What A Hat Can Tell Us

Asian Hat Collection Donated by Barbara Park

To buy a local hat when you are travelling is usually an impulse, but to buy over and over again, and patiently cataloguing them implies an intention. Barbara’s collection of 128 hats represents work from the hands of at least 128 craftsmen, and if we involve the communities who tend the plants and collect the materials, middleman who bring the hats to the market, there must be thousands pair of hands. The hats tell all these stories.

Once a hat is put on a body, it gains an identity. It becomes a symbolic representation of a tribe or community, identifying one’s profession and social status. Hats in this exhibition lead us to diversified cultures and enable us to see that what might have started as a hat for practicality becomes an extraordinary storyteller.

Pandanus leaf plaited hat with Six PeaksChina National Silk Museum

Hat with many peaks

Is this a traditional style or just another style for the tourist market? Unable to retrieve any further information, we looked around at other traditional Asian hats and found the "topi tunjang" headdress of the Iban tribe in the Island of Borneo, Sarawak, Malaysia.

The hat is quite an intricate craft: plaiting to create protruding peaks, while creating a pattern with the two colour strips. The basketry skills in the region are very sophisticated. Baskets and sacs made are often featured with similar patterns.

Sola topee side by Julius JeffreysChina National Silk Museum

Pith Helmet

The term “Pith Helmet” came from the design of a hat for Europeans in the hot tropical climate of Africa and India in the mid-19th century. The pith comes from the shola plant than grows in the marshy areas of India and other southeast Asia countries. The shola pith is white, lightweight, soft, easy to cut, heat resistant, and protective because of the thickness.

Solar Helmet made of palm leaves (1990)China National Silk Museum

Asian conical hats are round-shaped forms. In the mid-18th century, we see the influence of the western hat, which is based on an oval shape ( as the skull of Europeans is more of an elongated shape).

Officials from different nations in Jordan, 1921China National Silk Museum

The Pith Helmet is in this oval form and was quickly adopted in many lands, evolving to become part of government employees and civilians use. The hat form has been taken in many different materials and techniques, from plants to formed plastic.


Solar Helmet made of palm leaves, 2000, From the collection of: China National Silk Museum
Show lessRead more

A hard hat is a type of helmet used to protect the head from injury due to falling objects. Suspension bands inside the helmet spread the helmet's weight and the force of any impact over the top of the head.

Solar Helmet made of palm leaves, 2000, From the collection of: China National Silk Museum
Show lessRead more

In the early years of the shipbuilding industry, the was constant danger of dock workers being hit on the head by objects dropped from ship decks, workers covered their canvas hats with pitch (tar) and set them in the sun to cure. In the United States, early miners hats made of leather. World War I protective gear inspired the birth of the metal hardhat, with an internal suspension to provide a more protective headgear. Aluminium, fibreglass, thermoplastics are the many materials developed over the years.

This hard hat made of bamboo, with the stake and strand technique has the advantage of being lightweight and cool.

Gaddang Tribe style hat

Gaddang tribe style hat, with Buri palm, beads, knit cloth, 1990, From the collection of: China National Silk Museum
Show lessRead more

This highly decorative hat was purchased in the 1990s, from an antique gallery in Manila. It comes with a tag that states it is from the Gaddang tribe, made of buri palm, rattan and beads. The Gaddang people live in North Luzon, the Philippines, and their costumes display exquisite beadworks. We were not able to find any information relating the hat to the Gaddang people, whether the item is part of their culture or made solely for trade. We found commercial knit cloth on the hat, an indication of communication with the outside world.

Gaddang tribe style hat, with Buri palm, beads, knit cloth, 1990, From the collection of: China National Silk Museum
Show lessRead more

In the early 17th century, the arrival of the Spanish missionary to the Philippines created the distinction between the "Christianized" and "non-Christian" Gaddang. The successive influence through American occupation and Japanese occupation all has its impacts on the culture of the Gaddang people.

