James Goh, Beatrice Tan, Lim Shi Jean, Jaclyn Chong of Raffles Institution Junior College interviewed me for their school project paper on preserving culture. They gave me a transcript of that interview which I am happy to publish here for the benefit of those who seek knowledge on this matter.
It must have been a lot of work for them to type out the interview verbatim. I have decided not to edit them as its they way how I speak and spoke candidly on the matter, so bear with the repetition and broken sentences.
Transcript of Interview with Mr. Kamal Dollah on 7th June 2009 at Telok Ayer Performing Arts Centre.
<BJJJ>: Our PW Group
<KD>: Mr Kamal Dollah
BJJJ: Why did you choose to research into batik?
KD: It was out of curiosity, I went to school, and then to NAFA, and then the thing is that I was offered a few elective programmes and you know like one of it is Chinese painting you see, so I’m always curious about my roots, so I figured that I would rather take an elective that has something to do with my heritage, and I figured batik was one of it, you know? But the school didn’t offer any, so what I did was I organised the Malay students and I organised, we got ourselves an instructor and we started And that is like, because it is basically [about you] trying to find your roots. You see the thing is that, the funny thing is that, if you study art, and you say that the history of art in Singapore starts in 1938 or something like that. Go, go, go and look it up. And it’s like, so before the coming of the British, there was no art. Before the setting up of the teachers college in Tanjong Malim, there was no art. Can you accept that? I mean…
BJJJ: I find it hard to
KD: Yea. So I start looking. There must be remnants, I mean art is an essence in people’s lives you know like people’s spiritual expressions and stuff like that so well the only thing I could see, in terms of traces of my heritage, one of it was batik, or wood carvings. But we don’t have a history of painting you know, so maybe perhaps that’s why the history of paintings in Singapore starts in 1930s, but I think, there are inhabitants here much longer than that, so, so that sparked my curiosity. And the more I question about batik, the more people didn’t want to answer me, because what happened was that it’s a jealously guarded secret you know, like how to do batik. And so I went about you know looking and looking and looking and you know organising classes and getting myself working towards that. After that, I was busy for a few years earning my living, but you know, but always at the back of my mind I wanted to do that, so that’s why like now, in between working and all the other things, I every now and then come back to batik. So you read my articles, I think I become somewhat of an accidental scholar in this field, but, but I’m not a very academic person, but that’s how things turn out lar, yea.
BJJJ: Your work on batik was quite great, considering like you know Singapore hardly has any information on batik. Your blog is one of the more, informative ones.
KD: Uh huh, ok. Thank you, thank you so much. The thing is that you see, when you, when you study about batik, the funny thing is that, uhhh, batik was written mostly by westerners you see, and, and we trying to understand batik, we have to read western books, you know. The westerners have been writing about batik. In my research, the earliest traces was 1919, New York publisher. It’s a school textbook on how to make batik craft or something like that. And so, a lot of the practices is basically influenced by books. So, even down to what happened at Malaysia, the influence is very strongly from books. It’s not a handed down generation practice you know. The Indonesians do it, and the Indonesians have got their writings, but the Indonesian writings are mostly in, in old Javanese text, and, and even then there’s not a lot of writings, because even then, in Java, the birthplace of batik, it’s uh, how you call this, it’s also a family guarded secret you know. So everybody guards their, their practice you know. It’s only recently that more and more people, westerners come to know about this, and westerners wrote about it, so we have our reference point is from the westerner’s perspective. But, being local, I know I could benefit into this area, that’s why I took the opportunity in doing my master’s degree to go and penetrate into this area and get more information out lar, and that was the thing.
BJJJ: Is there like a master that specialises in batik?
KD: No, I had a hard time trying to convince people I wanted to do that. The thing is that, in Singapore’s context, most people just [don’t] understand batik. It’s always very presumptuous. It’s not much I can say, yea that’s the problem with us. So, what was the question? So in terms of academics, studies, there are a few practitioners, like myself and 2 others, artists who conduct batik classes in schools. And so, in the sense that, so there are practices I guess like O level and A level art. Uh, the students learn batik as a craft to be their major project, and these are guided by a few practicing artists. Other than that, there’s not, there’s no batik practice here, because we don’t have any factory that produces batik you know. And that has been ever since you know. Actually in, sometime in 1920s to 1980s there were a few practitioners, a few factories you know. Up till 1980s there [were] like, up to 4. Then after that, they all closed down. There’s no, uh, there’s no industry, here. One of the reasons is because batik is a very labour intensive industry, so being a labour intensive industry, it cannot be produced here. Well, not saying cannot, but it’s just not feasible you know. I mean, you compare the Indonesians, their average salary is something like 6 dollars a day, you know, yea, and it’s like, it’s really cheap you know, and you get really good workmanship, craftsmanship in Indonesia, even in Malaysia. But in Singapore, it’s just, the, the cost of living is too high so it’s not feasible for you to do anything here. So we do not have a culture for producing batik, but we always have a culture for wearing it, buying batik. So, Singapore is one of the bigger consumers, like you can see the Peranakan right, the more, the more, how you call this, the more affluent Straits Chinese, they consume batik and especially like what we have pointed out, the Pekalongan batik.
