Batiks to Dye For

There's a balmy breeze off the South China Sea and in this coastal village every clothesline outside every weathered wood bungalow snaps with brilliantly dyed batik.

In the sandy shade beneath one of the stilted bungalows, a young Malay woman works on fabric stretched over a wood frame--tinting a large hibiscus flower drawn in gold-colored wax on white fabric.

She chooses a can of canary yellow dye from a rainbow palette, wets the brush and touches the center of each petal. The dye spreads to the waxed lines, thinning artistically as it goes. One after the other, the gracefully outlined petals bloom with color. She offers me the brush and asks, "You want to try batik?"

We are just outside Kota Baharu, on the laid-back east coast of peninsular Malaysia. Kota Baharu is the capital of Kelantan, the country's most traditional and ethnically Malay state, and the center of its batik production. Batik made and sold here is known throughout Southeast Asia for its bold floral motifs and vibrant colors. Nothing captures the essence of the Asian tropics quite like it.

Still a family-oriented cottage industry, the open-air workshops and small retail outlets found along a five-mile stretch of road separating KB, as it's called locally, from the South China Sea are a pleasure to visit. "Importunity [persistent demands] is still considered bad manners in Malaya," says a 1910 guidebook. Things on this coast haven't changed all that much since.

Our itinerary brings us up from Kuala Lumpur aboard the venerable jungle railway, through a world of rain forests, rubber plantations and logging concerns, from the 1920s to the '80s the only path through Malaysia's interior. As we approach the coast, trees give way to glistening rice paddies and women begin boarding the train wearing sarongs and blouses brightly batiked in lime green, yellow and pink.

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The taxi from the station drops us at the Hotel Tokyo Baru, a place recommended by an acquaintance, but the lobby leaves us uninspired. Yet across the street, sitting wonderfully seedy but solid on the corner, we see a Chinese hotel, the Mee Chin, with a busy kedai kopi (coffee shop in Malay) on its ground floor. Several Westerners, the first we've seen in a week, are sipping beer under the sluggish fans.

In fundamentalist Islamic Kelantan, kedai-kedai kopi (coffee shops) are the only legal outlets for alcohol--even so, beer must be tucked behind the soda pop in the cooler. We find the friendly manager in the steamy kitchen and she takes us up worn mahogany stairs to a quiet corner room with jalousied windows, sink and an old ceiling fan. A night's stay costs the same as two cans of Tiger Beer downstairs, about $7.

Kota Baharu's population of 380,000 belies its small town, uncrowded feel and though becoming Westernized, it has remained close to its rural and cultural roots. Bicycle trishaws pedal past KFCs and A&Ws;, and many of their passengers are women clothed from head to toe in flamboyant silk batik.

In the surrounding Malay villages, dress is more casual and the sarong, invented by the Malays, is still the most popular garment for both sexes. It remains the primary canvas for batik: the process of applying molten wax to cloth so that sections of the cloth resist dye. It is an ancient technique, most likely brought from India by Muslim traders sailing to China. These traders also carried the soft fabrics that batik requires: Indian cottons and Chinese silks. In the 16th century they also brought Islam (which replaced Hinduism as the predominant religion), giving the batik designs their flowery arabesques and geometric symbols.

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Isolated by jungle and the rough seas of winter monsoons, and located off of the main trade route that runs up the peninsula's west coast, Kelantan's batik has remained relatively primitive and uninfluenced by European market demands. Ironically, this has given it a certain international cachet.

At the turn of the century, when Malaya was a British colony and pith helmets and white drill pants were the height of tropical travelers' fashion, Kelantanese batik was said to be a good buy. Today's travelers may have switched to baseball caps and jeans, but batik remains the fashion here and it is still a good buy.

In the new Central Market, something of a concrete eyesore from the outside, hundreds of vendor stalls circle the sky-lighted atrium overlooking one of the most colorful produce markets in Malaysia. On the third floor we find the women selling batiks.

