I wrote this article below for a friend, Ann who runs the Penan Women Project in Sarawak. I don’t write articles per se as I truly have no time but once in a while, I get into my “yes, I’ll write one for you” mode.
How I know her is one convoluted story.
Nic was her online friend when she was studying in the US back in the mid-90s. They both hit it off as they were both into art and design and yes, both were Kuchingites!
I knew Ann’s brother through his blog called Cooking Engineer which I used to read a lot as he was a funny Kuchingite who was working in the US yet hankered for Sarawak food! (Eddie even tried to grow “mani chai” in his apartment once.) It was only when Ann came home to Kuching in 2005 that we all met up for the first time in a Mardi Gras-inspired party at her house. Her brother, Eddie a.k.a Cooking Engineer flew home with lots of liquor and I think he even cooked us a jambalaya!
Anyway, Ann settled back in Sarawak after getting married and having her twins and she used her design skills for a truly good cause. I wrote this for her to be used in Happenings, a Sarawak-based magazine, but she felt that it was too much of highlight on her. I beg to differ so that’s why I’m featuring her article that I wrote right here on my blog. Note: We sponsored her a website for the good work that she is doing with the Penan women so if you want to help a real social enterprise, visit her website.
Ann Wong would have never believed it if someone told her that one day, she would be using her graphic design degree to help the Penan people of her home state, Sarawak.
Ann lived for 10 years in the US before deciding to come home to Sarawak with her cats in tow. An animal lover and one with a huge passion for everything design, Ann had settled down to married life in Miri where her husband, Winston, was stationed in the oil and gas industry. Soon, her twins came along and she fell into a natural routine of being a homemaker.
Fortuitously, she also met Shida Mojet, another woman who was also at that time living in Miri (Shida’s husband was also working in Miri). The indefatigable Shida, a Kedahan from Peninsular Malaysia, had started a community project to help the Penan women who were skilled weavers.
Shida felt a calling to help the Penan women after she had visited the many destitute, not to mention, unreachable villages in the years that she had been living in Brunei and Miri.
Eventually, Shida established the Miri Women Weaving Association (MWWA), a registered association in 2016 to help more of these nomadic and semi-nomadic Penans in Limbang and Miri divisions through a structured production and sale of the Penans’ woven baskets and bags.
Shida’s aim was simple – through the association, she wanted to assist the Penans to generate a sustainable income and help their children get an education. The Penan Women Project (PWP) is the association’s project to achieve this aim.
The first sum of money they raised through the sale of woven products totaled RM10,774 and with this first optimistic kick-off, Shida knew she had tapped into something amazing.
Wherever they went to sell their bags and baskets, hoards of excited urban women would be enchanted by the woven bags and more so when they heard the story of how the proceeds went back into a fund for buying weaving supplies for the Penan as well as helping them with food and other household needs.
Shida passed the baton to Ann as her family was relocating to The Netherlands, seeing how Ann herself was slowly but surely using her design degree to create unique designs for the Penans to weave.
The traditional designs were familiar enough to Sarawakians but Ann believed that to reach out to more people and to raise the value and perception of the bags as mere ‘market bags’, the Penan women needed to weave stylish, contemporary bags with colours and designs that appealed to the urban buyers.
At their first meeting together, Ann and Shida had an 8-hour coffee session! They were deliriously excited about helping more Penan women weavers and taking the age-old craft of weaving to the next level.
Today, the Penan Women Project has 60 weavers from Long Nen, Long Kevok and Long Latek. Its products have expanded beyond baskets and bags – they now include clutches, knick-knack holders, name card holders and more – designs dreamt up by Ann when she is not busy taking care of her school-going twins.
The designs are unique and each product is an improvement over the next as Ann works tirelessly with her weavers like Juanita (see Juanita and Nelly’s stories below) to ensure the bags and baskets are of the highest quality possible. Ann also has had to make executive decisions about where the Penan bags are to be sold in order to differentiate and position the bags strongly in the urban market.
The Penan bags and other products are made with polypropylene material in lieu of rattan and mengkuang as they are easier to obtain. The polypropylene makes the bags washable and durable, making them sturdy enough for a beach outing and still look chic at any high tea event.
