China, Langkasuka and the textile world in Kelantan

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In researching motifs for textiles and jewellery, I discovered fascinating historical links between the Chinese, the ancient Langkasuka kingdom in Pattani and Kelantan.

Chinese sea trade with the Malay World began as early as the fifth century, stimulated by demand for luxury goods by the Chinese royal courts. It has been reported that spices, turtle eggs, perfumed woods, ivory and tortoise shell are some of the coveted items by the Chinese nobility. The Chinese apparently influenced textiles in the Malay World including Kelantan as Chinese envoys brought silk, which influenced the use of silk by royals in Malay palaces. One prominent Malay kingdom mentioned in Chinese history is “Chi Tu” or the Red Earth Land (Tanah Merah), believed to be interior of Kelantan. Chi Tu guo ji, an account written by Sui Dynasty envoys after a visit to Chi tu in 606-10 CE describes highly organized and wealthy royal court, where the Chinese envoy was offered a gold “hibiscus” crown and camphor. Nearby, the coastal kingdom of Langkasuka, located near Patani (south of Thailand) was a centre for Malay culture due to its proximity to the states of Kelantan and Terengganu in Malaysia, where songket weaving is predominant. The culture of weaving was prevalent in the Langkasuka courts. (Note: this paragraph is extracted from “Songket Revolution”, written by Noor Azlina Yunus, published by Yayasan Tuanku Nur Zahirah, 2008).

On a recent trip to Kelantan, a visit to Rumah Gahara, the batik workshop for Ruzz Gahara brand brought these historical links to the fore once again. In the midst of designing batik motifs that would be distinctive to Ruzz Gahara’s Kelantanese roots, they unearthed ancient motifs that came from or influenced by the Langkasuka kingdom and applied these intricate, historical motifs on batik.

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Ruzz Gahara’s batik blocks were very different and unique in their intricacy. When I spoke to a researcher and culture specialist from the University of Kelantan, she spoke about how she felt that the way batik motifs have been developed recently lacked historical reference and grounding, therefore losing their potential to be meaningful and engaging to the customer. The motifs did not have a story. By linking and reminding people about their history to ancient Langkasuka and Kelantan’s history, the Ruzz Gahara motifs have come to life with a colourful, vibrant history.

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The silk, organza silk, cotton silk used by Ruzz Gahara for its collection link it further to the history of silk in this region – China. Innovation does come from history after all, and I thank Ruzz Gahara for being one of the champions of history in preserving our heritage, culture and craft.

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We shall continue unearthing Malaysia’s fascinating historical links through its textile and material culture. Stay with us!

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Galeri Tenun Johor – The Launch and Revival of Weaving Gallery in Johor

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In January this year, we dedicated a blog to Johor’s Kain Tenun Muar and the setting up of a weaving gallery in Johor. 10 months later, in 18 November 2018, Galeri Tenun Johor opened its doors. It is situated within the “Kompleks Warisan Sultan Abu Bakar” (The Heritage Complex of Sultan Abu Bakar) and was launched yesterday by the the  Sultan of Johor, Sultan Ibrahim Almarhum Sultan Iskandar.

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The gallery has revived the historical Rumah Tenun Johor, the first weaving centre that was initiated by Tengku Ampuan Mariam, the eldest daughter of Sultan Abu Bakar in 1946, and administered by Tok Ambak, a prominent figure of the Johor’s women’s association.  The Heritage Complex includes the Johor weaving gallery, an art gallery, a documentation center and a number of cafes serving Johor food.

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The famous “goreng pisang Mawar” or Johor style crispy banana fritters is also situated within this complex. Right across, the historical craft center of JARO, which promotes crafts made by the disabled, is undergoing renovations, and will also be re-opened soon.

Galeri Tenun Johor has been set up not only to display the heritage of Malay textiles and Johor’s history of textiles. More importantly, it aims to revive the weaving heritage in Johor by installing and training new weavers at the center, and it actively promotes innovation in Songket.

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The gallery showcases not only old textiles from the region, but newly woven cloths in the style of Kain Tenun Muar as well as 10 new songket motifs that were designed specifically for Johor.Among them are Songket designed for the royal family of Johor such as Songket Johor Jauhar and Songket Johor Medini Songket Johor Maharani, two types of Songket Tunku Mahkota Johor and Songket Johor Tanjung Puteri.  Other designs were created specially for the people of Johor, using Johor-inspired motifs of flowers, herbs and spices. They are Songket Tenun Johor, Songket Johor Tanjung Piai,  Songket Johor Mayang Selida and Tenun Johor Berbunga Renek.

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The textiles are displayed with interesting information on the motifs. There are also informative panels in the gallery on the history of Malay textiles, the process of producing hand woven textiles using the traditional techniques and the design combinations and inspiration that made up the motifs of Songket Johor.

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The handlooms for different types of textiles as well as accessories, which are usually worn with Malay costumes, are displayed in the upper gallery. A video of Johor Malay dance like zapin with dancers in traditional costumes livened up the gallery, showing how the Malay community wears the traditional textiles in their everyday lives and during special occasions.

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Senijari’s founder, who is also a board member of Think City attended the launch in her capacity as Think City’s director. Think City played a role in assisting with designing and creating a selection of the text and photo displays for the content and descriptions of the exhibitions in the gallery through photography, write ups, informative signage and labeling. Galeri Tenun in collaboration with Think City are expected to create interesting cultural programs at the gallery from next year.

With the revival of this cultural hub, along with the burgeoning heritage area of vintage shops, hipster cafes, art galleries and independent boutiques along the historical Jalan Dhoby and Jalan Wong Ah Fook, Johor Bahru is shaping up to be a creative and cultural city.