Cover John Ang

Do we really know the story behind Malay textiles? Here are expert insights from collector and Asian art history expert, John Ang

When it comes to cultural Malay fashion, chances are, the first few that immediately come to mind are the baju kurung, songket, batik, kebaya, sarong and baju Melayu. Though we know that the techniques and textiles used to create these clothes vary depending on which Malaysian state one
is from, the story of how they came to be is still a mystery. With the help of avid textile collector and Asian art history expert John Ang, Tatler uncovers the hidden world within Malay textile art.

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In the mid-19th century, John Ang’s great-great-grandfather, Tan Hiok Nee, began trading textiles in Telok Blangah after a brief stint of tin mining in Pahang. According to Ang, he worked closely with the first sultan of Johor Bahru in the mid-1800s, who at the time was known as Temenggong Abu Bakar as he hadn’t become Maharaja till 1868. Having obtained several surat sungai according to the Kangchu system, Tan established gambier and pepper plantations along the Johor River. When Johor Bahru was finally established in the late 1860s and Tan was appointed as a Mejar Cina, the sultan popularised the baju Telok Blangah, a long-sleeved shirt that didn’t have the raised cekak musang collar and instead had an opening hemmed with tulang belut (a stiff stitching called the eel’s spine technique); Tan had supplied the fabrics to create the shirt.

Nearly two centuries later, Ang, a teenager in the ’60s, described his first encounter with textiles an exciting experience, attributing his love for the medium to his interest in Southeast Asian history and his attraction to strong, dynamic visuals.

He explains that fabrics are able to tell stories that linked the past to the present. Penetrating all social classes, it was used to shield people from the elements or establish their station in society. Eons ago, distribution of textiles had spread far and wide but collectors such as Ang are able to trace their origins, influences in design and how they eventually evolved.

“When I saw Indonesian textiles for the first time, they were these ship cloths from Lampung that were over three metres long! It was thrilling. And that was when I started collecting Indonesian textiles; I don’t do it now as there are so many people who have researched about it already. But for Malay textiles, I realised there wasn’t a lot of information about them. That’s why I decided to make it my main focus instead.”

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Considering how scattered the information was, collecting the textiles was no easy feat, as was sharing his newfound knowledge. “What I didn’t realise at the time was how hard this was going to be,” says Ang. “The most difficult thing was getting people to take you seriously and be open to listening to what you have to say about their own culture. Because whatever you discover, there will always be people who refute it, even if it is true. Which is why I now have a lot of Malay friends who help me verify my finds and I’d share what I’ve learned with others. So even if it’ll take a while, I still get my point across, and they get interested in learning, [albeit] in their own way—that to me is better than them not willing to listen at all.”

Limar Bersongket

One of Ang’s greatest finds is a limar bersongket similar to a design once worn by Sultana Khadija Khanum, who Sultan Abu Bakar of Johor had met during his visit to the Ottoman Empire in 1893. While it didn’t have the exact same kerongsang berantai (chain pendant) motifs as the sultana’s shawl had, its gleaming patterns woven from real gold thread are a sight to behold in person, and to date, only two artisans in Terengganu have this skill as it is one of the hardest weaving techniques to ever exist in the Malay world.

To create the pattern, the weaver would need to tie minuscule knots to a group of yarns first in order to keep the design aligned, leaving the exposed sections of threads to be dyed prior to weaving the basic cloth. Then, for the decorative patterns, threads of gold, silver or coloured silk are inserted between the wefts as they are woven into the warp, which requires the weaver to masterfully control the tension exerted over the loom. Presently, only the people of Palembang, Terengganu, Kelantan and Pattani, Thailand can do this particular technique.

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Malay Kelingkam/Egyptian Assuit

Another fascinating piece Ang has in his collection is an antique black mesh piece he found in Egypt, which employs a technique that may be as old as 3,000 years old, where strips of real silver are looped into the holes of the mesh and are hammered down one by one. Adored by the Malays, they would bring these textiles back home as souvenirs after they finished their Hajj, an annual pilgrimage to Mecca.

Ang cites that the Malays would eventually use a similar technique called kelingkam. Over time, the fabric became a quintessential head shawl of Malay women. The people in Riau, Selangor, Kelantan, Terengganu, Sumbawa and Pontianak are known to create this textile.

