Some forty ladies and guests from the Johor Bahru International Women’s Association (IWA) visited Komplex Sultan Abu Bakar, the premises of Yayasan Warisan Johor (YWJ) or the Johor Heritage Foundation, for an introduction to YWJ, a tour of Gallery Tenun Johor and a dance tutorial for traditional folk dance, Zapin.
Over the years, I’ve had the privilege to work with YWJ to share stories about their events and activities from Zapin to musical theatre productions, with the help of Haji Shafie Ahmad, who was then attached to the Performing Arts Department.
Through Haji Shafie, I also learnt more about Busana Johor or Johor traditional costumes that were worn in ensembles complete with traditional footwear, accessories and head-gear, a proud Johor tradition which has a royal origin.
In 2012, while YWJ was located at Jalan Mariamah, I joined the IWA on a visit where the ladies had a delightful experience, learning more about Johor costumes, festive food and delicacies, music and dance.
After YWJ had moved into the complex of buildings at Jalan Sungai Chat in 2016, I had the privilege to witness the launch of Gallery Tenun Johor, a project to preserve and showcase the art of traditional fabric weaving in a gallery with an artisanal workshop.
So when the IWA planned to visit YWJ again, I was ready to join them to meet my friends – both at IWA and YWJ –and to see how the Gallery had developed since my previous visit.
The IWA is a non-profit charity group established in May 1999 to help expatriate women and families who have joined their husbands, based here on job assignments, to adjust to living in a foreign country.
Before the IWA was formally registered, a small group of expatriate women started to meet every fourth Tuesday for coffee and a small profit from the money collected went towards charity.
As IWA became more aware of the needs of local charities, they recognised their group’s social purpose and now they regularly organise fund-raising social events to contribute towards healthcare, education and other social needs here.
IWA has raised funds to support various causes including the children’s welfare home in Saleng, the Rotary Dialysis Centre and several Tamil schools in Kulai, Johor.
They also have a monthly Coffee Morning where the ladies enjoy an outing together and this time, it was a visit to YWJ.
The drizzle did nothing to deter the members and their guests from arriving at YWJ promptly and the morning’s programme of activities kicked off with an introduction to the role of YWJ in the community, in a presentation by Hj Shafie.
Now Head of the Corporate Unit, Hj Shafie explained that YWJ has various responsibilities including collecting and displaying artifacts under the Museum Department, preserving and conserving Malay culture and heritage through the Art & Heritage Development and Library & Literary Departments as well as the Performing Arts Department.
Hj Shafie, who was with the Performing Arts Department until recently, warmed up on the topic of Zapin, a traditional folk dance with an Arab origin that was introduced in Johor by Muslim missionaries and traders in the 15th century.
He described how this energetic folk dance gradually evolved in Johor and influenced by Malay culture and philosophy, it was adapted into a more graceful dance.
He assured the visitors that they would have the opportunity to learn the Zapin dance steps in a tutorial session later in their programme of activities.
Using a collection of photographs, Hj Shafie highlighted some of their past musical theatre productions and a Malay costume show that were presented locally and abroad.
These drama and musical theatre productions were usually dramatised versions of local history and folklore and often featured popular local artistes in the lead roles.
At the close of his presentation, Hj Shafie invited questions and it was interesting to hear what these representatives of the international community asked and suggested.
Their interest in local culture and heritage, particularly in dance and theatre performances, was apparent from their request for more information to be provided in English, and be regularly updated on the YWJ website so that they may also enjoy these events.
After light refreshments, the visitors were welcomed into Gallery Tenun Johor, which is housed in a heritage building within the complex.
The visitors could admire the ancient arches and interesting architecture of this mansion but little did they know that it was once named Istana Tunku Fatimah, the residence for the younger sister of Sultan Ibrahim, Johor Sultan from 1895 to 1959.
The gallery tour started upstairs where glass-fronted display cabinets showcased a rare collection of silk fabrics woven with designs that has various significant meanings.
Mannequins displayed traditional Malay costumes in the typical Johor style with tops that feature the Telok Blangah collar design, a fashion made famous by Sultan Abu Bakar, teamed with traditional woven sarong (lady) and samping (gentleman) fabrics.
On the ground-floor, there were more fabric displays and here, the visitors could observe artisans who demonstrated their skills at two work stations.
One used a traditional spinning wheel to weave threads onto a spindle while two other artisans were weaving fabric from threads on a traditional hand-weaving loom.
The traditional method of weaving threads into fabric is a painstaking process where single threads are individually woven, thread by thread, to form a piece of fabric.
As the visitors observed this labour intensive, traditional hand-weaving method, they could then understand why the end product has such a high value.
Finally, two YWJ lady dancers led the visitors on a step-by-step tutorial to learn the basic steps of the traditional Zapin dance. In a few minutes these smart learners could dance along (pretty well!) with their instructors to recorded Zapin music!
Yayasan Warisan Johor, Komplex Sultan Abu Bakar is at Jalan Sungai Chat, Johor Bahru. Open Sunday to Wednesday, from 9.30am to 4.30pm, Thursday from 9.30am to 3.30pm and closed on Friday and Saturday.