Anne Antah: Preserving our culture through Chanteek Borneo

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Anne Antah – Creating and preserving traditional costume through contemporary texture designs

Chanteek Borneo was listed in the Malaysia Book of Records for The First Miniature Indigenous Costume Museum in 2018. It is a brand to remind our younger generation to appreciate and embrace our uniqueness as Sabahan; that we should be proud of our own culture and we should carry our identity in our lifestyle.

Meet Chanteek Borneo’s founder and owner, Anne Antah, 44, a mother of two boys and a girl, and a second-generation Sino-Kadazan. 

SMB: Tell us about yourself.
AA: My grandfather is a typical Chinaman who observed his culture very closely just like my grandmother who observed her Dusun’s lifestyle diligently. Born into a mixed marriage family, I sometimes get confused about my identity. We celebrate Chinese New Year, burn incense daily, offer money to death souls and on different occasions, we have the Bobohizan performing rituals. Up until my university years, I still could not relate myself to which race I belong to because I cannot speak Dusun nor any Chinese dialects.

I love the Moludu (Kadazan traditional costume) worn by the ladies at my kampung especially during Kaamatan. I never had the chance to wear until in my teenage years it as we sisters did not own one except for my mother’s costume. 

After I started working, I began buying a few traditional costumes but I seldom had the chance to wear it. Whenever I wore the costume, friends will ask me which ethnic I belong to. So it made me curious, why my Sabahan friends do not even know which costumes belong to which ethnics group.

SMB: When did Chanteek Borneo first open?
AA: Chanteek Borneo Gallery official launched in 2014. However, the name was first used for my handmade accessories in 2011 until I started to promote traditional costume on dolls in 2012.  

SMB: What or who inspires you?
AA: My children are my inspiration. I don’t want them to grow up without knowing about their ancestry, the rich culture, and our beautiful Sabah. As the Malay saying goes ‘Dimana langit dijunjung, disitu bumi disembah’, one must take pride and contribute our best to our nation regardless of your race. I want to leave a legacy for my children and grandchildren so they won’t feel lost or go through an identity dilemma in the future. We won’t live forever to see them grow old but at least I know I’ve done my best to leave them in a better world and a better society.

SMB: What is the objective of having Chanteek Borneo?
AA: The objective of Chanteek Borneo is to keep our heritage alive through innovation and creativity. We are living in an era where almost everything is at our fingertips. With high market demands, our local suppliers especially the crafters are very far behind because everything is done by hand. Due to this slow pace, our heritage is slowly losing its appeal to the younger generation. Chanteek Borneo is here to give a new life to our local elements. To promote and give new purpose to our traditional elements so that it can be applied to suit the current lifestyle. 

SMB: What does Chanteek Borneo feature?
AA: Anything that is related to culture, local crafts, and local lifestyle. Since 2014, Chanteek Borneo runs a museum gallery exhibiting dolls in traditional costume. Our visitors come from a very niche market in which we receive visitors who are curious about our local culture and those who love either dolls or traditional costumes. We also have a selection of traditional costumes where our visitors can try on for photo taking.

Last year, we embarked on another project to print contemporary fabric with local motifs as seen on the traditional costumes. We studied the motifs and designed it with a new arrangement so that it can be used to create fashion and lifestyle items. Chanteek Borneo is always on the lookout for local elements which can be incorporated and promoted into the current lifestyle especially with relation to our traditional costumes.

SMB: How do you keep your business running?
AA: It was quite difficult in the past when nobody understood and saw my vision. The first three years were very tough especially running the museum. For some people, I may seem as if I am wasting my money, effort and time. But I believe one day, my grandchildren will appreciate what I’ve done with the museum. These days, the community are more friendly and cooperative with us, and they would advise us about their costumes and what improvements should be done with their doll’s costume. We also received visitors who came from far just to learn more about their costumes. 

I love to see how other continents incorporate their culture into their current lifestyle. The closest is Sarawak and Indonesia. How Sarawak promote their Pua Kumbu and brought it into the international level of the fashion industry. That is something that we need to emulate and take as a benchmark in promoting our own woven cloths. We have a number of quality woven cloth but its function still remains traditional and not many young Sabahans know about their existence.

My idea usually comes spontaneously. Whether that idea is workable or not is something that I need to do through with trials and errors. I always believe there must be a way to solve certain problems and we just need to find it and adjust it to suit our local requirements.

SMB: Is it difficult to maintain this business to promote your passion?
AA: It is tough at first because my business model has no references and I have no similar company for benchmarking. I have to create and invent everything from scratch.

I have to focus at least three years to develop my staff and guide them on how to run the operations. I have to initiate something for myself and prepare a guideline for them to follow and improve wherever applicable for the next time around.

