Creative Brands Penang: From tobacco pipes to Nyonya beaded shoes all made in Penang!

Each pipe was carefully designed and carved from briar wood by Johnsson Ooi. — Pictures by KE Ooi
Each pipe was carefully designed and carved from briar wood by Johnsson Ooi. — Pictures by KE Ooi

GEORGE TOWN, Aug 10 — Hand-carved wooden pipes, wayang kulit puppets with exquisite details and intricate Nyonya beaded shoes may sound like they belong to another time and not the modern world but Penang is home to the artisans who make these items.

Mohd Jufry Yusoff with the 'wayang kulit' puppets made by him.
Mohd Jufry Yusoff with the 'wayang kulit' puppets made by him.

A total of 18 artisans were given the chance to showcase their works at the inaugural pop-up showcase of Creative Brands Penang at the UAB Building here recently.

The event, a collaboration between Joe Sidek Productions and Think City, was an introduction to an online platform—creativebrandspenang.com—dedicated to showcase, market and sell the products of skilled Penang-based artisans.  

Johnsson Ooi started making tobacco pipes as a hobby back in 200.
Johnsson Ooi started making tobacco pipes as a hobby back in 200.
Kenny Loh and the Nyonya 'kebayas' and beaded shoes he made.
Kenny Loh and the Nyonya 'kebayas' and beaded shoes he made.
Face masks made from fabric from the region by Joe Sidek Productions.
Face masks made from fabric from the region by Joe Sidek Productions.

One of them is traditional musician and wayang kulit puppet maker Mohd Jufry Yusoff.

Mohd Jufry, 59, has been making goatskin puppets for decades since he learnt the art from his grandfather.

“I started learning from my grandfather in Kelantan at the age of six, he was very skilled and taught me how to draw and carve out characters on cured goatskin for wayang kulit,” he said.

His grandfather had a repertoire of 140 different characters and Mohd Jufry learnt how to draw and make each of them over the years.

He said not all the characters were used in wayang kulit performances but it is important to learn about each character so that they are not forgotten and lost. 

Mohd Jufry, who is also a traditional musician, started the Wak Long Music and Art Centre in 2015 and is an instructor for wayang kulit Kelantan at Universiti Sains Malaysia. 

Although he produces and sells the wayang kulit puppets, he has yet to sell them on a larger scale and rarely on an online platform.

“I am grateful for this chance to be in Creative Brands Penang to sell my art online, I can now produce more characters and different types of art including paintings of the characters and framed wayang kulit characters,” he said.

Another artisan, Johnsson Ooi, started making tobacco pipes as a hobby back in 2004. 

The former soil and foundation engineer learnt to make tobacco pipes on his own for a few years before going to Tyrol in Italy to train in the art of pipe-making in 2016. 

“When I came back, I started making pipes full-time and soon after I joined Kraftangan Malaysia, my career as a pipe-maker took off,” he said.

Thanks to Kraftangan Malaysia, Ooi today has a following of pipe collectors and pipe-smokers who invest in his handmade pipes.

He said each pipe is carefully designed and carved to be unique works of art made from briar wood that can be used to smoke tobacco. 

“These are functional pipes, some collectors would use them and they will look for other designs and buy more to add to their collection,” he said.

Nothing is more synonymous with Penang than its rich Baba Nyonya culture so fifth-generation Baba Kenny Loh decided to quit his nutritionist job and concentrate on preserving his ancestors’ culture and crafts.

About four years ago, Loh started learning how to make Nyonya hand-sewn kebaya and beaded shoes from the remaining few elderly Nyonyas, including his aunts, still practising the trade. 

“There is plenty of Nyonya cuisine everywhere but fewer Nyonya kebaya and Nyonya beaded shoes so I didn’t want my ancestors’ legacy to disappear,” he said.

Loh took a year off to learn the trade, starting with beaded shoes before moving on to embroidering kebaya

“It took me six months to master the treadle sewing machine as we can’t use the normal electric sewing machine when it comes to sewing embroidery on kebayas,” he said.

Loh launched the Kenny Loh Couture line of kebayas and beaded shoes three years ago and has since come up with other designs such as embroidered shawls.

“I am coming up with designs for those who don’t want to wear kebaya but like the Nyonya embroidery,” he said.

Another interesting up-and-coming artisan is Kang Pei Shern with her Better Than Blouses (BTB) collection made from batik sourced from all over Southeast Asia.

It started out with her wanting to make comfortable and contemporary blouses using the colourful traditional printed materials. 

Now, her BTB collection has extended to a few different blouse designs and skirts.

“I am coming up with more designs soon,” she said.

Kang Pei Shern of Better Than Blouses with her collection.
Kang Pei Shern of Better Than Blouses with her collection.

Artists like Azmi Hussin, Howard Tan, Fuan Wong, Ch’ng Kiah Kiean and Choo Beng Teong were also featured in the showcase.

Other artisans at the showcase included a parang-maker “My Parang”, Mannik & Batik, Kraak Creations PLT, SILA Studio, woodcarver Yunizam Yahaya, sculptural jeweller Jonathan Yun, Areca Books and Special Hands by Asia Community Centre. 

Joe Sidek Productions featured its MariMasks, cloth masks made from local and regional traditional fabrics that were treated with a water-resistant and anti-bacterial spray, WR/AB. 

 

Related Articles