Just before sunset, a hush fell over the crowd as Daud stepped into the clearing. His catch man was waiting for him, and the gentle rustle of coconut fronds was all that disturbed the silence as the spectators' eyes fell to Daud's right hand. He held in that hand a legendary three-kilogram (7-lb) throwing top called Anak Harimau ("Tiger Cub"). Daud's chief rival, Mohammed Ariffin Hussein, had just thrown the great Kacang Puteh ("White Bean"), and in a few moments Daud would make the final throw in what had been a daylong competition between two small rice-farming villages on the east coast of Malaysia.
Daud stood motionless in the fading light as he focused his thoughts on his grip and on his target—a carefully prepared slab of clay five meters (16') away. With the top held just above his right shoulder, he turned his body sideways, hiked his sarong above his knees and spread his legs for balance. It was the position of a martial arts master ready to do battle. He leaned back slightly, lifted the top high in the air, paused, and then rushed forward to unleash it with a powerful throw that lifted him off the ground. In a blur of motion too quick for the untrained eye, the top flew through the air, bounced up from the clay surface and was caught on a wooden paddle by the catch man. It had been a near-perfect throw and pick-up, and an audible gasp rose from the crowd as the top was slid onto its oiled stand. The throw and the catch had been executed in a fraction of a second.
"Ada gigi!"("Now that one has teeth!") I heard a man exclaim; describing the spin on Tiger Cub.
The spectators broke up into smaller groups while Tiger Cub, one of the entries from Kampong Dusong Durian—Durian Orchard Village—was placed next to White Bean, the undisputed champion from Kampong Kayu Besar—Big Wood Village—and the stands on which the other competing tops whirled. For now, there was nothing to do but wait. After one and a half hours, the weaker tops would begin to wobble and fall, and sometime after the moon had lifted into the night sky the last top left standing would be declared the winner. While the tops whirled on their stands, Daud selected a coconut shell and sat down to continue our conversation about main gasing —the fine art of Malaysian top-spinning.
In most countries, top-spinning is not a grown man's sport; but in the villages along the east coast of Malaysia, especially in the state of Kelantan, contests are held throughout the year, and the pastime has developed into a major social, cultural and athletic phenomenon. Approximately 500 men and boys had come from 10 nearby villages to watch local stars such as Daud and Hussein in the competition I observed.
Originally practiced as a way to pass the time during the leisure months when the rice was ripening in the fields, top-spinning eventually became a regional sport, and the statewide top top competition, held in September in Kota Baru, now draws thousands of people from around the country. The event lasts five days and the winners occasionally go on world tours to help promote Malaysian culture. Daud, to my surprise, had thrown tops in London, Berlin, Paris, San Francisco, New York and Los Angeles. He discussed the different forms of public transport in all of these cities and then went on to describe the great excitement he had created in New York when he threw his top in Central Park one Sunday afternoon. Looking at him perched on his coconut, I found it very difficult to imagine Daud in Central Park.
Earlier in the day, vendors had arrived by bicycle or motor scooter and food stalls were now set up in the shade of nearby trees. Each offered a different specialty: crispy, sweet-fleshed watermelons, hot milky tea and coffee, cold soft drinks, freshly crushed sugar-cane juice served with a squeeze of lime, and an assortment of Malay sweets—one of them a flattened oblong disk called kueh lutut—knee-cap cake. There were men selling loose tobacco and bundles of dried banana leaf for rolling cigarettes. One man displayed hand-forged grass-cutting knives; another was doing a brisk trade repairing lighters and eyeglass frames. The vendors were as organized as the top-spinning teams, and this loosely knit confederation of small-time operators formed an integral part of the event.
The competition that day was one in a monthly series, and 15 men from each team competed in five rounds of 30 tops each. They started around 11 o'clock in the morning and continued until after nightfall, throwing 150 tops in all. It was the middle of the week, and I realized how unusual it was to find a culture and a place where adults could still afford the luxury of spending the day competing with giant tops. But despite the widely publicized regional and state championships, Daud told me, top-spinning is a village affair, and it is at this level of competition that one can best appreciate the social nuances, the athleticism, and the formalized rituals that are at the heart of the art.
