December 11, 2009

Rotan Tunggal Baskets

We had agreed not to drive in the continuous torrential monsoon rain. We had not seen anything like that for a long time. So we drank our free flow coffee at the Li Hua Cafe and continued to talk even though we had already loaded our car.

We first saw an ambulance coming towards us. There must have been an accident. Then we saw two vehicles which were slightly damaged driving slowly towards us...and then a long line of was like a funeral procession. Actually we had just missed a horrific accident in which a lorry filled with palm oil had  spilled  its contents all over the road causing many multiple crashes. Several cars skidded from the road and the ambulance came to help  ferry some injured passengers to Bintulu. We thus had a lucky escape because we decided to wait till the rain stop at about 11 a.m. If we had pushed on with our journey early in the morning we could have been part of the accidents or we could have been stuck for hours.

In all things give thanks! We said our prayers silently. We drove slowly from Bintulu and it was good that we stopped where we could and have a closer look at how Iban women earn a living in particular.

The rattan has been a forest produce of the Sarawak indigenous people since time immemorial. The Chinese junk which sailed to the shores of Sarawak had exchanged jars for jungle products like rattan and birds' nests since the Ming Dynasty. And many books e.g. "The Pagan Tribes of Borneo" by C. Hose and Rev. MacDougall described the importance of rattan to the peoples of Sarawak.

However today to many rattan is usually used for caning students. However to the indigenous people of Sarawak especially rattan is life and livelihood. So much of the life of the people depend on the collecting and selling and domestic usage of rattan and today more crafts are being designed from rattan too in order to increase income.

In fact the rattan is used by the indigenous people for more than 100 functions from mat making to earrings and many others.

A very thriving cottage industry has surfaced recently with the advent of oil palm growing in the Bintulu-Miri region.

There is a great demand for crude but lasting rattan baskets for collecting oil palm seeds. These baskets are made from rotan tunggal a local species of rattan. The rattan grows individually so that is why the name " tunggal" which means single.

the older men in the family would collect the rattan which is difficult actually in the jungle and this young mother of three school going children would sit down to make the baskets . She had a short rest for lunch.

This is the rattan which has been cleaned in the jungle before the men carry them back to the roadside temporary hut.

It is a very tough and painful job to hunt for rattan. First the rattan collectors have to know where the rattan (here it is the rotan tunggal) can be found by following the terrain or the various species of plants which grow well with rattan family.

when a group of rattan is found the collectors have to slash through thick undergrowth with their parangs and then probably get pricked by sharp thorns and sharp leaves. A lot of pulling is also needed so it is usually a man's job to do this. The leaves are slashed off and the thorns removed. The rattan is then bundled together and carried out of the jungle. this may take a few days.

Upon reaching the longhouse or settlement the rattan is first dried  and further "cleaned" and smoothed by a smaller knife or blade. This can be done by an elderly person who helps in the preparation of basket making. Then the rattan is halved by a sharp home made knife. This is again a very skilful job.

When the rattan is fairly dried it is ready for basket making. Here the weaver is sitting on the wooden floor to make the base of the basket. Basketry seems to be such a natural skill of Iban women. They have tough but nimble fingers. Very much roughened by working with rattan this lady weaver has callouses all over her hands. She is cheerful that she can make a good living. But she has really impressed me with her expert knowledge of different species of rattan and how to use them.

The rattan baskets are also sold at the road side near  and from Rumah Nyalong along the Bintulu/Miri Road. An applause to these longhouse dwellers for being entreprenuerial.

This article would never have been written if my friends and I were involved in the palm oil spill accident. So I give thanks to the Almighty.

Other references:
2. Further notes:
Rattans, climbing palms in the subfamily Calamoideae of the family Palmae, have been utilized for generations in binding, basketry and other domestic purposes, and the most important commercial non-timber forest product ranking next to timber and bamboo wood in southeast Asia due to high economic value. Over the world, there are about 600 different rattan species arranged in 13 genera, and most of them are located in southeast Asia countries (Uhl & Dransfield 1987; Dransfield 1992), among which, about 20 excellent species have been commercially used around the world (Dransfield 1979). It was reported that rattan furniture industry around the world created the trade revenue of more than 1 billion US$ and employed about 1 million workers annually (ESCAP 1991). According to an estimate made by INBAR, the global local usage of rattan is worth US$ 4 billion and external trade in rattan is US$ 2.5 billion (INBAR 2001).