BJJJ: So in our case right, for example, like in Singapore right, some people view batik as something that needs to be conserved and preserved, and some people see batik as part of our heritage and you still see it around, so there’s no actual need for conservation. So, what’s your take on this?
KD: Sorry I don’t get you. What you mean? Both are saying the same thing what.
BJJJ: Some people think that, uh, batik is not disappearing. Some people like us that batik is slowly going away lar, less people are wearing it
KD: I think, you cannot stop things from changing. Things change, you know. Uh, culture is something you cultivate you know, I mean, that’s my understanding, during my GP class. Alright, it’s something you cultivate, it’s not something that you know, and, and, culture is dynamic, so, there’s always this school of thought that culture must be preserved. Preserved in the sense that in order, so you, you know what’s the story of the past, but in order for culture to remain alive, it must transform. But then, at the same time, you cannot change it until to the point that it loses its form and it’s identity you know. So but, the, the, the, I always say it’s my opinion that tradition and culture is dynamic you know. So, like, like you know, around here, you see a lot of music base, you know like traditional music right, they have to use amplifiers, they have to use electronic things, you know, if not they cannot perform in, in, in places like esplanade and things like that you know. They need to use lights and effects and stuff like that. But the thing is that the essence of culture is projected. So, that’s the important thing. And a lot of people assume that, uh, what you call this, assume that making of batik, there is no culture here you know. So we cannot preserve that, because there’s none. Maybe we can start something here, but I’m of this opinion. It’s interesting subject what you brought out because there was some failed attempt to do what you call a Singapore dress. Are you, are you familiar with this concept of the Singapore dress?
BJJJ: Singapore dress? Well, from what we know, you know the SIA, like the SIA girl they usually wear batik, then that’s about that.
KD: It’s not usually, it’s a uniform, and then that was part of my re-, and then what I found, was sometimes it takes an outsider to realise who we are. I mean, the SIA uniform was, uh, designed by a French couture, who’s Pierre Balmain, 1972, you can look up the history of it. That’s interesting uh, a westerner who identified us with this you know. Ah so the thing is that you know, sometimes you look at the Singapore culture right, what is the Singapore culture you know? Sometimes it’s like, and there’s always during my time when I was a student you know. There was always this issue, what is the Singapore dress, you know? When you see Miss Universe representing Singapore you know, what does she wear? Does the kebaya represent us? Does the cheongsam represent us? What? Uh, so nothing seems to represent us, when we wear, so somehow rather, uh, there was this, the late president Ong Teng Cheong, I mean he was a person of the arts, and he proposed this, uh, batik as a formal, for formal wear, and he was uh, he’s a champion of, to make batik successful. I mean, the orchid motifs, and so, uh, but the project didn’t, well, he passed, he passed on, and, and that’s sad. After he passed on nobody continued that, that fight. So, we were almost, to me at the point, we were close to, to, to have something that we could be proud of, you know. And on hindsight, I think that why we failed was because first of all there was no production base. Right? Because, the NTUC tried to control this whole production thing. And so, uh, and this also not good, because it’s like, you know this becomes, uh, how you call this, it becomes so stifling uh, and then it cannot grow. And then there were only a few practitioners, who, you know, who were supposed to come up with this thing. So there wasn’t enough participation I would say, that, that could not make it take off. And because we don’t have a production base, so it was very difficult for us to come up with our Singapore motif. And so, and then the late president Ong Teng Cheong passed on, and then that’s it. Nobody continued that effort, you know. And, but, it’s only that now we know, uh official functions you don’t need to wear suit anymore you know. You can wear a batik shirt, and that was started with Ong Teng Cheong. That’s a sad thing, my dream is you know one day we have a Singapore dress. And and that will come close; you know Pierre Balmain identified Pekalongan batik and Pekalongan batik is broadly termed as, as Persisiran batik which is coastal range, the word coastal, batik. And it’s uh, it’s uh, distinctive with all these white dots, that’s uh, Pekalongan, or, or Persisiran pattern. And so, well, the Singapore Girl goes around the world, and presents Singapore like that, right? And so, technically