounds and traditions a plethora of patterns, motifs and designs to create unique and beautiful products, rich in culture.

A short stroll down the Main Bazaar located adjacent to Kuching’s Waterfront will expose one to a multitude of handicraft products targeted mainly at tourists as souvenirs, ranging from intricately woven pua kumbu to the beautifully carved shield of the Iban warriors – the terabai.

Sarawak, with its 27 different tribes, is the most prominent Malaysian state when it comes to handicraft, as the numerous tribes derive from their different back­grounds and traditions a plethora of patterns, motifs and designs to create unique and beautiful products, rich in culture.

A handicraft product is defined by the Malaysian Handicraft Development Corporation as any product that has artistic or traditional cultural attractions and is the result of a process that depends solely or partly to the skill of hand.

The retail aspect of these prod­ucts largely involves tourists who intend to buy a memento or souvenir to commemorate their trip to the land of hornbills while a miniscule portion of the market makes up of local tourists with an appreciation for arts and crafts.

The labour-intensive industry has been, in recent years, facing a growing threat as fewer and fewer among the younger generations are willing or able to continue the legacy of their people.

Facing a world that values all things new and high technology and a society that holds all things imported in high regard, the remaining artists who are still in practice are struggling to find suc­cessors to pass on the skills.

With a shrinking number of artisans and master craftsmen remaining as the youths move from their country dwellings to carve a better future in the cities, many wonder what lies in store for the traditional Sarawakian handicraft sector and its future, if there is any.

Amid a turbulent time in the craft industry and multiple hur­dles standing between the indus­try and its future progress, BizHive Weekly speaks to a few industry experts and enthusiasts to learn about the challenges they are facing and their appreciation for local arts and crafts.

A unique heritage derived from diversity

When asked of his opinion on where lies the uniqueness of Sarawakian crafts as compared with its regional competitors, Sarakraf Sdn Bhd’s (Sarakraf) Gerald Goh told BizHive Weekly, “Each of the 27 tribes in Sarawak has its own material culture and crafts.

“As such, there is a diverse range of motif and unique designs inspired by their surroundings such as the alignment of clouds and the thousand legs design which is drawn from the centi­pedes.”

These were the designs that would be lost if not preserved, Goh explained.

Society Atelier Sarawak found­er honorary secretary, Edric Ong concurred, saying that Sarawak’s handicraft is unique in its strong cultural identity, “be it the motifs on the Orang Ulu beadwork or the Iban textiles and the use of natural materials from the rainforest such as the ‘talun’ bark cloth or the ‘bemban’ reed mats.”

Apart from the 27 different tribes and their unique cultures, the many forms that local crafts take further adds to the richness of Sarawak handicraft. The prod­ucts can take the forms of weaved textiles, baskets, bead work, wood carvings, iron works, clay and pottery.

“These crafts are part of our material culture which, at one point or another, have been used for utilitarian or ceremonial pur­poses,” said Crafthub Sdn Bhd’s (Crafthub) Donald Tan.

Gerald Goh

Gerald Goh

Crafthub Sdn Bhd

Crafthub Sdn Bhd is a local company founded by four partners with the intention of promoting Sarawakian handicraft in an ‘economically viable way with international-standard quality control. It has been responsible for many successful local craft events such as the Rainforest World Craft Bazaar and the Borneo International Beads Conference.

The threat of changing times

Heidi Munan, Crafthub’s executive director

Heidi Munan, Crafthub’s executive director

Handicraft is largely a traditional practice, handed down from generation to generation. In the olden days, baskets, jars and wooden chests weaved and carved by the indigenous women of Sarawak with materials collected from the rich rainforests are utilitar­ian – used for the storage of goods.

“In the past, when they wanted clothing, they would have to weave it themselves, it is the same with baskets for storage. But in this day and age, you don’t have to make a basket to store things with so many plastic containers for sale. They also don’t have to make their own parangs and farm tools anymore,” said Heidi Munan, Crafthub’s executive director, with ref­erence to the indigenous Sarawakians.

