These are some of the traditional arts, crafts and trades which are well known in Malaysia. They keep us connected to our roots and build our cultural identity. While some of these crafts stand strong against the tests of time, others are faced with challenges as their artisans struggle to keep the cultural heritage alive. Here are 50 traditional arts, crafts and trades you should know.
Along the coast of Kelantan, you can find the legendary kite maker, Pak Shafie, who makes these traditional kites by hand. There are many different kinds of wau, each with their own unique design, story and personality.
For many, these Chinese lanterns is a part of one’s childhood. Made with transparent paper, the vibrant lanterns would be lit up during Moon Cake Festival.
3. FLOWER GARLAND
Walk around Little India in Brickfields or Hindu temples, and you will see rows of attractive flower garlands being sold on the streets. Symbolising spirituality, prosperity and honour, flower garlands are an important part of worship and are believed to ward off bad spirits.
4. CHARCOAL MAKING
The old-school way of making charcoal in Kuala Sepetang involves baking local mangrove logs in kilns. This art of making “black gold” was brought in by the Japanese during the war.
5. NYONYA BEADWORK
Nyonya beadwork is one of the most fascinating aspects of Peranakan culture. The women painstakingly stitch fine beads onto costumes, purses, handkerchiefs and slippers – it is no wonder they are highly prized! It takes a lot of patience and skill to complete each piece. The finished work, filled with floral and butterfly motifs, are nothing short of spectacular.
Brought over by Middle Eastern traders, there are over 100 types of gasing in Malaysia, which are often used in competitive and ceremonial functions. In Melaka, you can still find a traditional gasing craftsman who hopes to keep this game alive, and teaches it to those willing to learn.
This ancient textile art is made using wax-resist dyeing to create beautiful patterns and colours. With larger and simpler patterns compared to Indonesian Javanese batik, Malaysian batik typically depicts leaves, flowers or geometrical designs.
Coin-operated laundry services are found throughout many urban areas today. However, traditional laundry services are still sought after, as people prefer the way they handle their laundry. Dhoby Gaunt in Georgetown, Penang has a huge number of traditional Indian laundry services, which have been passed down for generations.
The blowpipe was once a weapon for hunters of the Iban and Penan, as well as a status symbol. In the past, it would take a craftsman three or four months to make a blowpipe using traditional methods.
Kavadi is a ceremonial offering as a form of worship to Lord Murugan during Thaipusam. Since it is not easy to shoulder these kavadis for hours, lighter ones are preferred. It is up to the kavadi makers to create these stunning offerings each year.
11. BOAT BUILDING
There are very few places in Malaysia where traditional boat building still exists. Terengganu is the centre of boat building in the East Coast – Pulau Duyong being the most popular. In Perak, a small community of boat builders also craft these vehicles in Kuala Sepetang
12. BORNEO BEADS
Within many indigenous tribes of Borneo, beadwork remains integral to their cultural tapestry. Vibrant and intricate, these beads were indicators of one’s status and believed to carry power. Traditional beadwork can go up to thousands of dollars.
Calligraphy is an artistic heritage that prevails in both the East and West. In Malaysia, some of the common styles you will find are the Islamic calligraphy and Chinese calligraphy. Nowadays, modern and waterbrush styles are becoming popular amongst art lovers too.
14. CHINESE OPERA
While this colourful performance art originated in China, you can still see this staged in The Cheng Hoon Teng Temple in Melaka. Chinese Opera is still alive within the older community, but is being slowly pushed to the brink of extinction with the tides of time.
15. DEITIES ENGRAVING
According to Chinese religion, deities take the form of carved wooden idols. Even today, these deities are in high demand for shrines and household altars.
Believed to possess magical powers, the keris has appeared in traditional folktales across the Malay archipelago. Apart from its function as a weapon, the keris is made for ceremonial purposes and to display one’s status. You can still find a few keris makers in Kuala Kangsar, Perak. Encik Abdul Mazin Abdul Jamil is one of them, and he has even made blades for Malaysian royalty and politicians.
17. ANTIQUE REPAIRING
Chinese furniture are held together by joinery methods rather than nails. It takes a skilled craftsman to put it together, or restore them to their former glory.
18. BAMBOO WEAVING
Since bamboos are abundant in Malaysia, it is not only used when building houses back in the day. It is also used to fashion traps, containers, food covers, baskets and trays.
19. HANDMADE SHOES
During the 1970s, the handmade shoe industry boomed, and shoemakers fashioned tailor-made shoes for hordes of customers. In Paloh, you can find an over 90-year-old shop that offers such services. Without anyone to take over the business – along with the dwindling supply of imported leather, handmade shoe making is at risk of becoming a sunset industry.
Henna is a temporary dye used to adorn the body with elaborate pattern for special occasions. This aesthetic art form is said to bring luck, beauty and happiness.
21. JOSS STICK
Commonly used for religious and ritual purposes, joss sticks are made from a variety of aromatic materials which release a pleasant-smelling smoke when burned. Mr Lee Beng Chuan is one of the few traditional joss stick makers in Penang. He continues to make them to fulfil the final wish of his wife – to give them out as blessings for good fortune.
22. KEBAYA SULAM
Weaving gorgeous patterns onto the Peranakan kebaya is a tedious process, but its intricate beauty is worth it. Traditional free-motion hand embroidery is called “sulam”. Each motif has an auspicious meaning behind it.
23. SIGNBOARD ENGRAVING
Traditional signboards, carved from fine wood and gilded, adorn temples and ancestral halls in Penang. Mr Kok Ah Wah is the only craftsman who continues to produce them by hand.
Once worn by royalty, songket is beautifully woven with silk, cotton and gold threads. Floral patterns are a common theme for this fabric. It is traditionally handwoven by skilled artisans, although they are also mass produced using machines in modern times.