that becomes the Singapore dress. You know, like it or not. But some people argue that’s not batik, because, that’s printed you know. But that’s, that’s, that’s just being too, too connoisseur you know. So it’s like, that’s not important I think. And what’s very sad, is that we don’t have that, that, that, because Singapore is always very pragmatic. We are, we are always being too practical, we want everything fast, we never really look at the essence of what we really, what we really need you know. The essence of what we really need is soul, and we don’t have the soul. We want to buy everything, import everything, you know, you, you can’t. There’s certain that we have to, it have to come from us you know. And we, and what comes out is not perfect, you have to live with the flaws, and eventually becomes perfect you know, not, not everything must be perfect you know. You want everything perfect, you [have to] import! Then you got all the imported Thailand and whatever and, and so ok let’s not go into that because this is a recording. See the sad thing is that we don’t have really a Singapore identity and I think that batik is very interesting, because when you say batik, we, I don’t really see it so much as Peranakan, because Peranakan is a community, a small community. I see it more as the Malay. But then ok, now the thing is that then a lot of people would trace it to the Malay you see, and now then it becomes this is not a Chinese thing. So, but actually if you look at the history of batik and especially what batik has evolved, and taking into contact the Pekalongan batik and the Perisiran batik, it is an acculturation, that means it has many cultures included into it. So Because you see, it has the Chinese motifs because when we talk about peranakan, the peranakan is not just the straits Chinese, it is the early Chinese settlers in the malay world and they people are also located in Indonesia, in area like in Lasalle, I mean the north coast of Java, like this including Pekalongan is one of them. You have a lot of Chinese settlers they in fact they were cut off from the mainland. And eventually they all start to adopt local practices, you understand? So actually the Peranakan in Indonesia don’t call themselves peranakan, they just accept themselves as Chinese, so that’s why we are cut off because when we say Peranakan we always refer to the straits Chinese. Because of colonisation right, we always refer to the British states we forgot about the Chinese community in Indonesia. The Chinese community in Indonesia and also successful business people and some of them went into the batik trade and they you see that the batik they produce does not have principality design, that is loyalty design or tradition motif, when you look at motif, and the motif is the part of the culture, the heritage and you could identify the things where these things come from. And so the Chinese adapted their Chinese culture or the Chinese graphics like the clouds and stuff like that. So, they adapted all these things for themselves and they have patterns like birds bees, no bees, and butterflies in their designs and that is being consumed by the Chinese or the peranakan people. These are expensive things you know, it took 2 years to make one piece of cloth. They wax very fine details on both sides. Which is really not necessary but they will do it on both sides. So it’s very interesting. I have a book here, maybe you can look it up in the National Library or somewhere. I have a lot of books lar, but this is just one I brought. Even this is written by an English lady.
BJJJ : Oh cool!! Can I copy the title down?
KD : Huh? Batik Fabled Cloth of Java. As you can see this is butterflies This is typical peranakan batik. Very fine details. I believe it takes up to 2 years for them to make something like this. So you see this is peranakan batik. I wonder if they have any local (flips through the book). OK. If you can see like this, this is more traditional design. Traditional design is the more like klengenan. But you can see even this lion has more Chinese influence. We can identify this as Cirebon, another area where there is Chinese community there, and we can see the cloud where we call the “happy cloud”.
BJJJ : [laughs]
KD : The cloud. The chinese cloud motif become the Javanese cloud motif, we call the mega mendung. So you see there is a lot story to be told when you look at these things, like the bird, phoenix, in batik. So these are all Chinese makers. And because you know a Muslim person doesn’t generally wear living things, know, they wear flowers, or patterns or geometric and things like that, because in general they are against depiction of life. You know, like drawing faces, or animal and stuff like that because it is considered like you are worshipping certain kind of things, right? So there is also the Dutch influence where you got all these ships and things like Cinderella and stuff like that. Because the Dutch..
