Fantastic Beads

29 January 2018

In Lawas, Sarawak, the women of Long Tuma make every single bead by hand, producing intricate products that are snapped up as soon as they are out of the kiln.

The low table is about the size of a child’s table, laden with tools seemingly made for a child’s hands as well. It is the workstation of bead maker Patricia Busak Balang, and her tools are toothpicks and slim paintbrushes.

Making beads is a finicky job; rendering tiny strokes onto a round surface requires a great deal of meticulousness and patience.

Patterns are painted onto the beads with a toothpick dipped in paint

Patricia, 50, who has been making beads for around two decades, has recently taken over the bead making business started by her mother Litad Mulok in 1991, in their village of Long Tuma.

In 2016, Patricia started bead-making full-time after leaving her job as a secretary. “My children are all grown up, and our enterprise has become very active,” she says.

Located near Lawas town in northeastern Sarawak, Long Tuma is a Lun Bawang village famed for producing delicate ceramic beads, entirely hand-rolled and hand-painted.

Beads are cherished by the Lun Bawang community, a small ethnic group of around 20,000 people in Sarawak. Their traditional dress is heavily beaded and accessorised with even more beads from headgear to belt, to necklaces and bracelets.

Beads laid out in neat rows to be fired for 24 hours in the kiln

In the past, only the wealthy could afford such valuable items – which were traded for precious buffaloes – and beads were hard to come by.

It was this shortage of beads that prompted the Long Tuma women to experiment with making them from river clay and decorating them with motorcycle paint. Their first efforts were decidedly amateurish but they improved tremendously in 1993, after the Sarawak government provided funds for a kiln and training.

A chain of sample beads kept by Patricia to jog her memory about the designs created over the years

Today, their beads are so intricate and uniform that it’s hard to believe that each one had been rolled and painted by hand. The women have even expanded their range to include contemporary pastel shades and geometric patterns.

Patricia demonstrates the delicate technique of painting beads

It’s no wonder that the beads get snapped up hot from the kiln. More than 10,000 are sold monthly, mostly in loose form to crafters as far as Japan. The kiln is switched on almost every week to fire 3,000 beads at a time.

Today, more than ten women make beads, earning over RM1,000 a month from this craft.

Started 25 years ago, the bead enterprise is now gradually being handed over to the next generation, as younger women and students seek to learn the craft from Patricia who had learnt it from her mother.

Beads strung into simple bracelets as souvenirs

“I teach them by showing them how it’s done, beginning with the simplest task, and ask them to practise,” says Patricia. “The hardest shape to roll is the round bead, and the hardest pattern to paint are curvy strokes.” As such, newbies start with rolling larger beads and painting polka dots.

Raw clay obtained from a river near the village

The beads are made using clay hauled from the river, but what was once a simple task by young male villagers is now made hazardous by crocodiles occasionally spotted in the water. They keep a sharp eye out for the reptiles, and sometimes let off firecrackers to scare them away.

Using the clay, Patricia hires three women to roll it into different shapes. The raw brown beads are fired in the kiln, and then distributed to another two women who paint the patterns using a paint-dipped toothpick. The painted beads are glazed before returning to the kiln for a full 24 hours.

Raw beads are brown and dull before being painted

But even the way beads are heated could affect their appearance. According to Patricia, beads could stick together if fired wrongly.

“This once happened to us twice in a row.  If I was the type to give up easily, I would have given up then!” she recalls, remembering the heart-breaking sight of a lumpen mess upon opening the kiln.

Besides the five women who work for her, Patricia says there are several other women who make beads independently, which they either sell to her or on their own.

Almost entirely on their own steam, the women of Long Tuma have created a thriving industry. And thanks to the younger generation picking up the craft, bead-making can continue to thrive in years to come.

“I’m glad that there are now even students asking to learn this craft,” says Patricia. “In fact, many are now interested but it takes a lot of patience. It does take a long time to learn.”

Long Tuma village is located near Lawas town in Sarawak. Those interested to buy loose beads can check Gerai OA’s next pop-up stall, which stocks them occasionally. 

Text and photos by Carolyn Hong



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