A diamond in the rough: Kota Bahru

At a glance, Kota Bharu has acquired a feel of a decaying town. The buildings and roads lack upkeep and shine, landscaping is bare and half-hearted and pedestrian pavements are almost non-existent. The city looks like it is stuck in a time warp but without the old charm of an old town. Most of all the streets require a massive clean up.

It is clear that the lack of investment and adequate attention to place making in public spaces have taken its toll on Kota Bharu. However, when we take the time to look more closely into the more hidden private spaces, we discovered there was more than that meets the eye in Kota Bharu. Enterprising Kelantanese make up for the absence of impactful public sector investment in their own way.

To our surprise, the café scene in Kota Bharu is alive and buzzy. Kopi Mesin Heritage is one of the few independent cafes that have been mushrooming in Kota Bharu. When we were there during lunch and in the evening, it was full of people.

The interior is full of interesting old and intriguing photographs of Kota Bharu and the Kelantanese life. Upstairs, led by brightly painted stairs to reflect the Chinese temple colours near by, one can admire sketches and paintings of wayang kulit characters by the co-owner and intriguing selections of vintage items.

The café serves local specialities such as keropok lekor as well as a modified Western menu, and a comprehensive, imaginative drinks list including of course, “kopi mesin”. We were told by the co-owner and founder, Haniza Hassan that the idea for the name came about as the Kelantanese refer to western coffee as “machine coffee”.

Around the corner from the café, there were more surprises. A series of back lanes that have been cleaned up and planted with trees. The back lanes and the walls behind Kopi Mesin Heritage are now freshly transformed with colourful murals and a pleasant landscape of trees.

The murals depict local Kelantan scenes and the familiar faces of Kelantan with a touch of local humour. The famous Kelantanese nasi kerabu biru  (blue herb rice) is a prominent feature, and so is Dato’ Vida, the famously (or infamously) flamboyant local cosmetic entrepreneur. The murals are a result of collaboration between the Kota Bahru council, National Art Gallery and an art collective in Kelantan called Peseni. We genuinely enjoyed ourselves touring the mural backlanes.

Inspired by the café scene, we headed to two café institutions in Kota Bharu – The White House café, a paradoxically humble kopitiam – an old style Chinese café – that serves their signature locally ground coffee with soft, thick toasts slathered with butter and kaya (coconut jam). We found joy in this simple café. For lunch, we decided to go to the second café – the unusually named Din Tokyo. We had a simple lunch of laksam – a refreshing light dish of rice rolls with fish sauce with a sprinkle of mixed herbs and chilli sambal on the side.

I ended with their ginger and quail egg tea, their specialty. Our verdict is that Kota Bharu is a diamond in the rough – underneath the dusty exterior, there are shining gems.   

suryanisenjasuryanisenja@gmail.com

The Batik Block Artisan

 

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We often hear of batiks in Malaysia and imagine them to be hand drawn through the canting technique. In Malaysia, hand made batik designs are drawn on the fabric with hot liquid wax by using a metal object called “canting” – it is like a small receptacle that pours out hot wax in small lines instead of paint.

When the wax outlines are done, artists use brushes to paint the dyes within the outlines. The use of brush allows for the creation of shaded and multi-hued designs.

Batik block printing however requires a different skill even though it is still hand made batik. The rhythmic patterns of a batik block can create outstanding batiks – and the art of making a batik block is a skill on its own. Batik block makers are artisans themselves, and often specialize in making batik blocks and not the same artisans who design and make batik textiles.

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A batik block maker, Abdul Ghani Mat was awarded a title of Master Artisan by Kraftangan Malaysia for his creative and highly skilful work in hand tooling copper batik blocks. In our previous blog, we had mentioned that the owner of Ayu Batik in Kelantan has a collection of over 5000 batik blocks dating over several decades, which form an important archive of the creative history of Malaysian batik patterns.

In a block print batik, the canting tool is replaced by a hand tooled copper block that is designed with the patterns or motifs that will be repeated on the cloth to create a piece of batik. Sometimes a wooden stamp is used that has a carved patterned bottom.

