In his yard in Kampung Morten, Malacca, Baser Bin Ali, 53, meticulously cut ‘mengsawa hitam’, a medium hard wood species into small measured pieces. Over the past five years, he has come a long way since building his first replica traditional Malacca Malay house. Surprised by his own creativity, skill and patience, Baser had, over the years, also built replica traditional houses of eight other Malaysian states: Negeri Sembilan, Johor, Selangor, Perak, Kedah, Terengganu, Sabah and Sarawak.
Baser’s venture into woodcraft was quite by accident. Upon completing his Form 5 education, he held various small jobs until he found a passion in welding, and built a career as a welder for over a decade.
However, long hours spent on welding had caused serious negative effects on his body, and the father to four children was forced to look for another job to support his family. So, it was back to searching for employment. No job was too trivial for Baser, as long as it involved metal. He even ventured into small businesses but luck was not on his side and he incurred losses instead.
One day, Baser plucked up his courage and had a heart-to-heart talk with his older brother. He shared, “I was struggling to make ends meet as a sales assistant, so I kept switching jobs, although the desire to run my own business had always burned strong in my heart. My brother, Mohd. Nor, who was into building replica houses, thought that I should join him in his business. I didn’t have any prior training in woodwork but I was keen to try something new. He guided me and even allowed me to use his machinery for wood cutting. At the time, he was suffering from chronic diabetes and kidney failure. When he subsequently passed away, I took over his work tools.”
Perhaps Baser does have an undiscovered talent in woodwork because soon after, he was making these replica houses like a professional, building houses only through visualisation in his mind, without having to first draw out a scaled plan. Nonetheless, having successfully built his first replica house single-handedly and later got it sold was great motivation.
Baser said, “Although I had been passionate about metals all these years, now that I understand the characteristics of different wood species, I feel that I have finally found my calling. I was very good at drawing during my school days. It’s funny that I am only now making full use of my imagination and creativity. No doubt, I support my family with income from building replica houses but one has to have a love to do such tedious work day in and day out.”
Indeed, a replica traditional Malacca Malay house which measures 2′ x 3′ x 1’ requires about two months to build. A house of this size made of wood with an aluminium sheet for its roof is priced at approximately RM2,800. Ultimately, the price of each custom-made house depends on the requirements of customers, which Baser tries his best to fulfil.
According to Baser, a niche product of replica traditional houses is not easy to sell. “Although people admire my handiwork, not all of them are willing to pay for my skills. I believe that I charge a fair price for such dedication in precision. I am lucky that so far, I can financially sustain doing what I love,” he said.
2′ x 3′ x 1’ may be the standard size for Baser’s replica houses. However, he has built them as large as 4′ x 5′ x 3′ and as small as 11″ x 10″ x 10″. These miniature ones, priced from RM160 to RM480, are used mainly as souvenirs while the larger ones as decorative items. Baser has contemplated making even smaller units but cutting the wood into more refined pieces is going to be backbreaking. Still, Baser thinks that ‘practice makes perfect’ and he is confident that in due time, he would be producing even smaller replica traditional houses. In the meantime, he is mentoring his youngest child, 12-year-old Muhammad Radzi Ikram, in building these replica houses as he has shown an interest in the art.
All of these replica houses are on display at the house of Baser’s late parents, just a short stroll from his own home-cum-workshop, also within the Kampung Morten enclave. He added, “The Kampung Morten Cultural Heritage Guided Walk organised by Friends of Melaka Museums three times a week on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays has certainly helped to promote my unique replica houses.”
Note: An edited version of this article [Large passion for mini homes] was published on 7th January, 2017 in the now-defunct The Malay Mail.