Being Sarawakian: The Reserved Tribe

All the while I was in the Peninsula, I have had the chance to mingle with people of different culture, mindset, attitudes and characteristics. This was through my college years and employment at two different companies.

Quite embarrassed to say, I feel like I know the people of the Peninsula more than I know my own people back home. Even more embarrassed when they ask me questions about my own state, I could not answer them confidently; worried that I would be the butt of or their jokes if they happen to know more that I do.

Here is the thing, I left Kuching before I turn 21 and basically grew up in the Peninsula as I was there for almost a decade. I was a loner in my teenage years and I was deep in my own world of imagination and worry. I was busy writing and making music.

Leaving the Peninsula meant leaving my life, my friends, and my career. During my time there, I was not surrounded by any Borneans (relatives not included). Even when I come across a few, there was a degree of uncomfortableness that made me distance myself from them. The main reason would be their mindset. However, I do have two close friends that I met in college, though – Sharon Bentley (Kelabit + Chinese) and Clarribel Sayong (Iban). And they are an exception.

While they claim to be much more open-minded and liberal, they are to a certain degree, the opposite. Excluding my close friends, the majority of the people in Peninsula are downright racist and judgemental. I was lucky to have the one-of-a-kinds as my friends and confidant. They are the reason why I stayed there that long apart from it being the land of opportunities.

However, I am not discussing their attitude and characteristics to cause unnecessary chaos. Abiding by the series Being Sarawakian, this post is about my opinion on the progress of my own people.

The Attitude and Characteristics of the Bidayuhs

As mentioned in my previous post, the Bidayuhs are generally soft-spoken people. We are quite reserved and do not open up to strangers very easily.

Many articles/books written by the Europeans in the 19th century portray the Bidayuhs as people who suffered oppression before the arrival of Rajah James Brooke in 1841.

Malaysian-based New Zealand travel photojournalist, author and photographer Peter Anderson stated in his book Discover Borneo – Sarawak (page 58) that the Bidayuhs almost became extinct in the early 1800s due to their mild, inoffensiveness, and tolerant nature. The Brunei Malay rulers of Sarawak enslaved the surviving Bidayuhs from the Iban attacks, which the Brunei Malays encouraged. The Rajahs brought peace to Sarawak and the Bidayuh have prospered since that time.

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However, one of the White Rajahs did not hold the Bidayuhs in high regard, as stated in Dato Peter Minos’ book; The Future Of The Dayak Bidayuhs In Malaysia (page 15).

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“Charles Brooke did not think very much or very high of the Bidayuhs and thus he described them as having customs and appearance which do not encourage so great an interest in a traveller’s breast as the Sea Dayaks (Ibans). His words implied that the Bidayuhs lacked self-confidence and gregariousness.”

Yup, that… may be true, to a certain extent.

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The following are more excerpts from Minos’ book under the subtopic Attitudes and Characteristics:

“Morality is of a higher standard (than others), their gratitude is undoubted, and their hospitality to strangers well ascertained.” – Hugh Low

“The Land Dayaks (Bidayuhs) have not the bold and arrogant look which distinguishes the Sea Dayaks (Ibans). They are quieter and milder in their habits, and more modest in their dress.” – Odoardo Beccari

“The expression of all classes and of both sexes of these people is that of a subdued melancholy.” – Spenser St. John

Spenser is attributing this to the Bidayuhs past experience of oppression and suppression during the Brunei Sultanate.

“Bidayuh is mild and tractable, hospitable when he is well used, grateful for the kindness, industrious, honest and simple; neither treacherous nor cunning and so truthful that the word of one of them might safely be taken before the oath of half a dozen Borneans (Brunians). In their dealing, they are very straightforward and correct, and so trustworthy that they rarely attempt, even after a lapse of years, evade payment of a just debt. On the reverse of this picture, there is little unfavourable to be said, and the wonder is that they have learned so little deceit and falsehood where the examples before them have been so rife.” – Henry Keppel

“The Bidayuhs, to W.R Geddes, believed in true personal freedom and liberty and were highly independent-minded people who did not like to be controlled or dominated by others or by their own kind, so much so that they were often perceived as obstinate, recalcitrant, and uncooperative”, said Minos in the book.

