When one thinks of batik in Singapore, images of the SIA girl would come to the mind of many, with her iconic kebaya. But how did batik come to be in Singapore? What is batik?
Batik is a resist-dyeing technique used to decorate fabrics. The word batik is Javanese in origin, either coming from the Javanese words amba (to write) and titik (dot), or from a hypothetical Proto-Austronesian root beCik (to tattoo). The art of wax resist dyeing on fabric goes back a long way to Egypt in the 4th century BC, being used to wrap mummies by soaking linen in wax, then scratching it using a stylus. It was also being used by the Chinese during the Tang Dynasty, the Japanese during the Nara period, as well as the Yoruba tribe in Nigeria to name a few.
How one would reach that final product is via a simple, yet at the same time time-consuming - motifs are drawn using a paste-like substance derived from rice, beans, mud or wax onto a plain piece of fabric. The clean space around the paste-covered area would now be the background of a motif. Once this fabric is immersed in a dye bath, the outlined motif on the fabric will resist the dyeing, while the clean space without it absorbs the colour of the dye mixture. After this the paste is cleaned off, the motif delineated by the undyed negative spaces on the cloth. Depending on the design, a second colour may be added to the dyed cloth, and the whole process of waxing would be repeated on areas where the second colour is desired. This process can be repeated as many times as there are colours needed. Batik is made either by drawing dots and lines of the resist with a spouted tool called a canting, or by printing with a copper stamp called a cap.
Batik was mainly used by the Tai speaking and hill peoples in Mainland Southeast Asia, who began to migrate in large numbers from southwestern China into Indochina and Thailand around the 17th century. The tradition of batik making however can be found in various countries around Southeast Asia, including Singapore, Malaysia, India, Bangladesh, and even in Nigeria. Indonesian batik, particularly Javanese batik, is the most well-known and has the longest history of acculturation, with diverse patterns that are influenced by a variety of cultures. It is also the most developed in terms of pattern, technique and quality of workmanship. From the late 1800s to the early 1900s the batik industry of Java was flourishing, but declined during the occupation of Indonesia by the Japanese, further declining with Indonesia gaining independence, with the increasing preference of Western clothing.
Batik came to be in Singapore due to Singapore being a trading centre which never saw the emergence of a lasting weaving or textile-producing tradition. Thus, Singapore became a recipient of many fabrics from various places. However, being part of the Pasisir world, the various Malay-speaking communities in Singapore came to favour the batik sarung with tumpal kepala. As the language of dress in Singapore has not been researched adequately, it is possible that non-Malay groups (like members of the Dutch and British colonial establishments) might have adopted Pasisir batik for various purposes at times. The Javanese community in Singapore stuck to the kain panjang with the soga brown and indigo colour schemes. Amongst the batik imported from Java was a mix of central Javanese and Pasisir types. Although descendants of Peranakan Chinese have kept the batik sarung worn by their grandparents, they are small and sporadic and not represented of the full range of batik which the Peranakan Chinese community would have used. Also the lack of attention to clothing details in the documented social history of Singapore means that the reconstruction of the batik fashion trend is hardly possible, even though the past decade has seen a revival of interest in the Peranakan culture in Singapore. There still is a huge lack of literature about the sarung, despite it being part of the basic dress code of a nonya.
The photographs featuring batik in photographs taken during the 1930s in Singapore were generally decorated with the bukitan or "bouquet" motif, first invented and made popular by Dutch batik enterprises in Pekalongan. As Singapore underwent rapid social and economic changes, aesthetic values and fashion developed along different tajectories. The image of batik that remains in Singapore is the one created by the pastel collages of Pekalongan batik as this continues to be the pattern seen on the bulk of sarung sold in the market. The Javanese in Singapore maintained their preference for the central Javanese geometric and diagonally arranged garis miring pattern, though many have now been integrated into the mainstream Malay communities.
Batik in the context of today can be seen in street fashion, often being presented by departmental stores as one of many "ethnic prints" related to trends from the tourist markets of Bali, or from design houses in Milan or Antwerp. By doing so, however, batik is deprived of its true identity and its connection with the history and sense of style of Singapore and the region. The modified sarung skirt designs interpreted by international fashion designers from time to time put batik onto the centrestage of high fashion, while generating a ripple effect in the street fashion of Singapore, and almost always as casual wear. In the absence of a strong batik-producing industry, it is uncertain whether batik will be reclaimed as an element unique to Singapore.