A space for traditional artefacts in KL's Central Market

A display of Bornean photos, information and masks at the gallery. — Photos: FLOREY D. MIKIL/The Star

Did you know that certain antiques featured in the Hollywood movie Crazy Rich Asians came from a Kuala Lumpur-based art gallery?

In fact, that’s not even its first encounter with Hollywood, or specifically, its owner’s first encounter.

The gallery in question is the Art House Gallery Museum Of Ethnic Arts, located in Central Market. That may be a mouthful to say, but it does accurately describe the place that carries this appellation.

Venture to the right upon entering its front entrance, and immediately the choice of name becomes apparent. From traditional masks and beaded jewellery to wooden “lunchboxes” and intricately decorated furniture, all manner of antiques and ethnic arts fill the place to the brim.

About two-thirds of the items in the gallery are for sale, while the rest are for display only.About two-thirds of the items in the gallery are for sale, while the rest are for display only.

Venture further in, down a short flight of stairs, and head to the right. A sign hanging in the doorway proclaiming the area as the “Not For Sale” section signals one’s arrival at the “museum” part of the store.

“The reason I call this place gallery museum is because it is part gallery, part museum,” said the owner, Leonard Yiu. “Gallery because most of the items on display are for sale; museum because one-third of the exhibited items are for viewing only.”

We were seated in the Not For Sale section as he said this, his hand motioning at the various ethnic pieces in front of us.

Tribal masks stared from the walls, while stoic wooden statues (called hampatong by the Dayak people) stood guard in a row. Everything from jewellery to clothes, and even baby carriers (known as bening in Sarawak), had a place of pride in the little rectangular room. “This is the biggest collection of Bornean arts in Peninsular Malaysia,” he proudly stated.

Passion sparked

The “Indiana Jones” of Malay-sia is an apt nickname for Yiu – all he needs are a hat and a whip to complete the look. Yiu drew a parallel between his younger self and the fictional treasure hunter, saying that he was quite an adventurer back in the day.

He had travelled throughout Borneo, from the remote parts of Malaysia’s own Sabah and Sarawak to Indonesia’s Kalimantan, looking for traditional artefacts. Now in his 60s, Yiu shared that he no longer travels as much but, of course, his passion for art collecting has never dimmed.

Born and raised in Petaling Jaya, Selangor, Yiu followed in his father’s footsteps as an art collector and dealer when he inherited Yiu Senior’s KL-based art gallery in his 20s.

“I got into the art business after stepping into my father’s shoes. I then branched into antiques and my mentor was a Singaporean antique dealer who specialised in primitive or ethnic arts, but he mainly focused on Papua New Guinea.”

He shared how, back in the 1990s, when he first started travelling to Sarawak, he was awestruck by the traditional pieces that he encountered there. From ladders with statues carved into them to shields decorated with motifs, items such as these were not made by the local tribes merely for decoration as they also served functional purposes.

“This was so fascinating but so ‘alien’, especially to (those of us in) Peninsular Malaysia,” he admitted, amusement etched on his face. “It was a culture shock for me. I’d never seen anything like it, since there was nothing like it even displayed in our National Museum.”

His interest piqued, he began traversing Sarawak and Sabah searching for more Bornean art and started collecting them as well. “I was buying and selling at the same time,” he said. “I built up my collection slowly. Sedikit-sedikit, lama-lama jadi bukit (many a mickle makes a muckle).”

Yiu with some of the ethnic pieces in his gallery museum.Yiu with some of the ethnic pieces in his gallery museum.

He collected Bornean arts not only from the two Malaysian states but also from neighbouring Kalimantan, the Indonesian state that makes up the southern three-fourths of the third largest island in the world.

However, closer inspection would reveal that his Bornean collection largely comprised Sarawakian ethnic art. “It’s because Sarawak still largely preserves its cultural crafts; to this day there are still people making most of them,” he explained, citing the Kenyah or Kayan people’s intricately-beaded baby carriers as an example.