Drawn using colored rice or powder, the kolam often makes an appearance during Deepavali and other special occasions. In the past, the kolam was made with rice flour to welcome small animals like ants and birds, who will then eat them. This tribute invites prosperity and harmony into the home.
Producing this popular percussion instrument takes high quality wood, sun-dried goatskin and at least two days of patience. It is mass-produced today, but there are a few kompang makers determined to hold onto this legacy.
27. KUDA KEPANG
Originated from Johor, Kuda Kepang was once a form of totemic worship, whereby dancers would enter a trance-like state. Today, the dance re-enacts early Islamic battles and is accompanied by instruments like gongs and tambourines.
28. LABU SAYONG
Not many people know this, but birthplace of the labu sayong is none other than a village called Sayong, tucked in Kuala Kangsar, Perak. Used to store water for hunters in the past, the cool water it contains is said to have healing properties. These days, the traditional pottery is crafted as a decoration and souvenir.
29. LEAF ORIGAMI
Woven with pandanus, the art of leaf origami is a heritage of the indigenous Mah Meri tribe. These are transformed into attap roofing, cigarette and food wrappers. The Temuan tribe and Indian community used coconut leaves instead.
Read next: Lost Village of Malaysia’s Ancient Tribe
Traditional barber shops were at the height of popularity in the 1960s. Today, workers are hard to come by, but these shops continue to thrive. Some even adapt to suit the next generation of customers.
31. LION DANCE
As a symbol of auspiciousness and good fortune, this traditional dance is commonly performed for Chinese New Year and other significant events. Clad in a lion costume, performers mimic the lion’s movement and dance to the beat of Chinese cymbals and drums.
32. MAK YONG
Mak Yong is thought to be the most authentic dance in Malay culture, as it is almost untouched by external factors. Originating in Kelantan, it has been recognised by UNESCO as a “Masterpiece Of The Oral And Intangible Heritage Of Humanity” in 2005. Today, very few Mak Yong performing troupes are left in Kelantan and Terengganu villages.
33. MASK CARVING
In a world rife with supernatural forces, mask carving symbolizes reverence to ancestral spirits. For the Mah Meri, this is also how they bring their folk tales and legends to life. During special occasions, dancers wear masks to honor the spirits.
Take a good look along the little alleys of Malaysia’s towns and you might see metalsmiths at work. They hammer out cake tins, biscuit tins, pans and all sorts of containers to be sold.
35. NET MENDING
Fishermen who fish using traditional methods use cast nets. Many local fishermen fix their own nets, but there are a few people who repair them as a trade.
36. WAYANG KULIT
Shadow puppetry is an ancient form of entertainment and storytelling. In Malaysia, this is known as wayang kulit and traditionally depicted mythical tales.
37. WOODEN BARRELS
Mr Chan Cheok Tiam is the sole handmade wooden barrel maker in Melaka. These barrels were made to keep rice and other household items. Each day, he makes only a barrel and sells them for about RM90 each.
38. PAPER EFFIGY
From spirit money to paper effigies, this Taoist custom of burning them are said to ensure that the dead are provided for in the afterlife. Influences of modern life has also given rise to more elaborate paper masterpieces, such as luxury cars, laptops and smartphones!
Malaysia is well known for a metal alloy called pewter. In fact, the nation is the largest manufacturer of pewter, so it is common to buy pewter products as a souvenir.
40. RATTAN WEAVING
Rattan is widely used to make furniture, baskets and household objects in Malaysia. Mr Sim Chew Poh from Penang wonders if this traditional trade would still be kept alive after he retires one day, as rattan weaving is no easy task.
41. SAPE CARVING
Sape is the traditional lute of the Orang Ulu in Borneo. Carved from a long piece of wood, they were originally made with strings fashioned from the Sago tree.
Sastera refers to literature in Malay, which covers a variety of genres including poetry, myths, folk tales, epics and proverbs. Some forms of poetry include pantun, sajak and syair. One important work in Malaysia is Sejarah Melayu (The Malay Annals), written during the era of the Melaka Sultanate.
Goldsmithing is a delicate process that involves creating an alloy, casting the gold in a mould, and removing the impurities. After that it is shaped, then purified before it is presented as a finished product.
44. ANCHOR MAKING
Back when Penang’s port was frequented due to the rise in trade, and well into the 1980s, anchors were high in demand thanks to local boatmen. Today anchor making has become a sunset industry.
For male Muslims during formal or festive occasions, no outfit is complete without the songkok, a traditional headwear. While ready-made songkoks are more popular nowadays, handmade ones are still considered of higher quality. In Penang, Mr Haja Mohideen Mohd Shariff is the only songkok maker on the island.
Tekat is the art of embroidering golden threads onto velvet, usually with floral or decorative designs. This gorgeous art form is highly regarded by the Malay community, particularly during ceremonies.
Head to Melaka or Penang and you can see multi-colored trishaws zipping pass. Despite its popularity as a tourist attraction, there is only one trishaw maker left in Penang who is still determined to keep the heritage alive.
Ceramic pottery is among the oldest artistic handicrafts in the world. In Malaysia, there are many kinds of pottery made for religious and household needs.
49. PUA KUMBU
Pua kumbu is a traditional handwoven textile that tell the stories of nature and Iban beliefs. In many Iban communities, the type of motifs weaved can reveal a woman’s status.
50. WOODEN CLOGS
Back then, wooden clogs or “terompah” in Malay, were a common sight in households, especially in the 1970s. Now that modern footwear have become the favoured choice, the art of making handmade wooden clogs is slowly dying. There are only a handful of clogmakers left in Malaysia.