BJJJ : [laughs]
KD : Yes, the colonisers, they colonise the countries but the ladies got a lot of free time, so they open their own factory and they also produce their own Dutch batik. So there are a lot of stories on in terms of nationalities, and we can relate batik to history like that, you know. So what batik has evolved? Batik actually a rojak, you know. Especially if you look at the Perisisan batik. It’s really rojak. It really represent past. Just like Singaporeans, we are all mixed, know, and that is the wealth of all these things, know? I mean, if you study the history of Indonesia, it has like all the, what you call these, the struggle for independence, and, know, the industries, and how the Dutch tried to take the batik industries. And then during the war, when cloth are scarce, they work very fine motif during the Japanese occupation, you know, so that they can justify to the Japanese that all the Chinese are employed and they needed to do the work, and they came out Bloomer Hokokai. Basically the flower was, the flowers, hohokai flowers, it’s basically like Japanese, Japanese bloom, you know. It’s to be sold to the Japanese officers so the Japanese won’t persecute them because they are producing things for the Japanese, right? And it’s really fine craftsmanship, right? And then it’s, what you call this, religious influence in all these things, you know. So batik is a diverse cloth, it has a lot of effects on our time, culture & things like that. But in Singapore we are not aware of these things. Even in Indonesia, they are losing a lot of these things because people just see it as cloth and then if you wear. But in Indonesia sometimes it’s the government intervention. In Indonesia and Malaysia, the government demand that the civil service, civil servants have to wear batik one day a week or (is it now) two days in a week; every Friday or Thursday, something like that. So every Friday you see very colourful; everybody’s wearing batik. Even in Malaysia also. So you see government intervention will have something like that. But in Singapore, somehow or rather, after Ong Teng Cheong, there is so sad, I mean there is nobody tried make an effort to make the same like this but now with this Little Nonya come to fame and everybody start to ask about batik all over again. Oh and then, well what can I say. Of course, now I am on the circuit going around from CC to CC talking about the peranakan batik and how it evolved and a lot of people like, they don’t know, to them batik is batik. But batik is a property, batik is very expensive, and you know. And, sorry, I am flipping the pages, may be disruptive but maybe there is something. Ahh, you see, this is the mega mendung.
BJJJ : Oooo
KD : Ahh, See the cloud?
BJJJ : Oh, the happy cloud. [laughs]
KD : Ahh, the happy cloud. So this is the mega mendung. This is distinctively Cirebon, this is the area on the northern coast of Java.
BJJJ : When you said the Pekalongan batik, is it more like towards peranakan or is like the entire diverse culture?
KD : Pekalongan is a port, you know. It’s a port town. So it have got a lot of people, all sorts of influence, they have the Dutch, you know. They are more liberal, so it’s a very nice place. So, how you call this, but because distinct there is this family Wee Swee Cho, which in my opinion, they produce the finest batik in that period that even the Dutch practicianer agree. Their batik is more practical so I even met up with [flips through book], ooh yah, this is the lady, I met her. So you see, you see like that their batik pieces are like works of art, they are exhibitions, something like that. So this is the finest, this is a priced procession. So you can see the bayu kerbaya, which is a Indonesian cloth can match together with the batik. That’s what the peranakan wear and that’s what the Indonesians wear. That’s what the Dutch lady wear when they were in Indonesia. So, so the peranakan are just like that, the adaptation. So now, if you, so let’s put it this way, Peranakan preference for Pekalongan batik, that’s all. And in Pekalongan they still produce the batik. And these families are still around and the grand daughters are taking over the operation and some of them are struggling to survive because the demand for batik is not very high. But now there are people who know the value of batik and there are a lot of collectors who buy them, and so these prices, how you call this? These pieces of batik are like jewellery because at that time if you don’t have money you can pawn your batik. And even today, if I get a Oey Soe Tjoen 3rd generation, it costs me a $1,000. Yah, and if I can a first generation Oey Soe Tjoen, it could even fetch up to $12,000. And people who know these things they go around looking at old clothes. And sometimes they get like really old clothes that people just literally give it to them and then they just put on a smile [laughter from BJJJ] and go. And then once they back home they go “Ooh, I got this. I got Oey Soe Tjoen you know. I got this from this fellow and he sold it to me for only $2.50”. Like garage sales. So [there are] all these interesting stories, you know, about all these things. So, you know, the peranakan being very affluent, of course they decorate themselves good jewellery, (good food), good you know, wealth batik, like that, so that is the story of it lar. And generally the pekalongan batik has got this thing call the pagi sore. The pagi sore has a very interesting innovation of the Javanese which is like … Let me see if there is sample. The pagi sore is a long cloth and it has a diagonal segment and it’s like has got [two sides], you can wear it day and night. Pagi sore means morning and afternoon or morning and evening. It’s a diagonal, so if you turn the cloth around it becomes. Let’s say the cloth one side is blue colour and one side is pink colour. So in the morning you wear pink colour and then in the afternoon you just take out your sarong, turn it around, it becomes blue colour.
