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All photographs by Calvin How
SOMETIME AROUND JULY, 2016, I picked up a strange thing in a craft shop in Pasar Seni. It was a thin, cuboid-shaped pouch woven from pandan leaves. It had a small sheath/lid, attached by an ornate tassel to the open-top body of the pouch, and was decorated with a pattern around the hems.
If you haven’t figured it out by now: to an eco-junkie, this is crack cocaine. A 100% natural hold-all for your money, smartphone or bits’n’bobs—it was stylish, and it was made from leaves. It could be thrown into the garbage with a conscience cleaner than Fiji water.
What intrigued me, however, was that this wasn’t the brain-child of a hipster laboratory in the bohemian part of town. It was not the ‘latest’ in urban, ‘gender-fluid’, eco-wear, nor was it even boasting a logo. It was honest handicraft, ineffably ahead of our time, and one that’s probably been around since well be-fore hazes and Earth Days.
Last March, I was invited to the Ayik Muyang (Ancestor’s Day) annual celebration of the indigenous Mah Meri community on Pulau Carey. There, I met Maznah Anak Unyan, the founder of the local weaving collective, Tompoq Topoh. As I prised my leaf-wallet out from my pocket, to my surprise she said, “That’s one of ours. Look at the motif: it’s Mah Meri. We call it tampuk manggis.”
The mystery of the pouch, known in Mah Meri as a bujam lipo’, was solved. Or was it? Esquire goes back to Kampung Sungai Bumbun in search of the backstory.
Esquire: Before Tompoq Topoh, was there anyone selling these handicrafts?
Maznah Anak Unyan: I think if we’d never met Reita [Ra-him, a freelance craft researcher] we’d probably be out of work. Before this we didn’t have many options, we just sat around eat-ing betel nut. It’s true! Sometimes it was good to gather lidi and we’d sell brooms. Weaving is so much better. We’ve been able to meet all kinds of people, and we’ve made friends from all over the world. People know about us—we’re on YouTube. [continued on next page]
Maznah Anak Unyan: In the past we would weave only for rituals and [day-to-day usage.] We’ve been weaving for generations, just never for sale. When I was 18 years old, I came across an article about Terengganu. People were weaving really beautiful things, and I became inspired. I went to a cousin of mine and said, “I want to learn.” My cousin said to me, “How can someone like you ever go far? You never learned anything, you didn’t go to school.” I was only 18, and I stopped the thought there and then. From a young age weaving has always been a passion of mine, and I would still weave, and think to myself: Is there a market for a product like this? Is it durable? “You never got an education, you can’t do it,” my cousin said. But now, I can do it. It was after Reita came to do research. She asked if we had any female crafts left. My mother came out, and she said, ‘I still have them.’ We brought out mats, betel boxes, and what was re-ally special was the bujam lipo’. [continued on next page]
Maznah Anak Unyan: Only the men would use them, to carry their tobacco and lighters. In the small workshop outside Maznah’s wooden home is a small army of products. Colourful pots, boxes, mats, bujam lipo’, and phalanxes of bookmarks fan out before the eyes of potential customers. All of them are made from the pandan plants in the garden. About 200 of these plants were planted in the village during a joint fundraising initiative to get Tompoq Topohon its feet in 2003. The dyes used are synthetic; after the forests on Pulau Carey went missing, the Mah Meri can no longer find nor afford natural dyes. The workshop is a repository of artisanal accessories by women from the five Mah Meri villages of Pulau Carey. [continued on next page]
Maznah Anak Unyan: Depending on how many the weaver makes, these hand-crafted, unbranded products can yield a maximum supplementary in-come of RM300 (USD75) a month. Not much—but more than selling penyapu lidi, at around RM50 a month. As I wander around the village like a gimpy tourist, drinking a coconut, I speak to many young teenagers who avert their eyes and shy away from questions.
I meet an English-speaking girl, Diana Ross binti Diaman, one of very few Mah Meri studying at university in Shah Alam. Diana Ross is different to the rest; she’s feisty, and her face sometimes wields a hardened expression. She laments that her Mah Meri peers drop out of school because they are too “shy”. She tells stories of how she was teased, insulted, and had to shout her way out of fights. Her hardened expression was not because of the Fates—it was trained. In an article* by Colin Nicholas of the Center for Orang Asli Concerns in 2004 the statistics read that 94% of indigenous children did not make it beyond secondary school. For the children in Kampung Sungai Bumbun, transitioning to Form 1 means leaving the village school to mix with the urban and urbanising population. Transitioning to Form 6 means leaving Pulau Carey altogether (adequate transportation is also a big issue, I am told.)Intrigued by this new trail of breadcrumbs, Esquire travels to Chow Kit to visit the studio of Shaq Koyok, an English-speaking fine arts graduate of Temuan descent, who grew up in the town of Banting, just outside Pulau Carey.
