Crafts & The Disappearing Forests

Every year, Hari Kraf Kebangsaan (HKK) takes place for about two weeks at the Kuala Lumpur Craft Complex. It’s a large-scale event that craft entrepreneurs look forward to showcasing and selling their products to consumers, besides attracting more Malaysians to venture into the craft industry with the latest technology and designs.

As the biggest and most exciting craft fair in Malaysia, the exhibitors hail from across the country, both the East and the West, creating an array of crafts from multi-ethnic and multi-cultural backgrounds in different forms such as textiles, metal, clay, and forest-materials.

While an event such as HKK is important to celebrate the art of crafts and its continued practice, there is more than meets the eye when it comes to upholding crafts, especially forest product-based handicrafts.

Told through the lens of Orang Asli craft-making, we explore the challenges of preserving these handicrafts as it takes more than just recognising, restoring, and recording the craft and its knowledge-skill.

Traditional crafts are constructed by hands using traditional techniques and hand tools and made from natural materials such as mengkuang, rotan, bemban, bertam, bamboo, and hardwood such as merbau and nyireh batu.

They are used mainly in everyday life (baskets, pouches, hunting tools), for leisure and entertainment (nose flute, kerchang), ceremonial occasions (e.g., wedding and funeral) and seasonal festivals.

The crafts available in the market are a mix of natural-coloured and synthetically-dyed processed fibres, with some retaining their traditional forms while others are given modern twists to adapt to the city folk’s home space.

For the Orang Asli, crafts are still made for utilitarian purposes, but engaging in the practice of craft-making allows them to make supplementary income besides their mainstay of harvesting forest produce, rubber, oil palm, and fishing.

Gerai OA and Kraf X are two examples of efforts in craft restoration, both of whom work closely with artisans of various tribes and villages across Peninsula Malaysia. Their work supports supplementary income generation as well as the preservation of traditional crafts by buying directly from the artisan and then selling their crafts at fairs and bazaars. Unlike middlemen, 100% of the sales monies are paid to the named artisan.

Our booth at Kajang Waldorf Bazaar on September 2019. A collaboration between Kraf -X and Gerimis Art Project

Preservation of traditional crafts is not an easy feat, especially among the Orang Asli crafts, as it takes a combination of steel determination and unwavering dedication to travel long distances and hours to the villages—coupled with a shrinking base of craftspeople as the young become disinterested in craft-making and instead attracted to the glitz and glam of the city or digital world.

In the highly globalised, urbanised, and industrialised world, traditional handicraft products are being replaced by mass-produced, industrial products. Patience is replaced by productivity. Consequently, these handicrafts fade and lose their place in society while industrial products flourished.

The heritage of handicrafts needs to be identified and protected. Otherwise, it may disappear forever along with the knowledge, traditions, and living expressions inherited from our ancestors and passed from generation to generation.

Jamli and his father weave bubu (fish trap). The knowledge of weaving is still retained at the village of Kampung Kenderung because their forest and way of life are intact. This provides access to materials as well as a utilitarian use for the craft

Most would think that ensuring the continuous transmission of knowledge-skill, as well as increasing appreciation for traditional crafts, are important to keep the craft alive. However, the preservation of crafts is more than just preserving knowledge. It is also the need to preserve the forests.

As the knowledge of craft-making is intangible, it cannot be touched or interacted with or without a vehicle—the vehicle being the forest materials that form the body or expression of the knowledge-skill.

But as we all know, forests are in constant threat in Malaysia. Year by year, Malaysia has been among the countries with high levels of deforestation. If we do not equally preserve our forests, the materials to make forest product-based handicrafts will also be at risk of disappearing.

Crafts mirror their immediate environment.

Not only do they reflect the culture, way of life, and inherited knowledge of the Orang Asli, crafts also reflect the health of the forest of the specific areas. We explore 4 areas which consist of various villages of Semai, Temuan, and Jah Hut tribes.

Between Ipoh at the north and Teluk Intan at the south is Kampung Tangkai Cermin, located in the township of Tanjung Tualang, Perak. The one-hour drive from Ipoh takes you through a landscape of man-made lakes, shaped by its long history of tin-mining. If you looked at Tanjung Tualang on Google Maps, you will see the area speckled in blue amid a network of roads and patches of green.

Mak Cik Umi (pointing at her craft) and Mak Cik Remah (at the back in purple top)

However, green doesn’t always mean forests. Together with Gerimis Art Project and Persatuan Kebudayaan dan Kesenian Orang Asal Perak (PKKOAP), we met Semai weavers, Mak Cik Umi and Mak Cik Remah in the latter’s home at Kampung Tangkai Cermin. They make up the few weavers in the village, each of whom weaves beautiful baskets and pouches respectively.

Mak Cik Umi told me that while they are able to weave from mengkuang, which is planted in the vicinity, she could only do rattanwork when there are available materials found in her surroundings. She explained the difficulty of harvesting rattan when forests have been cleared for oil palm plantations.

“When all the forest cover has been replaced by oil palm, it is difficult to find rattan. If it was a rubber plantation, rattan can still be found. However, wild rattan clumps are normally cleared by the oil palm plantation owners.”