BJJJ : [laughs]
KD : So this kind of thing. It’s practical also. You have to see the king, the workmanship that goes into batik, it’s amazing, you know. So, this is really a prized procession. I mean …..OK now I was walking in Orchard and I passed by Gucci, Chanel and all these Prada, and all these prestigious shops you know, and its like you know how much they sell their shoes and belts and stuff like that right. Back then, these were equivalent to Gucci and Prada stuff, and you have the maker’s name to it. And the Pekalongan batik is the finest you know, there is. I think I saw a pagi sore just now…….
BJJJ : I think it was half orange half dark blue
KD : Yah. This is a pagi sore, ok. Can you see the diagonal here? one side is pink and one side is peach. See? Peach. One pink and one peach. [0:28:08:21]But this is a probably worn out piece the colour is faded. So it’s like you can wear in the morning and evening, so it’s like you get two for the price of one.
BJJJ : [chuckles]
KD : You can see all these dots, all these little dots, right, they are made with tjantings, so these are all handmade. And so the difficulty is that you have to make them one by one. This is a tjanting, you know. . Can you imagine this water wax, and then you go. Can you see the how fine that is? So they go tah tah tah tah tah tah…. So it can take up to 2 years. So imagine, this is really fine workmanship, uhh. Fine workmanship, the peranakan like it, that’s all. So peranakan has got all these expensive stuff. Uhhh, right? So that answers your question? OK
BJJJ : So have you worked with many different schools before?
KD : Yeah, I have worked with all sorts of schools. But basically I teach art and craft. Batik is just a medium. In Singapore the practice of batik as a art medium, something like oil painting, water colour, it’s just a art. The history of it is beyond. My take on this is that, it is better to get the kids interested in it you know, they might grow to love it but eventually also they hate it because it is very difficult to do, so … [laughs]
BJJJ : So you think, like, that it is better that if you provide them with like this knowledge you can help to this kind of, like, slow down the loss of them?
KD : It’s not slow down. I think now you have the peranakan museum, you have the people like Baba Wee to champion the Peranakan culture, Katong Antique House. Have you talked to them?
BJJJ : Yah, we are planning to go down next week.
KD : Ahhh! So, I mean, you can go down and see, he got a lot of these things. So, you only have background and knowledge on batik? And you can see his cupboards so full of them, some of them fragile, be careful don’t touch them or he may chase you out.
BJJJ : [laughs]
KD : No, no, because it’s like very fragile you know. He collects all these antiques and stuff like that. So, he acquired a bit of it over the years. He has got cheap ones and old expensive ones, so I would say Peranakan is something that needs to be documented and [has been] documented really well and Baba Wee has a lot of collection.
BJJJ : What do you think like field trip down to these places, like does it actually help people to understand them better?
KD : No this, trip to this place does not help people because one things is this place is quite out, meaning it is quite difficult to access. I myself know, I heard of this place, I read about it. So, it’s just happen that so the Mayor of Pekalongan invited me last month. And it’s like within 2 weeks we have to decide and we just have to drop everything and go. And so I was fortunate because I was invited by the Mayor, so the Museum of Pekalongan that we could have access to everything. But if you were to go there, it’s just a sleepy town. You don’t see anything. But if you have very keen eyes you will notice that there are cloth plying the streets, there is chemical, know, normal trucks but they are carrying these things know, and these things are moving about. And everybody is a batik maker but they are all doing it behind closed door, they won’t show you. It’s not like it’s so visible you can see. So, going there wouldn’t help but I think people, you see this is very expensive, the good ones are expensive and the cheap ones are very cheap know so I suppose that’s where the problem lies. If you have batik, it could be very cheap, you know, and it could be very exclusive, and most people just doesn’t pay attention to realise what it is. What can I say? I have some plan, if you want to do this, just take initiative, and education and also practice. I think the Little Nonya for what ever it is intended to do, has some effect, so people do begin to notice these things. And the government should really encourage people to look into our own. You see now the thing ah, now you look at batik people say this is Indonesian, this is Malaysian, and it’s very difficult for you to tag it to Singapore. That’s the problem and then most people just give up. There’s even a lot, in terms of painting, there’s even a lot of Chinese artist initially started with batik. In 1952 someone Chuah Thean Teng, the first person who ever exhibit batik and bring batik painting to the level of fine art, is a Chinese guy, you see. And then we got a few good painters in Singapore, Seah Kim Joo, Chieu Shuey Fook, Tay Chee Toh, they are using batik but after a while they just give up, and eventually left all the Malay practitioners because batik generally have got this presupposition that it’s a Malay thing. So it’s difficult sometime for government to say let’s all wear batik, know, so maybe it looks very one-sided. This thing I don’t know, maybe this thing is very tricky. But people should be able to choose what to wear. But now to see qi pao in batik and stuff like that, and that’s a interesting development. And a lot of them they are not aware of hoe to look at quality batik. You know quality batik is very very expensive. And sometimes now, in terms of trade, there is like miscommunication from the consumer to the producer that sometime the batik is not as exclusive as this but because it’s hand drawn, they also very expensive and people get cheated, feel cheated, and these things don’t last very long, quality standards all kind of these. You see, in order for this, if you want to be successful in these kind of things, it takes a lot of effort from government, from enterprise, from the people, from the cultures, the celebrities, everything you know, it has to be a whole spectrum of practice, right, then these these things can happen. Right now I don’t see it happening. It’s ok. There are a few people who are interested to find these books read them and enrol. Look me up, attend my class. I think as long as there are some people who are interested and there is a museum that documents all those things then we won’t lose it.
