“It’s quite a confused cloth,” is what I get when I seek out an answer to one particular fabric; one that has transcended time over and over again since its first sighting on the shores of our little island. The cloth in question? Batik. A word, that somehow once verbalised, seems to ring a cacophony of cultural references—from one synonymous with the Malay and Peranakan community to the visual cue of our Singapore Girl, who’s long been represented by the iconic batik kebaya so many of us have grown accustomed to over the years. Looking beyond that however, where does batik go? Be it a nostalgic return to the past, how it lives on in our present sartorial scape, or the path it might weave for itself in the future, the batik fabric is “more than just a piece of cloth”, as aptly phrased by Desleen Yeo, the business owner behind YeoMama Batik. Yet, what do we really know of the cloth?
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A deeper dive into the world of the fabric with three batik business owners in Singapore—namely Desleen Yeo, Aqilah Zailan behind Gypsied and Oniatta Effendi of Baju By Oniatta—exposes a hollowed-out truth; despite its omnipresence amidst our local community, most of us remain in the dark when it comes to its origins and basic understanding of what batik really is. To many, there is a certain novelty associated with the cloth in the current day and age; many walk into the studios of Gypsied and YeoMama Batik—and ask after ‘batik’ for formal events such as weddings or official ceremonies. But often, Zailan and Yeo are left to ponder over the unassuming stranger’s approach to the cloth, as what many of their customers seem to be asking for, is an image closest to the narrow impression of the cloth that they have, generated from the floral motifs of the Singapore Girl uniform or the golden-brown and pink hues worn by the nyonya women of our past.
What does batik actually refer to?
It’s a question I sought to find some answers to. But post the coffee chats and living room conversations—I’m quite possibly left with more questions than I had before. Nevertheless, one thing is made clear: batik is but a wax resist-dyeing technique, applied onto generous lengths of plain fabric using copper stamps or drawn by hand. A more liberal and modern approach would be digital screen printing, which YeoMama Batik incorporates into their pieces.
Beyond the technique however, it was a question of origin. For something so deeply-seated in our traditional sartorial landscape, where did it come from and when did it begin? If we go a little further round the globe, we might encounter that the craft technique of wax resist dyeing is able to find itself a home in Egypt, Africa, China or even Japan. But for Singapore, the version of batik that we know of today originates from a place closer to home: Java, Indonesia. The word ‘batik’ itself is Javanese: coming from a combination of the words amba (to write) and titik (to dot).
Its first appearances on the shores of Singapore are well-grounded, considering our island’s history of being a trading port and the wealth of early settlers that we gathered from different surrounding regions. Much of the earlier Javanese migrants were also believed to have been craftsmen or merchants—and it is here that we might begin to understand how it seeped so deeply into the everyday wear of our ancestors. Even today, our three business owners find themselves returning to the root of the artisanal technique and novelty cloth, with Solo, Cirebon and Klaten—all cities and regions of Java—being home to just some of the villages they go to for the main production and craftwork of their batik garments.
And when asked what batik means to them, it’s clear that they wish to do justice to the slow, storied nature of the craft technique and fabric. Upon listening to my question, their experiences visiting the villages and craftsmen and women who work behind the cloth undeniably frame their perspectives, and rightfully so. Considering the amount of time it takes and the intricate nature of the technique, batik is described as a ‘cloth of patience’. It shrouds a certain sense of ‘intangible life’, as our continued search for the batik cloth is also one that enables entire ecosystems in these villages and cities to thrive—from those selling dyes or supplies to the actual makers who spend hours, days and even months on the cloth.
How does batik represent us?
But we return to the question of what batik means to the three of them; this time, on a more intimate and personal level. To sum it up in one word: it is one of identity. For Zailan, it was a way to express and reconcile with her seemingly misplaced sense of belonging, something she had always grappled with as she grew up with the knowledge that the ‘race’ barrel of her pink IC had been contested as a child: “If the race ‘Malay’ was not very accurate for me, then what am I, really?” was a question she had growing up, as memories of her parents asking if ‘Javanese’ would have been a better fit for her are recalled. But through a discovery of batik—which is so heavily associated with Javanese culture and people—it was as if “something clicked for me when I met batik again; knowing my story helps me shape the person I am, and the person I can be,” she muses as she remembers her initial affections with the cloth.
For Effendi, “it gave (her) a sense of identity as a child of the region, or as some might put it, anak Nusantara”. It was about connection—to their cultural lineage, to their textural family history and to an inevitable part of every Singaporean’s identity, as descendants of the innumerable amount of migrants who settled on the shores of the fishing and trading port we once were. Each piece of fabric also tells its own stories of cultural differences through varying batik motifs; the sekar jagad that translates to ‘map of the universe’ shows how each region of the world has its own ‘identity’—visualised via a different motif within each demarcated section of the cloth’s map.
The batik cloth is emblematic in that sense; a tangible, visual representation of how a multitude of cultures came to be in our country. It was a travelled cloth: one that has gone through the hands of Javanese makers, traded by the Dutch or British colonial establishments and worn by the Peranakan Chinese communities as sarongs, used liberally in their homes and more. And as much as we’ve claimed the cloth as our own in silhouettes like the Singapore Girl’s kebaya—to the extent of even updating the motif to better reflect the nation’s heritage and status as a ‘garden city’—what’s irrefutable is that the cloth is one that has been shaped, crafted and moulded differently by the all the people who have encountered it.
Where does batik go from here?
In Zailan’s eyes, the batik ecosystems of Indonesia have already changed and evolved, characterised by a loss of skill, loss of craftsmen and a loss of trade even. Yet, despite the immeasurable loss and revolutionary changes in the industry, batik has “survived” and there will always be someone or a group of champions that will view batik as a means of modern apparel.
Its present relevance is enough proof of its withstanding influence. For all three batik business owners, having their garments be something the individual of today would wear, is crucial to their ethos. Be it the boxy, modern cuts of jackets and tops from Gypsied or the athleisure that YeoMama Batik has ventured towards—there is a clear motive they seem to be heading towards. For Baju By Oniatta’s case, she hopes her silhouettes will not only “excite or provoke the modern wearer,” but also prove that comfort can go hand in hand with tradition.
And indeed, batik can continue to do so. To upend entire mindsets that are traditionally associated with the cloth, to wield alternative narratives by reshaping itself into what it is not yet today, and to seek a balance between being a pure novelty of the past and what it can be in the future—whether it is expressed through new silhouettes and styles or adapted as an art form which opens up to a world of collaborations. Whatever it is, the batik cloth is one that holds a narrative that begins from the maker, all the way to its wearer. “When you pick a piece of batik, you’re really honouring the piece of batik, and it is the wearer who completes the story,”says Effendi.
After all, for a cloth that we can’t truly trace back to any one geographic location, it’s always obscured itself from any true ‘form’ or ‘origin’. And in that exact manner, it’s almost a wondrous equation to the country’s cosmopolitan scape; a sartorial beacon that speaks to our resistance to any one singular definition. The future of batik is akin to the progress of our little red dot: it’s always going to move forward and assume new possibilities for itself, but a part of it forever remains connected to the idea of tradition that still holds a special place in so many of our hearts. Contrary to what one might think, it’s a fun, in-between place to dwell in—for both the makers and the wearers exploring with the fabric. Zailan aptly concludes: “It doesn’t have to be complicated—you just need to give it a chance.” And batik will live on.