After each round, while the 30 tops spun on their stands, lubricated with coconut oil, there was a 90-minute intermission during which the men got down to the serious business of discussing politics and farming, arranging marriages, gossiping, buying and selling tops, making new friends, or visiting with family members. Listening to the conversations going on around me, I realized they were one of the most important features of the day and that, for many of the participants, the top-spinning was secondary: The primary purpose of the gathering was to bring men of all ages together, to nurture village pride and exchange information.
Only a highly skilled craftsman can produce a top that will spin for two hours; those men are rare, and their tops are named: Dey-bet ("Homeboy"), Kachang Puteh ("White Bean"), Hitam Manis ("Sweet Blackie") and Anak Harimau ("Tiger Cub"). The tops, known as gasing in Malay, are turned on a foot-powered lathe from a disk of highly figured hardwood, and edged with a thick circumferential "tire" of lead. They measure between 20 and 25 centimeters (9-10") in diameter and about two centimeters (¾ ") in thickness, and weigh between 2.5 and 3.5 kilos (6-8 lbs). A short cylinder of aluminum or brass protrudes from the upper surface, to which the throwing rope will be attached, and atop this cylinder is a decorative spindle, which can be tapped with a finger to bring the spinning top to vertical. The spindles look like elongated chess pieces; they are made of brass or sterling silver and, on the best tops, are very finely crafted. No betting is allowed, of course, but tops may be bought and sold, and a winning top can command around 500 Malay dollars (approximately $200). A merely average top sells for a fifth of that.
When the top is hurled, the tapered, five-meter (16-ft) throwing rope, called raffia, unwinds to give the top its spin. The top flies through the air and, if all goes well, lands on the smooth clay platform, known as tanah Hat, which measures approximately a meter (3') square and 20 to 25 centimeters (9-10") high. The instant the top hits the clay surface the catch man scoops it up with a wooden paddle and places it on a hardwood stand called a chaga. With luck, a good top will spin on the stand for nearly two hours. A misguided top, heavy and hard-thrown, could easily break a spectator's leg or kill the catch man, yet injuries are rare.
The art of top-spinning, part dance, part discus throw, requires physical strength as well as finesse. With a reasonable amount of practice, most people can get one of these tops to spin, but real skill comes only after years of experience. Thus, though competitors vary in age, a tukang gasing, or "master of the top," is usually middle-aged, and when one of them prepares to throw, people fall silent to watch the performance.
Supporting the tukang gasing in competition is a team of up to 40 people. Daud was the captain of the Dusong Durian team, which included 15 throwers, several top makers, top tuners, top polishers, rope winders, a catch man, and a specialist whose sole function was to apply a few drops of oil, with the tip of a feather, to the base of each top as it was carried spinning from the ring.
The actual throwing ring is a flat, grassy area that surrounds the landing platform, typically encircled by fruit trees and coconut palms. To one side there is a shelter where the tops are placed while they spin. Each team sets up its own tarp-shaded work area where the tops are laid out on wooden frames until it is time to prepare them for throwing.
The ritual of preparation involves a tremendous amount of cigarette smoking and talking, and great attention to detail. The older men are good at the delicate job of tuning the tops. They sit in the shade and balance each one by shaving delicate threads of lead from its outer edge with a double-edged razor blade as the top spins on a hand-held base. Fine lead tinsel drapes their fingers. Once patience and skill have finally brought the top into perfect balance, the hardwood spinning tip is burnished with a few careful strokes of a special stone. The top is then handed to a second man who cleans and polishes it with kerosene.
The next step is the application of a honey-colored tree resin, called gitah qween. The sap is daubed onto the upper surface of the top with a short stick, and then spread evenly with a scrap of rag. The sap helps the throwing rope stay in place and grip the top as it leaves the thrower's hand. While this is going on, other team members are applying a different type of sap to the throwing rope, using short sections of discarded motorcycle tire to help spread it along the rope's length. No one seems to be in any particular hurry, and it can take an hour or more to prepare the top and the rope for winding.
Strong-armed specialists then wind the tapered throwing rope onto the top. They first tie the looped end of the rope to a tree, then step back to begin the winding process. Starting with the thinner end of the rope pulled taut against the base of the central spindle, they wind it clockwise. When they're done, the tukang gasing comes over to test the tension of the rope with his finger tip or knuckle, listening for a particular sound.