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W.R. Geddes’ opinion is a slap on my face as that is what I think of myself majority of the time.

“Land Dayaks did not get much attention and encouragement from the Administration (Government) for many years. This neglect was mainly due to competition by other, more numerous and sometimes more troublesome ethnic groups. The Land Dayaks, used to being treated badly by outsiders, tacitly accepted this inferior position, which in turn contributed to the still popular idea that they are a conservative and less energetic
people.” – B. G. Grijpstra

The Bidayuhs today, are they still the same as their ancestors?

Here’s what Dato Peter Minos stated in his book:

“The Bidayuhs regard talking too loudly in public, airing one’s views too openly, pushing oneself and trying to order others around as marks of rudeness and arrogance. To be regarded or said or even perceived to be rude and arrogant in the Bidayuh community is undesirable and demeaning. To the Bidayuhs, a good and respected person is one who talks the least, who does push himself or herself around and who does not annoy or disturb anyone. Being natural adherents of extreme personal freedom and independence, the Bidayuhs tend to avoid those who order them around or who control too much of their lives or who tell them what to do or what not to do.”

In short, we are still reserved, but we definitely are moving forward. At least I think I and some people I know are. The youngsters are definitely pushing the envelopes.

And here are the notable Bidayuhs so far:

  1. Anding Indrawani Zaini, an Akademi Fantasia star, model, actor and singer. He is of mixed Melanau-Bidayuh parentage.
  2. Dewi Liana Seriestha, Miss World 2014 Top 25 and Miss Talent for Miss World Beauty Pageant.
  3. Pandelela Rinong, Malaysian national diving athlete.
  4. Tony Eusoff, actor and model.
  5. Venice Elphi, Malaysian football player, played for ATM FA.
  6. Richard Riot Jaem, Malaysian cabinet minister.
  7. Temenggong Salau, Bidayuh community leader during the formation of Malaysia.

PS: While doing my research (for my own intellectual satisfaction), I noticed that other writers who have written about the same thing also used the same quotes. While this is just a random post, I still want it to be worth referring to by some people some day for some reason.

PS: Dato Peter Minos, a modern and highly educated Bidayuh businessman is now the Chairman of Kota Samarahan Municipal Council

 

Being Sarawakian: Arakki?!

I have been going to my parents’ farm in the hills. My mum is currently busy growing peppercorns and she is very excited about it. There are other fruits and vegetables too on the farm. The pineapples are growing like mushrooms. According to my mum, they have not been buying pineapples from the market for a few months now. Just yesterday, we had her mushrooms for dinner.

When my paternal grandparents were still very active, their source of income comes from their farm. In their remote hill farms, they used to grow hill rice, maize and sugarcane as staples, and pepper, cocoa, lemon, pomelo and rubber for cash. In fact, they used to earned thousands within a week just from the selling of their durians. Of course, it was not easy for them but they enjoyed and miss it dearly. Once in a while now, my parents would bring them to visit the farms.

Their other source of income used to also be the rice wine, also known as tuak. Bidayuhs are Borneo’s master tuak makers and my grandparents used to make and sell them, usually nearing the festive seasons. They also made tuak tebu (sugarcane wine) and I have once tasted tuak apple (apple cider).

Tuak is part of Borneo native’s culture and it is used in social and ritual events of the Dayak tribes. During Gawai, tuak is offered to the spirits as part of the items used in blessing ceremonies such as the Harvest Festival. The culture of making tuak however, is slowly dying out and most of the current generations are either not interested in learning or they feel it is impossible to get it right. Plus, tuak is becoming rare now due to the availability of many modern alcohol beverages. Beers, wines and liquors are also increasingly affordable.

Bidayuhs also use distilling methods to make arak tonok, a kind of moonshine. While both tuak and arak tonok is part of our culture, alcoholism and drunkenness have also become a serious social issue among the Dayaks today. Not only adult, the youngsters are also heavily engaged in the habit of drinking; especially the moonshine.

