Written by Puah Sze Ning on 13 Mar 2006 with 0 comments. Be the first!
Flittering like a hummingbird amid a patch of flowers, a little mobile stall shifts locations in Kuala Lumpur packed with the cultural works of sixteen different Orang Asal ethnic groups. Despite the urban setting, these handicrafts have roots throughout the rural landscape of Malaysia and are usually purchased directly from the artisan.
Welcome to the Gerai OA
'Orang Asal/Asli' is a Malay term for Original People. Orang Asal represents the indigenous peoples of Peninsular and East Malaysia (Sabah and Sarawak), while Orang Asli refers specifically to the indigenous minorities of Peninsular Malaysia whom are distinct from the mainstream population in Peninsular Malaysia.
"They have their own religion, language, customs and worldviews which they are determined to transmit to future generations. More importantly, the Orang Asal have a special relationship to their traditional land," explains Dr.Colin Nicholas, co-founder and coordinator of the Center for Orang Asli Concerns (COAC).
There are currently, according to the Jabatan Hal Ehwal Orang Asli (JHEOA) 149,512 Orang Asli, whereas the Orang Asal number to 2.1 million.
Rare and Unique Orang Asal Craft
The founder of the Gerai OA, Reita Rahim, goes from kampung (villages) to kampung across Malaysia, sourcing rare and unique craft from gifted Orang Asal craftsmen and women. The Gerai OA is non-profit and is run by a group of volunteers with the purpose of sharing with others the arts of the Orang Asal and at the same time encouraging the survival of the tradition of craft making.
An example of craft for sale would be the traditional Orang Asli puzzles. One particular puzzle, known as the Jah Re Noi, usually gets many hands tugging wildly at. This Semai (Orang Asli subgroup) puzzle is a piece of entwined rattan with a thin looped rope stuck in the middle of it.
The objective of the puzzle is to remove the rope from it. Legend has it that if someone is lost in the jungle due to mischievous spirits confusing them, all that person needs to do is make and leave behind one Jah Re Noi puzzle and the spirit will get so engrossed in solving the puzzle that it will leave its victim alone.
One of the main threats faced by the Orang Asli is the "non-recognition of their rights to traditional land" as their land has been being progressively taken for development, according to Dr. Nicholas. This is because they are not "recognized as indigenous people of this land." "The Orang Asli are not anti-development or not against the virtues of modernization. In fact, Orang Asli cultures/identities have the potential to be viable but they are vulnerable to the many challenges that threaten their culture and their identity as a unique people."
The Mah Meri subgroup of the Orang Asli is one of the many groups who has lost much of their rights to their traditional land at Pulau Carey, and are struggling to maintain their unique culture and identity as represented by their wooden cravings that were awarded 6 UNESCO seals of excellence last year. Deforestation to make way for oil-palm plantations in Pulau Carey has led to the loss of Pulai (Alstonia sp.), a tree which was used to make the wooden masks that is traditionally believed to represent their moyang (ancestors). Now that it is extinct on the island, they have resorted to use Pokok Nyireh Batu (Xylocarpus sp.), a mangrove forest tree which use to be used only for the cravings rather than the masks. This mangrove tree is however becoming increasingly harder to find. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) is currently sponsoring replanting schemes for these plants.
While the woodcarving is done solely by the Mah Meri men, the women have recently displayed their own skills with weaving. Intricately weaved curl work pouches known as bujam lipo' are made from pandanus strips and are one of the hot items at the Gerai OA. Traditionally used as a 'hold all' for small items such as money, areca nuts or tobacco, the contemporary uses of these pouches are as hand phone holders or as purses.
Some of the other popular items are also the accessories by the Rungus people of Sabah. Their reputation for using beads and turning them into beautiful and unique accessories can be seen littered in a mosaic of colors across the table at the Gerai OA.
"The new designs are to better suit the Kuala Lumpur market. If you go to Sabah, you may not find what you can find here at the Gerai OA," Reita explains.
The very source of the new beaded designs is actually from a group of Rungus women from Kampung Tinanggol in Sabah. This group of 20 Rungus women consists of selected elderly and single mothers who work together to help better their economic standing.
"The profit from the sales are used to pay for their children's schooling fees or used as investment, such as to open ladang (fields)," explained Reita.
The group, headed by Malina Soning, works together to come up with new designs and color combinations to compliment the current trends. Handmade bracelets, necklaces, rings, key chains and even hairclips, using traditional technique, now come in many attractive colors and patterns.
Malina explained that the need for these new innovations is to compete for the tough market where mass produced items can be bought at much lower prices. Others have also begun to make imitations of their traditional craft. At the moment their focus is on the beads as they are easy to acquire and transport, and the demand is there.
"The Gerai OA is not just about selling, but about educating people about Orang Asal and Orang Asli," explains Reita. This is why the gerai (stall) also carries books, video documentaries and music CDs about Orang Asal/Asli. People are also encouraged to stop by and test out the many traditional musical instruments laid out for sale and display. Support for the Gerai OA would go a long way to help improve the economic standing of various Orang Asal groups and encourage the survival of their traditional arts.
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Puah Sze Ning
Sze Ning is currently the field coordinator for www.elevyn.com, a site which provides market access for indigenous and marginalized communities. She works with community-based organizations and NGOs in Malaysia and Cambodia to empower them to run their own social enterprise on Elevyn which embodie... more inside »
Puah Sze Ning also contributed 3 other articles in this section: