Thursday, 14 July 2011

Spent, but 'bullets' can revive them

Awang Ali, 57, polishing a brass tray at the traditional brass foundry in Kampung Ladang, Terengganu

THE art of making brassware in Malaysia has suffered from a lack of raw material and those in the industry are hoping the Defence Ministry (Mindef) will hand them a lifeline.

Yes, rather than the Information, Communication and Culture Ministry, the answer lies with Mindef as the brass from the spent cartridges from the armed forces training and military exercises has been the main source of raw material since the 1960s.

In fact, Mindef had helped the more than 200 brass-smiths thrive in Terengganu in the 1960s by channelling the spent cartridges to RIDA (Rural and Industrial Development Authority), now known as MARA (Majlis Amanah Rakyat).

MARA, through a subsidiary, would distribute the cartridges and shells to the brass-smiths to be melted and made into objects of art.

But in 1998, the supply line was cut when Mindef decided to sell the spent cartridges through a tender system.

A traditional brass-smith, Wan Mahadi Wan Ismail, said more than 80 per cent of the craftsmen in Terengganu had to close shop in 1998.

"The supply crunch was the final straw for them as they also had to contend with the Asian financial crisis at the time."

Wan Mahadi said a new arrangement was made in 2007 after then Arts, Heritage and Culture Minister Datuk Seri Dr Rais Yatim intervened.

"However, the supply of cartridges was stopped again in 2009 and has not resumed since," he said, adding that he had to get supplies from scrap dealers at RM15 a kilogramme now.

Even at that price, it is not easy to get enough scrap brass.

"Nowadays, household items are made of plastic or steel. There is not that much scrap brass at the recycling yards. Furthermore, old brassware is much sought-after by antique collectors and won't be sold as scrap."

There are eight workers at Wan Mahadi's brassware foundry in Kampung Ladang, Kuala Terengganu. They, like him, are the descendants of master brass-smiths.

"We used to fire the furnace every day but now, we are lucky if we can get enough brass for a full day's production once a week," he said.

Coming from a family of brass-smiths who have operated on the same site in Kampung Ladang for more than 300 years, Wan Mahadi is very proud of his unique heritage.

He would spend his own money to show tourists how traditional Malay brassware was made.

"Tourist guides often bring tourists to my brass foundry and I would try my best to ensure they get to see what they wanted, even if it means sacrificing whatever little brass we have at the time," he said.

As their current stock is bought from scrap dealers at RM15 a kilogramme, the 40kg of brass needed to put up a show for the tourists would set him back RM600.

However, firing the furnace with such a small brass load or "charge" can hardly revive the traditional brassware foundry as traditional brass pieces weigh at least six kg each.

"I have hundreds of earthen casts for pots, large vases and trays that my customers had ordered. I need at least four tonnes of scrap brass just to clear the backlog," he said.

"We are running on empty and I will have to stop the cast-making process soon. I don't see how the problem can be resolved without government intervention."

Wan Mahadi said that spent bullet cartridges are ideal for melting because of their shape and size.

The hollow cylinder of a cartridge has a thin wall of about one millimetre which enables it to be melted speedily and evenly without requiring too much charcoal.

A thicker piece would require more charcoal to melt and incur the added work of cutting it down to size to make sure it filled the crucible evenly.

"We could not ask for a better source of scrap brass than the empty bullet cartridges."

He said the cartridges' brass content was guaranteed since they were made according to stringent military requirements.

Wan Mahadi said he was prepared to buy the scrap from Mindef.

"As we can get scrap brass at RM15 from scrap dealers, they must have purchased it at a much lower price. I am prepared to match the dealers' price if supply can be guaranteed," he said.

It is not just the tradition that is at stake. The younger generation's chance of inheriting the brassware- making skills will also vanish if the foundry ceases to operate.

The youngest worker at the foundry, Mohd Shah Amri Ismail, 20, has been learning the trade from Wan Mahadi for the past two years.

He worries that his ambition to become a brassware craftsman will be cut short by the lack of material.

"I am eager to learn but the best way to learn is by doing. I could not learn much as we have only been putting cosmetic finishing touches to souvenir items for months now," he said as he set a miniature brass Batu Bersurat on a wooden frame.

Shah is so keen on continuing the tradition that he is taking a metal casting course at Universiti Sultan Zainal Abidin in Gong Badak on weekends.

"It's a shame to let the tradition fade away. Terengganu is well known for its brassware for centuries."

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