My museum team is now independent. They prepare the exhibition theme and contents by themselves. For Humee and Akee dolls, I initially spent about six months to self-learn how to sew the costumes and create the costumes template and miniature accessories. Then I teach my staff how to do it and now, even they have become better than me. Sometimes I have an idea but my skills are not as good so I just need to create the sample and get them to do a better version.

This year, I focus my energy and attention to develop our textile division – from the design up to the sales process. The most difficult part is to come up with a concept of what is the identity or the image of Kain Sabah. For the first six months, I was very involved in designing the textile. Currently, I have three designers with different backgrounds and I spend at least two hours a day with them to monitor and guide them on their assignments. Designing textiles with traditional motifs is not the same as designing contemporary textiles. We need to be sensitive to the colour tones, local cultural practice as there are taboos on what can and cannot be put on the textiles. 

In short, the textile production is very new in Sabah and there are many things that I need to look into such as the raw material sources and do an experiment on different types of fabric available out there. 

SMB: We love the Kain Sabah. How did you come up with such an idea?
AA: The idea stemmed in 2016. My Instagram followers are mostly fashion designers and art lovers from overseas. They usually ask me about North Borneo traditional fabric and kain sarung. I think the most frequently asked questions is where to get Kain Sarung Sabah, and I told them there is none. Sabah does not produce any kain sarung except for the woven textiles by the Iranun and the Rungus. Since then, I did my research on how to produce this textile in Sabah. I had few options in mind but I think the best option is to do it with computer-aided design and computer-aided manufacturing. After two years of dreaming about it, I finally got our digital printer in 2018 and I love what we are currently doing now.

SMB: Traditional motifs on a traditional outfit, or traditional motifs on a modern outfit, and why?
AA: I love both! They both have their own beauty and purpose that represent our Sabahan identity. In my opinion, we must own our own traditional costumes. Personally, I have more than eight costumes which I seldom wear, so they ended up being exhibited at the gallery. The most expensive item is a fine handwoven Lotud’s Linangkit skirt that costs RM 1,300. I also own a Rungus woven cloth with bells on its edge that cost me RM1,000. Whenever I walk in it, it would ring and everyone will turn their heads. 

Therefore a modern outfit with traditional motifs would be more practical. These outfits can be worn for any occasions and we could tailor any outfit for different functions. Back in 2012, I wore another hand woven Lotud’s Linangkit skirt for a dinner function at an international convention in Hong Kong. I accidentally spilled some drinks on it and that ruined the Linangkit, leaving a stain. It was so painful for me knowing that the stain cannot be removed and the skirt had cost me a fortune.

SMB: Who are your customers?
AA: At the moment, we operate as a textile designer and manufacturer only. We do not produce consumer products except for corporate orders. 

Our customers are divided into a few groups, first the tailoring shops and local designers who buy the textiles and create their own end fashion product. We also have traditional weaver cum tailor who request us to custom-print their design for their customers. The second group is the government agencies, corporate and associations, who want us to design their corporate outfit with a unique identity. We do not provide tailoring service but we do recommend tailors to them. We also serve organisations who want to customise their textile items such as bed-runners, bedsheets, pillow or cushion covers in bulk quantity. For this market segment, we design their textiles incorporated with traditional motifs and engaged the housewives around Tamparuli to do the sewing. Moreover, we have customers who sends us motifs inherited from their grandmothers to design on textile. 

We are creating our ecosystem and work hand-in-hand with the local community. We provide business opportunities to the local business owners and also create economic opportunity for the community around Chanteek Borneo. I am happy to see many young and talented crafters come out with a new product based on our textiles design. It shows that we have created an opportunity for them.

SMB: Since Chanteek Borneo introduces traditional costumes and promotes traditional motifs through textile, what would you recommend or advise the younger generations in keeping our tradition in relation to fashion?
AA: Be proud of our identity and we should wear our local motifs. The responsibility to promote and to keep it alive is on our own shoulders. Fashion evolves with time and traditional costume was once a fashion statement during our ancestors’ time. 

We are honouring our forefathers by donning our traditional costume; it is our identity to remind us of the sacrifices they made to bring forward our civilisation and existence. But at the same time, we cannot confine ourselves with the traditional way of doing things, especially in this digital era. We need to evolve with the current trend to keep our culture relevant for the next generation.

I hope to see more couture fashion from Sabah using the real traditional woven cloths. I am confident there is a market for it. As for contemporary textile, I wish to see more local designers come up with ready to wear collection with traditional motifs. \

SMB: BONUS QUESTION! What is your go-to fashion?
AA: T-shirt, jeans, and slippers. This is my working outfit and when you spot me in this outfit, it means I have something in my mind that I need to work on.