Renowned “tukang hias” are now a rare breed in a craft that few younger generations have shown interest in, let alone embrace.
I can’t help but admire her graceful appearance and poise as she poses with ease in front of my camera. At 80, the charming octogenarian is so natural. It occurs to me that beauty has no boundaries and has little to do with age.
An idea also comes to mind: artistic photography on older women, which is a real food for thought for a photography enthusiast like me.
Kazuliah Mohamad Taufek’s photogenic demeanor just inspired me to take portraits of older women and immerse myself in their beauty.
Earlier, I was told that she is one of the most prominent “tukang hias” (a Sarawak Malay term for bridal makeup artist) in Kuching, known for her authentic Malay wedding costumes. I was asked to interview him about his classic collection for a book on traditional Sarawak Malay textiles that I had been commissioned to do.
There’s more to ‘Kak (Sister) Kajuk’, as she’s affectionately called, than meets the eye. Besides her grace and charm, I find her story interesting in that she can be a source of positive thoughts for women of all ages. A ‘tukang hias’ for over six decades, she is still in love with the art of beauty and still is.
The saying, “We are shaped and shaped by what we love” couldn’t be more true. It’s not so much what excites her, it’s her unwavering passion for what she loves. Perhaps this explains the timeless beauty of the woman – she has a life and is simply in love with it.
His family history is also remarkable. Born to a Japanese father, Seiji Kuno, who took the name Mohamad Taufek when he embraced Islam, and a Malay mother, Ejah Rais, Kak Kajuk is also proud of her Japanese roots.
“My Japanese name is Kazuko. I used the name ‘Kazuliah’ when I was going to school for convenience. Many had trouble pronouncing my Japanese name,” she explains.
Going through old photo albums, she sheds light on her Japanese roots. Her father was one of the Japanese immigrants who came to Sarawak before the war and assimilated well into the local community through intermarriage. Kuno, a sturdy and handsome young man who was a member of the House of Samurai, arrived in Kuching in 1910 with a group of enterprising Japanese to start a rubber plantation.
He converted to Islam after being raised by Kajuk’s maternal grandfather, who then arranged for him to marry his daughter Ejah. Kak Kajuk’s mother was 16 when she married her father. They had eight children and the youngest was Kak Kajuk, born during the war.
Having a Japanese father
Her father was already fluent in the local Malay, but with a bit of a Japanese accent. He also knew how to read the Koran in Arabic as well as write in Jawi (a writing system based on Arabic alphabets and numbers) and even gave religious lessons.
Due to his fluency in Malay, he became an interpreter for Japanese officials during the Japanese occupation. However, after the surrender of the Japanese in 1945, he was detained by the British, despite being a simple Japanese civilian and not a war criminal.
While in detention, he received a lot of support from Malay community leaders who called for his release, saying he was a devout Muslim and an advocate for the local community against Japanese aggression during the Japanese occupation. .
During the internment of Japanese civilians, the British ignored any form of demonstrated loyalty to the local population or assimilation that had taken place. Consequently, all Japanese civilians from Sarawak were repatriated to Japan in 1946, and Kuno was no exception. But later he managed to return to Kuching and reunite with his family.
“My father lived and died in Kuching,” says Kak Kajuk.
Many years after his death, Kak Kajuk, who speaks some Japanese, and his siblings still keep in touch with their cousins and other close relatives on their father’s side in Japan. His last visit to his father’s home country was in 2019.
Even as a ‘tukang hias’, Kak Kajuk easily identifies alongside both of her parents, being proud of her collection of traditional Malay and Japanese bridal attire. Flipping through her well-maintained albums, she shows me photographs of some of the brides and wedding ceremonies she had attended as a ‘tukang hias’.
She also keeps photographs of brides from her mother’s time in the 1950s-1960s – the beautiful faces her mother had adorned. Her mother, affectionately known as “Hajah Ejah”, was a popular and well-known bridal makeup artist at the time.
There weren’t many “tukang hias” at the time. It was her great-aunt who passed on the beauty profession to Kak Kajuk’s mother.
Her great-aunt was a bridal makeup artist long before World War II. Apparently, Kak Kajuk is the only one from the third generation of her family line to carry on the family tradition. Her two older sisters were also bridal makeup artists, but not for long.
