With a few fingertips wrapped in adhesive bandage, Chee Ken Soon nonchalantly weaves rattan strips to tie up the joints of a cane chair, at the back of his show house-cum-workshop in Gunung Rapat, Ipoh.
Chee, 52, is sometimes helped by his father-in-law, Chong Kam Fatt, who is in his seventies, but most of the time, he works alone. He explained, “It is no longer easy to employ skilled weavers. I had to teach my father-in-law in order to gain an extra pair of hands. Besides, business is slow because rattan furniture is an acquired taste. Moreover, raw material is expensive, pushing up the prices of our finished products too.”
With two sons, one 20 years old and the other eleven, both of whom have no passion or patience in rattan weaving, Chee is aware that when he calls it a day, that will be the end for his business, which carries his name. He said, “It’s tough work, and taxing on the eyes and back. The rattan skins, which are commonly used to weave the seats of chairs, are sharp and it’s not surprising to spot a cut on our fingers now and then. Despite the pain, we have to continue with our work in order to meet the request of our customers.”
Chee didn’t get into the business by choice. His venture into the craft began when he was twelve years old helping out at his uncle’s business after school to earn some pocket money. Although it wasn’t much, it was extra income. When Chee failed his Form 3 exam and couldn’t continue his education, it was a natural progression for Chee to be an apprentice at his uncle’s shop. After a couple of years, Chee decided to try his luck in Singapore as a rattan weaver.
He said, “I was in Singapore for almost two years and I picked up so much there. The sifus were willing to share their knowledge with us. Therefore, shortly after that, I felt confident to establish my own business in Ipoh, roping in my older brother as my partner. Business was so good, we hired almost twenty workers! Unfortunately, due to stiff competition, our business did not survive.”
Seeking greener pastures, Chee and his wife emigrated to the United States in hopes of a better life. However, after fifteen years, they decided to give up their American Dream. Chee was only 38 years old then. Too young to retire but unemployable due to lack of education and skills.
He shared, “As you can imagine, to put food on the table I had no choice but to go back to rattan weaving.”
Today, Chee’s shop carries thousands of pieces of rattan furniture, sporting numerous designs. To the untrained eye, rattan furniture is just that but taking a chair as an example, it is made using a few different species of cane and rattan. The frame would be made with mantang, semambu and manau cane. The curves of the frame, in a handwoven furniture workshop such as Chee’s, is made through heating the cane poles using fire and bending them into shape as they remained hot. Once they cooled down, they will stay in shape. Meanwhile, the seat is weaved using strips of rattan skin or pulp, as narrow as 5mm to as wide as 10mm.
Granted, not many know how to appreciate rattan and prefer to furnish their house with contemporary furniture instead. “However, rattan furniture has plenty of advantages. Rattan chairs are cooling, comfortable and help with posture. They are also good for those who are suffering from diabetes or piles because they offer good air ventilation. Also, rattan sets make perfect garden or outdoor furniture because of their durability,” Chee said.
Unlike leather sofa sets, rattan doesn’t require maintenance at all. According to Chee, the more rattan furniture is used, the longer it lasts. In fact, it should be used as often as possible.
As part of business, Chee offers repair services for worn-out furniture, particularly chairs. He said, “It is slightly more costly to reweave compared to just buying a new chair but most of my customers prefer to repair and not get a new design due to sentimental value. I’ve had a customer tell me that the chair belonged to his late wife and he was ordered by her through a dream to repair it.”
While most rattan pieces, from stools, chairs, tables, cradles, rockers to baskets are in hues of brown, there are some customers who would request for other colours to match the interior design of their home. Popular colours are antique, dark green and white, which according to Chee, is a very difficult colour to apply due to its light shade as every little flaw would show. He continued, “Maroon is also another option but somehow, it is not the colour of choice for most rattan buyers.”
Note: An edited version of this article [Weaving his mark with rattan] was published on 20th July, 2015, in the now-defunct The Malay Mail.
Note: View larger images by clicking on an image once this page has completely loaded. Then navigate by clicking on the right or left side of image.