Weaving new life into a dying art

  • Seniors
  • Friday, 12 Jan 2018

Making bamboo blinds by hand is a dying craft as there are few apprentices who want to learn the skills. Photo: Low Boon Tat/The Star

Signboard maker Loh Chee Ming will never forget the day his father, weaver CK Loh, introduced him to the art of bamboo weaving.

He was a young teenager then, more intent on getting the task over and done with than paying attention to his father’s instructions.

“Like most 12-year-olds, I lacked attention to detail. After all the tiring work of weaving the bamboo blind, Dad insisted I untangle the splints, and re-do it again.

“I was frustrated but I redid the blind. It was either untangling the mess or a beating with a bamboo splint from Dad,” recalls Chee Ming, now 45 and able to jest about the experience.

Low Chee Ming is one of the few weavers in the Klang Valley you can call on to repair your woven rattan seats.

Sitting cross-legged on a rattan stool nearby, his father retorts in Cantonese: “That’s how anyone learns a craft. You learn from mistakes. You will take things seriously when you realise how difficult the task really is.”

His father’s advice has remained etched in Chee Ming’s mind.

Despite his reluctant initiation to weaving, Chee Ming has persevered and mastered the craft of bamboo weaving.

“As a teenager, I disliked weaving. I found it tedious and time-consuming. But with practice, I realise it isn’t as difficult as it seems. Anyone can learn a new skill, especially if they’re interested,” says Chee Ming modestly.

The oldest son is the only one among his siblings to have learnt the craft, ensuring the longevity of the family business.

Weaving is an intricate craft, where materials are intertwined to create a structure that is stable in itself. It is one of the oldest crafts, and working with different materials requires different skills and expertise.

The Loh family specialises in making bamboo and wooden blinds, and weaving rattan seats.

Chee Ming’s 70-year-old father learnt to weave bamboo from his father in their hometown Taiping, Perak, when he was 12 years old.

After honing his weaving skills, CK followed in his father’s footsteps and set up his own business in Kuala Lumpur.

CK has been making and selling blinds and other rattan products for 50 years now, and is now one of the few artisan weavers in the Klang Valley. He operates from a single storey terrace house at Old Klang Road, Kuala Lumpur (017-387 6909).

The elderly man’s hands bear testimony to a lifetime of devotion to his art. They are callused, scarred by nicks and cuts, from the hours of cutting, bending and binding rattan and bamboo.

Kita mahu cari makan (we want to earn a living). The cuts are all part and parcel of the job. It has taught me patience, perseverance and creativity,” says the humble artisan.

Chee Ming (left) learnt to weave from his father CK (right), who learnt the skill from his father.

In this era of mass production, weaving is a tedious and time consuming job.

There are few rattan and bamboo weavers left, and CK is probably one of the few artisans who has been able to pass on his skills to the next generation. With consumers opting to buy mass produced blinds and furniture, there is also less demand for these artisans’ craft.

CK is thankful his eldest son is keen to follow in his footsteps and continue the family business. His second son works in Singapore and his daughter holds a nine-to-five job.

“These days, the younger generation prefer modern day professions that offer attractive salaries. Bamboo weaving is hard work. It isn’t easy to learn the craft so I’m grateful Chee Ming has persevered over the years,” says the grandfather-of-three.

As it is, Chee Ming has not made bamboo weaving his primary source of income.

He runs a signboard business in Taiping. Despite his hectic schedule, he commutes to Kuala Lumpur every fortnight to help his father fulfil weaving orders.

“My fat

her’s eyesight has deteriorated with age. As all our items are handmade, he needs assistance, especially to paint, assemble the wooden and bamboo strips for blinds, and weave them together,” says Chee Ming, who also receives orders for blinds from customers in Taiping.

Together, the father-and-son team takes about six to eight hours to make a blind.

It is a painstaking task to string the strips together, and to varnish or paint the blinds.

“It requires a lot of skill to piece the slabs together. If you don’t string it tightly, it will fall apart. We also need to apply several coats of paint. This is usually done on a hot day,” says CK, who charges between RM100 and RM600 for his handmade blinds, depending on their size.

Although there are cheaper alternatives available in the market, Chee Ming says there is still a demand for bamboo and wooden blinds.

“Our blinds are still popular. Customers hang them on their porch, verandah or kitchen. Those who appreciate the quality of our blinds are well aware they last longer compared to plastic blinds,” says Chee Ming.

CK chips in, “I still have requests for custom-made rattan chairs and tables. There is growing demand from the younger generation who has taken a liking for vintage items. These youngsters have a keen eye for detail and like things that are unique and not mass-produced.”

CK (right) hopes that his grandson Kah Vyng (centre) would be interested to learn the family trade too.

The Lohs source their bamboo and rattan strips from Selama, Perak. Jelutong wood – used for wooden blinds – are sourced from different states across the country.

These days, Chee Ming is thankful that his father taught him how to weave.

“With the economic downturn, people are being retrenched and some have to take pay cuts. With this added skill, I can earn extra income. Weaving is a dying art, so it is all the more important to pass the skill down to the next generation,” says Chee Ming.

CK hopes to slowly pass on his weaving skills to his eldest grandson, Khor Kah Vyng, 13.

“I’ll slowly coax him to learn the skill. Children of his generation are too preoccupied with tuition classes, extra curricular activities and social media. With some encouragement, I hope to rope him in and share the tricks of the trade,” says CK.

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