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Indonesian-born fabric artist Mei-Lien Kuan adds Taiwanese twist to vibrant batik designs

Mei-Lien Kuan
Mei-Lien Kuan has travelled to many areas of Indonesia to learn batik techniques.

Taiwan has a well-deserved reputation as a centre for crafts. The island nation attracts tourists from across East Asia eager to peruse amazingly woven household products and naturally dyed textiles. The country is also home to talented batik artists, including Mei-Lien (Emy) Kuan, thanks to its sizeable Indonesian population.

Pancouver spoke to Kuan during her recent visit to Vancouver, where her artwork was on display at the Migration & Arts exhibition. Through Mandarin-language translator Ann Fu, Kuan explained the process of batik.

She started by saying that batik is a dyeing technique involving damar resin, hot wax, and a canting tool. This device often looks like a little pen with a tiny bowl attached.

“I use the canting tool to apply wax to a textile, which preserves the colour underneath,” Kuan said. “I hand-draw with damar resin.”

After she has completed the art, she removes the wax. This process creates beautiful and long-lasting motifs on the cloth.

“My family in Indonesia used to have a textile company,” Kuan stated. “That’s how I became interested in textiles.”

She laughed heartily when Pancouver asked if making batik is dangerous. In fact, the wax is not that hot—only 60 to 70 degrees Celsius. She avoids burning herself by holding the canting tool at an angle so this wax remains in the bowl and doesn’t pour over her hands.

126. Desktop - Mei-Lien Kuan

Dutch women exported batik to Netherlands

Batik has a long history in Indonesia. According to Kuan, it originated in Java where elegantly designed textiles were made for members of the royal family. She noted that in those days, artisans used more muted, darker colours, which were popular in interior regions of Java.

“When those people went home, they started making their own,” Kuan said. “That’s how batik came to expand beyond the palace walls. It became more coastal, colourful, and lively.”

In the colonial period, Dutch women living in Southeast Asia were the first to industrialize the production of batik, according to scholar Olga Harmsen. They started exporting batik-dyed fabrics on a large scale to the Netherlands.

Mei-Lien Kuan
Batik by Mei-Lien Kuan.

“From 1890, the technique was picked up by Dutch decorative artists like Lion Cachet, Dijsselhof and Thorn Prikker,” Harmsen wrote in a paper. “After 1900, Lebeau became the most prominent Batik artist.”

Kuan has studied batik techniques in different regions of Indonesia, including East Java. She’s particularly fond of the colourful designs in Jakarta, which reflect her sunny disposition.

She moved from Indonesia to Taiwan 25 years ago and is now a Taiwanese citizen. She lives in Taoyuan, a coastal municipality in northwestern Taiwan next to New Taipei City.

As a batik artist, she enjoys incorporating Taiwanese elements into what was traditionally an Indonesian artform, melding the two cultures together.

“All motifs have a meaning behind them,” Kuan says.

The National Taiwan Craft Research and Development Institute and Vancouver TAIWANfest presented Migration & Arts at the SFU Segal Building in Vancouver from September 2 to 4. Follow Pancouver on Twitter @PancouverMedia and on Instagram @PancouverMedia. Find Mei-Lien (Emy) Kuan on Facebook at Emykuan

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Charlie Smith

Charlie Smith

Pancouver editor Charlie Smith has worked as a Vancouver journalist in print, radio, and television for more than three decades.

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We would like to acknowledge that we are gathered on the traditional and unceded territories of the Coast Salish peoples of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and Səl̓ílwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations. With this acknowledgement, we thank the Indigenous peoples who still live on and care for this land.