South East Asia Cottage Industries (Part 2 of 5): Malaysia


The people in the North East

Cottage industries in Malaysia contribute key economic revenues for the village population. The incomes derived from the industries contribute the main part of total rural household income (Redzuan and Aref, 2009). The village people in north-eastern coasts of Malay Peninsula are largely accountable for passing the centuries-old tradition and heritage to the younger generations. Recently, we can see the involvement of fresher, creative minds in terms of modernizing designs and packaging, not forgetting marketing it online for the whole world. The most famous villages for Malaysian Batik are Kelantan and Terengganu.

Batik is synonymous with Malaysia. The traditional fabric art is laborious – only the experienced artisans are deemed qualified to produce such worthy fine arts – by incorporating wax-resist method to produce colourful designs, more often than not enigmatic and intricate. One of the must-visit places in Kelantan is Pantai Cahaya Bulan (“Moonlight Beach”, formerly “Beach of Passionate Love”). Along the route to this utopic beach travelers will come across many cottage industries. The crafts will then be sold on the spot or along the beaches. Tourists may bring home souvenirs like Wau (kite), traditional games, Batik and Songket apparels, plant-weaved handicrafts, wood carvings and many other interesting varieties. Popular Batik cottage workshops include Kampung Putih, Kubur Kuda, and Kampung Badang. Songket workshops can be found at Kampung Penambang, en route to Pantai Cahaya Bulan.

Aside from busy being businesswomen at the local market and making Batik and Songket, women in Kelantan (and Terengganu) engage in handicrafts made from nature. They gather Mengkuang (Pandanus) leaves, bamboo, or rattan, and process them before creatively weave them into useful and beautiful objects such as bags, hats, mats, baskets, and many others.

What makes villages in Kelantan different from other states is that it is NOT a social taboo when the women work hard as the breadwinner of the family whilst the men, well, get occupied through other none income-generating activities like making Wau or practicing Dikir Barat (Lee, 2011). Although new generation womenfolk might agree that this constitutes the misguided fact that men in Kelantan are downright lazy, the men, innately, beg to differ.

Men in cottage industries contribute to more physically demanding jobs such as making sampans (wooden boats), learning and practicing Silat (a type of martial art), plant or herb hunting in the forests, and ultimately, fishing. A famous place to see the men working on wooden boats is at Pulau Duyung near Kuala Terengganu. It is amazing to see the men work without any technical set plans and solely depend on skills that were usually handed down from previous generations.


Orang Asli and their natural remedies

There was a school of thought that ponders upon the fact that men in “concrete jungle” are reportedly more prone to health threats than those who dwell in the jungle and the countryside. This is because Malaysian rainforests are blessed with miraculous herbs that are proven to have significant positive impact on health. Orang Asli (translated as “Original People”), for example, is popular for their lucrative trade of Tongkat Ali (Eurycoma longifolia) and Kacip Fatimah (Labisa Pumila) herbs among many others to major dealers and resellers in the city.


Women of Hma’ Meri in their traditional dresses on Ari Muyang festival in Sungei Bumbun village


This is not to say that their life is all about the jungle. Orang Asli have varied occupations and lifestyles, depending on the tribe and its location. There are three main groups of Orang Asli in the Malay Peninsula: Semang (or Negrito) in the north; Senoi in the central; and Proto-Malay in the southern region. One thing for sure, the majority of them are animists who believe in spirits in various objects, although now, many have embraced Islam or Christianity. Most Orang Aslis are not well-educated and the women prefer to stay at home and look after their families.

On coastal areas are communities like Orang Laut, Orang Seletar, and Hma’ Meri (or Mah Meri) whose means of living revolve around fishing. A noted publication described women of Hma’ Meri established a group called Tompoq Topoh (translates as ‘the start of collaborative effort’) that focuses on passing on the tradition and culture of weaving to future generations. Hma’ Meri tribe settled on southwest coast of the peninsula, particularly within the district of Kuala Langat and Klang, and on Pulau Carey (Rahim, R. 2007).

The people of Semai, Temiar, Che’ Wong, Jah Hut, Semelai, and Semoq Beri live near or within rainforests and peat swamp areas in the central region. Their incomes rely on cash crops like herbs and fruits, and non-timbre forest products (NTFPs).

The Semang groups are Jahai and Lanoh. They are still semi-nomadic; although you may find Jahai settlements by the rivers and lakes located in the Jeli district of Kelantan and Hulu Perak district of Perak. Jahai men mostly were trained since childhood to be expert hunters with blowpipes and poison darts. Some accepted the government’s challenge to settle and farm, thus some do trades of treasures from the forest while some live in urban areas and engage in salaried jobs (Nicholas, C. 1997).


A natural and colorful treatment

The jungle not only provides herbs for health, but they are one of the sources of natural dyes for fabrics as well. Natural dyes can be derived from plants, insects or minerals. The state that was famous for natural-based dye cottage industry is Pahang. History in the 1920s showed that Pahang plant cultivation industry went through strict supervision under the then colonial government. More vividly is the fact that the industry was small and it enabled the use of natural dyes for a much longer time than the other states.

Today, natural dye makers in Malaysia are dispersed and one cannot pin-point exactly which state produces the most. The plants or fruits for making dyes vary, therefore it depends on the individual cottage industry administration to source and produce natural dyes. Traditionally, these natural dye cottage industries work hand-in-hand with fabric weaving workshops. The men are usually responsible for sourcing and procurement and the women get involved in the textile dyeing process itself.


 Continue to Part 3: Thailand

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