Love is like a batik created from many emotional colours, it is a fabric whose pattern and brightness may vary.– Diane Ackerman, American poet
Teachers play a very important part in passing knowledge and skills to their students, especially pertaining to painting and drawing.
For the first five years of my secondary school days, I found out that Saratok students were lucky as there were dedicated teachers with batik painting skills such as Stephen Teo and Joshua Jalie Linggong. I was taught by both but it was the latter who played greater role in inculcating the batik painting skills — and passion — among students, especially the boys.
Jalie, my distant cousin from my dad’s birthplace, Munggu Embawang longhouse in Saratok, was the one greatly credited in introducing and steadily developing the passion of batik painting among us in Saratok Secondary School — through lessons done outside school hours, namely taught as club activities. His dedicated efforts had produced excellent batik painters such as Ensalie Mambak (now Dr), Stephenson Ngumbang, Liew, Banyi Beriak, Mulok Saban, Yu Kim Tee @ Ahbong, Edward Chendang and others.
Batik painting was big news in Sibu in 1974, as compared to us in Sekolah Menengah Kebangsaan (SMK) Saratok which by then had produced a good number of batik artists.
We were the second group from Saratok to hold an exhibition of batik paintings at the British Council, Kuching three years earlier, and taking lodge at St Thomas Secondary School. This 1971 trip made me RM250 richer as two paintings were sold, a windfall for a Form 4 longhouse teen. Two of us, namely Mulok and I were to become the first two Sarawakians to graduate in fine arts from any local university with Mulok graduating a year after me.
My Sibu school, Methodist Secondary School, allowed me to miss my Upper Six Arts lessons for two weeks prior to the school’s 25th anniversary celebrations in August 1974 — just to do batik painting at the residence of an art teacher Augustine Hwang in Brooke Drive.
Within the two weeks, I managed to produce 28 pieces of batik paintings, all properly framed and ready for sale during the two-day exhibition, my one-man show.
Twenty-two of the paintings were sold, though none knew about four of my demonstration pieces were sold for RM100 each — that alone was worth more than my annual Sarawak Foundation scholarship of RM270 — which I pocketed secretly.
My iconic longhouse piece was purchased by the school board of management chairman Datuk Ting Lik Hung for RM350, then considered high price. Most of the other paintings cost between RM180 and RM250.
Teachers who bought the paintings were those from India, Canada, the United Kingdom (UK) and locals. My History teacher Wong Soon Koh (now Datuk Seri) and his wife Pauline Leong (Datin Seri), my Geography teacher, bought one painting for RM180.
Most of those who came to the exhibition were fully impressed with the batik paintings, done in my own special touch but in fact were nothing compared to those done by my aforesaid Saratok seniors such as Liew, Ngumbang and Ensali. We owed our skills to Jalie, who was also my colleague in Rejang Teachers College since 1979.
My Sibu one-man-show in the school was an eye opener for the local art lovers and school students. It provided me with a massive windfall. After deducting all the expenses incurred for white cloth, wax/candles, dyes and frames — perhaps Huang did charge on the meals provided at his house — I still received a big sum plus the “unofficial sale” of my demo pieces. All my dues to the school, such as school and hostel fees, were easily covered.
One vital patronage came from one Lloyd Jones, a Canadian who was a former teacher in Simanggang. He was in Sibu at that time and took two of my frameless paintings with a promise to send me money from Canada later. He made good on his promise as about a month later, I received 200 Canadian dollars from him, which was equivalent to RM520 then. I was on cloud nine.
In May 1975, Lloyd helped me to get a sponsorship to do a degree in Economics at Lakehead University, Ontario Canada. I respectfully declined as I was offered a federal scholarship to do a degree in USM, Penang.
An average batik painter, I now have batik paintings bought by collectors from the UK, the United States of America (USA), Canada, India, New Zealand and the Philippines plus those sold in Malaysia between 1971 and 2016.
However, when I returned to head SMK Saratok in 1985, I was quite disappointed that the batik tradition had been discontinued, especially after Jalie left. It wasn’t easy to revive when the conducive ambience had long gone. It was a tradition’s sad end.
The views expressed here are those of the columnist and do not necessarily represent the views of New Sarawak Tribune.