Kampung Tangkai Cermin is not an isolated incident in which the changed landscape caused the local extinction of plants.

Yau Niuk weaving a lidded double-layer ‘bujam gila’ (mad weave basket)

Going further south to the district of Kuala Langat, we travelled with Gerai OA to Kampung Paya Rumput, which is located just 10km or about 10 minutes’ drive from Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA).

Here, we met Temuan Master Weaver Yau Niuk who weaves a difficult technique known as mad weave to make palm-sized hexagonal boxes. According to her, her late father and the older generation of villagers used to weave giant baskets with the giant mengkuang air leaves that thrived in the peat forest.

“In the old days, the baskets were huge because we could make huge weavings with the wild mengkuang leaves. Now, it is already extinct.”

Today, she lives within an oil palm plantation and can only weave smaller containers with the smaller domesticated pandan leaves. When rapid urbanisation and large-scale monoculture plantations appeared, mengkuang air disappeared, and so did the ability to make giant baskets.

Mak Cik Nora demonstrating her weaving skills to team Gerimis and Kraf-X

In Juasseh, Negeri Sembilan, Kraf X introduced us to two Temuan weavers at Kampung Guntur. The two ladies, Mak Cik Nora and Kak Ati work with the different materials of mengkuang, and bemban and rotan respectively.

While Mak Cik Nora gets her materials from the mengkuang patch beside her house (planted 20 years ago) to weave her various creations of mats and pouches, Kak Ati gets bemban and rotan from the forest nearby to make shrimping baskets. However, Kak Ati informed us that the forest may be logged and if it happened, she would not have the materials to make shrimping baskets.

“I learned weaving from my mother who learned from a Semelai woman. If I did not plant this mengkuang patch 20 years ago, I would not have the materials to weave.”

Mak Cik Nora is one of the examples of Orang Asli who reintroduced plants into their immediate environment. But some plants are extremely difficult to reintroduce, such as the merbau tree.

The view outside Master Carver Yatim’s house at Kampung Koi

Across the Titiwangsa Range, sits the Krau Wildlife Reserve (KWR) in west-central Pahang. Northeast at the fringe of the reserve is Kampung Koi, a Jah Hut village situated along Rural Road C141 which connects Kuala Krau to Damak.

Here lives Master Carver Yatim who once carved the Jah Hut wood art. Made from the merbau tree, these sculptures are carved based on their traditional beliefs related to the invisible world, particularly to the bes or illness-causing spirits. 

However, he is unable to continue his craft when the surrounding forest was converted to oil palm estates, causing the local extinction of merbau trees. Ironically, the merbau was recently declared as Malaysia’s national tree.

Moving southeast of the KWR, we met various Jah Hut weavers and carvers in Kampung Berdut and was told by Gerai OA that this village has a high production of crafts even though surrounded by oil palm.

Gerai OA’s craft pickup meeting place at Kampung Berdut

Unlike Kampung Koi, Kampung Berdut is within the reserve and still has access to the forest. With the rich resources of the forest, the crafts are equally rich in variety.

There are the traditional tobacco pouches, epok anyam gila, which is made from the wild mengkuang and weaved using the mad weave technique; the modified rattan rice harvest basket, hibung berkaki that is given a modern twist by adding legs to its corners so it could function as a vase in a city folk’s home; the large-mouth rattan betel box; and Jah Hut bes spirit carvings.

“We still have the forest, but it doesn’t mean it will be here forever.”

One might ask, how is it possible for an oil palm estate to be within a forest reserve? In Malaysia, a reserve doesn’t mean a protected forest. Although the KWR is almost intact, the forested areas surrounding it had considerably declined due to the changes of land use activities.

Between 1966 and 1974, the forest was cleared along the eastern and southern boundaries and the FELDA Jenderak Selatan estates were established, affecting Kampung Berdut and several other Jah Hut villages.

What will we mirror if we continue stripping the land?

Crafts carry stories of the land and an understanding of the biodiversity that exists on our land. If we lose crafts, we lose more than just the variability of life on earth.

Traditional handicraft is the expression of our history. The cultural heritage embodied in crafts is a valuable cultural asset for any nation. It indicates the culture and traditions of a particular region. It is what is uniquely ours or a collective identity present nowhere else. It carries generations-old wisdom.

Imagine a world where everything made and that exist within your home and the entire extent of your consciousness is programmed, mechanised and automated. Nothing that you touch and use has had a past life, sourced responsibly with respect to nature, or given a soul by its maker’s hands. What you consume is produced for the masses. Nothing you hold has a story to be told.

Look at the mengkuang leaves, which make the base of the art of weaving, are alive. They soften when the air is cool and harden when it becomes warm. The leaves have a life of their own until they return to earth. Each craft of the same design is not identical as every creation embodies the condition of the soul of its maker.

When looked at, one will understand the nature of its making—that the maker took her time to cut the leaves, according to the pantang, then process and eventually turn the leaves into another form.

These are techniques passed down from mother to daughter, father to son, tribe to tribe, across generations, and it takes patience and passion for one to master the art of weaving. These are crafts that carry a memory from time immemorial, an ancient knowledge that persists time, but could it be in its final breaths?

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