Batik Kita: Our Batik, Our Stories

An an Indo-Chinese who regularly dresses in batik clothes, my eyes lit up when advertisements of the Asian Civilization Museum’s (ACM) latest special exhibition popped up while I was scrolling through my Insta stories (thank you specially targeted algorithm). With my best batik wear and writing spirit, I headed down to ACM during recess week to catch a glimpse of the colourful world of Batiks before the exhibition closed.

Batik Kita – Dressing in Port Cities was ACM’s latest special exhibition that ran from 17 Jun 2022 – 2 Oct 2022. The temporary exhibition sported vibrant and delightful batik motifs from all over Asia and showcased its rich history and traditional roots. From its initial origins in Indonesia to cultural renditions and interpretations across Malaysia and Singapore, each batik tells a unique story about its pattern and creator. Throughout the exhibition, I learned new and interesting facts I never knew before. 


Origins of Batik

Batik is an ancient craft originating from Java. Most batiks today came from the rich repertoire of patterns developed in the city of Yogyakarta and Surakarta (known colloquially as solo). By the 17th century, it became a common fabric patterning method practised by court women and villagers. When the 18th and 19th centuries rolled around, the craft had gained enough popularity and increased production enabled it to be exported to other major port towns and trading routes. 


Stories within Patterns 

Batik patterns are made either by drawing or stamping designs onto a white cloth using dye-resistant molten wax before dipping the cloth in dye. The wax is then removed using hot water, leaving the intricate patterns behind. 


Batik making tools. Designs are made either by drawing using a canting (bottom left) or a stamped on using a cap (upper middle and right).


Each batik motif tells an interesting story. Take the two most classic and important motifs today, the parang rusak and sawat. Parang rusak translates to “ruined cliff”. The “S” shaped pattern represents a cliff withstanding the brute force of crashing waves, symbolising perseverance and strength in the face of hardship. The sawat – meaning “wings”, is an abstracted pattern of Garuda – Indonesia’s national symbol. These batiks came in deep blue and brown colours and were codified for court members and their subjects to wear in the palace. Though commoners today wear them, it is discouraged when entering the palace. 


The prang rusak motif (left) and the sawat motif (right).


Beyond these classic Javanese traditions, I was surprised to learn of other culturally inspired batiks. The ethnic Chinese took their own spin on motifs, creating patterns like tiga negeri – literally meaning three kingdoms and is inspired by the Chinese story “Romance of the Three Kingdoms”. Other patterns featured vibrant red which is a symbol of prosperity amongst Chinese people. These batiks were loved by nyonyas across the region.


Red inspired Chinese batik motifs


Singapore Batiks

Indonesians aren’t the only ones wearing batik, in fact, our own ministers got style. If the following red and white batik looks familiar to you, that’s because Prime Minister Lee Hsein Loong wore it during the 2019 National Day Parade. The orchid-inspired design is no doubt a nod to Singapore’s national flower. 

Prime Minister Lee Hsein Loong’s 2019 red and white NDP shirt


Former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong also received his own orchid-patterned batik in 1994, during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) which was hosted by Indonesia that year. Specially customised batiks were commissioned for the 18 leaders who attended the summit, including Mr Goh. 

Perhaps my favourite interesting fact from the exhibition, the iconic Singapore Airlines Sarong Kebaya uniform was commissioned by a french couturier, Pierre Balmin in 1966, back when it was still called Malaysia Airlines. After the Singapore-Malaysia airlines split, Singapore still retained Balmin’s initial sarong kebaya design. 


Thoughts and takeaways 

In a volatile climate today where the line between cultural appreciation and appropriation draws dangerously thin, Batik Kita offers a glimpse of what culture truly means. We commonly think of culture as standing still, a piece of history locked in a specific place and time, but it’s far from that. Culture is constantly evolving and serving different people in different time periods. And with each generation, culture is infused with more stories, more meaning and nuance. Though batik has travelled across the world and donned new patterns, new stories, and new artists and wearers from different ethnicities – it is still batik all the same. I think that’s what culture is at the end of the day, an ever-evolving story with different faces behind the love for that culture. 

Though the Batik Kita exhibition has sadly ended, check out ACM for its permanent exhibitions on Asian ceramics and religion or follow their socials to stay updated on new temporary exhibitions. Psst, students get free entry for both standard galleries and special galleries. Be sure to bring your IC and student card! 

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