Like her late mother, Kak Kajuk has had a passion for crafts since she was little. Even then, she had followed her mother to many Malay villages, watching her and helping her adorn the brides. She became a ‘tukang hias’ apprentice at an early age.
“My mother was an avid makeup artist. I remember she used ‘Max Factor’, which was a very well-known cosmetics brand then. Her toner, cream, basic foundation, face powder were mostly from the same brand, which she bought from Kwong Heng Lee, a famous outlet among beauty enthusiasts at the time” , she recalls.
Nurse on weekdays, ‘tukang hias’ on weekends
Most weddings normally took place during weekends and so Kak Kajuk was able to join Hajah Ejah even when she was a student at St Teresa’s School where she had her primary and secondary education. It was an interesting learning experience for young Kak Kajuk, who after graduating from high school, left for New Zealand in 1962 to take dental care for school children under the Colombo Plan scholarship.
When she returned two years later and started her career as a school dental nurse in the government dental service, she took Hajah Ejah’s place as a ‘tukang hias’, the latter having decided to retire. This made her a dental nurse on weekdays and a “tukang hias” on weekends.
As a school dental nurse, she had worked at several schools, including St Thomas and St Joseph, while her passion for bridal makeup continued. After 20 years as a dental nurse, she quit to care for her elderly mother who could no longer walk.
She would continue to be a “tukang hias”.
Today, as she remains true to her calling, I am amazed at how much she has contributed to the Malay community and continued Sarawak’s rich cultural heritage with her lifelong passion for bridal makeup.
For one thing, the job of a ‘tukang hias’ is not just to adorn the bride. She performs the traditional ritual baths for the bride and groom, including the preparation of the traditional herbal drink for them before proceeding with the make-up session. After that, she skillfully does the traditional “sanggul” (bun) for the bride.
She assists the bride and groom with their wedding suits and accessories, usually provided by her, to present them as ‘Raja Sehari’ (king and queen for the day) during the ‘bersanding’ ceremony (an expected moment when the couple is seated side by side on a decorated stage at the wedding reception).
The ‘tukang hias’ is also required for the ‘belulut’ ceremony – a custom usually held before the wedding reception after the ‘akad nikah’ (celebration ceremony). This is a shoot where the bride will be dressed in different outfits for a photo shoot normally seen by relatives and close friends.
Kak Kajuk traveled to almost every Malay village in Kuching for her work. She attended the daughters of local dignitaries and ministers for their weddings and all of her nieces and grand-nieces were adorned by her when they married.
She has adorned wives whose mothers she had previously adorned as wives, and she also cares for wives whose mothers had been adorned by her late mother at their weddings.
There were also cases where three generations of women from the same family had been adorned by Hajah Ejah and her daughter respectively.
Just as she carries on her mother’s legacy as a renowned ‘tukang hias’, Kak Kajuk inherits her family’s original ‘Gajah Olen’ collection – a stunning traditional Sarawak Malay bridal costume with precious gold embellishments. She is one of the few ‘tukang hias’ to own an original Gajah Olen, which is estimated to be over 100 years old.
Wearing the original Gajah Olen requires precision and patience on the part of the bride and the “tukang hias”, as it is difficult and time-consuming to put on the costume and accessories.
Kak Kajuk’s expertise is indisputable as a seasoned ‘tukang hias’, no doubt she has to do it painstakingly.
“In my mother’s time, the costume was for the ‘bersandage’ ceremony. Today we have reproductions of the traditional costume and they are normally worn for the ‘belulut’ ceremony,” she says.
Soon, his Gajah Olen will make an appearance again as one of his great-nieces gets married. I can see the excitement in her eyes when she announces that she will be his beautician. While many women her age prefer to take a “permanent break,” Kak Kajuk shows no signs of slowing down. She is always looking forward to pursuing her passion.
This is perhaps the secret of its timeless beauty.
From a dental nurse trained in New Zealand under the Colombo Plan scholarship, Kak Kajuk has never wavered from her passion for bridal grooming since her youth.
Her love for the art of beauty and traditional Malaysian wedding paraphernalia grew over time, as did her experience.
Soon, she became a household name in the local Malay community as a highly sought after ‘tukang hias’.
She is a rare breed in trade and art that few younger generations have shown interest in, let alone embrace the skill.