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As Long as We Remember...

April 13, 2016

Beads Touched by History

Tom McLaughlin

Kuching, Malaysian Borneo – There is a very interesting bead museum in Kuching. That's right, I said beads. I cannot think of anything more boring than beads until I began researching them a few years ago.


My wife and I had acquired two large parangs (a Malayan machete) from the town of Sambas on the southern part of Borneo about 10 hours by car on dilapidated roads. They are quite interesting in that they had been used in the very recent past.


According to the locals, they were used to remove the heads of the Madura people, who were forced to migrate there in the 1970s. They immediately took over the economy, undercutting the taxi drivers. The taxis were the back of motorcycles that took people from the kampungs to town and back for a mere pittance.


The Madura people also pulled some shenanigans having to do with fruit trees. The straw that broke the camel's back was a wild rumor from Java, another island, where an incident occurred in a mosque. This set thing ablaze.


The sheaths of the long parangs were decorated with beads in a unique pattern. I had no idea that men were interested in adorning their weapons of war. They also added coins from the Dutch era to the coverings. These decorations sparked my interest in beads.


The beads were used in trade and were called trade beads. One would trade say three beads for three coconuts. Each thought they were getting the better of the deal in that the islanders here had thousands of coconuts while the Indian or Chinese traders had a barrel full of beads.


Nobody knows where the beads came from, but the old ones are made of glass and are heavy while the new ones are plastic and very light. One can hold some in one’s hand and tell the difference. Sometimes the color, the condition of the beads, and whether they are round or oblong provides clues to their origin.


The museum is not listed on "Lonely Planet," or other such guides. I tell people to go to the cat statute. Then behind the cat statute is a McDonald's. Behind the McDonalds is a shopping center. They are to go into the shopping center and find the elevator. Press #4. Wait to be buzzed in. Make a right and then right again and you are in the bead room.


The room is about the size of a large master bedroom in the states. There, in all their glory, are thousands of beads arranged as jewelry. There are lines and lines of them with explanations under each one. The museum is well lit and the beads can be seen perfectly.


I still can't remember where each bead came from because, well, I haven't studied the different patterns, colors and shapes to bring them to their place of origin, and possible, date.


We have in our collection about eight or 10 strings of beads. The sellers sting new beads with a few old ones and one has to purchase the whole string. Sometimes, we do find a strand of old beads. We discovered a string of dark red beads and will some day visit the museum and try to piece together where they came from.


I do have a lot of research to perform, but until I enter my bead research phase, things will just have to wait.


...Life is good. . . . .


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