AS AN ENTREPOT, Penang has known all manners of trade; these have ranged from dealings in textile and paper to wood, glass and metal. Often, these raw materials have been reimagined into beautiful apparel and decorative items of superior value such as dresses, shoes, belts, purses; and objects fashioned by local blacksmiths and carpenters.
The uniqueness of individual handicrafts is now threatened by mass production exacerbated by technological growth spurts.
The handicraft industry was a thriving value-added service for Penang’s free port, but times have since changed. Previously hampered by slow production speed, the uniqueness of individual handicrafts is now threatened by mass production exacerbated by technological growth spurts.
Along the Street of Harmony, a lady is seen making flower garlands for prayer use.
Faced with the inevitable, local handicraft makers have had to innovate and improvise to stay ahead. One such innovator is Kwan Yee Mung, the founder of MUCCA, a handcrafted souvenir shop on Lebuh Penang. Kwan was born to a family of stationery producers and printing press owners. What she does is to press pause on the digital era and instead, slip back into the quiet world of journaling and notebooks – a trend that is regaining popularity as a form of meditation and a means of digital detoxification. Selling notebooks may not seem like an unusual venture; remember the 555 notebooks used by our parents back in the day to note down debts? MUCCA’s notebooks and journals eschew the one-size-fits-all approach, but instead are customised to suit each customer’s taste and needs. Customers are able to choose from a variety of closures, cover designs and inserts, or for a personal touch, have their initials carved onto the leather canvasses. At an additional cost, customers are also given the option to include a pom pom, tassel, pen holder, or even a wooden ruler. Kwan also designs special inserts to her notebooks, to cater to a diverse group of personalities.
At MUCCA, customers can choose from a variety of accessories to customise their notebooks with.
Kwan’s products are fully handcrafted – with the exception of a minor few – and are exclusively available at MUCCA. Dreaming up unique ideas for one-of-a-kind product designs is no easy task, and often require constant experimentation, persistence and the right attitude to embrace failure. For her part, Kwan often falls back on her knowledge of book-making – a process she learned from the time spent at her father’s shop during her youth – to produce mock-ups for MUCCA. “I imagine my notebooks and journals as companions for their owners,” she says. Together with her friend, Kwan also experimented with ways for their customers to carry their stationery about in a more fashionable manner; the end result is a trendy knitted sling bag.
“It is a draining process,” she admits. “It may seem simple, but coming up with innovative ideas requires you to test it for durability, and to make sure that the raw materials can be easily sourced.” Procuring raw materials is a challenge many handicraft makers are familiar with; and as artisans continue to innovate, the issue becomes increasingly ubiquitous. Quality papers for MUCCA’s notebooks are sourced from neighboring countries like Indonesia and Thailand since there are no paper mills within Malaysia that produces the kind she needs.
“It is a draining process. It may seem simple, but coming up with innovative ideas requires you to test it for durability, and to make sure that the raw materials can be easily sourced.”
After Penang’s free port status was revoked in 1969, George Town’s handicraft industry visibly slowed. It picked up again only after the city was listed as a Unesco World Heritage Site; and in adapting to changing times, it has been remarkable how the industry has developed, while still holding true to past ideals. However, in determining what should be preserved and what should evolve, more knowledge exchanges are still required. For example, it is a common misconception that the usage of machines means that such products are “mass produced” and hold no cultural value. But this is not always the case. To be sure, technology does play a vital role in reducing labour, but the creativity behind the making of the product comes solely from the individual. In this respect, striving to preserve the cultural heritage of a product provides opportunities for creativity and innovation.