Love can unite but so can hats.
Pax Tan, an avid hat collector – and wearer – can attest to this. The 62-year-old pastor doesn’t just obtain any hat but sources the ones authentic to a particular place or tribe.
“When I first got interested in hats about 15 years ago, I struggled as to when to wear them. On the occasion that I did, people would stop to ask questions and strike up a conversation. Then I realised that hats were a way to talk about different cultures,” says Tan.
His journey into the kingdom of hats started when Tan was given a Nepali hat by a fellow pastor. It was from a particularly remote area somewhere in the Himalayas. At that time, Nepalis were beginning to arrive in Malaysia to work and, like all foreigners, they sought familiar objects.
“Many of them come from rural areas and, when they saw me wearing the hat, they’d get excited. It became a topic to start off a conversation and stimulate discussion. So these hats hold a special significance. I now have three from Nepal,” says Tan, who retired from the non-governmental organisation Malaysian Care four years ago.
That episode sparked off his interest and, since then, he has collected hats from more than 60 countries – from Pakistan to Ethiopia, Bali to Russia, and Turkey to China. Tan can be seen wearing them at festivals and community gatherings.
Whenever he travels, he’d ask his friends or tour guides to take him to places where he can purchase local hats.
“Sometimes, I’d read up on the culture or the people, or watch a documentary, to know more about the history of these places and hats,” he says.
Tan has a particular affinity towards a Russian hat which be purchased from a small Muslim market.
His eyes brighten up as he recalls, “Can you imagine … a Muslim market in Russia? My hats are not very expensive because most of them are worn by common people. I’ve also got some jester hats to entertain children with. I think the hats attract the most attention among youths from China. When I tell them they’re not for sale, they want to snatch them from me!”
Usually, he’ll match the hat with its national costume but, lately, Tan has decided to mix and match to showcase the unity and diversity of cultures. For example, you may find him juxtaposing an Arabian costume with a Jewish skull cap, or a Chinese costume with a Kelabit straw hat.
When he attended a church programme recently, he donned a Chinese cap with an Indian costume. Whatever he wears, you can bet Tan’s attire is colourful.
“I love colours,” he says unabashedly.
Incidentally, his name Pax means peace. He took on the name after the Roman goddess of peace.
But, really, Tan is a collector of sorts. He began by inheriting his father’s stamp collection.
“My wife went ballistic!” he says. “We were on holiday and perhaps the humidity or something caused the cans to leak. When we returned, many of them had liquid oozing out. I was forced to give away the remaining ones. So that marked the end of that hobby.
“Also, with the Coke cans, people have to come (to my house) to see my collection but, with the hats, I can bring it to people. It gives me a chance to influence people and of course, draw attention to myself! It’s good when my self-esteem is a bit low at that point.”
Tan doesn’t use his hats to shield himself from the sun because he tends to sweat more with a hat on, depending on the material it’s made from.
Tan’s hats are neatly stored in bags and containers and don’t need much cleaning. He also has about 40 caps along with the 80-odd hats.
“I keep them out of view from the one that rules the house,” he whispers, looking around to make sure the missus was not in sight.
“My skin has gotten thicker over the years so I’ve learnt to take criticisms,” he says, chuckling. “Sometimes, my wife will refuse to walk with me because I’m attracting too much attention. And when I’m all dressed, my daughter’s favourite phrase is ‘Dad … lame!’
“But people are generally friendlier to you when you wear a hat. I want to let them see I appreciate their culture and that I encourage harmony. We cannot always leave things to chance.”
He doesn’t know what he’ll do with his collection since neither of his two children are interested in pursuing his hobby.
“I haven’t thought about it yet. I may be the first to write the hats in my will,” he says.