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Shopping: Malaysia

Batiks to Dye For

An ancient art comes alive with bright colors and vibrant patterns

July 21, 1996|CARL DUNCAN

KOTA BAHARU, Malaysia — 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.

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