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The Changing Face of Malaysian Crafts, Barbara Leigh

Kuala Lumpur, Oxford University Press, The Asia Collection, 2000, 124 p.
Heidi Munan
p. 149-151
Référence(s) :

Barbara Leigh, The Changing Face of Malaysian Crafts, Kuala Lumpur, Oxford University Press, The Asia Collection, 2000, 124 p.

Texte intégral

1This new work on Malaysia’s material culture brings the country’s handicrafts from the past into the present, and the future. The main branches of Malaysian handicrafts (particularly textile and metal production) are on the whole well documented as far as their origins are concerned; there is however a tendency to cut off by the mid-twentieth century, and regard later production as ‘modern’ and, by implication, ‘inferior.’

2That is not how Leigh sees the Malaysian handicrafts scene. She traces the changes in techniques, output, and marketing, usually in reaction to changes in application or demand. She is very sparing with terms like ‘better’ or ‘worse,’ whether they describe the quality of products or the consumers’ requirements and tastes. Far from deprecating the increasing volume of handicrafts as ‘just made for the tourists,’ she examines the issue. In the chapter on “Fibreware and Bamboo Products,” she evaluates the contribution of the Sarawak Cultural Village, an institution built and designed to cater to the local and international tourists with an interest in local cultures. Traditional handicrafts production is a spectator activity here, and tourists can buy the newly finished artifact from the producer. A whole segment of Malaysian handicraft is ‘made for tourists.’ Leigh quotes figures relevant to the importance of tourism in the national economy, and concludes:

“The efforts of Kraftangan (a government handicrafts promotion agency) to co-ordinate the production of sufficient handicrafts by the government and private sectors to satisfy the needs of both local and foreign tourists have led to the need to expand production. The 1995/96 Malaysian Craft Directory lists 262 companies involved in craft production, but that list is by no means complete. Craft production is a big industry in Malaysia. Tourists seek memorable items for themselves, their friends and family. Some visitors have high purchasing power, others low. The market needs to cater to all needs, and to produce craft items that reflect this diversity” (p. 9).

3The text of the book is thematically divided into a regional history, and descriptions of the main branches of handicrafts: metalwork, beadwork and gold embroidery, textiles, basketry and related products such as mats, pottery, woodcarving from kris handles to Orang Asli magic masks – with the rather surprising omission of the hornbill ikons of Sarawak. One short chapter is devoted to “Recreation and ritual activities,” such as the manufacture of colorful kites, dancing lion-heads, and spinning tops. In each case, the author starts from the basics: What materials are used? How are they obtained? Does the craftworker procure them, or buy them from another source? How complex is the manufac-turing process? How many people are involved in it? Are they paid for their work? Is the artifact made for the producer’s own use, for sale to the public, or for a privileged few?

4The noble metals, in the past, were certainly worked for privileged consumers, usually members of the inner ruling clique. Leigh quotes (p. 12) the Malay Annals to the effect that “[Yellow] could not be worn by commoners. Nor was it permitted to any commoner, however high his rank, to wear anklets of gold. Unless it was a present from the Raja, when he might wear it in perpetuity.” In feudal times, the goldsmith was inevitably attached to a court; some of the mystique of gold remains even today, when it is available to anybody who can afford to buy it. The same applies to the gorgeous gold-threaded sungkit fabrics. Leigh traces the development of a highly skilled craft produced for the elite’s requirements to a well organized, officially promoted industry. Royalty is still involved, partly as an opulent customer, and partly as a designer and entrepreneur. The impressively researched technical information is interspersed with biographical vignettes of informants, and friends: a weaver, a silversmith, a woodcarver, a brass-caster, a kite-maker, an embroiderer of tiny glass beads share information, family histories, and sometimes just a bit of gossip with the author. These sketches put a human face on a socio-economic activity: Malaysia’s significant works of craft and art, of ingenuity and industry, are produced by individuals, not by a stereotyped ‘happy simple native’ living for preference in a reed-thatched hut under swaying palm trees!

5The section on wax-resist textiles contains a brief history of the descent of Malaysia’s batik from its Indonesian ‘parent,’ a lucid description of the techniques involved, some relevant statistics, and two thumbnail sketches of contemporary batik artists. It is this human content, and the merciful absence of pretentious jargon, that makes the book very readable. This is not to say that Leigh’s work is short on hard facts and figures. Production and export data are given in considerable detail; local and international competition is discussed. What does a cottage-weaver earn per day, or per meter of fabric produced? Who markets her output, and in what form – as dress lengths, or as value-added products such as ready-made clothing or souvenirs? What does art-metal giant Royal Selangor International produce, other than the pewter that first put this company into the international spotlight? To what extent are government and related agencies involved in the promotion and marketing of handicrafts? Are all these projects successful? – read page 84 for a balanced assessment of one particular case, and its attendant problems.

