“BRASS objects are still made the traditional way at a workshop in Jalan Ladang Sekolah, near the Jalan Sultan Zainal Abidin turn off,” the security guard quips after coming up stealthily alongside me. His interest must have been piqued after noticing my close scrutiny of the vast collection of brassware on display at the Terengganu State Museum.
Caught by surprise by his sudden presence, I merely stare at him in silence. Unperturbed, the friendly middle-aged man continues to volunteer information. “Wanisma Crafts and Trading is very popular among local as well as foreign brassware fans. It’s just a 15-minute drive away if you take the shorter Jalan Losong Feri route,” he adds before bidding me farewell to resume his rounds.
Storing the information at the back of my mind for later use, I continue to study the intriguing displays to gain an insight into the history behind this unique Terengganu cottage industry which has managed to remain largely unchanged over hundreds of years.
ORIGINS OF BRASS CASTING
The origins of brass, which is an alloy of copper and zinc, can be traced to an earlier form of mixed copper and tin casting called bronze. Based on excavations and archaeological successes in the northern Thailand towns of Ban Chiang and Non Nok Tha, the casting of bronze in Southeast Asia dates as far back as 3,000 BC.
The techniques used by these ancient craftsmen eventually filtered down south and reached the shores of the Malay Archipelago. As time passed, brass slowly began to overtake bronze in terms of popularity. The reason for this monumental change in taste stems from the fact that the former is a harder compound and thus more durable.
Best of all, the artisans were able to produce brass at a much lower cost. This factor in itself won the hearts of the ordinary villagers who couldn’t afford the more expensive precious metals like gold and silver but yet wanted respectable looking things to adorn their humble abodes.
TAKING ROOT IN TERENGGANU
Local historians believe that the skills to cast brass were introduced to Malaya from Thailand about 300 years ago. However, instead of spreading all over the country, this art form curiously remained centred primarily in two villages, Ladang and Tanjung, in Terengganu’s state capital, Kuala Terengganu.
The artisans in Tanjung focused their attention on the production of larger sized brassware like kuali and periuk (cooking pots), sarang penganang and sarang bahulu (baking utensils), kebak laksa (press for making laksa noodles) and anak kasa (pedestal tray).
At the same time, craftsmen in Ladang concentrated on the manufacturing of smaller domestic items meant for decorative purposes as well as use in Malay religious ceremonies like bekas inai (henna leaf container), kaki lilin (candlesticks holders), perenjis air mawar (scented water dispensers), bekas bara (incense burners) and bekas abu rokok (ashtrays).
In spite of all these, brass gained the most prominence when made into various small receptacles used for storing ingredients for betel nut chewing, a ceremony that was once pivotal to the Malay as well as Peranakan social life. In the past, these households always had one or two tepak sireh sets filled with sireh leaves, tobacco and chalk at hand for the enjoyment of visiting friends and relatives. ROYAL GIFT Among the various brass items related to ceremonies performed during Malay betrothals, weddings and funerals on display at the museum, the one I like best is the incense burner found in the museum’s royal gallery section.
Probably one of the most celebrated pieces ever made by skilled Terengganu craftsmen, this imposing receptacle designed and made by two local artisans Mat Omar and Abdullah Haji Ali around 1940.
Measuring about 120cm in height and comprising four separate compartments (cover, charcoal container, main body and base), this burner was commissioned by Sultan Sulaiman Badrul Alam Shah as a gift for Terengganu’s royal mosque at that time, Masjid Abidin.
While taking a closer look, I suddenly realise that the incense burner is made from a totally different type of brass that has a clean whitish hue instead of golden yellow. It’s only after looking at the other displays that I realise that the royal receptacle is made of the more valuable white brass which is favoured for its luxurious mirrored finish and silver-like appearance. The latter attribute is often considered as status raising symbol among the common folk.
The main difference between the two different brass types lies in the metal ratio used during the forging process. Basically, yellow brass is composed of one part zinc to every eight parts of scrap brass while the higher quality white brass has a higher zinc and nickel proportion to the base metal.
PRACTICES IN THE PAST
Like today, the supply of raw materials for making brassware in the past has been nothing short of erratic. During the early days, craftsmen depended heavily on Chinese traders who plied the eastern coast of the peninsula for large quantities of old brass coins from China.
By the early 20th century, this age-old practice ended when the supply of coins evaporated. The craftsmen then turned to scrap brass as well as spent ammunition cartridges and shell casings from their contacts within the armed forces.
After having had my fill of the exhibits, I head off for a quick lunch at a nearby keropok lekor stall near the museum before moving onto Jalan Ladang Sekolah. Fortunately, traffic is light and I reach my destination without any difficulties.
