PETALING JAYA: When Japson Wong travelled to Semporna, Sabah, for work in 2008, he did not expect the experience would change his life forever.
A marine biologist by profession, Wong worked closely with communities there for eight years, focusing on educating the locals who were mostly fishermen, on planting seaweed as an alternative source of income.
Upon returning to Kota Kinabalu in 2016, Wong not only gained better knowledge on the seaweed plantation process but also building skills from the communities there.
“The fishermen there make their own boats. This is where I picked up some handy skills,” the 39-year-old said in an interview.
His time in Semporna saw him witnessing many waste materials such as plastics and wood washed up on the islands.
“This inspired me to get my hands dirty and try upcycling,” he said.
This soon blossomed into a whole new purpose where Wong combined both his handy skills and interest for upcycling to create his own wedding decorations.
Soon after, Wong tried selling upcycled crafts at flea markets.
This included robo-lamps where these were designed as robots with excess PVC pipes or elbows obtained from factories and later, fitted with bulbs.
“Initially, I only wanted to decorate my house with these lamps but found out that such creative works also spark an interest in the public,” he said, adding that the products were successfully sold out.
“About 10 years ago, nobody knew what upcycling was about. When I mentioned it, people thought I was cycling up Mount Kinabalu for charity.
“This motivated me to do more to educate the public and locals especially that upcycling is not something new but already very popular in other countries,” he said.
From making robo-lamps, Wong later set his sights on bigger things.
What followed was a collaborative project dubbed “Wonders of the Wilderness – The Ocean (WOW1.0)” in 2022 and held at the Sabah Art Gallery.
The one-year long exhibition comprised more than 20 lifesize 3D marine sculptures such as whales, whale sharks, turtles, manta rays and hammerhead sharks.
The whale shark sculpture is 31ft long with the whale being 40ft long.
“We highlighted these animals as they can be found in Sabah’s waters. We want to highlight the biodiversity in Sabah.
“All of them are either from different areas or pass through its waters,” he said.
Apart from marine wildlife, Wong also completed a giraffe sculpture that is currently placed in a mall in Kota Kinabalu.
Explaining the process, he said it took about one month to complete each sculpture.
Wong said polycarbonate collected from factories is the main building material for these sculptures.
Apart from polycarbonate, he would also gather rejected materials from factories as well as going to businesses and collecting used signboards for free.
“We use these items as we want people to learn about the value they can bring alongside educating the public on nature,” he said.
Another initiative Wong took up was founding the Tanjung Aru Marine Ecosystem (TAME) centre.
The centre was initially established in 2020 to raise awareness on the marine ecosystem.
Today, TAME has expanded to include educating the younger generation on composting with upcycling and recycling processes, as well as having an education corridor comprising insects, preserved marine wildlife shells and others.
Among the insects are the Madagascar Hissing Roach, Dubia roaches, scorpions and white mice.
The TAME centre is also home to other non-governmental organisations in the area.
“We are not the leaders here. We are all working together hand-in-hand with everyone contributing towards the same cause while also creating an environment where we can all support each other,” Wong said.
The centre also acts as a collection point for Type 2 and Type 4 plastics, as well as glass for upcycling purposes.
After cleaning them, the items are then shredded into even finer pieces and put through several machines.
“Chairs, clocks and many others have been made using these products. People are usually attracted to the panels, which are akin to plywood, and can be upcycled into various different things.
“This is a good start to let people understand the process of how plastic is being recycled,” he said, adding that the machines, management of the centre and product sales and marketing were run by various NGOs, respectively.
Also greeting visitors at the TAME Centre would be its signature glass wall, comprising 24,840 glass bottles.
“It took us about four months to build. The most time consuming process was collection. All the bottles have also been contributed by the community and locals themselves,” he said.
Moving forward, Wong said there was the goal of forming an upcycling community, noting how his time in doing so saw him crossing paths with some specialising in paper and others pallet wood.
“We want to team up so we can do bigger projects and form an association.
“Besides, we also want to enter school to educate and form a club,” he said.
Wong also said there was still room for improvement on the upcycling scene, adding that it was the way forward especially when doing things through a social enterprise concept.
“We want to use art to generate conversation, and if possible, help others to create businesses,” he said.
Wong said plans are in the pipeline for another WOW exhibition, featuring a forest theme.
“This time, we want to have a canopy walk with animals, insects and flowers,” he said.
For his efforts, Wong is named as one of the 10 winners of the Star Golden Hearts Award 2023.