A BEARDED man donning a tanjak (headgear) smiles invitingly as I excitedly make my way to the van parked at the compound of the Craft Complex in Jalan Conlay, Kuala Lumpur.
Looking every bit the dashing Malay warrior, he’s actually our official driver for a day-trip to the royal town of Kuala Kangsar, Perak, organised by the Malaysian Handicraft Development Corporation for the media.
Over the past century, the rapid growth of Ipoh, Perak’s capital, may have left Kuala Kangsar lagging behind in many aspects but one thing’s certain, this picturesque town remains the bastion for traditional artisanal products.
It’s here that one can find some of the country’s time-honoured handicrafts including labu sayong (water pitcher in the shape of a gourd made from earthenware clay), keris (Malay dagger) and beautifully intricate embroidery.
According to folklore, the first labu sayong was brought into the district of Sayong by Tuk Kaluk, a trader from Minangkabau, Indonesia during the reign of Sultan Iskandar Syah.
The Sultan bestowed land around Kampung Kepala Bendang to Tuk Kaluk in recognition of his expertise in making swords, machetes, keris and pottery that helped the locals at the time.
The tradition of craft-making at this place continues to this day with a growth in the number of artisans.
Today’s adventure promises to be interesting. I’m participating in the Satu Daerah Satu Industri Jelajah Kraf (One District One Industry Craft Trail) programme to explore the labu sayong craft heritage and to meet with the artisans involved in making this traditional water pitcher.
FOLLOW THE TRAIL
By the time we reach Kuala Kangsar, it’s already mid-morning. The van effortlessly navigates through a narrow kampung road flanked by numerous handicraft shops on each side, en route to Kampung Kepala Bendang, the main location for the production of labu sayong.
We reach KZ Kraf Enterprise at noon. There are not many people out and about during this time, and the workshop, with shelves lined with beautifully-crafted ceramic products, offers a much-welcomed respite from the afternoon heat.
Suffice to say the spotlight definitely belongs to the rows of labu sayong of different sizes, colour and sizes on display.
This century-old establishment is run by Mohd Pareb Zamari, a third generation shop-owner who’s carrying on the tradition of pottery-making.
Apart from labu sayong, the workshop also sells vases, lamps and porcelain products. I soon learn that Pareb’s late father was bestowed the title of adiguru (master) for his expertise in making labu sayong, and that the workshop is recognised and supported by MHDC as a hub for this traditional water pitcher craftsmanship.
A whirring sound breaks the silence, catching our attention. In one corner, an elderly woman is working the potter’s wheel — a machine used to shape the round ceramic ware (known as throwing).
We’re transfixed by the way she gracefully moulds the clay with her fingers as the wheel turns with just the flick of a switch.
The woman, Zainab Salleh, is an employee of MHDC who’s stationed at KZ Kraf to give demonstrations on pottery-making to visitors and tourists.
In the past, says Zainab, potters would use the traditional hand-wheel — one hand would turn the wheel while the other moulds the clay.
“This was rather time-consuming and a potter could only make between two and three labu sayong per day,” she explains, adding that the modern electric potter’s wheel has increased production tenfold.
However, the decorative process still requires the painstaking traditional method of hand stamping using wooden stamps with motifs from nature such as cloves and leaves. It sounds easy enough until we get to do it ourselves.
Moving on, we head to the Kampung Kepala Bendang industry cooperative opposite the workshop to witness the next process in making labu sayong — the burning.
The heat of the furnace can be felt the closer we got to the shed. The temperature for burning the pitchers ranges around 900° Celcius and the earthenware is kept in the furnace for about eight hours. Furnaces or kilns have been used for millennia to turn objects made from clay into pottery, tiles and bricks.
We watch in awe as the worker carefully removes a labu sayong from the furnace using a long stick and places it beneath a pile of rice husk. The husks give the pitcher its natural black coating — a traditional method used to produce the most sought-after colour for labu sayongs.
“What’s special about labu sayong?” I ask the cooperative’s secretary, Mohd Azhar Mat Nor.
He replies with a smile: “Based on our ancestral beliefs, water stored in labu sayong containers are said to be fresher, cooler and tastier. It’s also nutritious.”
Pointing to a labu sayong water dispenser, he urges me to drink. “The water’s really cold!” And he’s not exaggerating.
“It’s good right? It’s Sirim-certified, you know!” he adds with a grin, catching the amazed expression on my face as I gulp down a cup of refreshing and yes, very cold water!
The uniquely-designed labu sayong water dispenser is actually the invention of Harun Mat Jidin, who resides just a few hundred metres away from Pareb’s house.
“Ah yes, the dispenser... I invented that,” says Harun matter-of-factly when we meet at his workshop. He doesn’t seem to mind that his invention is copied, saying: “Knowledge must be shared.”
The 53-year-old father of two has been in the business for over three decades and he’s the fourth generation potter in his family, having learnt the skills from observing his parents and grandmother. He realises the importance of preserving this tradition and plans on passing on the baton to his youngest son.
“There aren’t many craftsmen my age left in Kuala Kangsar,” laments Harun in his thick Perak accent. He hopes that there’ll be more efforts taken to get the younger generation interested in carrying on the tradition of labu sayong craftsmanship.
MHDC’s efforts to ensure the continuity and preservation of this heritage offer people like Harun some sliver of hope. Currently, there are 108 craft entrepreneurs in Perak registered with the MHDC.
END OF THE ROAD
Next stop is another handicraft enterprise offering similar products.
However, what sets Xtream Craft apart is that it focuses on Islamic calligraphy motifs.
There’s a steady stream of visitors to the shop so we take the opportunity to join the throng of shoppers and purchase some beautiful souvenirs as keepsakes of this interesting road-trip.
Our final stop is Kampung Labu Kubong, a 20-minute drive from the town of Kuala Kangsar where the craft trail programme will be officially launched.
The usually quiet village is now bustling as locals from all walks of life converge in droves to join in the merriment, with some even wearing traditional costumes complete with keris and spears! It’s like travelling back in time and I realise our ‘warrior’ driver is certainly dressed for this occasion.
This village offers a totally different view from Kampung Kepala Bendang. The lush green of padi fields and swaying coconut trees make up the canvas, offering Instagram-worthy backdrops. Trees and birdsong make this place an idyllic getaway for those who love the kampung vibe.
As the sun gradually sets on the horizon, it’s time to bid farewell to Kuala Kangsar.
I wish I could’ve stayed longer. There are many memories made, and I can’t seem to forget the smoky aroma from the burning of labu sayong in the furnace. The memory of the smell may fade in time, but I hope the artisanal heritage of Kuala Kangsar will continue to burn bright for our sake and the sake of our future generations.