For many, souvenirs are an important part of travelling as they serve as reminders of happy memories abroad. However, the increase of global tourism has taken its toll on the environment, so travellers are now looking for ways to travel sustainably. Beyond choosing eco-friendly accommodations and transportation, this also includes cutting down on souvenir purchases. So what should you buy if you do want to take home a piece of the country you visited? Below, we look at Singaporeans' most popular travel destinations and explore 5 of each country's iconic souvenirs that are practical, ethical and can help you be a more sustainable traveller.
What Makes a Sustainable Souvenir?
An ethical and sustainable souvenir is generally categorised by a few factors. First, it is locally produced. When you purchase an item from a local artisan, you are not only supporting the local economy, but you are also supporting generations of cultural heritage. This is important in today's globalised world where many small artisans can not compete with mass-produced, cheap items from international companies. Second, the souvenir is not made from environmentally unfriendly sources. This includes items made from exotic woods or endangered animals that are often exploited. Third, the souvenir has a use-value. Purchasing something practical that you will use often reduces waste, in turn reducing your environmental impact. Another option for a practical souvenir is something consumable like food and beverages, especially if they are unique to the region.
Malaysia: Nyonya Beadwork
Malaysia remains the most popular tourist destination for Singaporeans. Its proximity and plethora of activities makes it an attractive destination whether you want to relax on the beach or try out the hottest new hawker stall in Kuala Lumpur. One souvenir you can consider getting in Malaysia are nyonya slippers. Not only do these slippers have a rich history, but it is a practical souvenir whose purchase will be in support of local artisans that have been diligently preserving the Peranaken cultural identity.
Nyonya beadwork originated in the early 20th century and is mainly referred to the beadwork on slippers (also called kasut manek). While originally worn by Peranaken men and women, they are now mainly worn by women. The motifs of the beadwork are of Chinese origin, but there is also some European influence, showing the integration of different cultures throughout Malaysia's rich history. Originally, the kasot manek were made of cut beads that now are no longer available, making vintage kasot maneks highly treasured. There are only a few shops in Penang and Melaka where you can find ready-made slippers or get fitted for custom shoes. Though shoes with nyonya beadwork can be pricey (around S$96-S$130 for pre-made options), the intricate and delicate craftsmanship can make them worth the money and give you something to wear on special occasions for many years to come.
Thailand: Thai Silk
Similar to Malaysia, Thailand is a great destination for anyone looking to experience great cuisine or relax among its tranquil natural wonders. While there are a plethora of crafts you can get just walking in the markets in cities like Bangkok, Thai silk is a good example of a practical souvenir that supports local communities, is environmentally friendly and can be a symbolic reminder of your time in Thailand. While Thai silk is traditionally derived from mulberry-eating silkworms, you can now purchase a more eco-friendly variety made from Eri silkworms that feed on cassava and castor leaves. Cassava leaves are typically discarded, but using them for silk means that the entire plant can be utilised, reducing waste. Furthermore, Thailand is the first country in the world who has received the "EU Flower" logo for its Thai silk—an indicator that its entire production process is recognised as environmentally friendly.
It is fairly easy to get fake Thai silk, so there are a few tells that can help you distinguish the fake from the real. First, you should look for a peacock emblem on the fabric, which was put in place by Thailand's Agriculture Ministry to prove the silk's authenticity. Second, the price of the silk will reflect its quality—typically, authentic silk will cost 10 times the price of fake silk (around 600 to 2,500 Baht). Creating silk is an arduous process so it would be highly unlikely artisans will only charge a few dollars per metre. Last, real silk should be able to pass easily through a wedding band and have a sheen when held up to light. You can visit the Chatuchak Market if you want to get silk directly from the source and support local craftsmen or from a silk shop (such as Jim Thomson and Anita Silk Shop) if you are looking for contemporary home decor or apparel.
Hong Kong: Hand-Painted Porcelain
Hong Kong is full of interesting things to see and purchase, meaning it should be fairly easy to avoid getting kitschy souvenirs. Whether you go shopping for Chinese antiques on Upper Lascar Row or stop by a Sasa store to get the popular Po Sum On healing balm, it is easy to find unique items to bring back to Singapore. However, if you are looking for something that is ubiquitous with Hong Kong, you can consider purchasing hand-painted porcelain from Yuet Tung China Works. Producing porcelain since 1928, Yuet Tung China Works is the only hand-painted porcelain factory in Hong Kong and sells a range of tableware, including dinner sets, tea sets and mugs. It specialises in Guang Cai porcelain, which originated in the city of Guangzhou. While prices are hard to come by online, visitors have said prices are reasonable for sale items but can get expensive for bespoke dinner sets.
