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The Tourist Marked – A Multifarious Meeting Place

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This beach booth in Penang offers a choice of the most typical 'tourist batiks' meant to be worn over the bathing suit. There is handmade batik as well as industrially produced textiles. On the lower rack you can see a choice of 'wraparounds' that can be draped around the body in several intricate ways. Some are block-printed, others are hand-painted.


Batik is set up as a national symbol in the tourist market. A sign of this are busloads of tourists who are sluiced through batik factories with spacious showrooms and specially trained guides cum sales personnel. At the same time tourism affects batik as an industry as well as a form of aesthetic expression.

What is tourist batik?

Many tourists are primarily interested in buying the same products that Malaysians buy, and do not see much point in the typical souvenirs (see the preceding page). The distinction between batik for tourists and batik for natives is not always clear-cut. The difference may be in ways of using a product rather than the kind of product preferred. All groups of customers may thus agree that the caftan is an attractive garment. But whereas Malaysians wear it for relaxation at home, a Western customer may well see fit to wear it to a party. All groups may likewise fancy the batik shirt, but a Malaysian cannot wear the short-sleeved type at a formal occasion.

But there is one category of clothes that only Western tourists will buy, namely the typical beach outfits and other leisurewear that expose a lot of naked skin. These garments are made in block printed as well as handdrawn patterns. A popular type of design on beachwear is deep-sea motifs with tropical fish, seashells and bottom vegetation.

Batik merchants in the typical tourist areas claim that tourists from Japan and the Western countries prefer simpler patterns and more subdued colours to the more polychrome and complex patterns of Malay batik. A great deal of the batik sold at these places can be made in combinations of white and one other colour. This is also of course simpler and cheaper to produce. But again it should be stressed that the distinctions are not so clear cut. Batik in two colours was not at all uncommon before tourism gained importance, and in the old Javanese batiks dominant colours were often subdued blue and brown shades.

The old Javanese batik was loaded with references to myths and beliefs in supernatural phenomena. Some batik in the tourist market carries motifs that play on contemporary ideologies and trends. This is mostly found in pictorial art and hand-painted T-shirts. There are antiracist motifs, motifs symbolising oppression, or reference to environmental problems. There are also ambiguous reference to drugs, with many imaginative varieties of the motif ‘magic mushroom’.

The quest for authenticity

Tourists seek ‘authenticity’. One criterion of authenticity may be that a product is handmade, another that it is made in Malaysia. Most tourists lack the knowledge needed to judge either criterion, and are left at the mercy of the shopkeepers. The latter are often quite helpful explaining the difference between genuine batik and industrial prints. The customer is told that when the colour has penetrated the fabric so that both side are the same, you have a piece of real batik. The customer is also told that two handmade pieces will never be exactly the same, there will always be small, distinguishing irregularities. In this way even small ‘accidents’ of spilled wax during the colouring process can be taken as a proof of authenticity.

A native buyer would be likely to see such cases as inferior craftsmanship. It is more difficult to tackle the question concerning where an item has been produced. Shopkeepers will often claim that it is made in Malaysia even if that is not quite true. Sometimes it is both true and false. In recent years a new type of pareos (beach sarongs) has arrived; they are both painted and embroidered. The colouring is done in Indonesia, but the textile is further embroidered in Malaysia. It can be openwork embroidery or ‘gold’ embroidery. The result is often quite attractive, and the whole process generates income in a Malaysian labour market.

New and old ethnic mix

Ethnicity is not an unproblematic issue in Malaysia. All are to work together as Malaysian citizens, and often the younger generations seem about to develop a new type of national identity in which ethnic barriers are not so prominent. Still, all groups have their more exclusive networks, their traditions, and their sore points concerning just distribution of benefits. The Malay dominance in the batik sector is not so strong on the West Coast as in the north-eastern States. Particularly those factories that open up for tourism tend to be owned by quite large Chinese-dominated companies where the organisation of production differs from that of the Malay firms.

These factories offer a maximally broad range of products: there are block-printed sarongs, hand-painted dress material, caftans and scarves well within the mainstream tradition. In addition there are ready-made garments mirroring the preference of various groups of customers – garments with features from Chinese cheongsam and Japanese kimono, varieties of Malay kebaya and baju kurung, Western-style skirts and jackets, beside the more typical beach wear.

The shopkeeper as a style entrepreneur

In a popular tourist area in Penang all the three major ethnic groups are represented among the shopkeepers. Some of these people have expert general knowledge about textiles, and know a lot about fashion trends and the taste of various groups of tourist customers.

Some are always updated on coming fashion colours and are also good at suggesting to the tourists how they can make use of the batik fabrics after returning to their home countries. This is especially true of the ethnic Indians, who thus seem to confirm their reputation as textile specialists. The shopkeepers tend to have a number of more or less steady suppliers, usually small Malay workshops or individual artists who can deliver smaller or larger orders according to quite specific directions. In this way global trends make their inroads in established batik workshops faster then they would otherwise have done.

Published Mar. 27, 2020 10:26 AM - Last modified Dec. 21, 2020 11:30 AM