The Wau: Traditional Malaysian Kites

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The wau is a uniquely Malaysian cultural icon. These traditional Malaysian kites are this country’s cultural emblem and a cultural treasure; indeed, even Malaysian Airline’s logo. To watch them fly is breathtaking and a spectacle, but to witness the making of a wau is quite another privilege.

It was an unseasonably warm and sunny afternoon in Kuala Terengganu and inside a lovely wooden house, a young man crouches over some bamboo strips. A group of children surround him as the kite-maker skillfully manipulates the bamboo pieces together.

Occasionally the man strums a bamboo strip, testing its elasticity before tying it with a string. His concentration is unwavering. Finally he takes a smoke break, makes his way to the breezy veranda and dreamily looks out to the expanse of padi fi elds and the water buffaloes behind his house.His name is Mazlan. He is 39 years old and the youngest of only a handful of “professional kite-masters” left in Malaysia today. It was his uncle, an amateur wau flyer, who first sparked Mazlan’s interest in this cultural pursuit.What started off as a hobby developed into a lifelong passion.Mazlan travelled all over Malaysia to learn the traditional art of wau-making. Determined to resuscitate “the magic of the kites” as he calls it, he has spent the first 17 years scouring every state to find the last remaining “Wind Masters.” The old masters taught him everything – all the secrets. Yet Mazlan’s unique style is to blend the varying regional styles of wau-making and design them as one hybrid pan-Malaysian style. One leg d has it that waus were used as a kind of scarecrow out in the padi fields. Also, the farmers realised that the soothing sound the kites made would lull their babies to sleep, so they could work with fewer interruptions. Another popular legend suggests that coastal inhabitants once employed fishing kites made from palm leaves and fitted with a line and hook to fish. During the fairly windy dry season, waus would be seen in all their splendour across the sky above every Malay fishing settlement.

Today, the kite is still widely seen in Kelantan and Terengganu, especially during harvest time. Naturally, many competitions arise. “Wau-flyers, representing their villages compete to see whose kite flies higher, longer, and is more beautifully crafted” Mazlan says. “The favourite kite for competition is the light and versatile wau bulan (moon kite). I also make the wau sobek which is used mostly as decoration in many of our East Coast homes.

“Competition kites are usually made from bamboo and paper, while the wau sobek uses bamboo and cloth. Cloth, of course, has a very nice texture and appearance but is simply too heavy to fly!” A winning wau requires the lightness of the special bamboo (pokok buloh duri). Mazlan splits and soaks the bamboo in mud for two weeks, then sun-dries it. The mud-soaking prevents the bamboo from being attacked by weevils (bubuk) and to make it more flexible. He subdues the bamboo strips into a complex but lightweight frame, testing it with one layer of paper, making alterations accordingly to make sure the kite is structurally sound. Next, the patterns are meticulously cut from rice paper and glued on piece by piece to form a batik-looking motif. Finally, Mazlan paints on the finishing touches to his colorful designs.

Apart from the performance and appearance of his kite, the wau-flyer considers the sound of his kite important as well. The sound (dengung) created depends on the force of the wind; the higher the kite flies and the faster the wind, the higher the pitch, making a sound similar to: ‘w-a-u-u-u, w-a-u-u-u’. But, in the end, performance is always paramount. The mark of a good competition wau is one that rises quickly, and remains flying, no matter the whims of the wind. Over the last decade, Mazlan has been participating in kite competitions not only in Malaysia but also in Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, and other Southeast Asian countries and he has done Malaysia proud in them all.

As he surveys the waus of all shapes, colours, and sizes that adorn the walls of his home, he reflects on what is really important to him: “I love creating something beautiful that I know is a marvellous tradition inherent to the culture of our people. My dream is to pass my skills and secrets on to my 16-year old son… for I fear for the day that no one will have the knowledge to hand-make a traditional wau. My kites sell from a few hundred to a few thousand ringgit each, so it’s certainly a viable business for the younger people to consider. I am content with life and will continue making waus. Malaysia without the wau is like the sea without the fish.”

Source The Expat Magazine December 2010
This article has been edited for
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