AT THE EDGE OF BINTAWA, east of Kuching city, fishing boats dock by a jetty on a daily basis, returning from sea filled with fresh takes from the briny green. Right by the jetty is a small workshop that produces hand-woven fishing nets. It is one of Kuching’s oldest professions and is a niche industry, the masters of which are a dying breed. Few people wonder about the sources of the seafood on their dinner table. Fewer still wonder about the all-important nets used to catch them. So where do they come from? Who makes them? No, they are not imported from China. They are hand-woven by less than a handful of master netmakers in Kuching itself.
Weaving a fishing net is much like tailoring a shirt. The net comes from an unending roll of material like textile, and needs to be cut and woven according to each fisherman’s specification.Chang Siak Hock , or Ah Siaw, as he is commonly known, has been weaving fishing nets for more than half of his 59 years. A few decades ago, most fishing nets were imported from Thailand. At the time, Ah Siaw was a full-time fisherman. Realising the business potential in producing homemade nets, he set out to observe and study the weaving patterns of these nets, learning from other fishermen who were skilled in mending their own nets (fishing nets get torn often from the beating they get out at sea). With great passion comes great outcome.
Ah Siaw sold his fishing boat in 1988 and embarked on his fishing net-weaving business. Today, he owns Ah Siaw Fishing Net Trading Company. The art of weaving these nets is such a true craft. There are currently less than five companies throughout Sarawak that do this. The time, effort and skill required to make a reliable net dictates great patience, skill and a love for the art.
A fishing net measures from 60 feet to 240 feet, depending on the client’s needs, and each net can take up to 1 week to complete. The anatomy of the type of fishing net made by Ah Siaw is unique. It is shaped like a wonky cone. The holes at the tip of the cone are the smallest, increasing in size as it moves towards the largest circumference of the cone. To make the net just so, it takes special precision and skill.
Ah Siaw’s workshop is also manned by his son, Kenny and two other craftsmen. Walk into the place and they can most often be seen sitting on small wooden chairs mending torn nets or weaving a new ones. Naturally, business improves during fishing season, when fishermen do not have time to mend their own nets. According to Ah Siaw, mending a torn net is harder than making a new one because it is extremely time-consuming to cut and conjure net where holes used to be. It is also a relief for Ah Siaw that Kenny showed interest in taking over his legacy. “I’m not getting any younger.
If my son didn’t take this up, this will become a lost craft”. Life is lived by the fingertips in this day and age. Everything is at the click of a mouse, the touch of the finger. But professions like Ah Siaw’s make us ponder life beyond our perception of reality and the beauty of professions anchored in skill, craftsmanship and art.