Travel Features > Arts & Crafts

Buying Up Borneo

Mike Reed describes how to shop till you drop in Kuching.

A survey recently published by Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (National University of Malaysia) suggested that during 1997, the average visitor to Sarawak spent RM 517 per day just on food and souvenirs. I think they must have confined their survey to Amex Platinum card holders, because according to my friends in the restaurant and handicrafts trades, business has never been that good even at Christmas or Chinese New Year.

However, assuming the survey is only 50 percent wide of the mark, that still leaves RM 258.50 per person per day flooding into the pockets of the grateful small business community. Now you would have to be a medically diagnosed glutton with the most extravagant tastes to spend more than RM 60 a day on food (you can eat very well for RM 20 per day in Kuching), and you would certainly need to be a chronic alcoholic to consume more than RM 100 worth of booze. Even assuming a worst case for food and beverage consumption, that still leaves almost RM 100 per day for souvenirs. So, what are they spending their money on, and more importantly, what should you be spending yours on?

Surprising as it may seem, Sarawak is a shopper's paradise. I don't mean that the shops are bursting with internationally renowned designer labels, or that the streets are flooded with counterfeit watches and pirated computer software. What makes Sarawak such an interesting place to shop is the sheer variety of unusual and interesting items on sale, most of which you'll be hard pressed to find anywhere else on Earth outside a museum.

The place for the serious bargain hunter to start is Main Bazaar. This picturesque street of 19th century shophouses is where you will find most of Kuching's antiques and handicrafts shops. Visitors used to the frenetic hard-sell pace of Bangkok or Bali will find Main Bazaar something of a disappointment however. There's nobody hustling handicrafts on the street or chasing after you and trying to browbeat you into buying some woodcarving of dubious origin. In fact, the only time somebody is likely to chase after you in Kuching, the accompanying cry is sure to be 'Oi, mister/missus, you just dropped your wallet.'

In Main Bazaar you have to buy your handicrafts or souvenirs; nobody's trying too hard to sell them to you. This may sound like paradise to some, but it can have its pitfalls. After you've spent half an hour admiring a particularly nice piece and negotiating over its price, it's not unheard of for the shop owner to suddenly decide that the item in question is far too attractive to sell and would look perfect in his or her living room.

This isn't just a ploy to keep prices up (at least not all of the time it isn't); some of these folks become very attached to the items they deal in. In fact one well-known and highly successful antique dealer hovers permanently on the brink of bankruptcy because he uses all the proceeds from his sales to fund the expansion of his own superb collection. His grandchildren are going to hit pay dirt when they finally get to inherit.

There are about two dozen antique and handicrafts shops (the terms are interchangeable) on and around Main Bazaar, and in most of them the first impression is very similar. You enter a dark, cluttered space that looks like Dickens' The Old Curiosity Shop meets Conrad's Heart of Darkness. The walls are covered with tribal masks and antique wall hangings, malevolent looking statues of guardian spirits stare at you with empty eyes, and old brass cannon from Brunei are scattered around the floor at a height designed to cause maximum bruising to the shins of the unwary.

Somewhere amidst the gloom lurks the manager or proprietor, studiously checking the stock market prices in the Sarawak Tribune. Once you have prized this individual away from his or her main source of income, an exchange of pleasantries takes place and the conversation moves to the antiques and/or handicrafts on display. If, in response to your question the seller replies 'Native mask from Borneo lah! Very Cheap,' then just say goodbye and try next door.

The correct answer goes something like 'This wonderful fetish mask was made by a blind shaman from XYZ tribe on the upper reaches of the ABC river. Before being allowed by the river gods to commence work on this spiritually powerful object, he had to undergo a ritual circumcision with a piece of rusty barbed wire and have his eyes gouged out with the claw of a clouded leopard.' The second part of the answer is pure nonsense of course, but at least you'll have a story to tell your friends.

Once you have decided what you want to buy (see below), the price negotiations commence. Anybody who thinks they are an expert at haggling has no chance in Kuching. Rule number one is : never, ever say something is too expensive and ask for a discount. The better dealers become quite emotional about their wares, and by criticising the price you are by default criticising the quality and value of the item. A much better strategy is to beg!

Tell the dealer that the item is indeed exquisite, you are captivated by its design and workmanship, the price he/she is asking is indeed ridiculously low, but you simply cannot afford it. Your credit cards have been stolen (not in Sarawak of course); your spouse/parent-in-law/boss would kill you; you are simply running low on cash for the rest of your holiday. If the dealer is convinced that you genuinely appreciate the piece, the price may well come down significantly. If he or she gets the feeling that you're just trying to score economic points, the price shown on the ticket will not budge a single inch. Once the sale is concluded and you are the proud owner of a unique and wonderful tribal artefact, remember not to undermine the whole transaction by asking if they have another 20 in the same colour for all your other relatives.