Passing by the single-sided silk-screened batik-like fabric from Indonesia (in true batik the dye permeates both sides of the cloth making them mirror images), we delve into a selection of brightly colored cotton sarongs. These are a standard 6 feet long by 45 inches wide and cost about $5 each.

We unfold one that appears to be something out of the Day-Glo '60s. Maria, my traveling partner, asks the saleswoman if these are Kelantanese sarongs, but the woman only smiles, not understanding our English. But two other shoppers say yes, these are Kelantanese sarongs made in the village along the road to the beach and that all conform to the traditional sarong design.

Sarongs are intended to be sewn end-to-end into a tube-like garment that one winds around the body and secures with a twist and a tuck. They are colored with this in mind. A continuous border of flowers or geometric shapes runs around the sarong with one end open (when sewn the border becomes complete). A further transverse border divides the sarong into two distinct sections, the kepala or head (one third of its length) and a badan or body (the remaining two-thirds). Often there is a double row of isosceles triangles, often in black, in the kepala section.

These two women, who tell us they are Malays living in Singapore, have come to Kota Baharu "looking for new party outfits." They say they are shopping for the more formal batiks in the next booth. These 12-foot lengths of Jacquard silk (a figured weave named after the French creator) are designed to be cut and sewn into the traditional Malay woman's ensemble, which they tell us is called the baju kurung: a long blouse over a formal sarong. The blouse half of the batik design generally has tight geometric patterns all the way to the edges, while the sarong section has a more open floral pattern with a border. Prices range from about $35 to $95.

A third Kelantanese batik specialty is the caftan. Dozens of these short-sleeved tropical house robes hang from the racks overhead. Each has similar hand-drawn flower designs (generally hibiscus) batiked on front and back. Maria fingers the material. It's rayon, although the salespeople call it fuji when we ask about it. The caftans vary between $7 and $12 and seem to be popular with tourists--most of whom are Malaysians from other states.

That evening we choose the popular pasar malam, or night market, for dinner. By day, it is an unassuming parking lot across the street from the Central Market. But by 6:30 p.m., vendors have rolled in their portable kitchens. Noodles and rice are steaming, skewered meats are barbecuing and mouthwatering smells fill the air. Besides wonderfully spicy Malaysian, we find Thai, north and south Indian, Chinese and Middle Eastern dishes. I'm examining a pyramid of pressed squid, wondering how they might serve it, when Maria notices that we are the only two people left among the stalls. A security man politely asks us to leave.

Across the street we see where the vendors have gone: a white two-story mosque with a single minaret. Through open windows we see the men on the second floor wearing white prayer caps and the women below with long white veils, all facing Mecca and praying in unison.

At 7:30 p.m., everyone hurries back tucking hats and veils out of sight and the night market once again turns into an outdoor restaurant with the tastiest and best-priced meals available in KB.

We choose chicken satay (shish kebabs served with a peanut sauce) and rice cooked in coconut milk. A friendly Burmese couple sits down next to us and we solicit their opinion of the batik here. "In our family," the woman tells us, "Malaysian longhis (sarongs) were our best clothes. When we got dressed up, that is what we wore."

Next morning we take a taxi to the outskirts of town and the beginning of the road to Pantai Cahaya Bulan (PCB, or Beach of Bright Moonlight). Here we get out and walk. We are nearly five miles from the beach but the sea breeze and the prospect of visiting batik workshops along the way invigorates us. After the first few slick--too slick--batik stores at the edge of town, we see our first workshops. The unpainted Malaysian bungalows stand back from the road on stilts among the palm trees and brakes of bamboo. Batiks ripple in brilliant rows on the laundry lines.

We cut across a field, leaving buses and motorbikes behind, and walk down a narrow dirt road past shy children, country chickens, wood fires, vats of dye, racks of batik, and interesting old Malay bungalows. The men, women and children we see are all engaged in the family business of batik.

As we stop to admire a particularly colorful batch of batiks on a line, a young Malay woman kindly invites us into the yard for a closer look. Introducing herself as Miss Nikmat, she gives us a little tour of the family compound where she lives and works. Several waist-high cement dyeing vats stand under a tin roof near some banana trees. A few feet away a fire glows under a charred water barrel. Her father, wearing rubber boots, rubber gloves and a sarong, approaches with an armload of firewood. He welcomes us cordially enough, but Miss Nikmat is obviously the English speaker in the family.

