An enterprising woman crafts baubles threaded with conservation, friendship and community service.
WHEN Francesca Kiing was wandering along the bustling shopping streets of Hong Kong a few years ago, little did she know that the roots of a booming business lay in a RM2 packet of multi-coloured plastic beads.
A native of Sibu, Sarawak, this former flight attendant of Chinese-Bidayuh heritage recalls that day in June 2004: New to a city of strangers, she was learning to find her way about the busy streets when she stumbled upon a stall selling cheap plastic beads; thinking she would make herself a pair of earrings, she bought a packet and was delighted when the shopkeeper also sold her metal hooks and other materials to make the jewellery.
“Back then, I couldn’t tell one type of bead from another,” Kiing, 44, says in a recent interview, laughing. “I was lonely in Hong Kong and took up beading just as a hobby.”
Slowly, she made friends from Australia, Britain, Hong Kong and Taiwan through her daughter’s playgroup. She sold her first pair of earrings for HK$10 (RM4.50) when a friend spotted them at home, and she soon started getting more and more requests.
No flight of fancy
Kiing’s daughter, Elizabeth, now seven but a toddler when mum began beading, had always urged Kiing to set up a store, even to open one in Kuching while the family was still based in Hong Kong.
Then, when they were on holiday in Kuching in September that year (2004), Kiing was approached by a friend interested in helping to distribute ready-made jewellery after admiring the gorgeous crystals Kiing was wearing. That’s when the hobbyist realised making a business of beading was no flight of fancy.
“I took three months to prepare a business proposal and a portfolio of samples to show her. Orders poured in and business got so good, I was flying to and fro (between Kuching and Hong Kong) attending to customers.
“A year and a half later (in 2006), we started ekiingbeads.com (the “e” is for Elizabeth) with one shelf of ready-made crystals. Now, we have a mini warehouse and have launched a retail shop,” says Kiing, glowing with pride.
The shop is in Kuching, just as Elizabeth had asked, as Kiing and her daughter are living there now; Kiing’s husband is still based in Hong Kong, though, so she travels there often, which also helps her look for beads.
World of wonders
Beadwork is fascinating, as different parts of the world produce different varieties of beads, explains Kiing. A majority of the beads comes from Austria, Australia, China, Czechoslovakia, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan and the Philippines.
“In Malaysia, we have antique beads made mainly from glass. We also use natural beads like Job’s Tears (a polished seed with a ready-made hole for threading) and other types of beads found on trees. And some of our favourite beads are made from bamboo and duck or cow bones,” Kiing explains, as she shows off a stunning array of bead jewellery you wouldn’t imagine was made from bone.
Saddened by the deforestation in Borneo, Kiing tries to use local discarded wood like belian, ramin, meranti and tapang to craft her jewellery and make people more aware of the natural environment that needs protection.
Belian is a type of Sarawakian hardwood found along the streams in remote areas of the rainforest. Belian becomes driftwood when it falls into the stream and turns black from the water. This solid driftwood, some as old as 150 years, is found in the remote streams of Krokong in Bau, Kuching.
“Since it’s almost impossible to pick up the entire tree, we saw off a reasonable size (which takes 15-30 hours due to the wood’s hardness), dry and cut it into small pieces to be made into jewellery,” explains Kiing.
“Our jewellery, coasters and religious articles exhibited during the Rainforest World Music Festival (an international festival held annually in Sarawak) got a good response and we hope to promote conservation awareness,” she says.
“We are also refining our process of making paper beads. Currently, we source them from a lady in Manila. She softens shredded magazines in a chemical solution, mixes the pulp with glue, shapes them and sun dries them for a month. It’s a long process with amazing results! I hope to do the same in the near future.”
The beads are tacked onto earrings and chokers and wired together or strung into necklaces or jewellery sets that everyone from brides-to-be and students to celebrities and dignitaries gush over.
“Beads also carry a lot of history. I met this lovely lady from Hyderabad (India) who collects old and antique beads used as barter in the olden days in the exchange of goods or slaves. She visited our warehouse and bought old carnelian beads (made from carnelian quartz), local antique lukut and mini ‘striped pyjama’ beads, which are rare and expensive.” (The Kayans give lukut beads as gifts at engagements, weddings and other social events.)
Besides bonding beads into beautiful, intricate jewellery, Kiing is also deft at building beautiful relationships. For instance, Ekiing Beads is an unusual partnership between an employer and her former domestic helper.
“Dyah Wulandari is a creative seamstress from Java who shares my passion for beadwork. Now, she is my business partner and has been with me for seven years. In fact, Dyah moved with us from Singapore to Hong Kong and now to Malaysia. She interacts with a majority of the clients and we travel together for meetings, marketing and stock purchases.”
Kiing is determined to build an empowering “business for everybody”.
“We employ homemakers, single mothers, single women, the disabled, working adults and even some in religious orders. Whether it’s a source of income for them or they just do it for the love of beading, it doesn’t matter, we train the committed ones and let them work from home. We deliver the beads, pick up the finished work and remunerate them immediately upon collection. They can also drop by our shop for more work.”
Profits earned are invested in new products, as Kiing believes it’s important to order new beads and launch new designs every two to three months. She is also looking to open more outlets to create more job opportunities and develop more women entrepreneurs.
One of her local clients, a VIP, suggested that Kiing start a beading club with different programmes for different age groups. Plans are in progress for such classes in schools for students to learn a handicraft and encourage interaction between teachers, parents and students. Interested individuals and donors are invited to contact Kiing (at email@example.com).
“I’ve just received a phone call from a gentleman who supplies pillows, liquor and headrest covers to the airlines. He wanted us to supply some of our hand-made jewellery to be sold on board Philippines and Singapore Airlines. We’re still working on it,” Kiing shares.
On being an entrepreneur, Kiing says that the challenges lie in being unique, passionate and patient.
“Whatever you aspire to do, do it with your whole heart and soul. It has to be something that you are so passionate about that you believe you can give it your best because you will not tire easily and think of giving up. Even when times are hard, keep going.
“And do not be afraid of competition, because that will push you to do even better. Most importantly, do not give up when you fail. I believe in the saying ‘to be successful, one has to experience failure’.”
What pearls of wisdom from a gutsy lady whose pretty brow has been grazed by beads of sweat as she’s built up her beads business.