Building bird cages
Mohamad Noor Abduh’s workshop is his front porch at Kampung Permatang Pak Elong, near Kepala Batas. A table fan provides some relief from the afternoon heat as the 59-year-old craftsman deftly slices and bends rattan rails to make bird cages.
These days, his work is not so back-breaking because he can buy processed rattan that he only needs to dry in the sun. He uses a machine to bend and sand the rattan strips.
“In the old days, we did everything from scratch. We had to strip and steam the rattan so that it’d be pliable to bend. But now, we can buy them all processed,” says Mohd Noor who learnt his craft from his late father, while still in his teens.
But the most important tool in making a rattan bird cage is a simple one – a piece of wood with two nails. It’s the most basic measuring tool but absolutely essential in marking the holes to drill for the bird cage’s bars, or bilah in Malay.
“If the spacing is not the same throughout, the cage will not be evenly balanced. It’ll be senget (crooked) and will not sit nicely,” explains Mohd Noor as he deftly pushes bilah after bilah through tiny holes he has drilled on the rings of the cage.
It all seems quite effortless to Mohd Noor; slicing, marking, bending, drilling and hammering the rattan as the bird cage takes shape. But these are skills honed from 45 years of practice and dedication to his craft. “I can usually make two big cages, or four small ones, in day. The big ones will have 94 bilah and the small ones 66 bilah.”
“I make different cages for different birds. Some are easier to make. I can make three cages for murai (magpie) in a day, but I have stopped making cages for Merbah Jambul (red-whiskered bulbul) because it’s harder to do,” he says, adding that they also need to pay attention to details like where to place the door or how many perches to place in the cage to accommodate the different birds’ traits.
Mohd Noor is among the last of the bird cage makers in Seberang Perai. It’s a unique tradition – elsewhere in the world, bird cages are not usually made from rattan. Bamboo or metal bird cages are more common.
“Ini remeh kerjanya, (it is finicky work) and my children didn’t want to learn. They’d rather work in the factories or with the government,” he says.
Only bird enthusiasts will truly appreciate Mohd Noor’s precision and artistry.
“His workmanship is so fine. The bird cages have perfect symmetry; they are balanced. After this generation of bird cage makers passes on, there will be no one to continue this art form,” says retired business-man Ng Sun Seng who has retailed bird cages from Mohd Noor, and before that from his late father, for many decades.
Their ties run deep and Mohd Noor’s elderly mother was delighted to see Ng, whom she calls Ah Seng.
“He used to come around all the time. Now, my son sends the bird cages to pekan. Ah Seng will help us when we need,” she recalls. When money is tight, Mohd Noor’s family knew they can depend on Ng to give them an advance that they will gradually off-set with bird cages.
“It’s a relationship based on trust. We have known them for many years, so we are able to let them have their payment first. Sometimes, it’s to help during family emergencies. Sometimes, it’s to buy a motorcycle,” says Ng.
In return for always having their back, Mohd Noor always sells his bird cages to Ng, and not to someone else. It’s not a formal arrangement, but rather a relationship built on years of mutual trust and dependence.
Ng says: “We only do this with craftsmen we have known for a long time.”