DR Zulkifli Mohamad has had a life-long affair with the sarong. The 46-year-old not only wears it, he dances in it and collects it.
“I’ve been wearing the sarong since I was small,” says Dr Zulkifli, better known as Zubin Mohamad, currently a Fulbright scholar at the dance department (Southeast Asia) of University of California’s Arts Faculty.
He started wearing it to religious classes. “I can’t remember clearly when, but in Kelantan we had to study the Quran from kindergarten, if not earlier,” Zubin says in an email interview.
What he remembers well is that because his mother had a little business in textiles and jewellery in the village, “we got to wear the best pelikat – Chap Gajah – from Arab Street, Singapore. I got my first sampin songket, a songket Terengganu, probably when I was
Zubin Mohamad dances and sleeps in his sarong. He also gives talks and presents papers on textiles. – National Textile Museum
In 1985, Zubin bought his first songket – an all-black bunga penuh songket Kelantan from Che Bidah Penambang (a songket brand). He paid RM400 for it.
By then, he knew quite a bit about kain batik Jawa (Javanese batik), tulis (handwritten technique for material) and kain pelikat, having accompanied his mother on shopping trips – “more like work, actually” – to Singapore during the school holidays.
It was a matter of time before he started his own collection, by digging into his cupboard for the pelikat, songket and tenun which he had been wearing.
“I got my first collection of pua kumbu from my student’s mother in Kuching. Apparently that was how he paid his fees every semester. I was in Sarawak for five years and travelled all over Borneo as part of the Borneo Research Council group.”
Naturally, he picked up textiles/sarongs from Brunei, Pontianak, Sambas, Banjarmasin and Samarinda.
“Then I started writing for textile conferences in Java, the World Batik Conference in Jogja and the Singapore Textile Conference at Nanyang Academy. I started looking at Indonesian and Malaysian batik and collected more along the way.”
Men go for kain pelikat with checked patterns, and Ooi Poh Khoon has many such pieces in his collection.
Zubin’s collection expanded when he moved to Bangkok in 1998.
“I was passionate about research on Langkasuka, as my mother was originally from Pattani. My ancestors were probably from Champa – typical of many Kelantanese. It then that I went on a textile adventure along the Mekong river, and all over Indo China, getting to
know not only textile scholars, collectors and dealers but also weavers.
“I would go to Scot market in Yangoon and buy a gunny sack of sarongs as they are so beautiful and so cheap. Or, I would go crazy in Vientienne and Luang Prabang, the Russian Market in Phnom Penh, the Chatuchak weekend market in Bangkok and smalls markets like
Batambang in Cambodia.
“First, you will want to get new pieces for their colours and patterns. Then you’d get one piece of an old textile to keep,” he adds.
Presently, his focus is on Southeast Asia. But nothing can compare with the kain limar (limar cloth) given him by his mother, “the most valuable piece” he owns.
“She said it would be mine before she passed away. She asked that we cover her with the kain limar. She is gone, but she is always with me.
“I’m trying to develop my collection with pieces from Kelantan, Pattani, Terengganu and Pekan, the kain limar, songket and tenun. What I would like to do is compile a book on my collection.
“Now that I am in California, I’m also trying to understand the Indian and Mexican textiles. I wish to visit the Mayan Temple in Cancun and, hopefully, organise a Mexican textile exhibition in the future!”
For Zubin, the sarong represents civilisation. He says: “We were travellers of the world; the Malays were a civilised race, well travelled, well mannered. An old textile give us a taste of tradition and heritage. Looking at old works reminds me of our glorious past.”
Penang-based graphic artist Ooi Poh Khoon became interested in the kain pelikat when, as a young boy, the bus that took him to school daily passed by Tanjung Tokong, a predominantly Malay community.
“What I liked seeing was the men wearing kain pelikat around the house or the surau. Or, sarongs hanging on fences to dry. I admired their colours and designs. Of course I wanted to buy one for myself, but I couldn’t afford it then. I was too short to wear it too.”
Today, 12 years after he started buying sarongs, he has 350 pieces in his collection.
“I have to hold myself back from buying more. There are just too many to keep in my room and my mum nags me about, saying, ‘Even the Malays don’t have so many sarongs as you do!’”
Ooi, 30, likes the bigger checked designs, and favours the colour blue.
“The material is the most important factor when choosing what to buy,” he says. “In our climate, cotton sarongs are preferable to the tetron/polyester/cotton combinations. Cotton sarongs are mainly from India while the mixed fabric ones come from Indonesia.”
But Indian cotton sarongs are slightly narrower and shorter than those from Indonesia, thus they may not be as comfortable for those who are bigger. The colours for Indonesian sarongs are more vivid too, he adds.
Ooi gets his sarongs from the Penang Bazaar at Penang Road. To him, the sarong transcends borders.
“It can be part of a heritage or tradition depending on your culture or race. It’s the uniqueness of wearing the sarong that makes us all Malaysians.”