When the top is finally ready for throwing, the tukang gasing slips the loop of rope over his wrist and grasps the top: Its bottom surface is pressed against the palm of his hand, the spinning point between the tips of his fingers, the edge held between the base of his thumb and his index finger. Because of the weight of the top and the rough surface of the rope, some throwers wear a protective cloth band around their wrist.
On the day I spent with the top-spinners, the early rounds of throwing were conducted with a casual air that bordered on indifference. But, as successive rounds ended, I began to notice discreet sideways glances as the throwers measured the skills and the tops of the other team. The carefree mood of the crowd and the competitors changed dramatically when it was time for the fifth and final round of throwing. By this time the top-spinners were warmed up and relaxed, and the mood of the spectators was just right for the main event.
The most famous tops were unveiled with a nice touch of ceremony and then prepared for the final round. These tops were of higher quality than the ones I had seen previously, their spindles crafted by silversmiths, their beautifully figured wood surfaces polished to perfection. They looked like contemporary high-tech sculpture.
Daud had kept Tiger Cub in a special box for most of the day, wrapped in yellow cloth. "Yellow is the color of royalty in Malaysia, and this will help the top, because only royalty can spin well," he said.
I wasn't sure I followed his reasoning, but there was no doubt that his top was a thing of great beauty. The body of Tiger Cub was an iridescent disk of wood made up of naturally occurring bands of black and gold. The lead edging of this veteran top was patterned with a subtle texture of old battle wounds, which added great character. White Bean, on the other hand was named after a wood that looked like ancient ivory. It too, was an old top, but its upper surface was strangely unmarked by use. I judged them to be worthy opponents.
The final round was conducted with great ceremony. In a loud voice, the caller announced the throwers, in order, and when all 30 men had thrown their tops, there was little to do but wait. By the time the moon came up, the tops had been spinning for more than an hour, and not too long after that the first tops began to wobble. One hour and 30 minutes had elapsed since Daud had made the last throw, and spectators were now standing shoulder to shoulder, jostling each other, as more tops began to slow down. Ten minutes later the first top rolled from its stand, and several more followed suit. Tiger Cub and White Bean continued to spin, side by side, and the tension began to build.
Someone called out the time: one hour and 45 minutes. It was certain that White Bean and Tiger Cub would be the last to fall. Each developed a wobble, slow and subtle at first. As they began to lose momentum and balance, the spectators crowded in tightly to cheer on their favorites. By one our and 51 minutes all the other tops had fallen. White Bean and Tiger Cub were barely turning, but they seemed to be held upright by some force beyond physics. On previous occasions, both tops had lasted past the two-hour mark, but it was unlikely that this contest would last that long. Both tops were ready to fall—but which one would go first?
Then it happened. The mighty White Bean fell over on its' stand, but continued to whirl on its edge without falling to the ground. Moments later Tiger Cub did the same. White Bean completed a few revolutions before coming to a halt and Tiger Cub followed suit perhaps 30 seconds later. Was this a victory for Tiger Cub, I wondered?
From the tone of the conversations that burst out at that moment, I couldn't be sure. White Bean had been thrown just before Tiger Cub, and because it was unclear precisely how much time had elapsed between the throws, it was also unclear which top had actually spun longer. To my way to thinking, the contest had ended in a perfect tie, but I was a stranger, unswayed by village loyalty. For the rest of the spectators, neutrality was not an option, and the question of which top was the better remained deliciously unanswered.
The talk would go on for hours, days, or weeks—or possibly months or years. I needed to stretch my legs and, as I walked off into the tropical night, the excited voices gradually faded in the distance. No doubt Tiger Cub and White Bean would meet again, and next time they might be balanced by different men, or perhaps more attention would be devoted to smoothing the spinning point. But until that time, there was also no doubt that the supporters of White Bean and Tiger Cub would each claim total victory.
Eric Hansen is the author of Stranger in the Forest: On Foot Across Borneo and Motoring with Mohammed: Journeys to Yemen and the Red Sea. He lives in Sacramento, California.