BJJJ : But do you think is it possible for this interest in batik to grow?
KD : Yeah, it will grow, it will grow eventually. But at least u have an incubation that it is not gone it didn’t die, it is being preserved somewhere but I think the preservation effort more need to be done because a lot of people when we talk about batik it’s very presumptuous. They presume things, so a lot of facts are not there. So that’s why I need your help to, because you put it in writing, and I put it up, and more people can learn we get the facts right, yeah that’s about there. Whether it succeeds or not, whether it one day there will be a batik revival or, or whatever, it all depends I can’t tell. One rap artist starts to wear batik or J Lo runs around in sarong kebaya or something like that, the next day the whole world got to wear sarong kebaya, know, It’s just simple like that. If I got a lot of money, I will play like that but I am not in that business. Yes?
BJJJ : So you feel that like education, teach people about batik, will help to preserve batik?
KD : Oh yes, of course, the thing is that most importantly we must understand who we are and be proud of our heritage you know and at least when you go to western world, you see globalisation is not about losing yourself you know. Globalisation actually strengthens who we are, and that’s what people fail to realise. People say these are all the things of the past and why do I need these in the age of the internet. Now, in the age of the internet and in the age of the smaller world of what we call the global village where it is so easy for you travel across half of the world know, you know I cannot image myself going to the States two times in a year or going to Japan going all over the world so often many years ago. The Chinese immigrant went to Indonesia and then that’s it, they were locked, they were stuck there for centuries, you know generations after generations and never go back to China you know. Now you can have what you call this, breakfast in Singapore and lunch in Chiang Mai, something like that, I think one of the airlines have something that kind of tag. So you see what you bring to the world community, what? If you are not aware of who you are, what can you bring to a broader audience? And that is the sad thing when I see Singaporeans, most people laugh at me sometimes, they say that I am backwards, know, that I am trying to relive the past glories, something like that. I am just interested in these things it’s because I find that this is something that is not presented properly. It is something that we have that we don’t know about. A lot of people will be more interested in in in modern art, in contemporary something like that. Yeah, I am also interested in that but you must not neglect who you are, and then when you go abroad, you are stronger. You know when I was in the States, people respect me for what I do, my knowledge in this area rather than what I’m trying to do as what they do, not so impressive, you know. So in this global era we should actually look back at this, it’s not it’s not, at least in my opinion. At a lot of people think that globalisation actually dilutes who you are but actually it should work to the opposite.
BJJJ : For example, like, government intervention, like some forms, like you know the recent Singapore Biennale? Do you think like if we promote batik as one of the basic art forms, do you think it will attract people?
KD : The Singapore Biennale has it’s own criteria, and culture is not very high on its agenda so I wouldn’t say. It all depends on the petitioners themselves. I must be the one to push it and convince them to take it on. So, it’s not their fault for not presenting me because I don’t make an effort or any artist for that matter, know. Batik is a medium of art but sometimes it is carried forward wrongly then it becomes a craft. This is another long debate so, I won’t be so fast to blame people whoever it is, but I just saying that even something like the Biennale should look at the essence of the people instead of trying to be global so much to the point that anybody who can pretend to look global will say “There I’m safe. I’m safe.” [laughs]
BJJJ : [laughs]
KD : Anymore? I just glanced through at your questions, I didn’t really read it. I am not good at exams and stuff like that.
