Oval caps worn by Muslim men are common sight in Malaysia. But today, traditional songkok makers are unable to withhold competition from machine-made versions, cheap but lacking quality. Mr. Haja is the last hand-made songkok maker left in Penang.
Visiting Malaysia and Indonesia, stiff oval caps worn by Muslim men during their daily visits to the mosque, often made of black velvet, were such a common sight that I did not realise that I did not know its name. Only visiting Penang Island and its artisans, I found out the name – songkok.
I have been told about the traditional songkok maker, Haja Mohideen Mohamed Shariff’s, and one day while walking around the Little India area, I came across his tiny songkok shop next to the Nagore Shrine, an Indian Muslim mosque. Mr. Haja is a well-known and the only remaining hand-made songkok maker in Penang. The second-generation songkok artisan, he inherited the skills and the trade from his father. Initiated early to the art of songkok making, he made his first songkok when he was only 12.
The shop is a semi-open area, full of songkok in different stages of readiness and boxes of songkok ready to be delivered. Using the old Singer sewing machine, the man, thick spectacles on his nose, is assembling the pieces. Making a songkok starts with the inner frame made of layers of newspapers and cardboard, and covered with satin for soft touch. The frame is cut into an oval shape used to make the top of songkok, and a rectangular piece used to form the sides.
All Mr. Haja’s songkok are made using velvet to make them more durable. Majority of his customer prefer black colour while the police and army order brown and green songkok. Songkok with gold and silver trimmings are reserved for the royalty.
Mr. Haja finds his market among many local loyal clients, but he also supplies his hand-made songkok to customers in Melaka, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. He makes between 5 to 10 songkok a day completing a songkok within one or two hours. One month before Ramadan, when Muslims start preparations for Hari Raya Aidilfitri, or the festival of the breaking of the fast, and Maulidur Rasul celebration, or Prophet Muhammad’s birthday, is the busiest time. To get the orders ready, he sometimes has to stay up past midnight.
Mr. Haja feels proud of his songkok. To maintain high quality, he is particular about choosing the material, taking correct measurement and the process of cutting and stitching. Despite high quality, his songkok are very reasonably priced but the competition from factory-produced songkok is high. Today, the majority of songkok sold in Malaysia are machine-made. Produced in bulk, they are cheap but lack in quality compared to hand-made ones.
Despite the demand and the widespread use of songkok in Malaysia, making hand-made songkok is an endangered trade. The number of people ordering custom-made songkok has declined over the years, preferring to buy the ready-made versions. Similar to other craftsmanship. there is only a handful of songkok makers left in Malaysia to continue with the tradition. Mr. Haja is lucky to have his son-in-law interested in songkok and helping him in the shop.
Location: Haja Mohideen Mohamed Shariff’s songkok shop can be found at King Street (Lebuh King), next to the Nagore shrine at the entrance to Little India in Georgetown, Penang state of Malaysia.