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Friday May 11, 2007

Beading for a place in posterity

Simply stunning: Corinna wearing a typical shoulder scarf made entirely of beads, belonging to the OrangUlu tribe.

WHEN Corinna Mujan was a child, visits to her relatives’ homes always revolved around beading.  

The womenfolk – her aunts and female cousins – would often gather in an airy corner of the longhouse and make pretty Sarawakian beadworks together.  

Sometimes the designs were elaborate, involving the use of tiny, colourful seed beads, while at other times, they made simple pieces like bangles, necklaces and headgear.  

These works were meant for personal use but were often given away as gifts.  

Whatever it was that they were making, Corrina - who was always curious – would join in, trying to string a new design or pick up a new trick so as to be a better bead artist.  

Creating a design: The beading and knotting go together to create a design.
Women of the Orang Ulu community – from which Corinna hails – are known for their beautiful beadwork, with which they adorn everything from sun hats to baby carriers. Along with the Kenyah community, the Orang Ulu are the most skilful bead artists in Sarawak.  

While most designs centre on the “tree of life” pattern, other popular designs are of hornbills, tigers and dragons.  

The Iban, meanwhile, use beads to fashion the wide beaded collars known as Marik Ampang that complete the female festive costumes.  

Archaeological excavations have indicated that beads were the earliest items of commerce to be brought into Sarawak from other parts of the world.  

Beads were also once used as small change in the local currency.  

The tribal belief is that the beads impart extraordinary healing and soul-strengthening powers to the wearer, and the rightful owner can draw strength from them when they are used in rituals.  

“The art was passed down from generation to generation, and it was my mother who taught me the skill. I even remember her carrying me in an elaborately designed baby carrier when I was young. I have not experienced the powers that the beads are believed to confer to the wearer, though,” she said.  

“But, most importantly I am keeping the art alive. It's beautiful,” said Corinna, who originates from Kg. Long Sungai Dua, Long Lama Baram, Miri.  

Colourful: Seed beads in various colours used for beading work.
Now at 30, she is a skilled bead artist and works as the art and craft supervisor at Sarawak Paradise of Borneo in Kuala Lumpur, set up by the Sarawak Economic Development Corporation.  

She said traditional beading differed from modern beading, as needles were not used to string the beads in the traditional method.  

Instead, the end of the piece of string is “straightened” using a knife and waxed to stiffen it to allow for easy stringing.  

Traditionally, yellow, black, blue and red beads are used.  

These days, Corinna said, the art was kept alive mostly by middle-aged women despite the government's efforts to get the young to practise it, too. 

Corinna's mother Urai Jau Laing, 55, still does beadwork to pass the time, as do her aunts.  

“However, the younger generation are more interested in promoting and marketing the beadwork, rather than making them. 

“The work requires a lot of patience and time, and hence it is losing popularity among young people. However, the tradition must be continued. If the young don't pick it up, the craft will slowly die,” she said.  

Corinna also conducts lessons for those interested in learning the art, at a centre in Jalan Bukit Bintang, Kuala Lumpur.  

Although only small and simple designs are taught during the lessons, they nevertheless serve the purpose of passing on the skill.  

One of Corinna's students is 17-year-old Amanda Khoo from Bukit Antarabangsa, Kuala Lumpur.  

Pretty carrier: A backpack to carry things.
Khoo, who is of Chinese and Bidayuh parentage, learnt the craft from Corinna last year with encouragement from her mother Monica Khoo.  

She started off with a small ring design and now she is interested in doing friendship bands.  

“To me, friendship bands are practical as I can either wear them myself or give them to my friends,” she said.  

Amanda said learning the art was also a good way of discovering her roots.  

“Beading demands a lot of patience and concentration but it is fun too, and satisfying, especially when I see the finished products. Perhaps organisations promoting the art can conduct workshops in schools to teach it to more students,” said Khoo, from SMK Seri Bintang Selatan in Taman Shamelin Perkasa, Cheras.  


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