Munan added that craft was largely practised today as a hobby or on a whim and not as a necessity. Such a change did a lot to impair the survival of local crafts.

With a continuously shrink­ing interest in Sarawakian crafts among the locals and the increasing need to adapt to the changing times, the topic of research and development becomes a uniform message that craft enthusiasts are try­ing to highlight.

Ong further added that, “The Sarawak Craft scenario is fighting to survive! It strives to be an industry, seeing that there really is a shortage of active skilled crafts people and the current ones are ageing with fewer younger generation to carry on the tradition.”

Sarakraf’s Goh noted that due to the reducing number of practitioners’ Sarakraf had been working hard to revive the songket Sarawak.

“When it comes to songket, very few people think of Sarawak, with attention focused mostly on states such as Terengganu. However, we do have very unique songkets that are intricately woven and two-sid­ed instead of the usual one-sided ones from the Peninsular.

“But at this juncture, among the villages that we work with, there are only 16 to 17 people who are still weaving this form of songket. This is one of the treasures that we are losing. One of the pua kumbu known as pua sungkit is also almost totally extinct,” Goh confided, adding that the newer generations of craftsmen remem­ber their parents or grandparents weaving the pua sungkit, but they themselves did not master the techniques.

As such, Goh revealed that Sarakraf was working on pres­ervation of skills.

He noted that the company, since its privatisation in 2008, in­herited a decent number of skilled and semi-skilled weavers.

“We have always helped main­tained them in doing these ac­tivities but later, I felt that it was unfair and this assistance alone did not do justice to their skills. Following much consideration, we have opened up our current premises – Sarakraf Pavilion,” Goh explained.

“We feel that this does more justice to the skills of the artists and they would feel more appreci­ated. We also hold craft courses for those who are interested and accommodate some students who are doing their research or thesis. They can come to interview the craftsmen and work together with them,” the manager said.

He believed that should the legacy go on as it had, it would die off as soon as society changes along with modernisation.

Rosemarie Wong from Crafthub believed that the local craftsmen needed to learn to ‘comtemporar­ise’ the skills and craft products to meet the needs of changing times.

“It does not mean that the skill have to die when the craft products are not utilitarian. The skill can always be used to make something else. For example, if people no longer require mats, they can weave a handbag. There needs to be research and development (R&D) to improve and make products that are relevant to the world today,” Wong explained.

The ‘fakes’ infiltrate the state

While the arts and crafts centre, the ‘Main Bazaar’ of Kuching is loaded with craft items and souvenir shops, many believe that the majority of the products were not authentic Sarawakian crafts but Indonesian made.

Society Atelier Sarawak’s Ong commented that the Sarawak Iban pua kumbu textile in­dustry had been threatened by the influx of ‘ikat’ textiles from Indonesia which were machine-woven, therefore sold at a cheaper price.

“I would say that at least 90 per cent of the textiles on the Kuching Main Bazaar are not Sarawakian-woven as is also the case of most crafts sold in these shops,” Ong explained.

He recalled introducing silk yarn to the Iban weavers during a workshop back in 1998 and that the Rumah Garie weavers whom Ong represents to sell textiles were the only group that had mastered the silk yarn pua kumbu.

“They weave on such a high level of excellence that they have received the Unesco Award of Ex­cellence for their silk pua kumbu. Furthermore, their consistent quality of work and natural dyes used in their work sets them apart from the ‘fakes’ and the low quality textiles,” Ong emphasised, high­lighting that authentic Sarawa­kian-woven textiles are of better quality that their machine-woven competitors.

Tan added that, “We realise that there is an infiltration of crafts from all over the region passing off as Sarawak crafts. That has actu­ally thrown the local industry back big time. The Indonesian crafts come at a fraction of the price of the locals.

“One may argue that they are of inferior quality, but a wood carv­ing is a wood carving to the foreign buyer who is not discerning enough and does not have enough informa­tion on the background of a certain craft product.”

Ong believed that Malaysia’s cost of living and labour cost was higher than that of the regional neighbours. As such, he believed that to market the local crafts, the players would have to make them special and of better quality.