Limar Berayat

One of the rarest Malay textiles that Ang has searched high and low for is a beautifully-kept green limar berayat, which had the Shahadah (an Islamic oath) woven into the textile. Using a similar weaving technique for limar, weavers would tie and dye groups of yarns before weaving the textile itself. To achieve the perfect curves of each character, Ang explains that the tying process would have taken them six to eight months to complete, and then another two to three months to weave.

Another treasured textile that uses the same technique is one from Odisha (formerly known as Orissa), which is about 100 years old. This version has a Kalinga script woven in it, which depicts the Gita Govinda, also known as The Song of the Cowherd, a sacred manuscript of the Hindu deity, Krishna, that goes as far back as the 12th century. During festivities, the Jagannath temple of Odisha uses the same textile to cover the images of Krishna within the temple.

Both of these textiles are so rare that even among textile enthusiasts, they aren’t widely known. The green limar berayat in particular is highly sought after by many museums and collectors. When asked about its price, Ang gives a small, secretive smile and says that it isn’t readily available unless one was willing to offer an exorbitant amount.

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Songket

A luxurious fabric of silk or cotton with additional gold, silver, or coloured thread weft woven above it as decoration, songket is one of the most well-known textile arts of the Malay world. It is largely practised in Terengganu, Kelantan, Brunei, Sarawak and Sumatra. An expensive work of art, it was once only exclusive to Malay nobility and dignitaries of high stations.

Stressing the many ways a songket can be woven with different patterns and colour combinations, Ang says that these traditional techniques can be passed down to generations and innovated upon. 

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Kain Pelangi (Tie-dye Fabric)

Once a staple in the Malay Peninsula, particularly in Kelantan and Terengganu, the Pelangi cloth is now a nearly forgotten textile. The ones Ang has collected are from the 1920s, which are unique for their patterns.

As illustrated on the male model, the cloth wrapped around his waist has a rare pattern of crescents and stars, indicating its Islamic roots, but the paisley pattern featured in it represents traditional Indian influences. Ang says that it is customary to wear such attire to birthdays or semi-casual gatherings as it is not suited for formal events.

For the female model, the paisley patterns on her shawl are definite trademarks of India, but the embroidered lace along the hems are of Malay origin. Apparently, this type of lace edging, also known as tatting, is from the Middle East and was popular in the Malay world, especially in Palembang.

Telepuk (Gilded Cloth)

One of the rarest, and possibly the most expensive, difficult textile to create among Ang’s collections is the telepuk. It was a fabric once worn by the sultans of Riau-Lingga, Johor, Selangor, Pahang and Terengganu. Though many feel that the telepuk was introduced by the Bugis, Ang believes that the technique used is more related to Indian varak (a fine filligree foil sheet of pure metal used to decorate food).

Telepuk uses base cloth that is heavily starched. After removing the excess starch, the cloth is dried and covered with beeswax. Then, with the back of a Cowrie shell, it is rubbed until it shines—a calendering (or burnishing) technique known as ‘menggerus kain’.

Once the surface is smooth and flat, small wooden blocks with carved patterns are coated with gum arabic; the blocks are then stamped gently onto the cloth. Before the glue dries, gold leaf is pressed on top of the patterns, and when it’s all dry, the fabric is burnished again with the Cowrie shell.

Ang emphasises that education is one of the key pillars that can help the masses understand the historical significance of these textiles and why those techniques need to live on. Despite being a vital part of Malay heritage, many of these techniques are still unknown to the Malaysian public.

To spark interest, Ang crafts elaborate, experiential dinners that recreate the colourful past, complete with live music, dance and a curated menu. It’s a costly affair to put it all together, however, Ang believes that knowledge is priceless. “I don’t just collect textiles, I collect stories,” he states. “Stories that show how interconnected we are as a people, and if we were able to realise that, maybe there’s a way for us to coexist peacefully by understanding one another. I know it’s a big dream of mine, but I want to make a difference in this world. And perhaps in the future, someone else would take over.”

Ang is currently working on an exhibition titled Splendours of the Malay World Textiles, which will showcase an entire genre of Malay textiles. Slated to be held from July 23-October 30 at Menara Ken, Taman Tun Dr Ismail, entry fee is RM25 per person.  

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