“At the moment, we are not compelling the hotels to [provide display areas for local handicrafts] but they should give priority to our crafts by displaying them so tourists learn to appreciate and buy them. If the hotels do not want to display our own handicraft, then who else will?” – Culture, Arts, and Heritage Minister Datuk Seri Utama Dr. Rais Yatim.
Batik… Mengkuang weaving… Kelantan silver… Malaysia is a virtual treasure trove of fine handicrafts created by amazing craftsmen. However, on a world stage these wares are virtually unknown, overshadowed by the overwhelming popularity of Mexican sombreros and wooden shoes from Holland. Batik… Mengkuang weaving… Kelantan silver… Malaysia is a virtual treasure trove of fine handicrafts created by amazing craftsmen. However, on a world stage these wares are virtually unknown, overshadowed by the overwhelming popularity of Mexican sombreros and wooden shoes from Holland.
Of Malaysian craft, Batik is probably the most well known. The hand painted wax art that uses fabric as its canvas still evokes wonder from myself, and those at home whom I’ve given batik items to as gifts. They’ve never seen anything like it – nor had I before coming to Malaysia. My personal collection of batik shirts is growing, solely because of its appeal to my sense of style. And not only appealing to style, batik worn in Malaysia holds special favour among dress codes. Where a three-piece suit is too hot and a normal dress shirt is unacceptable (such as a trip to an MPO concert), a batik shirt is perfectly acceptable.
Mengkuang weaving is a labour-intensive industry, producing such fine items as handbags and other designs. Of 1,853 local craft entrepreneurs, only 131 are involved in the mengkuang industry, mostly weavers from Terengganu, Kelantan, Kedah, Negri Sembilan, Sabah, and Perak. Of these, most weaving is done as a part-time basis to provide extra income for a household. The building a mengkuang industry in Malaysia is reliant on the assurance of a stead supply of craft. Right now, Japan is falling in love with mengkuang items in a big way. Woven mengkuang handbags are becoming more and more popular with Japanese ladies, who see them as stylish, practical items with a hint of ethnic flair. However, because the state of the mengkuang industry right now is small-scale, the local weavers have a hard time keeping up. The orders for products are simply too large for the small-time and part-time weavers to fill.
The other main obstacle to the wide-scale sales of mengkuang products in local and foreign markets is the mengkuang fibre’s susceptibility to the bubuk (a type of insect) when not exposed to fresh air for long periods. Without the infrastructure necessary to store the product necessary to fill the aforementioned large orders, an entire shipment can be ruined by bubuk infestation. Luckily, this is only a temporary setback. Like the development of other pest-resistant crops, the invention of a bubuk-resistant mengkuang can overcome this obstacle to bring Malaysia’s mengkuang crafts to the world in a big, big way.
Kelantan silver is another of Malaysia’s hidden gems of craftsmanship. These intricate designs of jewellery, picture frames, and other items are almost always a preferred item among visitors to Malaysia. The detailing of craftsmanship in each item of Kelantan silver betrays a deep love and respect for the craft by the craftsmen, a notion most definitely seen with a visit to a dealer of Kelantan silver items, where the owners can usually give a rich history of the production of each piece. These handicrafts are indicative of Malaysian culture, yet as previously stated, their place in the local and world markets are overshadowed by those from neighbouring countries. This says nothing of quality or design, but more of an awareness and a lack of information on what is available.
As Malaysia’s Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi has noted, “When I recently went to a tourist resort in Langkawi, I was shocked to find imported handicraft on sale, when similar craft items are available locally from Karyankeka (the Government-supported outlet selling local handicraft). “When I asked the seller why he was not selling Malaysian handicraft, he replied he did not know of any. Maybe he just sells the products supplied to him… which is an easy job to do if that is the case.”
There are efforts, however, to rectify this situation and promote Malaysian handicrafts in Malaysia and elsewhere in the world. Ideas include the adoption of ‘handicraft officers’ to monitor the situations at tourist centres, the supply of straw mats to beachside hotels, and so on. As mentioned by Culture, Arts, and Heritage Minister Datuk Seri Utama Dr. Rais Yatim, one powerful way to promote Malaysian crafts is by prominent placement in areas that tourists are known to frequent, most notably in Malaysia’s large hotels. Small displays in these places can do wonders for the promotion of Malaysian craft.
As an expat, you likely already know the beauty of these items, or you’re just beginning to discover Malaysia’s cultural treasures like Kelantan silver, batik, and so on. You’re in a unique position to promote Malaysian culture. You have friends and family at home, and Malaysian crafts make great gifts. When they visit, expose them to the many offerings of Malaysian craft. You, as an expat, are an unofficial ambassador of Malaysia’s unique culture, and your promotion to friends, family, and future business colleagues is invaluable to the growth of an entire industry. “Handicraft can be developed on a large scale,” says Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. “It is not merely a business of small-time businessmen… not necessarily a business of the poor.”
Indeed, if the promotion of Malaysia’s cultural crafts is set forward with the efforts it requires, Kelantan silver might someday be as well-known as the Mexican sombrero.
Source: The Expat May 2005
This article has been edited for ExpatGo.com
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