Fondly dubbed as the Land of Hornbills, Sarawak is a melting pot of cultures and traditions. It is endowed with a rich diversity of ethnicities, packed with age-old traditions, craftsmanship and cultures that give the country its unique heritage.
As old as the land, these cultures are, sadly, at the brink of extinction as modernization bulldozes in. The new replaces the old, so they say, but it is the old that gives us our identity our heritage.
However, there is a light in the tunnel as lately there has been a revival of sorts. Individuals are stepping up to the plate in the name of preservation.
Among these individuals are three local ladies, Jacqueline Fong, Rosemarie Wong and Wendy Teo, all from different backgrounds and in their own way, assist the worthy cause.
THE SELF ASSURED JACQUELINE FONG, who is the director of local crafts house, Tanoti, believes that within five to ten years, the Sarawakian songket will perish without a trace, if left unpreserved. That is where Tanoti comes in.
Tanoti was established solely to preserve the craft. Since its establishment in 2008, the crafts house has managed to seal Sarawakian songket in the minds of the people as well as in the local market.
“Most people do not know Sarawak has its own method of songket weaving. Many associate the craft with the East coast of Malaya,” the 43-year-old Tanoti director said.
While the West Malaysian songket retains its popularity, the Sarawakian songket is increasing its awareness. It is more intricate and complicated in its design without compromising its durability. The result is stunning! It is smoother, softer and pleasant on the skin.
Songket - Brink of extinction: Sarawak songket is being revived at Tanoti.
Her Royal Highness, Tuanku Nur Zahirah is an avid fan of songket. In 2008, when she was the queen of Malaysia, she started a foundation for the craft.
Propelled by her interest in textiles, Fong and her partner, Dr June Ngo seized the opportunity to start a craft house specializing in the songket. When Her Royal Highness ceased the funding, Fong and Dr Ngo continued the work, coughing up the funds for its continuity.
“There was no way we could let it go, we have weavers working for us,” she pointed out. Currently there are about 20 odd weavers employed full time by Tanoti. All of them are new weavers except for one who is acting as the supervisor.
For Fong, it is the empowerment of the womenfolk that gives her the motivation, the inspiration to continue this legacy.
“Most people do not know Sarawak has its own method of songket weaving.
Many associate the craft with the East
coast of Malaya,” JACQUELINE FONG, Director of Tanoti, a local crafts house
“All of our weavers were untrained and had no knowledge at all in the craft but as they joined us, they were trained. There is no specialization of labour here; every weaver here has to learn all the processes.”
This she said would allow them to start their own inspires when they leave Tanoti. Fong was extremely proud when one of her weavers left to start her own business in Serian.
“It gives me great joy to know that their experience at Tanoti has benefited them.”
Such an intricate task like weaving requires passion believes Fong. For only passion can generate the kind of commitment and patience that is required to complete a piece as many of the processes are mundane and tedious. But the result is worth the hours of labour poured into it.
Fong does not have the passion, she admitted. But her business acumen, stemming from her years in the banking industry, helped her to spot a good opportunity when she saw one. She saw that in Tanoti.
“It is a worthwhile venture and anything worthwhile is worth taking up.”
Her boldness paid off. Not only is it self-sustainable; it educates, perpetuates and preserves one part of the country's heritage.
Fong’s support also extends to Penans of Ulu Baram and Kubaan-Puah who provide Tanoti with world-class rattan woven basketry items.
Fong’s emphasis on excellent workmanship paid off as Tanoti won the World Crafts Council Aaward of Excellence for Coilings platters in 2016. The winning baskets were produced by the Penan artisans from Long Lama, Ulu Baram.
ROSEMARIE WONG, A HOTELIER, is known better for her hospitality endeavours than her preservation works. She runs two hotels, the Ranee and the Marian.
Her involvement with Iban crafts was never envisaged. As Wong pointed out, it was by default.
While travelling with her husband, she noticed the woven items by the womenfolk were used daily.
A counter exclusively for creations of the special children
as well as local aspiring designers in her souvenir shop.
Seeing the marketability in these items, Wong commissions them to weave for her.
“I don’t get them to do a new product,” said Wong. Instead she concentrates on the existing items, getting them to improve the handiwork and providing the design and colour scheme to work on.
