Ng Her Chiah now runs the family business but leaves the talking to his father and uncle. After all, they know the trade best.
Ng Sun Seng, 68, and his brother Soon Heng, 63, are now retired but they have spent 50 years making and selling bird cages.
They learnt the rattan craft from their father, built their business and reputation as bird-cage specialists, and have now passed it all on to a third generation.
Their shop, Ee Seng, on Jalan Padang Kelab in Kepala Batas’ Pekan Lama, or the old town, is nondescript but well-known among bird enthusiasts who flock here for cages and other paraphernalia. They stock everything from multivitamins for birds to camouflage face nettings, to bird-cage covers.
Customers – some of whom have become old friends – linger at the shop to chat about birds.
“When people who keep birds meet, they don’t usually run out of things to talk about,” says Sun Seng who used to travel near and far to enter his birds in singing competitions. His face still lights up when he recalls how enraptured he was by the melodious songs of his prized birds.In the early days, the brothers were making and selling all kinds of rattan products. But they gradually turned their passion for keeping birds into a business, delving into the craft and trade of bird cages.
Sun Seng and Soon Heng remember cycling into the villages around Kepala Batas in the 1960s to collect bird cages made by local craftsmen. “In the 1970s, we started buying raw materials and machines for the villagers to make cages for us. Then, we’d go and collect the finished products.
“At first, we went on motorbikes. But there was a time when we made our rounds in a lorry because there were so many cages to collect,’’ recounts Soon Heng.
There used to be up to 100 villagers making the bird cages. Now, there are only about 10 such craftsmen left in Kepala Batas. Locally-made rattan cages are not as common as bamboo ones from China these days. Craftsmanship and time are required to make rattan cages as it’s harder to measure and drill rattan for an even spacing between the bars. Supply of good quality rattan is also depleting.
Her Chiah brings out two cages for comparison, pointing out the precision and attention to detail on a finely-crafted cage and the crudeness of the other.
“It takes skill to make sure the space between the bars is even because that affects the structure and stability of the bird cage,” he says.
Building a bird cage, Sun Seng explains, is like building a house. Different birds require different cages. The Murai Batu (stone magpie) has a long tail, so their cage is bigger. A well-constructed bird cage will retain its shape and can last longer, and more importantly will assure owners their precious pets are living in comfort.
“In the old days, bird enthusiasts were more superstitious. They’d count the bars while reciting a chant, and if it ended on an inauspi-cious note, they believed the cage would make their bird sick,” says Sun Seng who used to go into the jungle and wait quietly for hours to trap birds.
Thirty-four-year-old Her Chiah does not share his father’s passion for birds but he knows the bird cage trade well.
“We grew up in the shop. During the school holidays, my brothers and I helped out in the shop. So we know how to work with rattan and we know about bird cages and rearing birds.
“Things are changing. With fewer bird cage makers and the lack of raw materials, we won’t have so many rattan cages anymore. They will cost more, and some people will look for cheaper options,” says Her Chiah who used to work in a factory before taking over the family business
“Of course, the most passionate bird enthusiasts are willing to pay for the best cage for their birds.”