Hand-painted hat in greenChina National Silk Museum

Balinese Tourist Hat

For decades, the Indonesian island of Bali is a favourite tourist destination, with the exotic culture as the main attraction. Bali boasts one of the most diverse and innovative performing arts cultures in the world, at thousands of temple festivals, private ceremonies, and public shows.

Stories from Hindu epics such as the Ramayana but with heavy Balinese influence are portrayed. 

Hand-painted hat in green (2002)China National Silk Museum

These colourfully painted hats depicting stories of the Ramayana are attractive souvenirs for tourists, protecting them from the equatorial sun and rain.

Square duck farmer hat made of Palm Sheath (2002)China National Silk Museum

Bali Duck Herder’s hat

During the monsoon season in Bali, intervals of intense sun and heavy showers fill a single day. Nicknamed as the Duck herders hat, these huge hats are made from sturdy palm sheaths and said to also double as a container for collecting duck eggs.

Round duck farmer hat made of Palm SheathChina National Silk Museum

Ducks are for hire to go to paddy fields, their mission is to guard crops against insect attacks, eat up the weeds, and leave their manure behind as organic plant food. This technique, known as integrated rice-duck farming, was documented in China some 600 years ago.

Round duck farmer hat made of Palm SheathChina National Silk Museum

When we look at old photographs, hats used to be of these bigger sizes, like an umbrella, adequately protecting the wearer’s body from sun and rain. Today, hats are smaller, probably because of having to ride on public transportation and the availability of rain capes. These hats were acquired from a farmer’s provision store in Bali.

Sulawesi Toraja hat

Toraja hat with hexagonal decorations, 2004, From the collection of: China National Silk Museum
Show lessRead more

In Barbara’s notes, this hat was acquired from an antique shop in Bali and is a “Torajan Headman’s hat”. We found little information on this hat during the research; the only photo information that surfaced relate the hat to the unusual funeral ritual of the Torajans.

The Torajans are an ethnic group indigenous to a mountainous region of South Sulawesi, Indonesia. They are renowned for their elaborate funeral rites, burial sites carved into rocky cliffs, massive peaked-roof traditional houses known as tongkonan, and colourful wood carvings.

Toraja funeral rites are important social events, usually attended by hundreds of people and lasting for several days, with songs and dances, water buffalo fights and sacrifices. Mile-long processions move through a village, and finally, the coffin will be placed on the cliff, with an effigy displayed outside.

A highly detailed carved effigy of the deceased is created as a part of the traditional funeral practice for viewing and procession, and here we see a hat identical to Barbara’s is here. Whether this hat is explicitly made for this occasion is not known, as in other photos of the funeral, different types of hats are seen.

Egg shaped hat to be used with rain capeChina National Silk Museum

Natural Rainwear

This unique egg-shape hat is designed to channel pouring rain down the pointed end to the rain cape.

Egg shaped hat to be used with rain cape (1995)China National Silk Museum

The Philippines has a lot of rain, and in different regions, they created natural protective wear made from plant materials. This egg-shaped hat belongs to the Tausug people in southwest Philippines.

Gourd hat

Gourd Hat with painted flower, 2003, From the collection of: China National Silk Museum
Show lessRead more

The Tabungaw gourd hat is made from a big round gourd that is unique to the Philippines, which are part of the Cucurbitaceae family. Teofilo Garcia, a gourd hat maker, was named the National Living Treasure Awardee in 2012.

He plants his seeds in December, and harvest the crop in March. The gourds are left in the workshop to be cured and dried, then cut into two halves and left on the ground for about a month. Ants attracted to the rotting pulp will remove the insides, leaving the case empty. It is then finished by hand and left to dry completely.

The upper half of the gourd is used to make the Tabungaw. The bottom half becomes a container used around the house. After drying, the Tabungaw is naturally waterproof, then coloured and varnished.

