Racks of batik cloth are being left to dry in the afternoon sun after repeated washing to remove the excess wax and dye. This allows the dye to set before the cloths are packaged. In Terengganu, batik workshops like this are increasingly uncommon as factory printed fabric become a cheaper alternative. As a craft tradition, batik is not exactly local. A common folk ditty goes something like this: “Batik cloth, batik clothing / Java was your land of origin / pretty lady, dashing lad / Like two halves of an areca cut.” Nevertheless, the Terengganu folks have managed to infuse it with their own vernacular over the past century. It has led to an earthier kind of sensuality that celebrates bold and simple patterns, bright colors and a willingness to embrace crackling – this creates a wavy line effect that bristles with energy.
Incidents (of Travel)
I first met chi too in 2008 when I was putting together a Southeast Asian video screening at Valentine Willie Fine Art. We became friends when I became the “default” curator (or more like a press secretary) of a now-defunct collective that went under the name of Best Art Show in the Universe, of which chi too was a founding member. Today we still continue some form of partnership; we are researchers, artists, designers, writers and other misfits that occasionally come together in a living room in Kuala Lumpur to come together with different agents, talk shop, eat grilled meats and imbibe.
Last year, when I extended my invitation to him to spend a day together as part of the Incidents (of Travel) series, chi too suggested he wanted to “balik kampung”. A literal translation of this Malay phrase would have meant he wanted to “return to the village“. A more accurate rendition would suggest he felt like “going home”. The “home” chi too referred to was Kampung Mangkuk, a sleepy sea-side village in the east-coast West Malaysian state of Terengganu. This was where he had spent two months at some low-point of his life, learning how to make the traditional Malay wau kite from an artisan in the village.
Though featured as the emblem of Malaysian Airlines, this kite-making craft is slowly diminishing. chi too wanted to see if the village folks that nourished him with a daily sustenance of village gossip were still doing okay. We also involved Awang Ketut (a radical and hippie student that was a core member of the Universiti Bangsar Utama collective in Kuala Lumpur back in the 1990s, but who has since moved back to Terengganu) to follow us around and play cameraman.
Neither of us are from Terengganu. As city kids we came to the east coast not to find a home but alterity, another worldview and a different sort of place-ness. This time we also took the opportunity to visit a number of other local trades and craft workshops—a budu and a belacan factory (types of fish sauce and shrimp paste respectively), a batik workshop, and a boat-building shed on Pulau Duyung, an island in the mouth of Terengganu River. Finally we were faced with the searing blue horizon that stretches outwards the South China Sea, lulled into a kind of wistful stupor by the rhythmic crashing of waves on one hot afternoon.
What impressed me about this journey was not any one image, but a kind of sensibility that was resistant towards a coherent visual form: the smell of sea salt that warms one’s skin, or the fetid water of the marsh, or the aromatic wafts of cooked food that hung heavily and giddily under a late-morning sun. These are experiences that unfortunately photographs can never replace. Nevertheless, at the very least, what these images string together as narrative somehow intimates the sensibilities, and offers some faints traces, of what was a memorable day.
On that fine morning, after hearty breakfast of nasi dagang (which translates loosely as “trader’s rice/meal”), we walked around the town’s market to find many batik stores already open. The market has two stories. On the ground floor is where you will find the daily produce on sale. Climb up a flight of stairs, and you will have the eating stalls on one end and the craft traders on the other. Here we found samples of garish batik textiles. These gaudy colors are what city-folks and the nouveau-riche look out for today, as opposed to the more subdued tones derived from traditional organic dyes. Traders and batik-makers are quick to adapt to the taste of the urban middle class.
Budu, a fermented fish sauce, is an acquired taste. It is made by storing a mixture of anchovies and salt in these cement containers for 140 to 200 days. The result is a sharp acidic pong that is in equal measure complex and pungent. When fermentation is complete it becomes the perfect accompaniment to a hearty but simple meal of rice, raw jungle ferns and grilled seafood. It’s a staple of the east coast, to the extent that even the Malays of the west coast are not accustomed to its faintly rotting flavor. Every time I eat budu, I imagine that it must taste rather like the Roman condiment garum. For one brief moment, two seemingly disparate cultures with almost no overt civilizational connections are drawn together by a shared love for rotten fish soup.