Beneath the stilt bungalow we find a dozen racks of stretched fabric. We watch as her older brother draws floral patterns on one of these in molten wax. We recognize the hibiscus--Malaysia's national flower--from the Central Market caftans. He uses a tjanting, a bamboo-handled tool with a copper receptacle for the wax and a thin spout. Miss Nikmat is tinting these designs with a brush. Sometimes the cloth is dipped into the dye vats instead (wax is applied wherever the color is not wanted), or a combination of both techniques is used. In any case, when the proper color effect has been achieved, the wax is boiled off and the cloth hung out to dry. Miss Nikmat's family makes about 10 per day and her mother wholesales the finished batiks for about $7.

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Closer to the beach, concrete duplexes, some with retail sections, begin to show up among the bungalows. In front of one such house, boxes of silk are being unloaded from a delivery truck. We follow the delivery men around to the back, where we find a large workshop with about 20 baju kurung silks stretched on racks.

Two women meticulously tint the design with brushes while two others touch up the wax outlines with tjantings. The dense and regular geometric designs they are working on, however, were not drawn with tjantings but hand stamped using a tool called a tjap (sometimes spelled cap). In fact, we see a pile of these on a table nearby.

The tjap was invented around 1840 to help the Javanese batik industry keep up with demands of its export market. It looks like a hand iron with copper strips bent into patterns on its bottom. Dipped into molten wax and pressed onto the cloth, it greatly speeds up the batik process in designs that employ repeating motifs.

Back on the main PCB road, we find dozens of small retail outlets with colorful batik displays outside. There is never any pressure to buy. Often the salesperson--always a woman--is nowhere to be seen. She'll wander in when you need her.

Prices in these friendly little stores are about the same as at the central market, but the inventory, pleasantly displayed, seems more varied. We find batik T-shirts in cotton ($7) and silk ($9), and men's silk shirts ($14). There are also batik scarves ($4), handkerchiefs ($1), pillow cases and sheets for varying prices ($5-$16). Casual bargaining will always take a dollar or two off, but prices are so reasonable it's more a form of social chatting than a means of saving money.

By the time we reach the beach (a convenient bus stop with two low-keyed resorts under casuarina trees, a wide strand and crashing waves), our shoulder bags are stuffed with batik. As we rest on a sand dune, townspeople are taking the afternoon air. We prop ourselves against a dune, dig our toes in the sand, and watch women in batik stroll past, their silk skirts and scarves billowing in the breeze.

Duncan is a freelance writer based in British Columbia, Canada.

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GUIDEBOOK / Buying Batik

Getting there: Kota Baharu is just south of the Thailand border on the northeast coast of the Malay Peninsula. Malaysian Airlines flies, with one stop but no change of planes, from LAX to Kuala Lumpur, with a change of planes to Kota Baharu. Lowest round-trip fares start at about $1,260. Malayan Railways (KTM) runs several trains per day from Singapore and Kuala Lumpur to Tumpat, a 20-minute drive from Kota Baharu. Round-trip train fares: from Singapore, $121 one way, first class; from Kuala Lumpur, $115.

Where to stay: Kota Baharu has a large selection of business class hotels. Hotel Indah, 236-B Jalan Tengku Besare (telephone 011-60-9-7485081; fax 011-60-9-7482788). Rooms from $35. Kencana Inn, Jalan Padang Garong (telephone 011-60-9-7447944. Rooms from $30. You also find many inexpensive Chinese hotels and guest houses ranging from $5 to $15 a night. (Our little hotel, fan only, bathroom down the hall, $7 a night: Mee Chin Hotel, located on Jalan Tok Hakim [no phone available].)

For more information: Malaysia Tourism Promotion Board, 818 W. 7th St., Los Angeles, CA 90017; tel. (213) 689-9702.

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