The Kenyah sun hat is one of the few traditional handicrafts from Sarawak that has retained practical use in the modern era.
IT is good that some Kenyah and Kayan women in the Baram and Belaga regions continue to make sun hats, called ‘saung’, well into the 21st century, but there is also concern that the number of makers of these communities decreases as time goes by.
According to Sandra Ahie, there are not many sun hat artisans among Kenyahs these days, “to a level of being rare”.
Running a stall showcasing traditional Kenyan wares at the Miri Handicraft Centre, Sandra sells sun hats made by Kenyan villagers, in addition to marketing her own collection.
“Our sun hats are well-loved and part of Baram’s iconic symbols.
“They are among the traditional items that remain practical these days – to offer the wearer some protection from the scorching sun or rain.
“And the use is not exclusive to the Kenyah. Our sun hats are also worn by men and women from other communities such as the Ibans and Chinese from Baram.
“Some rooms are beautifully decorated with beads – perfect as gifts for visitors and friends,” she said. the sunday post.
According to Sandra, heirloom sun hats are very exquisite and are passed down from generation to generation.
“This legacy has existed for hundreds of years.
“Additionally, sun hats are essential in all traditional Kenyan weddings. A ceremony may require the making of up to eight new hats, each adorned with beads and other decorations.
The structure of a Kenyah sun hat consists of the under hat called ‘ulu saung’ which is made from ‘daun palas (leaves of a type of palm tree – in the Kenyah language it is called ‘liad’ ), the edge, and a sturdy rattan frame called “ue kusah” that holds everything together.
It would take between 10 and 14 days to sew the leaves together for the undercap, before fitting it into the frame and under the brim, the underside of which is also made up of expertly layered and sewn leaves.
Pieces of colored fabrics would then be sewn to the top side of the brim, which has a central beaded panel.
From time to time, the manufacturer attached straws to the part – in the past, hornbill feathers were also added, which is impossible to do today.
A simple sun hat, without much decoration and measuring about two feet (just over half a meter) in diameter, would cost around RM50.
A beaded piece costs at least RM700 – it can cost even more if it was commissioned for a specific ceremony.
Sandra said the most elaborate piece she has ever made was a bespoke piece in 2020.
“It took me about two months to complete this order.
“The hat was 32 inches (diameter) and it sold for RM700,” she added.
She said the more intricate the designs on the hat, the longer it would take to complete.
“Some very pearly orders can take up to six months. Some customers are simply very picky about choosing their own colors, patterns, and even the type of beads to use.
“The size of a sun hat depends on the length and width of the ‘daun palas’.
“Nevertheless, it is very satisfying to see that many people like my collection. Many of my sun hats were brought to the United States by tourists who love Kenyan arts.”
Sandra, now 70, had worked as an assistant librarian at Lutong Public Library until her retirement in 2006.
She loved living in Miri so much that she decided not to return to her village of Long Tungan to settle down; instead, she went ahead to sell Kenyah handicrafts in Miri.
However, she would return home periodically where, in addition to catching up with her relatives and other villagers, she would also take the opportunity to gather “daun palas” and other raw materials to make hats.
“I like to do it myself because I knew the exact size of ‘daun palas’ that I need for my job,” she said.
It’s been almost 16 years since Sandra opened her booth at the center, and her enthusiasm for art has grown even stronger than before.
It was a successful venture, which can be attributed to his craftsmanship and fluency in English, which helps a lot in explaining traditional items to tourists.
Sandra keeps learning more skills and experimenting – she now incorporates manufactured materials like packing tape and recyclable plastics into making items like baskets.
Yet her passion is making Kenyah sun hats.
His home village of Long Tungan is nestled in one of the isolated pockets along the Baram River between Lio Mato and Long Semiyang.
A long list of arrangements has to be made just for a return trip.
“It is not easy to go back because viable means of transport are not readily available.
“I have to close my stall at least for a week whenever I plan a return trip to Long Tungan.
“The logging or oil palm roads are very rough; moreover, the whole trip is very expensive.
Nevertheless, Sandra insists on getting the ‘daun palas’ from her village because it is too expensive to buy even one packet at the market.
“Furthermore, it is not easy to find the right type of ‘daun palas’; I’m particularly looking for the wider and longer variety,” she said.
After collecting these leaves, she left them to dry in the open air in the sun, in order to produce very resistant hats.
“Sun hats made from well-dried ‘daun palas’ can last up to 70 years or more.
“These dried leaves themselves can be stored for a long time, you don’t need refrigeration; thus facilitating storage during the long journey to Miri,” she said, while lamenting the difficulty of finding jungle rattan in Baram.
Patterns and symbolism
Asked about the designs, Sandra said some sun hat makers arrange beads to represent “the faces of divine deities”.
For her, however, she favors geometric shapes and for the colors she follows the requirements of the clients.
Visitors to its stand at the Miri Handicraft Center could request hands-on demonstrations on how to make a sun hat.
“In the past, scraps and scraps of homemade clothes were kept to decorate hats. In a way, each strip represented a memory for each family – how grandmothers used cotton threads bought in Marudi to sew fabrics on hats; how women gathered to finish pieces for a wedding; how the stories would be told to the children by the elders during their gatherings on the veranda.
“I love every sun hat I’ve made and appreciate all of my customers for wearing my hats.
“Everyone is special, everyone has a story behind where they came from and maybe the owners now have – or will – have their own stories too,” Sandra said.
Another Kenyah sun hat maker, Priscilla Aping, operates a kiosk at the Borneo Heritage Centre, located on the High Street in Miri.
She considers sun hats to be among the “indispensable decorative elements that adorn the walls of many Kenyan homes throughout Sarawak”.
“A customer from Kuching, who bought two hats from me, asked for each to have a hanging strap made of beads instead of the usual rattan.
“It seems to be a trend now. You can request an all beaded bracelet, and I will be happy to do it for you,” said Priscilla, from Long Moh, another Kenyah village in the Baram countryside.
“I’m glad Long Moh still has a lush jungle, where my mum can still harvest bunches of ‘daun palas’.
“If this factory no longer existed in the future, we would no longer be able to manufacture our ‘saung’. “Even now, rattan is already very hard to find. Only a traditional hatter would know the fate of his fellow hatters,” she said.
Sonia J Lahung, who is a Kayan from Marudi, said she learned to make Kenyah sun hats when she was first posted to a school in Lio Mato.
“It was in the 1990s. I was taught by the Kenyah women there.
“The place was so remote, so I thought it best to spend my free time learning a new trade,” she said.
Today, Sonia can not only make sun hats, but also weave traditional Kenyah baskets and mats.
Her woven items now adorn the walls of her home in Marudi.
“They are my pride. They would have a lot of stories to tell, if they could talk.
However, hats don’t just serve as decorative items in her home.
“My family members and I wore sun hats whenever we farmed on weekends and holidays.
“I can’t wait to retire, so I can make more sun hats,” she smiles.