Setting up a business around a craft practice can be daunting. We speak to some craft entrepreneurs striving to make it work creatively and commercially at the Balik Pulau Craft Incubator Centre.
By Lee Kwai Han
Established in 2018, Balik Pulau Craft Incubator Centre is a new addition to Malaysian Handicraft Development Corporation (Kraftangan Malaysia)‘s nationwide network of incubator centres. It provides a workspace for craft business incubatees under its Craft Manufacturing Incubator Scheme. The Incubator Scheme is one of Kraftangan Malaysia’s programs aimed at commercialising handicraft products through market, product, and entrepreneur development.
The Centre is currently hosting two incubatees and three Kraftangan Malaysia-registered craft entrepreneurs. It also houses the gallery of Balik Pulau-born palette-knife painting artist, Koh Teng Huat.
New home for craft entrepreneurs
Craft entrepreneurs create their craft products in the green and serene Balik Pulau Craft Incubator Centre located in Jalan Sungai Rusa.
When we arrived at MY Parang‘s work space early in the morning, Ahmad Nadir Askandar and his staff were already busy grinding and polishing blades. Prior to establishing MY Parang in 2013, Ahmad Nadir ran an online outdoor gear shop where he saw increasing requests for parang (‘machete’ in Malay) with wooden hilt.
‘Wooden hilt is more comfortable for handling, compared to the commonly-found plastic hilt,’ he said. After failing to persuade his suppliers to make parang with wooden hilt, he started to learn to assemble it himself. Eventually, he closed his online shop to focus on his craft and started marketing them under his own brand, MY Parang, which proved to be a success both locally and internationally.
Ahmad Nadir Askandar poses with the different models of MY Parang machetes.
‘This space is bigger and more comfortable to work in compared to my previous shop lot space in Bukit Gambir,’ Ahmad Nadir says. He also no longer worries about neighbours’ complaints about noise from his workshop, being far away from any residential area.
At the other end of the compound sits the quieter quarter of the Centre. Shamsu Mohamad, ceramic artist, established SILA Studio in 2013. He made the Centre SILA Studio’s home after five years experiencing occasional floods in other parts of Balik Pulau. The Centre is housing his workspace and a gallery showcasing his artwork, handicraft, and personal ceramic collections. He has been sharing his passion in ceramic arts with others through workshops and training programs. He applauded the Centre’s flexibility and support in space arrangement to accommodate groups of participants.
Next to SILA Studio is James Lim from Batek-Lah Collection, who just moved in two months ago. ‘Every Malaysian should own a piece of batik,’ Lim, who comes from a family well-known in the local batik-making scene, says enthusiastically. Unfortunately, his family’s workshop had to close ten years ago due to the slowing down of the local batik industry. In 2012, he started Batek-Lah Collection to market batik products from Penang local artists. As he re-established his company’s batik-making workshop in the Centre, Lim invited Abdul Rashid Omar, a veteran batik artist who used to work with him to helm the workshop.
James Lim (right) and Abdul Rashid Omar with hand block-printed batik in-the-making. The latter has had 40 years of experience as a batik artist.
Incubating young talent
Shamsu has always been working with the young. Being a lecturer at Universiti Sains Malaysia, he always welcomes his students to explore ceramic art in his studio. He is now mentoring Amirul Adli, his former intern who is pursuing a ceramic art practice after graduation. They had just participated in an international exhibition with the Korean Society of Design Trend last June.
Shamsu Mohamad (left) and Amirul Adli with their ceramic works at SILA Studio
Shamsu is not the only one welcoming new energy into the craft. Lim too encourages fashion design students to explore batik to see fusion of local batik into contemporary fashion design.
During our visit, two interns from Equator College were busy soaking dyed-batik in sodium silicate for colour-fixing. Lim believes a good fashion designer needs to understand the fabric and the dying technique he or she works with. He thus insisted that they get hands-on with batik-making in addition to their design work.
Kraftangan Malaysia offers its incubatees training in craft-making technique and entrepreneurship as well as a three-year concession of workspace, materials, and tools. Shamsu’s and Lim’s strong passion and entrepreneurial experience in the craft shed light on a great potential for the Incubator Scheme to incorporate mentorship to enhance young craft entrepreneurs’ development.
An important piece of the puzzle
However, very few locals know about the Centre, even less so the Craft Manufacturing Incubator Scheme. The Scheme, if well-promoted, would be a great booster for local craft start-ups. Incubatees do not only get training opportunities but also adequate workspace, something not easily available or affordable to emerging craft makers. Craft entrepreneurs registered with Kraftangan Malaysia can also tap into its domestic and international marketing network and programs.
Moving forward, it would be wise to mainstream collaboration between the Penang state government and Kraftangan Malaysia in cultivating Penang’s craft industry, in tandem with the government’s effort to make Penang a hub for art and culture in Malaysia.
Cover photo shows Shamsu Mohamad of SILA Studio. All photos by Lee Kwai Han.
Lee Kwai Han manages arts and environmental education projects in Penang. Despite her training in engineering, she believes arts is the software solution our society needs.