BJJJ : Do you know, like, how much batik actually relates to Singapore’s history specifically?
KD : Well, it’s a bit. The first western to write about history, can you guess who?
BJJJ : Sir Stamford Raffles?
KD : Yes
BJJJ : [laughs]
KD : Sir Stamford Raffles was the governor of java and in his book, I think was “Monumental Works”, I can’t remember the title. He wrote the about batik, so technically he was the westerner to introduce batik to the western world, know. So, so that’s what link. The second, this is also a trading centre, where trade takes place. Cloth, they need cloth to come to, to, to make the batik and this is the place where Arab street is still selling the batik and where things is distributed and things like that. Even today, the dyes actually come through Singapore and being distributed to the batik makers in Malaysia and Indonesia. So you can see Singapore has been playing a part, but nobody knew about it cost it’s just another shop pushing commodity and nobody sees it. Sometimes it’s like when you do a research, students always ask me this question is like because you assume the answer the “Oh, this should be forward.” No this is a fact, the truth is not very pleasant to swallow, you know. The truth is just what it is. When you do research you just searching for something you must have a natural mind, things doesn’t have a happy ending, I would say that like it is, [you] know. People used to wear batik. My mum, I mean older Malay ladies wear batik. That’s what my mum wear. And I could talk to my mum about batik and she could talk to me about things as a girl or as she was growing up, know, and her prized possession, and terms will come up whether is it durian pecah or belas tumpal. Belas tumpal is split rice or broken durian, these are names of motifs, you know which roughly translate to the area where the batik comes from. Indonesia is very big you know. Mind you. Do you know how much is the size of Indonesia compared to Singapore?
BJJJ : 2000 island or something??
KD : There is 2000, you know, in terms of land mass. I mean in terms of land mass. It is 2000 times the land of Singapore you know. So Singapore is literally one little red dot you know, and so can you imagine that to have things that are hundreds of kilometres away? (This is my assistant, so sorry)… so…so it is a lot of, how you call this, …(Kelvin, still on time, ok…. [laughs]) so, we got either back then something from Japan, France, Italy or something like that. The older generation wear it but now the middle-aged ladies don’t even know it because they don’t wear it, so they can’t even tell the quality of it. So the business has suffered, [thus] they don’t bring in quality stuff and then, nobody continue to wear it. So even if I continue to educate, people will come and go “Oh, oh, that’s like that”. And then that’s it. The practice is not there. So, I don’t know so like I say the Little Nonya is the best phenomenal that ever happened and people are just interested in it. I am very busy now. So really we have so many workshops, batik workshops. People are just curious what Peranakan batik [is]. Actually it’s just batik that every body in this part was wearing. That that everybody was wearing then but unfortunately this was not continued because people prefer Levis and stuff like that, but what can we do, right? I mean, so it’s not going to be a happy ending.
BJJJ : As part of our project work right, we are supposed to come up with a few plans that will help to conserve batik. One of them is fashion show that will incorporate batik in the fashion. How effective do you think that will be in helping conserving batik?
KD : That will be effective because the people who make cloth are the designers right. The thing is that the schools themselves give very low priority to batik, they are basically a few fashion schools in Singapore. It’s again on the surface only, they don’t go deep enough, you know. They don’t bother to know more about these. So if a student were to touch on batik, it’s only on the surface. But anyway, back then when Ong Teng Cheong, late Ong Teng Cheong’s tried to do this orchid motif day, they had an annual batik show, or rather an annual orchid motif show or something like that that kind of effort. When you have that kind of effort and when the designers start to have fashion shows, that’s a good start, lah. And so, it is easier for educate the designers and the designers being educated about this they knew how to put out these motifs and stuff like that. Like in Malaysia they have the Piala Seri Endon (Kuala Lumpur International Batik Invention and Exhibition). I don’t know if you go into my blog, it’s a bit deeper. You search there under my search klib. So, it’s KL International Batik, and they are going to have another one in December. So they have the Seri Endon and Seri Enterpris which is basically the designers were reaching out and really fight and in the fashion show. So, that’s a good thing. Technically to win that is very prestigious, and all designers participating only go through understanding of batik, you know, to go through that effort. Around here everybody just assume they know things. So, I don’t know that’s the way it is. So, fashion show is one good thing.
BJJJ : Do you think, it will help to bring it into the general public, more people wear it, like bring it more into the modern society?