Rattan and ‘beban’, another kind of plant strip, are the main materials used. Wong also incorporates the recycling of items such as the fan’s wire trays and discarded nylon straps. All these items are collected from the city and transported to the longhouse to be woven and transformed into beautiful, usable items again.
These completed items are exhibited in her hotel’s lobby and her souvenir shops where foreign visitors are aplenty.
‘I don’t see myself as a conservationist,” Wong explained, adding that she mixes and matches the old and new to give the otherwise boring item, a new lease of life.
But she admitted to being motivated by providing these women, who are wholly dependent on their husbands' incomes from farming, an opportunity to earn to earn side income to supplement that of their husbands.
Wong also takes it forward by offering her hotels’ lobbies and souvenir shops to showcase their masterpieces, which includes mainly accessories. In her souvenir shop, Wong has a centerpiece, which is solely for special needs children’s designs and creations.
"I don’t see myself as a conservationist,” explaining that she mixes and matches the old and new to give
the otherwise boring item, a new lease of life.
ROSEMARIE WONG Hotelier for the Ranee and the Marian
FOR 32-YEAR-OLD WENDY TEO, Borneo island is a treasure trove waiting to be tapped. This Cambridge trained architect believes that not only in its natural resources such as the bamboo, cane and timber to mention a few, the acquired skills passed down by generations from migrant ancestors are the heritage of the land.
The talented lady who has many architectural awards tucked under her belt felt a certain kind of emptiness despite working in a prestigious architect firm in the UK. Teo, by the world’s standard, has had almost everything; recognition, respect and a striving career.
“I felt there was something more to life than just making a living and I had this strong pull towards anything that associates with the island of Borneo.”
She started a blog, “Borneo Art Collection” which drew attention from many professional Sarawakians who, like her, are living abroad. Teo was trying to find the missing link.
Finally she threw in the towel and returned home. Teo knew she had to experience Borneo Island first hand in order to find the missing link so together with a few like minded people, she crowdfunded the expedition.
From Kuching to Sandakan, Sabah, Teo and her team traversed the island in a four-wheeler. They went to the interiors and remote areas, documenting their interaction with the locals through video and notes. These were sporadically loaded into her blog to update her followers and donors on the road trip’s progress.
The Pan Borneo Road Trip Interview Series as the documentary is called, offers an actual account of the interview. It is so comprehensive, informative and compelling that it won the Special Merit Award’ in KL Eco Film Festival, while highlighted overseas in Germany, Taiwan, Singapore and the States.
“The Ibans believe one must go back to nature, get in touch with one true being via nature from time to time again and they call this ‘Berjalai."
Her ‘berjalai’ was the road trip. She found what she was looking for. Through the architectural lens, she saw the vast potentialities of the island’s flora.
“It is a matter of turning what we have in abundance in our backyard into something useful.” Like the bamboo, she explained, the Bidayuh used the plant for almost anything. From the shoots as food to the trunk as timber for building houses, she added.
Teo authored the book, The Borneo Art Collective - A book on Borneo art, cuisine,
including anecdotes of her road trip.
Teo is currently embarking on developing a series of furniture and objects inspired by the crafts, language and material found in abundance in the Borneo landscape and cultural scape. One of the materials is bamboo.
Keen on age-old techniques in buildings, Teo said Sarawak has a wealth of such techniques that were passed down through generations. Migrants from India and China brought their own unique building methods, which are now archaic.
She explained that about 40 to 60 years ago, there was a career revolution whereby academic professions such as lawyers, doctors, teachers and the like were preferred thus causing a gradual phasing out of skilled labours.
Teo considered that a loss as such mastery is unrivaled even by modern technologies.
Coming from a family line of carpenters, Teo only knew too well. “There is a notch where the wood pieces are fused together without using any nails. It is strong and long lasting. That technique is long gone,” said Teo.
The social cultural dialogue of the region inspires her designs of a range of nature and culture inspired interactive sculptures, furniture, architectural installations and publications.
“I felt there was something more to life than just making a living and I had this strong pull towards anything that
associates with the island of Borneo.”
WENDY TEO Award winning architect and author of The Borneo Art Collective
Doreena Naeg is a veteran writer who has more than a decade of experience in print media. During her tenure as a writer she has won numerous awards. Now semi retired, Doreena continues her passion as a freelance writer.