Forget designer brands, buy one-of-a-kind Penan handcrafted bags instead

An array of colourful Penan woven bags on display at the HHP store at La Promenade Mall, Kota Samarahan.

By Ling Hui

BELIEVE me, carrying an exquisitely handcrafted Penan bag feels like a special occasion. Walk on the streets with it, and you will turn heads if not receive compliments from ladies you don’t even know.

Much like designer bags, the Penan handcrafted bags and pouches can be a hit today for the same reasons: excellent craftsmanship, exclusivity, and precious materials.

Upon a closer look, every weave is perfectly hand-done, and the quality is such that the bag lasts a lifetime. Since all the Penan bags are handmade, it is not possible to mass produce. In fact, each and every one of the handicrafts is unique because, again, they are all handmade.

Meanwhile, natural resources like rattan, bamboo, and native hardwood used to make these Penan bags or baskets are hard to come by these days as the forests that sustain them are destroyed.

For the layman, it may seem pretty easy to weave—just interlacing one strip with another and repeating it, at least, that’s what most people think.

But could anyone really perfectly weave a bag that is, first of all, not slanted, and secondly, with attractive patterns that usually involve a wide variation of size, colour, and design, not to mention the complexity to weave traditional and indigenous motifs on those items?

Some of the best sellers at Helping Hands Penan.

Well, the Penan women’s craftworks are going places, from the Borneo rainforest to New Zealand, Jordan, Australia, Switzerland, and Germany, not without rhyme or reason, especially with the help of Helping Hands Penan (HHP), a non-profit accredited social enterprise dedicated to empowering the Penan people.

Not merely to provide short-term assistance to Penan in need, HHP founder Violette Tan and her group of some 30 Malaysian and expatriate volunteers are also driven to empower the Penan to be self-sufficient in the long run, hence the bulk of HHP’s work is done by helping the hands that weave.

HHP facilitates the sale of crafts and brings those gems from the rainforest to the rest of the world. When rattan, the primary raw material of weaving, is increasingly scarce, HHP provides polypropylene (PP) strips as an alternative.

They also work with the weavers to develop trendy designs aimed at being both functional and fashionable. Tan Wei Kheng, director and the sole male volunteer in HHP, who is also an artist based in Miri, is the one who does most of the heavy lifting.

Until this day, he continues to make regular trips, sometimes with other volunteer groups, to the remote villages to collect the woven crafts. Under HHP, weavers are paid upfront for their craft items at prices they set themselves and proceeds from the sale go back to help the tribe with educational, social, and economic needs.

Years of effort to promote Penan weaving which led to the growing demand for Penan crafts has gradually reignited interest in traditional weaving among young Penan women and girls.

Chong showcasing the mini bags at the HHP store at La Promenade Mall, Kota Samarahan.

One of HHP’s volunteers based in Kuching, Alice Chong, said HHP’s group of almost 200 weavers are aged from as young as 10 to over 70.

“Last time, we had a weaver who was over 80 years old. We call her ‘Nenek Buduk’, but unfortunately, she passed away three years ago due to brain cancer. Nenek Buduk is like HHP’s ‘cover girl’. You see her image on all our products,” she told DayakDaily recently when interviewed at the HHP store in Kota Samarahan.

Chong, a loyal volunteer of HHP for some eight years manning the only HHP physical store, said she is committed to helping the enterprise because she understands and appreciates the hard work behind the handcrafted bags, which she loves as well.

She, too, like most of the HHP volunteers, was at first attracted to the beauty of the bags before she slowly merged into the volunteer group and eventually joined the family.

“In the earlier years, when I started helping to sell these bags, I would always get feedback from customers saying that it’s too expensive, or it should be easy to weave these bags, and why are they being sold at such a high price.

“I got a little unmotivated then, but one time a Dayak lady, who is a friend of my mother’s, told me that the woven laundry baskets are not easy to make. She said it requires certain skills to weave a basket that can stand straight, not to mention with the colours and patterns.

“This lifted my spirit, and my confidence returned. You see, Dayak ladies are very skilled in weaving or other handicrafts, and to hear that from a Dayak, I now know that the items I’m selling and promoting to people are truly valuable,” Chong exclaimed.

However, compared to years before, she said, customers or the general public are evidently more appreciative of handcrafted goods today.

Chong (centre) and two other HHP volunteers.

Meanwhile, she was grateful to Hock Seng Lee (HSL) for providing HHP, among other non-governmental organisations (NGOs), a rental-free space at La Promenade Mall as its corporate social responsibility (CSR).

She said the store had provided HHP with the utmost convenience as they are now able to properly store and display their products, unlike previous times when they only got exposure during seasonal bazaars.

On the fourth floor of the La Promenade Mall, HSL Tower at the ‘Helping Hands Penan’ store is the only place in Malaysia today where you can physically shop for Penan bags and crafts. They are also available online via Facebook and Instagram.

From handbags, pouches, clutches, sling bags, tote bags, laundry baskets, and bottle bags to decorative table trays, they come in a number of brilliant or subtle colour selections. Some of their best-sellers are the rattan series, gold and black series, Japanese lace series, and cicibags.

Vibrant tote bags.
Wine bottle bags by the Penan weavers.
Limited rattan pieces for sale at HHP Kuching.
The ‘burung’ series.

To us women in the cities, buying this exquisitely handcrafted Penan bag could be just another addition to the never-enough bag collection that we pride ourselves on. Designer bags or handcrafted bags, they may only be a fashion statement.

To the Penan ladies in the interior of Sarawak and Brunei, the bag they spent hours weaving is a source of bread and butter for the family, for food and clothing, for their children’s education, and for healthcare.

So, why not? Give the Penan handcrafted bags another look, and you may, but most probably will, fall in love with them as many women do. Go ahead and shop away at Helping Hands Penan! — DayakDaily