At a sweeping glance, the spacious single-storey structure housing Wanisma Crafts and Trading sticks out like a sore thumb as it’s surrounded by rows of newly built shop houses and high rise buildings. It seems like a matter of time before this place gives way to new developments that are sweeping across Kuala Terengganu.
Walking inside, however, is like taking a step back in time. On the floor to ceiling open sided racks are countless number of brass items commonly found in Malay households back in the 1950s. The ones I
like best are the ornate kettles and bulky charcoal irons.
When it comes to price, owner Wan Mahadi Ismail shares that the older items are merely for display and are not for sale. “The antiques here give my customers an idea of what craftsmanship was like in the past. I only sell items made by my employees at the back of the shop,” he adds.
The first thing that greets me the moment I reach the rear section is a blast of hot air. Compared to the air-conditioned retail area, this place feels literally like a furnace. I edge slowly towards a corner
and start observing the working men who appear oblivious to my presence.
As I observe them at work, I suddenly recall an article in the Journal of the Malayan Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society that I came across recently. Written by G.T.M. de M. Morgan in 1950, it details the Terengganu brass forging methods used by artisans in Tanjung while making large sized brassware like cooking pots.
Looking at the artisans hard at work in front of me, it’s amazing to note that the overall technique employed has more or less remained unchanged over the ages. The process starts with the production of an acuan (mould) made of clay taken from nipah swamps found in abundance all along the sides of the Terengganu River. The clay is pommelled together with sekam (padi
husk) at a ratio of five to one. The sekam acts in the same manner as straw in brickmaking.
It prevents undue cracking as the clay dries.
Once ready, the mixture is tempered with water and worked into the desired shape before being placed in the sun to dry and harden.
The next stage involves polishing the hardened clay using a foot driven lathe and several kinds of knives. This step called membuang imbal serves to remove all the uneven undulations on the clay mould.
Next, the mould is smeared with fine river clay by hand before being left to harden in the sun again.
Then, it’s back to the lathe for further smoothing to acquire the exact shape of the inside of the object to be made.
The next stage, called celup lilin (waxing), has the mould covered in a thin layer of molten wax. Before the wax hardens, a craftsman presses long spindles of wax on it with his thumb to form decorations. After allowing the wax to set, the mould returns to the lathe where surface irregularities are removed and patterns made clear and exact.
Once that’s over, the outer wax covering is smothered with three different layers of clay. The first layer is unadulterated clay, the second consists of a composition of clay and fine beach sand while the final layer is made up of clay mixed with sekam.
The outer mould is dried in the open for several days between each application. These three layers of clay are applied for specific purposes. The initial layer is meant to retain a clear impression of the
wax patterns while the second serves to offset shrinkage in the third and final layer during the firing process.
Once the outer mould is completely dry, the entire thing is heated gradually for about an hour in a charcoal-fired pit furnace together with a crucible containing molten metal. The furnace, about 60cm deep and measuring between half a metre and one metre in diameter, is constructed of ordinary bricks. In order to increase the temperature, a set of manually operated bellows feed a continuous stream of air to stoke the fire.
The intense heat causes the wax to melt and drain away, creating a space between the inner and outer clay moulds. The next step involves pouring the molten metal into the hollow space via a hole from where the wax flowed out earlier. During this time, the craftsman is particularly attentive and looks out for leaks which are quickly plugged with fresh wet clay.
Once the moulds have cooled sufficiently, the baked clay are broken off and the pot is examined for defects. The flaws are removed and the resulting gaps are filled with tin or lead solder. To mask the
corrective measures, a mixture of gold and aluminium crystals soaked in varnish are rubbed onto the repaired areas.
Larger items, which require the casting of separate pieces, are also assembled using the soldering technique. Once done, the items are polished manually using a simple string lathe before emery paper is used to bring out the shine that the completed item fully deserves.
THE INDUSTRY TODAY
Things have certainly come full circle. Where once their ancestors came here to sell brass coins to the forefathers of the craftsmen at the back, now modern-day Chinese holidaymakers are flocking here to buy these beautiful objects of art.
Not wanting to disturb Wan Mahadi who’s busy attending to his customers, I head towards the exit. Along the way, it dawns upon me that despite the strong demand for Terengganu-made brass objects, supply simply cannot keep up with the brisk sales.
Until today, production is hampered by the irregular supply of raw materials as well as the laborious and time-consuming manufacturing techniques. These factors have contributed to a dearth of young blood willing make brass work a career choice.
Unless corrective measures are put in place fast, the brass-making enterprise might soon become a sunset industry and eventually find its place only in history books.