Monday, March 9, 2009

Selling Arguments

In a shop in Pekan Nabalu, a popular tourism stop with a local market, I saw a beautiful waistcoat. It was entirely made from timbagan, the bark of a local tree beaten until its texture is similar to that of felt. The coat, reinforced with strings of rattan, looked like some medieval knight could have worn it to battle, and I was not far with my assumptions. The shop assistant, John, a friend of mine and expert player of the sompoton, Sabah’s most fascinating native musical instrument (an aerophone), realised my fascination when I spotted the waistcoat. He took it down for me for better examination: “Ah, this baju (coat), very strong and good for hunting in forest,” he praised its qualities like a good and busy merchant. Indeed, the baju was very thick. As a matter of fact, it could even stand on its own, without support, if placed upright on the ground. “You see, duri (thorns) cannot enter the baju, also good protection when blowpipe accident,” my friend continued, pointing out its qualities - a bullet-proof vest - and confirming rumours that hunting accidents are not that rare: sometimes people are being mistaken for game, and accidentally shot… could the natural colour of the coat facilitate such accidents? As if for confirmation, John continued: “Very good animal cannot see you in forest colour…” Still seeing me hesitating, he pulled out his most powerful vending argument: “You see, baju got pocket, very large at back, can take squirrel, and even ‘planduk’ (the smallest deer species in the world – the mouse deer), very easy carrying, no falling out!”
Such an argument I of course could not resist, but in my eyes the baju was far too expensive. RM 67.00 for a piece of bark? Not to mention the rashes it must cause when you wear it. But it was kind of my size, so I started the bargaining. After some haggling I got the much praised, multi-functional vest for RM 50.00, still a good price, but in the end it was not so much the money that mattered anyway.
I know for a fact that this vest has not been made for tourists. I also know that it was an old man who made the baju, and he made it the way he has seen his father, and his grandfather making them, for their own use. I fear that in a few years, one will not be able to get such authentic wear any more, hand-crafted and made for use, by someone who has put all his skill and knowledge into it, to make it a lasting coat – as if it was for himself.
To him, the coat has not cost a single cent. He went to the jungle, and extracted all he needed from nature, as generations before him have done. The money I have paid (and I don’t know how much my clever merchant-friend actually pays to him) he will use, maybe, to send his grand-children to school – and not to pay them sweets and junk-food now so easily available everywhere.
For me that coat is a piece of living history, like most of the local artefacts one can purchase here. However, they contain melancholy, for if nothing dramatic happens, the generation of my friend, the vendor, will never make such items, and his children will not even know how they are made. They won’t have such convincing selling arguments as: good for carrying squirrels and planduk… if ever they get the chance to see and sell them at all!


  1. Local peoples are not appreciative enough for the local hand made items as it is not so unusual to them (to us actually). Such items are now used mostly in cultural show etc.