On the other hand, Sarakraf’s Goh commented that on the inter­national stage, competition was tough as foreigners would compare the goods within the region and question the difference in price between Sarawakian crafts and that of its neighbours.

“If you participate in a fair, you either copy people or you get cop­ied. When people like your design but not the price, they could easily shop around and get something for a lower price.”

However, following many years of participation in various fairs, Sarakraf managed to secure a large sale for the first time in 2010 – on the back of the unique­ness of the products and not price-competition.

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Sarakraf Sdn Bhd

Sarakraf Sdn Bhd was set up under Sarawak Economic Development Corporation back in 1986 with the initial focus of promoting crafts made by the indigenous people of Sarawak in order to help raise their standards of living.

It was privatised in 2008, but continued on in its efforts to help Sarawak crafts in terms of continuation and reaching a bigger audience.

The current pavilion is a one-stop centre for all of the needs of tourists, combining the three components: shopping, food and accommodation. The shopping component is embodied by the craft shop as well as a live demonstration by artists who produce the baskets, songket among other items on set.

Training and R&D paramount for continuation

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After grasping its first export job of two containers, Goh found that the production end of the business was a chal­lenge.

“We took about a year to produce the products and that was a really tough challenge for us. As we were new in handling the export mar­ket, our craftsmen were also new in handling such a big order,” he said, adding that the state might not be ready to compete shoulder-to-shoulder with other countries in the region.

Goh noted that the traditional crafts in Sarawak were fairly simple and utilitarian. As such, the craftsmen needed to be trained to develop better products and innovate constantly in order to attract more sales.

He also noted that these crafts­men needed to be exposed to the strict conditions of the export market and its required high-levels of precision. With the locals producing crafts in a more ‘freestyle’ method, unbound to precise measurements, Goh noted that the international buyers were very different.

“Two feet means two feet. There is always a reason why the requirement is as such. They might be providing for a market that has a use for baskets that are precisely two feet. The people we engage in the long houses are so used to making their products as is. It is fine if you are catering for tourists but the export market is different,” Goh said.

As such, he believed that train­ing was paramount to help sustain the industry going forward as no machine to date could handle the intricate and detailed nature of Sarawakian craft products.

“We need to train the villagers to understand that the strips must be consistent, the colours cannot be too far off despite the products being handmade.”

Of late, much focus has been placed on the modernisation of the country in order for it to achieve a developed country status by 2020. This emphasis on science, IT and engineering is also clearly reflected in the education system while local arts and crafts had been given a more minor role for the past decade or so.

“In my time, we had craft les­sons. We did beadwork, weaving back in the 1970s. I don’t see my son doing it today. I don’t think it is even taught in the rural schools. So when students graduate, they will have no knowl­edge of this business and that they could make a living by do­ing this.

“With nothing to do in the rural areas, this generation would then seek employment in the cities, leaving only the older genera­tion continuing their people’s legacies.

“If the situation lin­gers, with the pro­longed lapse in time, we might not be able to find teachers who are able to teach this subject in the future,” Goh said.

With this, he revealed that Sar­akraf had been looking at creating an academy of arts and crafts in order to do something before it was too late. The academy would be aimed at recruiting the artisti­cally-inclined to be trained.

“If we let the ‘empty-action’ period go on for too long, it will be diffi­cult to get trainers to train in the future.”

Goh stressed that the people needed to see that there was a future in this field after which they needed to be trained to pro­duce. However, training required large amount of funds which the private sector might not be able to afford.

Ong noted that Kraftangan Malaysia or the Malaysian Handi­craft Development Corporation provided ample opportunities for training, “But I am sad to say that there is not enough interest among the younger generation to become a craftsman for a living.”

“If you can tell the general popu­lation that learning the skill could help them make sufficient income if the products are of good quality. I am sure people would come and learn it,” Tan added.

Tan also believed that the edu­cation on the material culture of Sarawak was paramount as this would help people understand the designs on the handicrafts and their significance.