Hand-painted porcelain is becoming a dying art due to the decreased interest in learning the old painting techniques and the rise of mass produced porcelain. Thus, this can make it a great sustainable souvenir for several reasons. First, you will be supporting local artisans that have devoted their time to keeping a cultural artform alive. Second, you will also help support Joseph Tso Chi-chung's (one of the porcelain Yuet Tung's artisans) venture to provide free education to teens who want to learn traditional hand-painting techniques.
Bali: Batik Textiles
Though Indonesia is made up of thousands of islands, Singaporeans mainly travel to Bali to enjoy its historical sites and famous beaches. While Indonesia is known for a variety of crafts ranging from intricate woodwork to silverwork, its most recognised cultural craft is the batik. In fact, in 2009, UNESCO recognised the Indonesian batik as a Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. Thus, not only are you supporting local artisans, but you are also getting a souvenir of important cultural heritage.
The term "batik" refers to a centuries-old technique using a dye-resistant wax and dye to create designs on fabric. The wax acts to keep dye from seeping into areas that the artisan wants to keep undyed. In Bali specifically, the Batik fabric is traditionally used for the Balinese songket, which is used during religious rituals and wedding ceremonies. However, to avoid appropriating ceremonial garments, you can get traditionally-made Balinese batik textiles as skirts, shirts or dresses. While you can find ready-made Balinese batik textiles in shops in Ubud, you can also take a class in one of the several Batik workshops where you can practice the craft on your own for a truly unique souvenir. Batik-making workshops are also a fairly affordable activity, costing around S$50 for 1-2 day workshops.
Taiwan: Oolong Tea
Taiwan is famous for many things: night markets, electronics, jade and mountain retreats. However, one item that definitely takes the prize for being both uniquely Taiwanese while helping you support local economies is tea.
Taiwanese tea is markedly different from its Chinese counterparts, making it a good purchase if you want something relevant to the destination. Taiwan's tea culture became established during the Qing Dynasty, when immigrants from the Fujian province settled in Taiwan and started farming the tea seedlings they brought with them. Taiwanese oolong, specifically, is a highly sought after tea due to its longstanding history, county-specific varieties and high quality. Furthermore, Taiwan has been making strides to make its tea farms eco-friendly and sustainable. After the government started destroying tea farms in 2016, tea farmers have turned to organic farming methods without the use of pesticides and chemical fertilisers.
The price of the teas will reflect all these features. For instance, white tip oolong tea that is exclusive to Taiwan, cost S$46 per quarter pound in 2017. Other oolong teas can cost S$15 to S$50 per 100 grams. While these teas are available globally online, we would recommend staying close to the source to support the local economy directly. For instance, you can visit Zenique or Wistaria Tea House in Taipei. You can also check out Eco-Cha, a Taiwan-based online tea retailer that sources teas from sustainable and traditional farms. Beyond just bringing back a tea that you can consume and enjoy with friends and family, you can also learn about its production. A tea farm tour can cost between S$50 per day to S$365 for a 2-day private tour.
Souvenirs You Should Avoid
There are also souvenirs you should avoid, either because they harm the environment or because they are simply culturally disrespectful. Examples include tortoise-shell, ivory, coral, rosewood and seashell products. For example, tortoise-shell products are typically made from the shells of endangered Hawksbill sea turtles, while coral is endangered and takes years to grow back and seashells are frequently illegally harvested and traded. Similarly, Rosewood takes years to grow and has been put under trade protection due to heavy trafficking. Finally, ivory—along with other exotic animal product—souvenirs usually come from illegal wildlife exploitation and hunting. If you are unsure if a souvenir is ethical or allowed to be sold, you can ask the shop for a CITE permit or see whether or not you need to declare the souvenir upon returning to Singapore.
There is also the question of mementos that can be seen as culturally insensitive. Examples of these include artifacts or stones from Greek archeological marvels, pieces of the Berlin Wall and other artifacts from similarly solemn sites. Not only is this technically stealing but you will also be taking away important pieces of history that should remain part of the site for everyone to enjoy. Similarly, getting religious objects from a country that holds that religion close to its cultural heart is frowned upon. A good example of this is buying Buddha statues in Thailand for decorative, rather than religious, purposes. As a general rule, your aim should be to remain respectful of the culture of whatever country you're visiting. Also you should make sure your souvenirs will be accepted by Singaporean customs. Any items taken by customs officials will not be financially reimbursed even with the most flexible travel insurance policy.