3 Local Artisan Founders Shares Their Stories & Legacy In Malaysia Art & Craftsmanship

An exposure to allow their businesses to thrive and remain…
By: Aqilah Najwa Jamaluddin
September 26, 2022

Malaysia is recognised for its rich arts and crafts that have been bequeathed through centuries: We have a strong tradition in the artworks, which vividly showcase Malaysian workmanship. The Artisans Haven – a home to prolific artisans labels – has succeeded in gathering all of these artisans under one roof to endorse artisans by providing them with adequate digital resources and abilities, increased networking capabilities, on-the-ground reach and brand management, and visibility to allow their businesses to thrive and stay viable.

As a network that supports over 1,000+ craftsmen across Malaysia, The Artisans Haven’s endeavours have seen interest for handcrafted items skyrocket in recent years. Jade Lee, a retired banker, founded the company with the simple goal of offering a virtual platform to gather and present Malaysian crafts and labels to the globe – exposure these handmade brands deserved.

Glitz reached out to Jade Lee to learn more about The Artisans Haven and her personal backstory. 

Jade Lee, founder of The Artisans Haven

Hello, Jade Lee. First of all, thank you so much for agreeing to do this interview. Let’s start by introducing a little bit about yourself to readers?

I am 65 years old. 40 work experience. Upon retiring in 2020, I got together with 30 artisans to start digital marketing & e-commerce to promote local artisan products in Oct 2020. Today, we have more than 1000 registered for our online services known as The Artisans Haven. 

Through your eyes, why is it so important for the global community to support local Penan artists?

The Penan hand weave bags, baskets and mats that are made from PVC (originally ratan, but ratan was hard to source, pVC is affordable and aids in the 3 R’s. Through this they are able to preserve their traditional weaving skills that are passed down from their ancestors by teaching it to their children. It is important to preserve their culture and traditional way of life. It is important to garner global awareness towards their cause because they face many hardships in life, such as lack of education and healthcare, and no access to essential services. 

What has been The Artisan’s greatest challenge and its greatest achievement?

Challenge:  We started with 30 artisans but today we have 1000 registered for our online site and 100 brands in our outlets. We’re struggling to seek corporate donations to help us seed money to kick start a proper distribution network for the artisans & small enterprises. With this kickstarter the network can become self-sufficient & self-sustaining. If we don’t get the corporate support, the few of us will not be able to sustain the current operations, relying mostly on pop up, Bazaar & online. 

Achievement: As the business expanded from 30 artisans to today’s 1000, and sales from RM0 to RM50k per month, we registered our Persatuan Pembangunan Artisans, PPA (Artisans Development Association, Malaysia), a not-for-profit NGO to better serve these artisans & small enterprises. In 2021, we supported The Artisans Haven with on-ground activities at The Linc KL, Amcorp Mall and Publika Night Market. We were “spotted” at these bazaars and offered to co-host & host more substantial pop-up offerings. Today, we have a home base at Malaysia Grand Bazaar Bukit Bintang City Centre, a push cart at Damansara City Mall, co-space at The Linc KL and a vibrant outlet at Tokyo Street Pavilion KL. 

At its essence, the Artisans Haven is a representation of a true belief that the indigenous artisanal community plays a crucial role in boosting the Malaysian economy and reviving a passion for local culture. These craftsmen, according to Jade, embody all that is Malaysian: diversity, innovation, vibrancy, and a generous helping of boleh.

With this, Glitz decided to tap into two local artisans, Viollet Tan a founder of Helping Hands Penan and Nurul Asdiana a founder of Tudung Saji Che Ton

Viollet Tan, founder of Helping Hands Penan

What has inspired you to found your NGO? 

Viollet: In 2007, I went to Limbang, a small Sarawak town, to visit Penan from Ulu Limbang. They had come to town mainly to seek medical treatments, for child delivery and do essential shopping. They would stay for days or weeks in a half-way house called ‘Rumah Sakai’.  It was a depressing experience for me, and an eye opener to see the appalling state of the building and the health and hygiene status of the Penan I met. The Penan would bring rattan handicraft to sell in town at whatever price the urban folks would pay. Secondly, many of their children and youth did not go to school. As a crafter and a school teacher, these two caught my attention and together with other volunteers, we decided to take them on, to buy and resell their craft for fundraising which was channelled back to them in kind.

Asdiana: It all began with my interest in the art of weaving. Specifically, I learned how to make my own woven “tudung saji” or food cover. It was a trendy craft back in 2019. After mastering this art of weaving, I started getting requests to make and sell my pieces offline. Eventually, I moved my business online through social media. Surprisingly, my products received positively overwhelming requests. From them on, I had the idea of expanding my business further and that is where Tudung Saji Che Ton kicked off. The name of my brand and product is an homage to my mother, Noriyaton, the original pattern designer of this product that we have today.

Nurul Asdiana a founder of Tudung Saji Che Ton

What is the starting point for you to get on board with Artisan Haven?

V: During Covid19 MCO, the sales of our craft was grossly affected and our weavers and the Penan community suffered too.  It was timely that we were approached by Artisan Haven to be one of their online vendors. As we are a non-profit Social Enterprise, they decided to waive our fee as their CSR initiative. Artisan Haven has been an effective platform for HHP to market our craft especially during Covid MCO. 

A: I was actually invited to join Artisan Heaven in 2020. Back then, both our brands just kicked off and we were pretty fresh on the market. Although we were still young within the industry, I did trust that my business would be able to expand even further through this platform.

As an artist, how did you realise that art was more to you than just a way to make money—but also serves as a platform to connect the makers, culturism and community?

V: We don’t just sell bags, but bags with stories behind them. Each hand woven bag is unique and the sale of the bags supports a marginalised community. Through our work, we not only provide livelihood to the weavers and sponsor the Penan children/youth to school, our work helps to preserve the dying art of weaving. The vibrant market helps to sustain our weaving project, thus preserving the art of weaving which was passed on from their forefathers.

A: Weaving, like any other traditional craft or art form, is not only a means of earning. But our culture is very deep-rooted in the community. Hence, the art of weaving itself is a form of expression and sharing knowledge. We weavers usually get together due to this common interest and we learn possibly new and unique weaving patterns from each other. 

You can show your support to the local artisans by purchasing their products on the official website. Also, show them love by following their Facebook & Instagram

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