A marketplace that was set up in the 1980s to provide Filipino refugees with work has evolved to become a popular tourist destination...
The Perfect Fit
The descendant from a lineage of songkok-makers, Yusrif bin Udin Pakih makes this traditional Malay headgear by hand in Batu Caves.
Hunched behind a manual sewing machine in a cramped wooden workshop, surrounded by piles of velvet cloth, oblong boxes and paper cartons, Yusrif bin Udin Pakih is as still as a statue. Except for his hands, that is. Bespectacled eyes trained on the cloth-covered template beneath the sewing needle, his fingers rapidly move back and forth, and before you know it, a distinct orange-and-red flower ornament has emerged, in as much time needed for a man to don his songkok.
Worn by Muslim men for religious and ceremonial purposes, the songkok is widely available at mass retail oulets in Wisma Yakin and Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman. But long-time customers – more discerning ones, you might say – prefer the work of bespoke songkok makers like Yusrif, who can incorporate personal touches not common to mass-produced versions. The flower ornament is one example; for the wearer’s comfort, he may also drill small holes at the top of the songkok to let air in, or use cloth instead of plastic to line the songkok’s rim in order to minimise sweating.
While the wooden shack he operates in doesn’t look like much, Yusrif is one of the most celebrated songkok makers in Malaysia. Now a Malaysian citizen, he descends from a lineage of songkok-makers in Bukit Tinggi, Sumatera, moving to Malaysia in the 1980s where he started off by peddling songkok at a pasar malam. As word quickly spread of his neat thread work and smooth finishing, major retailers in Wisma Yakin began approaching him with bulk orders. At his peak, he had nine workers and regularly made overnight deliveries to supply to other states.
The dawn of retail giants with the economies of scale to do mass production squeezed out many solo operators, and Yusrif was not unaffected. In the last five years, he decided to scale down and concentrate on personal commissions. “Besides, my four sons are grown up so I don’t need to break my back anymore,” he reasons.
These days, he works alone out of the wooden workshop that he built in front of his residence in Kampung Nakhoda, not far from Batu Caves. Business is seasonal, typically peaking when school opens – students from religious schools wear songkok when they attend classes – and Hari Raya. This year, as previous years, he will be putting up an awning in front of his workshop ten days before Raya, turning it into an open air stall to cater to kampung folk who leave songkok-shopping to the last minute. The stall typically stays open until 3am.
Yusrif’s practised hands can churn out a songkok in half an hour, but don’t think for a minute that the process is easy; it requires both an intuitive and practical knowledge of engineering, handmanship and artistic flair. The process of making a songkok starts with the inner frame using paper from old carton boxes, which is then cut into an oval shape (tampuk) for the top, according to head size. A long rectangular piece of the same material is used to form the rim of the songkok.
The trickiest part of making a songkok is joining the oval top and rim: the two must be fitted perfectly and sewn carefully on a machine so that the final product looks and feels smooth and seamless. Only then can the velvet fabric for the top be slipped over like a shirt, stretched taut and stitched to the frame by hand. The final litmus test: the finished songkok must be able to stand steadily on a flat surface before it can fit properly on the wearer’s head.
The general shape of the songkok has stayed the same for the past century. Yusrif says the most popular shapes are songkok rata (flat top) – also known as Songkok Sukarno after the former Indonesian president – and songkok Gunung, which slopes into a groove in the middle while jutting upwards at the sides. Trends also dictate tastes. The late Tunku Abdul Rahman famously wore his high-crowned and at a slanted angle. The tall songkok was synonymous with legendary actor P. Ramlee, while singer Sudirman favoured flamboyant patterned ones. In the last couple of years, songkok kerongsang – a bridal songkok that has a brooch pinned on it – has been in high demand.
A couple of years ago, the enterprising Yusrif decided to hop on the branding bandwagon. For individual orders, he packs the songkok in an oval-shaped box (mass retail outlets typically use shoeboxes) labeled with a sticker he got specially made. Yusrif is also active on social media; he accepts orders by WhatsApp and his son helped him set up a Facebook page recently.
"The market is so competitive these days. To remain relevant, you have to move with the times,” he accedes.
For all these newfangled approaches, there are some traditions that Yusrif takes pains to maintain. Before each songkok passes to the hands of its new owner, he gives the velvet exterior a good brush. “This is to make the songkok shine,” he says. “When you're wearing tradition, you should treat it with dignity.”
Address: Yusrif Udin Pakih, Kampung Nakhoda, Batu Caves, Kuala Lumpur. Orders can be made via WhatsApp at 019 346 8291/ 012 6548963 or Facebook.
Text by Alexandra Wong
Photos by Teoh Eng Hooi
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