6One issue not addressed is that of copyright: Who owns the ‘native’ or ‘traditional’ designs, especially if they are recognizably the product of one specific ethnic group? In Australia, various indigenous peoples have taken steps to protect their own sacred motifs. In Malaysia, gift-wrapping paper and dacron-cotton yardage – to name but two products – are printed with traditional designs of sungkit, ikat, or beadwork. Leigh mentions this issue, specifically as regards textile design, but treats it as mainly an economic phenomenon: “Tourist and hotel demand for the local fabric far exceeds supply, hence the market opportunity [for the commercial printing of ethnic designs] arose. The fabric is printed either in Korea or Indonesia, and is then sold locally by the metre. At least two Kuching firms are engaged in the selection of patterns and in the organisation of mass reproduction” (p. 56). It may be only a question of time before an ethnically based cultural association brings the issue of artistic copyrights into the open in Malaysia; the opinion of a widely experienced handicrafts researcher like Leigh would be of vital interest.

7Barbara Leigh’s credentials as a handicrafts researcher are impeccable. She has been interested, and involved, in crafts for most of her working life. A sojourn in Aceh yielded Tangan-tangan Trampil (Hands of Time). Seni Kerajinan Aceh (The Crafts of Aceh), a dual-language book (Jakarta: Djambatan, 1989). Its production is nowhere near as sumptuous as The Changing Face, but the author’s approach is similar: a profound respect for the person and skill of the craftworker, and meticulous attention to detail. Leigh wanted to know in Aceh, and she wants to know today, exactly how each item is produced, from what materials, for what purpose. It is only after she has thoroughly understood each step of the process that she shares her knowledge with the reading public.

8It is sometimes difficult to find the demarca-tion line between handicrafts or cottage industry, on the one hand, and handicraft or art, on the other. Take Royal Selangor International, which started as a small family business in 1885 and grew to be the world’s largest manufacturer of pewter products. This is certainly no cottage industry! Much of the production is mechanized, but some decisive parts of the process, particularly the embellishment and finishing, are still done by the hands of 500 employees. The numerous Chinese-operated kilns in both East and West Malaysia are automatically classed as ‘industry,’ while the labu Sayong pots of Perak are emphatically marketed as traditional handicrafts. Yet, Chinese and Malay potteries use similar production, firing, and finishing processes; in particular, both make some use of machinery, moulds, and commercial glazes. Malaysia’s manufactories of batik and sungkit range from small family businesses to good-sized industrial concerns, many of them employing cottage labor as an ‘outside workforce’ producing piece work. Where should they be classified?

9And what about the batik artists who sometimes creates pictures, and sometimes designs patterns for commercial textile produc-tion? Is the Iban woman who weaves a significant dream into a piece of ceremonial fabric a cottage worker, a craftsperson, or an artist? What about her sister, who weaves one or two simple designs, small-sized, in six or eight copies at a time for the tourist market? Does the output volume influence classification? Maybe the production and marketing of copies distinguish the artist from the artisan. If so, what is the status of the person who makes the metal foil blocks that are used to print repeat designs on batik? Take Sijan in the Sarawak Cultural Village (p. 67). His status is not in question: He practices the traditional craft of bamboo incising, he is a craftworker, using traditional materials, traditional tools, and the traditional skill. But his output is adapted to the market within his reach, i.e., international tourists: He turns out money boxes, pencil containers, candle holders, flower brackets, toy flutes, miniature blowpipes, letter openers, key chain tags, and the like. So, is he a traditional craftworker?

10The Changing Face is intended to inform the general reader, not to stir up political or scholarly controversy. “The industries that produce the crafts highlighted in this book vary from home-based cottage centres to globally linked production and distribution sites,” Leigh concludes. “Some industries are state-owned, others are state-subsidized, while others rely solely on personal initiative, hard work, and vision. The trend towards increasing use of computer-based technological innovations will continue. This will be particularly in the realm of design motifs and forms that are entered into computers, and the use of computer-operated machines for production. For some crafts, the appellation handicraft is no longer relevant, for others, such as bamboo carving, there are no machines involved in the production process” (p. 112).

11This book should be compulsory reading for anybody who is professionally involved in the production or promotion of crafts products. It sums up the state of the art at the threshold of the twenty-first century, and points forward into the future.

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Référence papier

Heidi Munan, « The Changing Face of Malaysian Crafts, Barbara Leigh »Moussons, 4 | 2001, 149-151.

Référence électronique

Heidi Munan, « The Changing Face of Malaysian Crafts, Barbara Leigh »Moussons [En ligne], 4 | 2001, mis en ligne le 21 novembre 2017, consulté le 25 juillet 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Heidi Munan

Hon. Curator of Beads, Sarawak Museum, Kuching, Sarawak.

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