Bengbeng said...

thank God nothing unfortunate happened to you and yr entourage. a most unfortunate incident. we read about it too

Sarawakiana@2 said...

I read about the accident and the horrorific description gave me the shivers and we told each other on the phone how fortunate we were. It was a good decision to post pone the driving!!

Thanks for your concern.

William said...

When I was small, we made rattan baskets for carrying veggie. We would hung one on each side of the bicycle in order to bring them to the market! Gone are the good old days.

Sarawakiana@2 said...

In the good old days we made a lot of things from scratch...and then rattan was also easily available. Today many of these Ibans have to go deep into the jungle to harvest them. Sometimes they have to walk for days!

In Sibu there was only one shop keeper who bought rattan from Kapit exporters (who bought from the indigenous people) and he made excellent rattan furniture and baby chairs. (I wrote about his shop).

this half shop is still there in Blacksmith Road...

Rattan baskets made by him were very lasting. I used mine from the time I got a bicycle until the first few years of teaching!!

Today - too many plastic baskets.

Anonymous said...

Iban women work very hard for their living. Longhouses have been moved to the roadside to be near development.

They are now experiencing social dilemma (old ways of life vs. new technology) and perhaps the thrust of development has put them in a disadvantaged situation.

But the little they can do they survive...Hope one day they will be at par with the others.

First time I know about rotan tunggal. thanks.

Anonymous said...

Isn't that the long house which was torn down by land and survey? sounds familiar but then again maybe it isn't.

These long house people are awfullu gifted. their patience and all. but it's really sad when resellers take advantage of them. haih long vicious cycle...

Anonymous said...

wait i take that back. not torn down by land n survey, forced eviction... anyway, lets not not have any discussion on that subject. talk more about skills and rotan works...

Sarawakiana@2 said...

Dear Anon 1

Thanks for dropping by and your concern about Iban women in particular.

Most Iban women in the longhouses work very the way they live and also because of the necessities of modern days.

this lady in particular is enterprising and she has the support from her own family to do well.

Yes I do hope that they can one day be at par with the others. And fast oo. But it will be a quantum leap with help from outside and inside.

Sarawakiana@2 said...

No I am not sure if that was the long house that was evicted. But the longhouse is rather near the road.

Yes they are awfully gifted.

Thanks for dropping by.

Daughter of the Soil said...

Women in tropial countries toil and sweat...but they are musical. When they sing their labour is forgotten and their burden is lighter.

When their hands bleed they do not mind because their hands rock the cradle and touch the soul of their men.

When folded their hands pray to God and their answers are often answered. When the answers do not come by grace they have the patience.

I like your article. Women like this one pass to us hope for mankind.

Sarawakiana@2 said...

Dear Daughter of the Soil

Thank you for your visit.

I am touched by your eloquence. We women need to be reminded about our contributions to the society is worthy...and the public should also be more appreciative....very often the media forget us too.

thanks again.

Anonymous said...

Interesting to know more about women and rattan basket making. Now I won't bargain when I buy a basket or when I see older men carrying bundles of rattan I will be more sympathetic...

I passed by this place too but did not notice the baskets and the Iban lady weaver.



Sarawakiana@2 said...

Dear Anonymous
Women and weaving have been inseparable since time immemorial.

I have just met a wonderful tourist who told me about the Indian women of the Panama who stitch and weave beautifully. It was an eye opener for me to see the products she bought!!

And I just hope that each thread and each strand that we women sew or weave connects our past with our future...and may our work be appreciated always.

Anonymous said...

I have read your post on the barefoot duku seller.
this is a good one and you mention correctly how difficult it is to collect rotan.

Your knowledge is commendable and may be one day if you have a chance you should follow some of these Iban men to collect rotan.

I think they can be gone for a few days. Two nights may be. And guarrantee you will have a good experience. But make sure you also have a good parang you can use as you go along.

Any way thanks you for the write up in a positve way.

new reader.

Anonymous said...

thanks,like the story,
did you find out how long it took to made a basket and how much is the price ?

keep your story coming !

Sarawakiana@2 said...

Hi Anonymous
Thanks for dropping by.
This rattan weaver would make three baskets in a slow day (with interruptions) and five baskets in a good day.

I only wish that she has a good "smoothing" blade to make the rattan with uniform thickness or an assistant who could help her. She has to splice the small rattans for tying the bigger ones together. That is a difficult and painful task.

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