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The block is dipped into the wax and printed onto the fabric, which is then dip-dyed. Then the wax will be removed and batik with single color is produced. To create multi-colors and complex batik, waxing with different blocks, dying and de-waxing have to be done many times.

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In Kelantan, the heart of the Malaysian batik industry, we visited a batik block workshop. We were pleasantly surprised to see three industrious young men including the owner, creating intricate copper batik blocks for batik artists and designers in Malaysia. The owner started his own batik block making business after being trained as a block batik artisan himself. The workshop was strategically located in an area with clusters of batik workshops and ateliers including Ruzz Gahara.

According to the enterprising young man, he noticed a constant demand for batik blocks from batik artisans and designers. He decided to open a small workshop of his own and started training batik block makers amongst the youths in the village who were interested. His workshop is a simple hut shaded under a few trees, next to a narrow dirt lane that was a bit too small for a car to go through. The hut was nestled in a small village, tucked away from the main road, the idyllic silence around them only broken once in a while with the sounds of children playing in the neighborhood or stray chickens looking for food.

 

The making of batik blocks requires as much concentration as making the batiks themselves. Using blow torches and a myriad of hand tools, the batik block “boys” painstakingly cut, bend and meld small parts of copper that gradually expand to resemble the full picture of patterns and motifs provided by artists for customized block prints.PHOTO-2020-07-16-16-25-25

Depending on the intricacy of the motifs, one batik block can take up a few days to a few weeks to make and the cost will also depend on the motifs. The batik block young artisans looked up briefly from their work when we went in before focusing once again on bits of copper on their tables. They looked like any teenagers on the streets, wearing sneakers, jeans and t-shirts – we would not have guessed that they were traditional artisans if we had bumped into them outside the workshop. We asked one of them when he had started making batik blocks, he told us he was 16 when he started. For them, continuing the tradition was a way of life in the village.

 

Suryani Senja

Born with a Silver Spoon – The Story of the Silver Collection of Senijari

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I had always wanted to create a Senijari collection of luxury crafts from my home state, Kelantan, in the north of Malaysia. Kelantan silver is renowned for its intricacy of design and superior workmanship. Silversmiths use two kinds of techniques – filigree and repousse. Kelantan silversmithing is getting more rare as its use of machinery is limited – the craft is still done mainly by hand.

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Remember our earlier encounter with a silver artisan, “Pok Wi” who has been a silversmith for 40 years? When we finally met Pok Wi ( link to our earlier post) earlier this year, it was to create Senijari’s first prototype for a collection of bespoke silver jewellery.

I first thought up of jewellery in the shape of a spoon and other implements because of a necklace I have. The necklace was from the legendary Collette. Colette was a lifestyle, design store of curated fashion and accessories in Paris. It was a fashion favourite that unfortunately has closed down recently. They had a wonderful section that featured jewellery designers. I was particularly taken by two necklaces I saw there – one had a spoon as a pendant and the other a fork. Both had large stones stuck on them that were made to look like each had scooped up a large diamond. They were witty, fun and cool. I had thought to myself, these pendants would look great done in Malaysian silver, with a local twist.

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Pok Wi turned an idea that crossed my mind several years ago into reality today. The initial Senijari collection has two pendants, Born With a Silver Spoon and Ukir Bulan (Crafted Moon) – Both are beautifully hand carved with traditional motifs from Kelantan by Pok Wi and his artisans. In addition, the collection has a series of small silver charms for pendants or bracelets that reflect Kelantan iconic culture – the Keris, the Wau Bulan and the Wayang Kulit.

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The idea of a silver spoon is historically interesting in Kelantan royal history – royal Malay families and at times, non-royal ones have a tradition of spooning with a silver spoon a bit of salt and then honey to a new born after 40 days – to initiate the baby into the world – and perhaps its first taste of its ups and downs symbolized by the salty and the sweet taste of life!

 

 

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This collection will be the beginning of unearthing designs and motifs based on the unique Kelantanese culture and history, and the start of collaboration with talented Kelantanese artisans. We hope to tell many more Kelantan stories through our crafts. This is only the first chapter of the Kelantan story.