The most time consuming and skillful part is the weaving of inner casing and lining which makes the hat sits comfortably on the user’s head. The interior lining is plaited with palm leaves, bamboo, or rattan. It takes an average of seven days to complete a hat which will last a lifetime if taken care of properly.

Bamboo Sheath hat with relief decorative pattern (2004)China National Silk Museum

Myanmar Thayo hat

Myanmar is famous for its lacquer work with many regional techniques. The Thayo technique is a relief-molded technique which involves preparing a fine lacquer and ash paste that is rolled into long threads and applied to a surface to form raised decorations.

This technique used on the bamboo sheath hats for ornamentation, we can see the Burmese horoscope animals, the boatman of Inle lake and vine pattern made with this technique.

Inle (2004) by Edorta SubijanaChina National Silk Museum

In the Inle Lake region, every year in October, an 18-day Hpaung Daw U Pagoda festival is held. Buddha images are put on replica Royal Barge boats to tour the area, and boat races attract a lot of visitors. These highly decorative hats are worn on this occasion and exchanged as gifts or sold to tourists.

Straw hat with faded red paper flowersChina National Silk Museum

Safflower hat

This hat with faded paper flowers resembles the hats used for the Yamagata Hanagasa Festival in Japan, the celebration of the safflower harvest.  The hat was meant for temporary use but being kept for a long time, the colour on the paper has faded.

Yamagata prefecture is known for its safflower (Carthamus tinctorius), a precious natural dye that dyes a brilliant pink and yellow. In ancient times, the value of safflower is ten times of gold. 

Hakka hat with black cloth shadeChina National Silk Museum

Hakka Hat

The Hakka hat became a symbol of Hong Kong’s New Territories village life since the 1950s. It has a hole in the middle to fit the head, and black pleated cotton around the edge for shading from the sun. Hakka women are known for their diligence both at home and in the fields.

The women used to weave a patterned ribbon to decorate their hat, and it also identifies the wearer. The patterns on the ribbons have auspicious meanings, and this one with the “seeds” pattern symbolises the wish for many sons to come.

How do you read a hat? We need the help of a botanist to identify the plant; We need the local person to tell us how they use the plant. We need to learn from the maker how to make it, and why it was made that way. We need to know who wears the hats, when and why. We also want to know other people’s opinion on the hat. We did not have the resources to all that, so we relied on different sources (Barbara’s notes, Wikipedia, blogs, books, friends) to put together for this exhibition.

Every hat requires cross-discipline studies, and it just proves how an artefact opens up a world of knowledge that we can explore. Let these stories inspire us to keep a curious mind to enjoy the world around us.

Credits: Story

Co-curators: ZHOU Yang, CHEUNG Sai May Edith 
Exhibition advisor: ZHAO Feng
Exhibition assistance: JIA Liling
Exhibition design: DONG Feiyan, WANG Jueying
Catalogue design: ZHANG Yuyan
Exhibits management: ZHANG Guowei,  MO Senyao
Exhibit photography: LI Yongjia

The Barbara Park Asian Hat Collection of 128 items was donated to the China National Silk Museum in 2016, to enable in-depth study of crafts and appreciation of the diversity of the natural world and cultures in the region.
Barbara is an Australian entrepreneur who has lived and worked in Hong Kong for over fifty years. Her parents and grandparents have all been keen gardeners and craftspeople, so her appreciation of nature is firmly in her blood. Her favourite colour is green. For twenty-five years she had a landscaping business throughout Asia, during which the collection of hats was amassed. She also collects a variety of Asian crafts including porcelain, wood carvings, baskets and textiles.
She is a Life Member of many cultural associations, including the Hong Kong Museum of Art, the Friends of the Museum, Chinese University, the Friends of the Hong Kong University Museum, The Oriental Ceramic Society of Hong Kong and the Hong Kong Gardening Society. So many handcrafts are disappearing in Barbara's lifetime that she felt dutybound to collect and is delighted that the hats can be shared with so many visitors from Hangzhou, China, and visitors from around the world.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
Explore more
Google apps