Today, evenings and weekends, no matter what the occasion, whether there is any or not, is the time to get high and drunk. I am a drinker myself, but I do find indulging excessively is absolutely unnecessary. From time wastage to the destroying of physical and mental health, alcoholism will eventually lead to death. More than 10 years ago, one of our relatives who was close to my dad passed away from the habitual over-drinking of alcohol across all ranges.

I personally prefer tuak tebu over everything else and find arak to be too strong. I can take tuak any time of the day, but no moonshine for me.

Being Sarawakian: The Tattoos

Tattoos have served in many various and diverse cultures since prehistoric times. Most commonly as rites of passage, marks of status and rank, symbols of religious and spiritual devotion, decorations for bravery, and marks of fertility, among others.

Throughout much of the 20th century, getting inked intimidated people and brought about many negative stereotypes in mainstream culture. Those sporting tattoos were often considered social deviants and outcasts. There was a degree of uncomfortableness and employment opportunities were also perceived to be negatively affected.

However, the culture experienced a resurgence in the 21st century in many parts of the world. And more people are slowly embracing the culture. As tattooing increasingly enters the mainstream culture, walking into a corporate office with a full sleeved tattoo is in fact, very common nowadays. I personally experienced it myself for the past 5 years, thanks to my democratic workplaces and better awareness about tattoos. Although I would cover them during certain occasion and when meeting the VIPs.

Despite it being a Muslim country, judging by the number of tattoo conventions held across Malaysia, it was evident that a growing number of Malaysians seem to be more welcoming towards the idea of having tattoos. The growth in the culture for the past decade has also seen an influx of new professional tattoo artists into the industry, especially in Sarawak. Some artists are renowned for their skills in doing traditional, hand tapped tattoos. And some, with their artistic talent, are building their portfolios coupled with the ongoing refinement of the equipment used for body tattooing.

Traditional tattoos are a significant part of Sarawak’s rich history. Borneo Traditional Tattooing is something that is symbolic to the lifestyle and daily practices of the native tribes in Borneo; mainly the Iban community. And the fascinating thing about traditional Iban tattoos lies in the process and its tools. The traditional tattooing process is a rather intricate one. The tattoo craftsmen usually make their tools for tattooing from bamboo poles and the ink is either from soot or powdered charcoal. Designs were carved on a block of wood that is smeared with ink and then printed onto the body. Once a design is in place, the skin is punctured with bamboo needles dipped in ink. It is said that a hand-tapped tattoo can last and look its best even after years of being exposed to harsh weather conditions.

While it is a common practice amongst many indigenous groups in Borneo, the specific designs and cultural associations vary from group to group. And each design and placement refer to a particular meaning and significance. On men, these tattoos are seen as a symbol of bravery, while women see them as a beauty enhancer. And the women often have the most impressive tattoos. Some are associated with weaving ceremonial garments that are used to hold freshly severed heads from headhunting trips. The headman’s daughter would have her arms, hands and legs completely covered in fine tattoos.

With nature as its main focus, the most basic type of Iban tattoo is the bunga terung design, mostly tattooed at the shoulders, just by the edge of the collarbone. It is usually the first tattoo that a man gets before going on his bejalai or coming-of-age ceremony. Many of my Iban and non-Iban friends have this on them. According to my Iban friend, the tattoo is believed to help strengthen the wearer during his bejalai journey into the woods. During the journey, the young man is said to gain his fame and wealth by helping out other neighbouring Iban communities and the favours would be gifted with tattoos.

Borneo Traditional Tattooing disappeared in the 1960s as many people in Borneo converted to Christianity. For the past decade, however, a lot of the younger people, in their effort to preserve and promote their culture, looked back and many of them had now started getting these traditional tattoos done again – as a tattoo artist and a tattoo wearer.

On a separate note, I have had a fascination with the art of tattooing since I was a kid. And faced the needle myself for the first time in 2009. My first tattoo is a musical note on the slightly lower back of my right shoulder. I often forget it is there until I’m in my towel and someone comments on it. My friend Chris and I were supposed to get our tattoos together, spontaneously, but he had his a few days later.