Here blocks of belacan are being sun-dried. This is a fermented ground shrimp paste used in cooking all throughout southeast Asia. To get that characteristic rosy pink, manufacturers in a number of shops have started adding bottles and bottles of rose syrup during the grinding process, resulting in a sticky sweet smell that attracts a lot of flies. In the next video, one gets to see what goes into the making of the keropok lekor – a kind of fish cake that is quintessential Terengganu snack food. The meat of the fish is ground up and mixed into a paste with sago flour, before being rolled into a sausage or tubular form. The lekor is then boiled very quickly in scalding hot water, so that the form sets. It is widely sold in Terengganu and it is eaten from morning to night. There are two principle ways to prepare it: deep-fried or steamed.
There are not many traditional boat makers left in Kuala Terengganu. This is struck a wistful note, given that traditionally the Malays were seafaring people. Old photographs of Terengganu showed how important sailing was to the traditional way of life – whether it is sea fishing that informs the livelihood of the village folks or the riverine culture along the Terengganu river, serviced by many water taxis that brought the Terengganu people from both ends of the river bank into trade and conversation. The boat shed we visited is located on Pulau Duyung, a little island nestled in the middle of the Terengganu river. The following video shows the studied patience and diligent labour that go into crafting a sailing vessel. It takes at least a year to complete a ship. But the boat-makers are never in a hurry, they take many cigarette breaks. When the hammering stops, one could hear the radio humming a soft rock ballad.
Dyed clothes ready to be printed with wax pattern. Batik is a wax-resist technique of creating patterned fabrics. Here we met some of the last few batik makers who are still committed to a daily routine of producing this textile craft of Javanese origin that emerged as a local economy a century ago. Unlike the fastidiousness of Javanese batik (both court and trade varieties), there is a casual unfussiness about Terengganu batik, almost like the former’s rock-and-roll counterpart. It is Javanese batik’s casual-but-edgier and more sensual cousin. By the afternoon most of the work has been done. The workers are putting the finishing touches to a block printing technique and will begin to dry the wax. The day begins early at daybreak as siestas are an important part of a daily ritual to sleep off the heat-induced stupor of another tropical afternoon.
Finally we arrived at Kampung Mangkuk and we are welcomed with a feast of keropok lekor (fried fish crackers) on the verandah of Pak Zaki’s kampung house. Tea here is sweet and cigarette smoke filled the air as peals of laughter ring through the slow languorous air. It was a joyous occasion, since chi too has not met the family for close to two years. They spoke fondly about village life, about whether or not chi too still remembers how to make a kite, about the delicate science of tapering off the bamboo stick so that the kite is able to achieve a quality of grace and elegance while it is in the air. Sightings of spirits were also casually brought up, ghosts and monsters live side by side with humans in the countryside. But like all afternoon chatter, this was soon followed by a siesta on the very same multi-functional raised platform where guests are entertained and brief greetings turn into long storied nights.
Kite making is a dying craft. Today it is still common to see kids and adults playing with kites. But these are modern day kites made of plastic and Styrofoam. There is little grace in the way they drift in midair, unlike the traditional wau which requires skillful handling. Pak Zaki tells us he is trying to raise some money so that he can buy a goat as the first prize for a kite-flying competition he intends to organize. These are not held as regularly as before. In the past, kite-flying competitions were organized after the harvest. Kite strings are painted with a coat of crushed glass soaked in gum. When the kites are flown, kite handlers battle each other out to sever his opponent's kite.
An expanded phase of a project conceived by Latitudes (Barcelona) in 2012, this new series of tours is conceived as fieldwork and an expanded studio visit. It is presented as reportage and dispatches from invited curators and artists working around the world.
Simon Soon is a researcher and Senior Lecturer in the Visual Art Department of the Cultural Centre, University of Malaya. His broader areas of interest include comparative modernities in art, histories of built environment, and art historiography. He has written on various topics related to 20th-century art across Asia and occasionally curates exhibitions, most recently Love Me in My Batik: Modern Batik Art from Malaysia and Beyond (ILHAM Gallery in Kuala Lumpur). He is also an editorial member of SOUTHEAST OF NOW: Directions in Contemporary and Modern Art, a peer-review journal published by NUS Press and a team member of Malaysia Design Archive, a repository on visual cultures from late 19th to the present day.