Here at Tales of Thread we love, love, love to read. Textiles are often threaded through historical narratives: providing context and background to characters’ stories that inspire and inform us. Through our travels textile trading places such as souqs and markets indicate how traditional skills are valued, what is imported and what is considered in style locally.
Amitav Ghosh’s novels frequently draw on cloth, merchants to wave his well researched books.
River of Smoke, about the opium trade in the 19th century, illustrates just how integral fabric was to people’s personal sense of self and status with society. Second-hand markets was an important opportunity for people to trade and reinvent themselves through clothes. Following extract from River of Smoke, Amitav Ghosh – not to be coped.
Who were they to be?
The question weighed not just on Ah Fatt and Neel but on everyone who visited the weekly clothes market in the Chulia Kampung, where many of Singapore’s lightermen, coolies and petty tradespeople lived. This was one of the poorest quarters of the makeshift new frontier town, a mushrooming bustee of bamboo-walled shanties and pile-raised shacks, squeezed between dense jungle on one side and marshy swamplands on the other.
The market was held in an open field, adjoining one of the tributary creeks of the Singapore River. The road that led there was not much more than a muddy pathway, and most of the bazar’s visitors come by boat. From the Malay and Chinese parts of town people came in perhaus and hired twakow rivercraft, while sailors and lascars usually came directly from their ships, in brightly painted tongkang lighters, bearing the wares they hoped to sell or barter; sweaters knitted on ‘make-and-mend’ days; tunics of stitched selvage and wadmarel; oilskins and pea-jackets recovered from the fernan bags of drwoned shipmates.
In appearance and atmosphere, the bazar was not unlike the weekly markets and fairs that gather around villages everywhere: it had its share of itinerant pedlars and hawkers, entertainers and snack-sellers, meat hawkers and muff-mongers – but the clothes-stalls were the main attraction, and it was those that most of the vistors went.
Amongst sailors and Iascars the bazar was known as the ‘Wordy-Market’ which suggested that it had once been a market for vardis, or soldier’s uniform. Many garments of that description were still to be found there: certainly there were few other places in the world were a grenadier’s mitre could be exchanged for a Mongol-wind bonnet, or an infantryman’s shell-jacket for a pair of Zouave pyjamas. But these regimental items were not the market’s only wares; over the two decades of its existence the wordy-market had gained an unusual kind of renown, not just within Singapore, but far beyond. In the surrounding peninsulars, islands and headlands it was spoken of simply as the ‘Pakain Pasar’ – the Clothes Market – and was known to be a place where every kind of garment coulds be bought and sold – from Papuan penis sheaths to Sulu skirts, from Bengal saris to Bagobo trousers. Well-heeled visitors to the island might prefer to do their shopping in the European and Chinese stores around Commercial Square, but for those of slender means and pinched purses – or those with no coins at all, but only fish and fowl to barter – this market listed on no map and unknown to any municipality, was the place to go: for where else could a woman exchange a Khmer sampot for a Bilaan jacket? Where else could a fisherman trade a sarong for a coattee, or a conical rain-hat for a Balinese cap? Where else could a man go, clothed in nothing but a loincloth, and walk away in a whalebone corset and silk slippers?
Some of these articles of clothing came from imperious pilgrims, missionaries, soldiers and travellers who farther afield, having been robbed, purloined or pirated at distant corners of the Indian Ocean – for amongst those who regularly plied these waters, it was well known that there was no better place than the Wordy-Market in which to dispose of stolen garments. Here, even more than in other bazars, buyers were well advised to examine their goods carefully because many were marked by bloodstains, bullet holes, dagger punctures and other unsightly disfigurements. Caution was especially necessary with the more sumptuous garments – panelled chaopao coats and embroidered chang-fu robes – for many of these were retrieved from tombs and graves, and would often, upon inspection, be found to have been gnawed by worms. But if there were risks in shopping here, they were amply offset by the rewards: in what other place could a deserter exchange his tricorn and gorget for a suit of English clothes? That such a place would not be allowed to continue for ever was clear enough, but while it lasted, the Wordy-Market was recognised to be a god-send by all.
From River of Smoke, Amitav Ghosh, pp. 121-123; John Murray (Publishers); 2012. Not for further publication