Esquire: What do Malaysians think of Orang Asli culture?
Shaq Koyok: Mostly, they still are ignorant of us, especially because they hold these stereotypes: they will say things like, we’re not clean people. That’s why, to change the perception, I now live in KL (Kuala Lumpur), so people know who I am: just a regular Malaysian. Not many Orang Asli are part of mainstream culture in the city – almost none.
Esquire: I spoke to this girl who’s studying at university. She said it’s been difficult for her because she’d come to school and kids would be like, “You’re Orang Asli, you don’t know anything.”
Shaq Koyok: Absolutely. I had the same when I studied in university, but I found a way to attack the problem by showing my strength: my art. And they respect you. People would say so many things: “Are you dirty? Did you take a shower?” At university! Sometimes, I’d say an outrageous thing, like, “Yeah, I swam in the mud.” I got it in school too, the teasing. There’s nothing on indigenous people, even in [the university library]. What I do is always about indigenous people; I want to educate with my art. That’s the only way I can change the mindset of Malaysians [about indigenous people]
NOTE: *”The State of Orang Asli Education and Its Root Problems”, part of a longer consultancy report entitled “Orang Asli: Rights, Problems, Solutions” prepared in July 2006 for the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suhakam). See also, Suhakam’s report, “Laporan Status Hak Pendidikan Kanak-kanak Orang Asli (2010).
IT WAS BRIGHT BUT STORMY DAY. Outside Pasar Seni in Kuala Lumpur, where this story began, Esquire meets Reita Rahim. She holds a diploma in graphic design, and for the past 19 years has been documenting indigenous handicrafts around Malaysia. She is one of very few consultants in the field. Today, she is womanning the not-for-profit Gerai OA stall, which she formed in 2004 to sell indigenous crafts, straight from the artisan. To the untrained eye, the products in her care are no different to those on the tables of other stallholders at the one-off Craft Celebration event.
Esquire: How common is pandan weaving in Malaysia?
Reita Rahim: It’s not uncommon. As long as there’s pandan, there’s somebody weaving it—whether it’s Malay, whether it’s Orang Asli, or whatever. It’s just how it ended up as a bujam lipo’, as a product that people can sort of identify as Mah Meri. Malays are no longer making these kinds of fine pieces. They refuse to. We have friends who actually deal in pandan crafts—the ladies [in the stall] next to me. [continued on next page]
Reita Rahim: Every time they look at a bujam lipo’ they say, “Oh, my weavers won’t do that anymore; it’s too-fine work for the amount of money.” (A bujam lipo’ goes for about RM15-RM30 and can take three days to make.) So, Gerai OA has gone completely against the norm by not opening all the time, and in not having a permanent shop. But it actually works out to our advantage, and to the weavers’ advantage, because you maintain some sort of exclusivity. It makes it (the brand) desirable; people actually hunt us down. People come to the village just to see them weave, because it’s an artisanal craft.
Esquire: So, there’s a lot more that goes into the making of the crafts than you might imagine?
Reita Rahim: You can boost production the fastest way by just doing flat weaves, and then cut and sew it up, but then you lose the skill of making a three-dimensional object. It’s a skill. Not everyone can do a bucu empat [the four-cornered base of a bujam lipo’]. The short-cut way is to have a sharp-pointed edge, but that one will normally fray very fast. It’s a lot of work. And now, with plastic stuff, there’s no need to make it anymore. Every culture used to have a lot crafts. It’s just that somewhere in the ’60s something went haywire and everybody started dropping them. We didn’t do the sales bit before this; it was just purely documentation—but you can’t document them alone. You have to realise that it doesn’t have continuity unless you can sell it. And it’s working. We actually have around 30 to 40 weavers in Pulau Carey. It’s been a slow build-up, but it’s not just about the crafts either. It’s not the pouch. There’s something behind that pouch, and nobody knows that story: the story about how the women became empowered.
FOR WOMEN LIKE MAZNAH, who have basic-to-no for-mal education, they struggle in a world that does not value who they are because what they have to offer is foreign to the marketplace. When I say my goodbyes, I disturb Maznah and her collective in the middle of studying for a short course in financial management. When education is in her interest, a 48-year-old grandmother will jump through hoops to get it and meet her existential challenges. As the mayors of global cities start to dump hydrocarbons and flirt with sustainability, more eco-junkies and lovestruck connoisseurs are hunting down handicrafts.
Of course, the crafts are adapted to suit the trappings of modern life—but the will to weave my pouch was not moved by a desire to profit off the next ephemeral trend catalysed by KOLs and marketing campaigns. It is the story of a group of women finding a place for their forgotten culture in the economic world informed by masculine values of global market domination, exploitation and their rewards. Or, I find myself musing: is it the story of the canaries in the coalmine of that world finding a forgotten place for theirs?
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