KD : Yeah. It will, because designers will introduce things and innovate stuff like I cite again last year’s Piala Seri winner was like, we all disagree with that, like “what gone wrong”, but yeah on hindsight the judges were right, the judges wanted to push something that was like very untraditional, something unorthodox, something very new, something that can breakthrough you know, new ground. That thing that doesn’t look like batik, looks like splashes of colours, and so [that is] interesting, and so the designers, you see you are you are putting a task to a smaller group of people rather than putting into like the whole masses and there is no point to begin with, and if the government were to force everyone to wear batik also no, right? Maybe the government should give me a lot of money and I will make it happen. [laughs] Don’t write this? OK.
BJJJ : [laughs]
KD : Take a picture of me and these girls. [laughs] OK. Boy also. [laughs]
BJJJ : I remember visiting this other blog once, I think she was a student working on conservation of batik also…
KD : Really? Which school?
BJJJ : SMU is it?
KD : SMU or NTU?
BJJJ : SMU.
KD : Yeah, it’s the research project. But I don’t remember where it is now. Sars or something like that is it.
BJJJ : Sars?
KD : The website is Sars something and she cited my statement right?
BJJJ : Yeah, yeah.
KD : That student is in NTU.
BJJJ : OK. Ok. Sorry. Well, she mentioned that batik workshops are generally quite expensive is it because of the price of the material?
KD : Well, the thing is because she went to the wrong person. I told her to come and see me but she didn’t come and so she was fooled by people you know; people who jealously protect their thing. Like I say, I am open provided you behave that all. That’s why I meet students to do all these kinds of things. Seriously I am open – I want these things to be know. But just that students tend to misbehave, they come to my office late and they make a mess of the office and all sorts of things. You are good students so I can talk a lot of things. Some students are really crap and ask stupid questions like those that are all over my blog. Anyway. Yes, it’s true, it’s really difficult, because many people don’t know me. Even for me if you come to my workshop in NAFA, it will cost you $380 for 8 sessions. So now, there are a lot of people who cannot afford it but there is always someone who can. So we do it there. And I am not rich doing that because it barely covers cost because there is not enough scale, there is not enough people interested in doing these things. So that’s why now, last week we started this thing that every Thursday night I am here and anybody interested you come here and still they have to pay, see, because cost of things is expensive here. But we have got a program subsidised by the National Arts Council, and that’s why we are going to schools, me and my company and a few other companies. We go to school and we teach them and that’s pretty affordable. It’s just that some people are very unrealistic thinking can be got for free. It takes a lot effort to run a batik workshop. It’s not easy you know. First of all, you need to train the technicians. When I say train technicians is not training technicians. My instructors I call them technicians because 1st of all they must understand all these safety issues and a lot of they materials that need to be managed and things like that and a lot of accidents happen when because you handle things like molten wax. Like I say when people just assume things, they get it wrong. And that’s why accidents happen, so it’s dangerous. So, the cost is pretty high, know, and it’s not easy to get material and stuff like that, and I even sourced some things outside, yeah, it’s very very high, you know, because there is a lot of hype to it and there is a lot of things the consumers don’t know. So, well, she’s right.
BJJJ : In that sense, it you make batik workshops more affordable for the general public…..
KD : Then, who is going to conduct it?
BJJJ : but then would that compromise on the quality?
KD : No, it is not compromise on the quality. It’s all dollars and sense, in the sense that, ok. You see you must understand you need to look at two sides. Ok. It’s affordable to you but is it lucrative enough or feasible for the instructor or the company doing it ? You see it must cover costs. Ok so like me, I am doing this, right? How much are you paying me? Do you know how much I am worth? An hour? Do you know what is my opportunity cost?
BJJJ : Oh yeah.
KD: So, so it’s right. You get what I mean yeah, I am doing this for free, right? So that’s the thing, also when I deal with students, students always don’t understand the economies of art. When it comes to art, art is also never respected, so artist must start to put their hands down and say that things cost money, right? You don’t go to the doctor and say talk, (like many minutes now?) for 45min for free right? So you see what I mean right? Art is a profession, and when I start to charge people don’t understand that. So we need a compromise for me to educate people, you need to understand that for craftsmen and artists, this is a profession and Singapore is generally an expensive place. I am not supposed to talk money to students about but I can’t help it. I go to teach in a lot of schools and generally students, because you are young so you never think about all these issues. It’s not an issue about things being expensive. Things that are expensive, like the NAC has got grants and community centres and stuff like that, so it’s quite affordable. Actually it’s quite a cheap thing to do, but it’s just that it’s difficult, it’s tedious, it’s not easy to do. OK? No other questions? Do a nice one. Spread it to all to your school.