The Next Generation of Artisans Would Rather be Texting: long term resident and author Cat Wheeler tells us a true story, and gave us photos as proof:
About five years ago my housekeeper’s son decided to start a little family business making bamboo drinking straws. Putu was concerned about the pollution caused by plastic straws in his own environment, years before the issue reached today’s crescendo of discussion.
The business started small. The family placed an ad on the www.indonesiaorganic website and attracted a few local restaurants as customers. In early 2014 they received their first international order and soon they were sending thousands of straws a month to North America, Europe and Australia.
It was a steep learning curve for the family. They needed help establishing systems for taking orders, production, invoicing and mailing. At first Putu and his cousin Agus made the straws with some help from his father when he had time. As the orders increased other relatives and neighbours were roped in.
Making bamboo drinking straws is very labour intensive.
After harvesting the bamboo from steep ravines in Tabanan, it has to be dried in the sun for at least a month to ensure there’s no moisture inside or out. Once dry, the bamboo is cut by hand to the right length with a small saw. The cut bamboo is carefully cleaned inside and out and then polished with loose sand, again by hand. About half the raw material is the wrong size and can’t be used. A worker can make about 100 straws a day.
But in the last year there’s been a big change. Suddenly, bamboo straws were a hot commodity internationally. The family began to receive enquiries for 10,000, 50,000, 100,000 straws.
Here’s a contemporary paradox. The world now demands huge volumes of bamboo drinking straws which cannot be met. We patiently explained that this was a very small cottage industry without the human or material resources to fill such huge orders. The bamboo isn’t cultivated anywhere, it’s harvested in the wild. But raw material is just one issue; labour is now by far the biggest problem for the family. No one wants to do manual labour any more, especially young people. They all want to work in spas and restaurants and hotels.
I talked to a couple of old friends with many years experience in Bali’s handicraft industry. Were they seeing a shift away from traditional crafts in the Ubud community?
Agung Alit founded Mitra Bali Fair Trade in 1993 to help artisans raise the level of their products and find international markets. He’s seen a big change in the past few years. “Mitra Bali used to have up to 60 artisans making crafts for export, these days we have only 16. Most of the rest are in the construction industry now, building houses,” he told me. “Even with Mitra Bali support, experienced artisans struggle to make a living. Raw material is more expensive, but it’s also a cash issue. We pay a 50% deposit on orders but that is quickly spent; they would rather get a daily rate as a builder.
“And young people don’t want to work with their hands any more. With them, it’s more about status than money. I’m frankly very worried about young Balinese. We have a large population of young people but they are of low quality. They want everything to be fast and easy. They have no English, no skills, no work ethic, no opinions. They’re always on their phones, not reading books or talking to each other or looking around at the word. It’s frightening. These will be our community leaders in 20 years. They are using different software, and we need to help them upgrade it.”
Joanna deWitt, a Canadian-born Indonesian, started selling Balinese hand-crafted silver in 1994 and has worked closely with producers in Celuk for about 20 years. “The older smiths established good businesses and big salesrooms. Their children learned to manage the shops and sell the silver, but they never learned the skills to make the product.
“As westerners it can be hard for us to understand that the Balinese don’t necessarily value skilled artisanship. Many view it as just another form of manual labour and they want something better for their kids.”
And perhaps the modern buyers don’t care whether their purchase is made by hand by a skilled craftsman or not. China and Thailand undercut Balinese silver because their production is fully mechanised. To an untrained eye the end result looks the same.
“It makes me sad,” says Joanna. “I’ve had a lot of conversations about it but the shift is already well underway. Young people in Ubud would rather work in a convenience store than make hand-crafted silver. There are a few young smiths in East Bali but they don’t have the access to market.”
So, back to bamboo straws. Don’t expect to see them flooding the market. The family has taken down their ad and now makes straws for just a dozen long term customers. We are past the tipping point; handmade items will become increasingly rare, perhaps just as the word begins to realise their value.
But the young people of Bali don’t want to get their hands dirty; it might interfere with their texting.
Cat Wheeler first visited Bali in 1969, and returned to live here permanently in 2000. A columnist, she is also the author of “Bali Daze: Freefall off the Tourist Trail”