Yet, what you see today are bags that have travelled a great distance. Ann drops off the polypropylene material at the remote villages where the Penan women live – the villages are an eight-hour drive from Ulu Baram. As she drops off the material, she also buys the finished products – the bags and baskets – and pays the weavers upfront before hauling the products back to her house.
One of the rooms in her Kuching house has been turned into a store room for these products before they are sent to selected partners and retailers such as Klein & Fine (Penang), Verdant Hill (KL), Wonderboom, The Pullman Hotel and Poppies (Kuching).
What is clear is that a potent combination of graphic knowledge, an ability to understand the urban customer’s ever-changing needs and the passion to ensure that the Penan legacy lives on through a sustainable product that’s much more sophisticated than the traditional weave appeals to the repeat buyers and ardent supporters of PWP.
Ann says, “It’s not easy. It took me 3 years to get the Penan women to understand what we need from them in terms of a product. We need to remind them all the time to follow the design. Each time I give them an order, I always monitor their weaving.”
Last year, Ann began to give the weavers specially made wooden boxes as she found that the bag sizes would vary from weaver to weaver. “This made our marketing efforts challenging due to the different bag sizes. So I thought, let’s give the weavers each a box that we call an insert so that they can easily measure if their woven bags were a standard size!”
Other innovative approaches over the years include providing the weavers with colour charts and samples so that they understood what PWP wanted in terms of colour schemes and patterns.
“Once the bags are woven, we check each bag for quality. While it’s easy to say they’re handcrafted we also need to ensure we meet customers’ expectations of quality when the bags are sold,” Ann says.
For Ann and PWP, the most challenging aspect is still marketing and retail. “The Penan women still need us to help them on these two fronts as they’re still learning. But I am heartened that they now can tie the labels onto the bags they’ve made and price the bags. We make the pricing transparent so that they know how much they are making per bag when we sell them at the retailers we’ve identified or at the pop-up charity sale bazaars that we take part in. It’s all part of the process for them to learn about business.”
The guiding and teaching of the 60 Penan women weavers is an ongoing task.
“If I compare the bag quality from the early years, I can see that our work back then was unrefined. This is where I am most proud of as throughout the years PWP has enabled the weavers to not only earn an income for themselves but also refine their handicraft, bringing it to a level of excellent craftsmanship and design. Today’s bags are of such a high quality and we even have each Penan woman weave a little signature detail into the product – it’s not noticeable but it’s there if you look close enough,” Ann notes thoughtfully.
With so much going for PWP and the Penan women, the next foray for PWP is venturing into e-commerce as Ann knows it is the doorway to untapped markets and customers.
Juanita is currently a leader within her own Penan women group. She is in her late 40s and is married with 5 children.
““I joined PWP in 2017 and as soon as I did, I started to see real money coming in. In the past, I wove products like baskets and sent them to Miri to be sold. Or sometimes I would take a table and sell my products but I never made much profit after deducting table rent and my transport out to the city. But with PWP, I began to see that I could help myself as well as other Penan women. With the money I made, I could go back to the kampung and buy school uniforms for my own children. As a leader of my weaving group, there are many challenges and I try my best to help them. I always remind them that we need to talk about problems openly so that we can solve them so that we can make better products for PWP. Of course, there are times when I can’t solve a problem and that’s when I need to call Ann but I can see that through PWP, our Penan women can earn money for their families.”
Nelly is a Penan weaver from Ba Purao. She is 24 years old and already has 2 children, a boy who is 6 and a girl who is 7. She dropped out of school when she was in Form 2. Nelly was a full-time housewife but now she earns a good income from weaving bags for PWP. In the past 2 years that her husband has been jobless, she has been the main breadwinner for her family. Nelly is smart and conversant in English and Bahasa Malaysia so she often helps Ann with translation when Ann speaks to the other Penan women. Nelly has also come a long way because PWP also sponsored her driving lessons, enabling Nelly to drive. This is important as Nelly needs to send the village children who are sick to the nearby clinic. “I am happy that I am able to make a living for myself without needing to depend on my husband. I also enjoy weaving and in the past, we were always in financial difficulties. Since I started making bags for PWP, I have become more financially stable. I really hope PWP continues because it helps us, Penan women, a lot.”