Now you know how business is done, the only question is what to buy. Woodcarving is one of the mainstays of Sarawak handicrafts, and you can find anything from elegantly crafted Kayan and Kenyah wooden spoons to ten-foot-tall guardian figures crafted from solid belian (ironwood). Amongst the more popular items are elaborately decorated wooden bowls; Iban hunting and trapping charms with small hunched figures carved on the end of a long spike; all kinds of ritual masks; Melanau sickness figures (blum) used to cast away illnesses in healing ceremonies; entire longhouse doors carved from a slab of hardwood; blowpipes that can kill a wild pig (or a person) at 100 metres; and the famous kenyalang ­ ornately carved and painted hornbill figures used by the Ibans for celebrating gawai kenyalang, the hornbill festival.

©Mike Reed
Not all carving is done in wood. The Bidayuh people are masters of bamboo carving, and produce very fine boxes and containers that may have been designed to hold betel nut or blowpipe darts, but are just as good for storing pens and pencils on a busy executive's desk. The Bidayuh are also experts at basketry, and produce wonderful containers, rucksacks that can hold 30 kg of rice (the third strap goes over your forehead!), and mats that are attractive, hard-wearing and practical. Equally fine basketry is produced by the Penan, using stunning geometric patterns, and some of their rattan mats are so finely woven that they are actually watertight.

Pua Kumbu
Mike Reed
Sarawak is justly famous for textiles, the most famous being the pua kumbu, the ceremonial wall hanging of the Ibans. The pua kumbu is woven on a backstrap loom using a unique double-ikat technique where the pattern is dyed into all the threads (both the weft and the warp) before it is woven. This is laborious, time consuming, and calls for a remarkable degree of skill, but the result is unique; rich dark reds, soft creams and browns with flashes of bright yellow combine in minute detail to depict rice goddesses, warriors, crocodiles, dragons and the whole pantheon of Iban deities. A fine, old pua kumbu is not cheap, but it is one if the finest examples of the weaver's art to be found anywhere in Asia. The dealer may even point out the odd bullet hole to verify its antiquity, which just proves what unusual wildlife Sarawak has, gun-carrying moths included.

Almost as popular as the pua kumbu is the kain songket. This is a great Malay tradition, where beautiful brocade designs are produced by weaving pure silk and gold or silver thread together. A Malay gentleman will wear the kain songket as a sarong, wrapped around the middle of his baju melayu (a kind of formal collarless suit) when attending important social or religious functions. Bark waistcoats and loincloths can also be found, tough and practical but not very comfortable to wear.

Fine metalwork is produced by many different peoples in Sarawak. Chinese goldsmiths ply their trade all over the city, charging very reasonable, government-controlled prices for very finely crafted jewellery and bracelets. Antique ornamental brassware from Brunei comes in many forms, from small boxes for carrying betel nut to large cannon cast in the shape of dragons or dogs. Swords of all kinds are on offer, including Iban and Kayan head-hunting swords whose hilts, painstakingly carved from bone or hornbill ivory, are adorned with the hair of the sword's victims. The kris, the ceremonial dagger of the Malays, is believed to hold great spiritual power, which is often reflected in the prices charged for good examples.

Perhaps the most unusual metalwork found in Sarawak, however, is the silverware of the Ibans. Iban women wear exquisitely delicate silver head-dresses. Filigree belts with ornamental clasps, and skirts made out of literally dozens of antique Mexican silver dollars and doubloons, carefully soldered together. The Ibans may be the owners and wearers of these unique items, but they are usually made by the Maloh, a related tribe who live just over the border in Indonesia, although nowadays local Chinese silversmiths are beginning to try their hand, with remarkably good results.

The various Orang Ulu peoples are all renowned for their beadwork, and almost every handicrafts shop you visit will have a glass case full of bead necklaces and head-caps, often made of antique Venetian or Bohemian glass beads that found their way to Sarawak via Chinese traders. The most striking examples of Sarawak beadwork, though, are the extravagantly decorated baby-carriers made by the Kayan and the Kenyah, but their equally striking conical sun hats are a lot more affordable.

Tribal handicrafts are not all that Sarawak has to offer by any means. Ceramics are on sale almost everywhere, ranging from antique Chinese jars to modern local Chinese pottery, and the potters can be visited at work out at Jalan Penrissen (Bus No. 3, 3A, 9 or 9B from outside the post office). Painters work in a number of mediums, including watercolours, oils and acrylics, and you can even find splendid Orang Ulu 'tree-of-life' paintings rendered on tree bark.

Away from the world of arts and crafts, cameras and video cameras are duty free in Malaysia and can be excellent value after a spot of bargaining. Exotic food items include birds nests, which are comparatively cheap here, and Sarawak pepper, said to be the world's finest. Books on Borneo history, arts, crafts and society can be found in all the better bookstores, as can the excellent 'Sarawak Museum Journal.' Finally, after all this shopping you'll probably want to sit down in one of Kuching's many quaint old coffee shops and write a few postcards home. The best ones in town (thick card, clear printing, good photos, intelligent captions) are by Adventure Images, many of whose pictures illustrate this web site.

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