Preserving the Singhora roof heritage

Proud to have inherited her family’s legacy that is over 100 years old, Noraini is enjoying good business

by SHANIKA ABDULLATIB / pic by BERNAMA

IN TRADITIONAL Malay architecture, one of the most imposing parts of a structure is its roof. In fact, the roof is accorded so much significance that there is even a Malay saying dedicated to it: “Tak dapat tengok orangnya, dapat pandang bumbung rumah pun dah memadai menghilangkan rindu.

And speaking of roofs, a heritage Malay architecture called Singhora comes to mind. Derived from a Malay word that means “city of lions”, Singhora refers to roofing tiles that are made of clay and moulded manually with one’s hands and legs.

Roofs cladded with Singhora tiles are unique to Malay houses in the east coast of the peninsula. There used to be a dozen or so Singhora tile makers in Malaysia, but over the years, the number has trickled to just one in Kampung Pengkalan Baru in Bachok, Kelantan, about 25km from the state capital Kota Baru.

Meet Noraini Jusoh, 52, the fifth-generation member of a family of Singhora tile makers, who learnt the art of making the tiles from her father.

Proud to have inherited her family’s legacy that is over 100 years old, she is enjoying good business as there is a continuous demand for the unique and aesthetically appealing reddish-coloured tiles from resort developers and operators, as well as individuals and traditional architecture buffs.

Kelantanese-Thai Craftsmanship

Noraini makes an effort to remain relevant in the industry by innovating her tiles to match the more modern artistic structures, such as gazebos, pergolas and chalets.

There is a continuous demand for the unique and aesthetically appealing reddish- coloured tiles from resorts, individuals and traditional architecture buffs

“I’m grateful people are making an effort to preserve the Singhora tile heritage which has its origins in Kelantan and Songkhla (in southern Thailand) craftsmanship,” she told Bernama when met at her workshop.

Noraini, who once received an order for 37,000 pieces for a project in Sabak Bernam, Selangor, said she and her nine workers, eight of whom are women, were kept busy even during the Movement Control Order as they had several orders to fulfil.

She wants to mechanise her operations to boost production, but will still retain some of the traditional techniques of making the clay tiles.

“I want to preserve the old ways, not only for our present generation to get to know their heritage better, but also to promote this place (workshop) to tourists,” she said.

Her Singhora tiles adorn the roofs of Joghra Palace in Banting, Selangor; Kampung Laut Mosque in Kelantan; as well as Lake Kenyir Resort in Kuala Berang and Peladang Agro Resort in Setiu, Terengganu.

Roof Tile Mould

Noraini and her workforce of nine can produce 1,000 pieces of tiles within a four-hour period. The production process starts at 8am with a machine kneading the clay, sourced from the nearby riverbank, into soft clumps. The clay is now ready to be moulded into tiles.

I’m not doing this just for myself, but to preserve the Singhora roof heritage, says Noraini

First, some paddy husk ash is spread over the roof tile mould to prevent the clay from sticking to the implement. Then, it is time to perform a little “dance” — the worker would take a clump of clay and place it on the mould before compressing it downwards by using her right foot. The worker then uses a wire cutter to cut and remove the one-centimetre thick clay slab from the mould.

“This process takes less than five minutes to complete. The more experienced workers can do it faster,” said Noraini, who has five children.

The moulded clay pieces are then sun-dried for an hour after which they are ready to be baked in an igloo-shaped furnace made of bricks and clay.

“I will usually wait for 50,000 pieces of moulded clay to be completed before baking them. It takes us about three months to accumulate that number,” she added.

Durable, Easy to Maintain

The entire baking process takes 15 days. In the first 10 days, the clay pieces are baked over a small fire, while the heat is increased over the remaining five days. Noraini usually hires a few men to take charge of this process.

“The gok (or furnace as it is known as in Kelantanese dialect) can bake up to 40,000 clay pieces at any one time,” she said.

After they are properly baked, the clay tiles — each 12.7cm wide and 25.4cm long— are left to cool down for 10 days before they are sold at 90 sen apiece.

Asked if the tiles are durable, Noraini replied, smiling: “Even when the house owner is gone (passed away), the tiles remain as strong as ever.”

Pointing to a house near her workshop, she said it was built 62 years ago with its roof sporting Singhora tiles resembling fish scales. The tiles, she added, can last 80 to 90 years and need only simple maintenance.

Noraini said her family started promoting their Singhora roof tiles on social media in 2010. Her daughter Norashikin Hassan, 30, who works in Kuala Lumpur, takes care of the online promotions.

“The response has been good and we even landed a deal to supply 100,000 pieces of tiles for a project in Ulu Langat, Selangor,” said Noraini, adding that her business is also listed on e-Kraf Bazar set up by the Malaysian Handicraft Development Corp (Kraftangan Malaysia).

Recently, she received RM70,000 in financial assistance from Kraftangan Malaysia and a clay kneading machine from Universiti Malaysia Kelantan.

“Besides the ongoing promotions and assistance we receive from the authorities, there is enough supply of clay in nearby salt- water rivers to keep my operations going.

“I’m not doing this just for myself, but to preserve the Singhora roof heritage, as well as offer opportunities to the local community to generate a side income,” she added. — Bernama