“It is only through education can we create a knowledgeable au­dience that can identify a Sarawa­kian craft from the rest. Then we would have a fighting chance. Crafthub’s role is more in line with this. We wanted to pair designers with local artisans to give them ideas on how to make things better,” Tan said, adding that there was not enough appreciation for the quality of the arts and the detailing of each work.

Crafthub’s Wong went on to highlight the importance that the museum was kept in ‘tip-top’ condition.

She noted that the museum, being the first stop for anyone intending to learn about the lo­cal culture and crafts, should be up to date.

“I think our museum has huge potential, but it has to be further updated and refreshed. It is not about having a new shiny build­ing but a matter of spending a bit of money to refresh the display, taking out the things from the archives to put on show,” Wong suggested.

Nurturing appreciation is the path forward

Edric Ong,  Atelier Society Sarawak founder honorary secretary

Edric Ong, Atelier Society Sarawak founder honorary secretary

The situation in the local handicrafts industry is indeed dire.

With the general lack of perceived value for the products and the lack of interest to practice the craft today, the remaining few enthusiasts are finding it hard-pressed to keep things moving forward.

Tan believed that the struggling industry was the result of the lack of emphasis on the appreciation of the local culture and heritage.

“Anything foreign or import-ed is held in higher regard than what we have here.

This is a very wrong perception.

Quality comes from workmanship and craftsmanship.

If we don’t give the local crafters a chance, we will never get there,” he said.

Wong pointed out that the lack of perceived value for the local products sets in motion a vicious cycle where people no longer think it is worth-while to pursue craft with the lack of profitability.

Munan be-lieved that change would take time as well as patronage from the more influential strata of society.

She raised the example of the former Raja Permaisuri Agong Tuanku Nur Zahirah who formed a foundation back in 2007 to keep the songket and batik tradition alive.

Among the many efforts that Crafthub had taken to keep crafts alive included the annual Rainforest World Craft Bazaar held in conjunction with the Rainforest World Music Festival as well as the Borneo International Beads Conference which will be held for the third time this year, come October.

Having faced multiple challenges during the past events, the partners at Crafthub hoped that through education and given sufficient time for change, the lo-cal craftsmen and artists would be more willing to participate in these events that are aimed at promoting authentic products of high quality.

“If something is not done quickly, we will be facing extinction.

There is only so much a private institution can do,” Wong said, adding that placing the arts and crafts back onto the education syllables would be a good first move.

Sarakraf’s Gerald Goh noted that the key target market for the industry had always been the tourist market.

Through his craft retail shop at the airport, Goh observed a drastic drop in sales in recent years despite the higher arrival of tourists in the state.

“There are many factors contributing to this drop from the possibility that these are repeat visitors to the new, more stringent baggage limitations placed on the tourists by the air-lines.

This discourages people to buy like they did in the 1980s.

“I don’t know how the situation will progress if things are left unremedied.

It will probably get worse.

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The only way that will improve the situation would be to get more tourists to come in.

”Goh believed that the future also lies in the export market though he noted that this was too big an area to be handled by the private sector, thereby requiring more assistance from the government.

Edric Ong of the Atelier Society Sarawak believed that the Sarawak Craft scenario was ‘fighting to survive’.

“I wouldn’t even call it an industry as such because there is really a shortage of active skilled crafts people and the current ones are ageing and few from the younger generation are carrying on the tradition.

“My hope is that with the changing lifestyle and the better economy, the younger generation will take on the craft skills and be ‘studio artists’ in an urban environment,” Ong stated.

He further opined that the society must grow in parallel and have an appreciation of possessing something from their cultural background in order for the above to be realised.

He hoped that the Sarawakian ‘new rich’ would be willing to spend money to purchase a pua kumbu work to decorate their houses instead of an imported piece of ‘pseudo-Italian’ furniture.

Ultimately, Goh highlighted that the industry still subjected to the laws of demand and supply  both of which had room for improvement in Sarawak.

“We still have a long way to go,” he said, noting that the focus had to be on creating demand and improve the quality of supply.

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