He also recalled how, in Sarawak, traditional pieces used to be sold by the lorries during the 1990s. “They came in truck loads every weekend at the Main Bazaar Kuching,” he recounted his experience of witnessing this occurrence along the oldest street in the state’s capital city. The overabundance of items obtained from the remote villages meant everything was being sold off cheaply.

“But gradually, fewer and fewer lorries started coming. Soon, only a few would trickle in and eventually, no more. All the resources had been exhausted.”

The scarcity of these authentic ethnic items meant obtaining them was getting more difficult, which, in turn, led to them being sold at exorbitant prices now.

“I still try but it is getting harder to get them. It’s not easy to compete with richer collectors, especially the ones abroad,” Yiu lamented.

The items that he did manage to induct into his collection could be seen displayed not only in the Not For Sale section, but also dispersed throughout the other parts of the gallery museum. How to tell them apart from the ones being sold? Simple, no price tag equals not for sale.

Preserving the past

“Asian artefacts and antiques are also available, but you’ll need to bargain hard to get good deals; try Art House Gallery Museum of Ethnic Arts in the annexe for interesting pieces from Borneo and Tibet,” reads a snippet from Lonely Planet in the 2010 Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei edition.

That’s right, the gallery earned a mention from the travel guide book publisher just a year into its operation. Yiu, having spent his time during the 1990s growing his collection, decided to open his gallery museum in 2009 with the pieces he had accumulated.

“It’s not just about collecting, it’s also about preserving the past,” he said. As he’d noticed the lack of exposure to traditional arts and artefacts from Borneo in Peninsular Malaysia, he decided that his gallery museum would be the centre for the dissemination of such knowledge.

“This is part of our Malaysian heritage. We must not let this be forgotten by time.”

For RM5, visitors to the store may freely explore the gallery museum. For another RM5, they will get a guided tour by Yiu himself.

The orator would regale his visitors with tales behind each piece, of its significance in the culture it hailed from.

I was given a taste of this during my visit. Once we had vacated our comfortable perch in the Not For Sale section, we explored the rest of the place, where Yiu would periodically point out items to me and enlighten me on its history.

“Did you know that lunchboxes make for a makeshift lifebuoy?” He asked, stopping next to an oval-shaped wooden container that not many would immediately associate with “lunchboxes”.

Despite being made from decidedly sturdy wood, the Cepu Kayu is remarkably buoyant, provided both the top and bottom halves are tightly shut. This was used by Malay fishermen from the East Coast, such as Kelantan and Terengganu, in the olden days to store their food when out at sea.

It served a dual purpose because if the fishermen were to meet with an unfortunate event and found themselves capsized, they could cling to their food container just as one would with a modern lifebuoy.

A wire is used to keep the Cepu Kayu tightly shut so that it would be buoyant.A wire is used to keep the Cepu Kayu tightly shut so that it would be buoyant.

It is fascinating titbits like this that one could learn from visiting the gallery museum. And yes, that was not a Bornean artifact. That’s because the gallery museum also houses traditional and ethnic pieces from other parts of Malaysia as well as the rest of South-East Asia.

Interspersed among these are items from various parts of China and even Papua New Guinea.

One would notice that Yiu does not segregate the displays by place of origin. “It is not logical to separate them by national boundaries,” he stated. “We are all connected. Borneo is Borneo, it doesn’t matter if it’s the Malaysian side or the Indonesian side. And the whole of South-East Asia, we are all related,” he explained.

By not segregating the displays, the cultural commonalities between the different countries become interestingly apparent, proving just how interconnected we really are. Statues, masks, betel nut boxes – these are just some of the traditional items that transcend borders.

His little gallery museum is undoubtedly a great place of cultural preservation. However, despite having been around for decades, uncertainty does loom over its future. Yiu confirmed as much when asked whether he was worried that the “gentrification” of Central Market might affect his business, to which he candidly replied in the affirmative.

