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.
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.
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
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.