Batik in Penang—Surviving on Different Fronts

By Beh May Ting

September 2022 FEATURE
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Some of the batik fabrics on sale at Anya Kebaya.

TRACES OF BATIK motifs can be found in most traditional Malaysian households and on most things we use. For example, taking a stroll down Penang Road or stepping into Chowrasta Market, one would discover numerous shops and stalls selling batik. These are either sold as sarongs and two-metre fabrics or included in items such as tissue holders, shoulder bags, foldable fans, hats and clothes.

There are three types of batik businesses in Penang today: traditional traders, artisanal proprietors and social media entrepreneurs. These batik proprietors differ from each other in how they value batik, their business model as well as the challenges they face from market demands today. Identifying these batik businesses helps to better appreciate the diversity of batik as well as the hard work of those who toil silently behind the scene.

Traditional Traders

Traditional traders are a bargain hunter’s dream. These small and medium-sized shops are usually found in some of Penang’s older shopping malls such as KOMTAR and markets such as Chowrasta Market and Pulau Tikus Market. More often than not, these are family businesses that have operated for at least a decade. While not the most fashion-forward, the batik clothes sold here are practical and affordable.

Among these traditional traders, one can easily find various designs of print-screened batik cloths sourced from suppliers from Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand. Alongside batik fabrics, these traders sell Kebaya, batik loungewear or pyjamas as well as souvenir items and bags made from batik cloth. Stalls in Pulau Tikus Market also sell batik sarongs with elastic waistbands specially designed for mothers in confinement and wheelchair-bound individuals.

A batik stall near Pulau Tikus Market.

Traditional traders peddling their products to customers regularly emphasise two main features of their batik: its quality, such as the type of cotton used or whether the batik is print-screened or hand-dyed; and the price of the product. From how they market their batik, one can surmise that traditional traders tend to cater to walk-in customers and regular local patrons.

According to these traders, there is always demand from older female customers who are accustomed to wearing batik kaftans and housecoats that are light and comfortable, and suited to Malaysia’s tropical climate. Meanwhile, younger clients purchase these batik fabrics to get them tailored into trendier designs. Although traditional traders rarely get much recognition, the hard work of these traders has contributed to the longevity of batik in our community.

Artisanal Proprietors

Unlike traditional traders who emphasise the practicality and functionality of batik wear, artisanal proprietors focus on the motifs, heritage and art of batik-making. They typically prefer hand-dyed batik over print-screened batik and usually cater to consumers who are looking for batik wear that is unique and worn for special occasions. In Penang, Batek-lah and Anya Kebaya stand out on that front.

Batek-lah, located on Transfer Road off the main tourist belt of Penang Road, is known among visitors as one of the best places to learn about batik-making and for buying authentic Malaysian-style batik merchandise. Various kinds of batik moulds and canting – a pen-like tool used in batik drawing – are found in the shop to help consumers better understand the stamping of motifs in batik-making. The beauty of hand-dyed batik stems from the silent creativity and quiet labour of the artists behind the scene. Many of them are vital in preserving the art of batik-making, even though they only earn a meagre income. 

Similar to Batek-lah, Anya Kebaya in Island Glades places importance on preserving the culture of the sarong kebaya and the symbolism of hand-dyed batik. Inspired by her late grandmother who regularly donned the sarong kebaya, the owner of Anya Kebaya feels that the sarong kebaya is a part of our cultural heritage and that every woman should own at least a set of sarong kebaya. The batik found in Anya Kebaya is mostly hand-dyed and sold at prices at least two times higher than those sold by traditional traders. They are also printed on higher quality cloth with a wider range of exotic motifs such as peacocks, cranes, phoenixes, chrysanthemums and peonies.

A clear distinction between artisanal proprietors and traditional traders is in their respective modes of marketing. Anya Kebaya markets its products on social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram with detailed descriptions of its products while Batek-lah sells its products on online platforms such as Amazon and Etsy, allowing for a wider reach of prospective customers.

Beyond the unique batik that these proprietors offer, their appreciation of batik encompasses the semiotics as well as the hard labour of the artists who work behind the scene. From the dyeing to the waxing and the drawing to the stamping, the process of batik-making is one that is long and arduous. Beyond that, batik is very much a part of our national culture which deserves much more attention.

Social Media Entrepreneurs

The latest generation of batik proprietors is social media-savvy entrepreneurs who re-appropriate batik as modern wear. They belong to a new wave of creative businesses that market their products as designer ethnic wear that is modern, fashionable, accessible and available for worldwide shipping.

One such business in Penang is betterthanblouses, which lends a modern twist to batik through its smart casual designs, hence, distancing batik from its stereotypical association with tradition and formality. Like many new creative businesses, betterthanblouses was established and is marketed through social media. In addition, the business also has a physical shop in the form of a boudoir. The boudoir concept, which gives clients a private shopping experience, is intimate and personalised. This helps the proprietor relate to her customers and build good rapport.

Meanwhile, Gerson Batik is a home-based business that sells tailor-made batik tops, dresses, shirts, masks and even bandanas for pets. Gerson Batik does not have a physical store and marketing is largely done on social media platforms. Although based in Kuala Lumpur, it has a pop-up store at Wellings Mansion in Penang, a lifestyle store branch of Wellings Pharmacy. Having a pop-up store in Penang helps increase brand awareness among Penang customers.

Gerson Batik pop-up store in Wellings Mansion.

It is clear that these two brands target female clients who are keen on purchasing fashionable batik wear. What makes them stand out among other proprietors is their innovation in refashioning batik into modern styles that can be worn as casual or semi-formal wear rather than pyjamas or merely for special occasions. In doing so, they break the predominant notion that batik is antiquated.

Wearing Batik with Pride

The renewed appreciation for batik among the younger generation is encouraging. While still not worn as commonly as in Indonesia, it is no longer in danger of being phased out in Malaysia. The various batik traders and entrepreneurs have been integral in driving the interest in batik and promoting the beauty of the art in Malaysia and internationally. They are the reason for the continuity of a colourful part of the nation’s identity.

Beh May Ting

is an urban anthropologist and a senior analyst in Penang Institute. She draws professional and personal inspirations from the finer things in life.