The iconic landmark, which opened in 1888 as a wet market but has gradually morphed over the years into a shopping centre that doubles as a popular tourist attraction, spots a decidedly new feel and look within.

Having gone through renovations in 2020, it is now occupied by mostly new vendors. Stalls selling tchotchkes and kitschy souvenirs find their clientele among starry-eyed tourists. Few of these visitors, however, would venture beyond the main building to the annexe, where galleries selling actual non-mass-produced arts and crafts await.

“I don’t exactly have anywhere better to relocate to. I’m happy where I am right now. This is a relatively spacious area, considering the fact that we are smack in the city,” Yiu commented.

“Besides, with its wooden ceiling and floor, the interior is just perfect for an art gallery and museum.”

For the future

“It is very important for us to preserve items with cultural significance, so that future generations may learn about them,” he emphasised.Yiu expressed his hope that even if one day his gallery museum no longer stood there, his collection would not go to waste and would instead be in the hands of those who are as interested and invested in history and cultural preservation as he is.

“I believe I currently have around 2,000 pieces in my collection. The National Art Gallery or the National Museum would be a great place to have an area dedicated to it later,” he pondered. As either option is easily accessible by the public, this would ensure that the detailed information of tradition and culture that he has preserved in his collection would continue to be promulgated within future generations.

While collecting as a means of preservation in the present is a commendable effort, ensuring that it is passed to the next generation is the vital next step; hence Yiu’s hard work of penning his findings and facts pertaining to anything and everything in his collection.

Aside from frequently posting snippets of information on his social media, he also authored a book entitled The Magic And Art Of Borneo. Through this, information in its written form can be preserved for posterity.

He finds pockets of time in his day to now pen his second book, which will be focused more on the whole of South-East Asia rather than just Borneo this time around.

Other than written down, another way information can be relayed to future generations is through images. Photos can be found on the walls of Yiu’s gallery museum accompanying certain items on display, some even showed younger images of him – in his “Indiana Jones” days, one could say – showing where he obtained certain pieces.

The gallery walls are adorned with photos of Leonard personally obtaining some of the ethnic pieces.The gallery walls are adorned with photos of Leonard personally obtaining some of the ethnic pieces.

However, “images” aren’t restricted to the static, as moving images such as films also make for a great medium. Glimpses of the gallery can be spotted in Tourism Malaysia promotional videos, such as in the 2011 East Asia Tourism Malaysia Promotion advertisement.

“Yes, some of my gallery’s pieces were used in Crazy Rich Asians,” he confirmed when asked.

“Those were mostly the Baba Nyonya antiques. I also provided art for the movie Anna And The King,” he revealed.

“And when Sean Connery was here in Malaysia, filming the movie Entrapment at the Petronas Twin Towers, he stopped by my art gallery and purchased quite a few pieces!”

While these featured antique and art pieces may not get highlighted as prominently as they would in, say, a documentary, their presence on film is sufficient to serve as concrete documentation that could be passed along in order for future generations to get a glimpse of the past through it.

For the latter two 1999 movies, the art Yiu mentioned came from the aforementioned gallery that he inherited from his father: the Art House Gallery in Wisma Cosway, KL.

“My father started the first private art gallery in Malaysia in 1965. It changed locations a few times before finally settling in Wisma Cosway in 1979, where it still stands to this day.” Yiu said that the particular gallery focuses more on Chinese art and heritage, hence when he decided to open his second Art House Gallery in Central Market, he diversified it to include other regions and cultures.

While there may not be a third gallery on the cards, Yiu is continuing his effort of collecting as many ethnic arts as possible while documenting the history behind each one.

Modernisation may alter people’s way of living, leading to certain traditional creations to turn obsolete, but through a “gallery museum” such as Yiu’s, there is hope yet that future anthropologists won’t be scratching their heads when they come across faces carved into ladders or staring at them from a beaded carrier.

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