A tattoo virgin at that time, I thought it was going to hurt. And the funny thing is, I hate needles. Apparently, it did not hurt and on my body as of now, I have 15 individual tattoos. However, I don’t consider that I have that many as I like to combine them. And behind each marking, there is a story. My tattoos represent the many anecdotes of my life.

My most recent tattoo is the Amaryllis flower. Well, three of them together, as per design by my tattoo artist.

Back in the Victorian Time, the amaryllis flowers were given as a gift to writers, artists, and poets to show gratitude as well as respect for their work.

While I consider myself as a writer, I can’t say a good one. But, for 5 years I was employed as a professional writer who has developed and produced content for education and marketing purposes. And I enjoy writing. I have been writing since my first writing class in school. I write short stories, poems, songs and random stuff. Although after many years now, I still constantly feel I lack a bridge between my thoughts and my words that make my writing feels average. And I judge my own writing. I tend to get worked out by every single word.

Sometimes I feel like I am a better poet than I am a writer. When I feel very strongly about something, whatever that is related to it would just beg me to write it down into a poem. Sometimes a series of the same thing. I am not a grammar freak. In fact, my grammar sucks and that makes my writing probably not a reliable text grammatically and figuratively. Just PROBABLY.

So being a writer, a poet and a musician myself, I receive praises, constructive feedbacks as well as both gratitude and respect from my friends. It gives me a sense of pride and the encouragement to just keep writing. My friend Charmaine even said that I live to write. So the recent event where one of my poems were featured on a website and received so many views, that had provoked me to get the amaryllis flowers tattooed on my forearm. There are also other reasons, but that is the main one.

The artist responsible behind this tattoo is Ray, from Kota Kinabalu.

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Ray was a guest tattoo artist at BlackOut Tattoo Studio in Kuching where my usual tattoo artist Jona Vayne work his magic.

Jona is one of the tattoo artists here that I frequently go to. He basically did all the tattoos on my arms, except the amaryllis. The guy has been around for a few years now and he has been producing really excellent artwork across all tattoo genres. His creativity and passion for arts, however, is not limited to tattooing. I am going to write more about him in my future post. Stay tuned.

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Being Sarawakian: We No Longer Behead

Here is one of the common conversations I had with the people who met me for the first time when I was in Peninsula.

“So where are you from?”

“I’m from Kuching.”

“That’s in KK?”

“No, that’s in Sarawak. KK is in Sabah.”

“Aah.. So, you’re from the headhunter’s tribe? Do they still hunt heads there?”

“Uhh.. No, we don’t do that anymore.”

I do not know much about my own tribe except the basic knowledge the whole world would have. Let alone, about other tribes and their history. But it is offensive when a conversation like this takes place in the 21st century.

However, I don’t blame people for immediately associating the word “headhunting” with Sarawakians. They are not entirely wrong. After all, Sarawak is the land of headhunters.

The practice of collecting heads was widespread among the Dayaks – the indigenous, non-Malay inhabitants of Borneo. And the Iban tribes are reputed to be the most formidable headhunters on the island.

I am a Bidayuh; a tribe known as “Land Dayak”, a name that was first used during the period of the White Rajah of Sarawak. We are the second largest Dayak ethnic group in Sarawak after the Iban (Sea Dayak).

My parents are from two different geographical areas. While my dad is from the Penrissen district, my mum is from Bau. And they both speaks two different but related dialects. My dad, Bisitang and mum, Bijagoi. One is much softer than the other. But the Bidayuhs are generally very softspoken people.

However, they are also known for their warrior audacity. The men are proud and strong. In a war, a Bidayuh man’s prowess and status are determined by the heads he collected – the more heads, the higher his rank.

And what happened to the heads, you asked?

Well, the brains were carefully extracted through the nostrils. And then the heads were skinned, placed in rattan nets and smoked over fires. I still can’t get this image out of my head. The skulls then, were stored in their baruk, a roundhouse that rises about 1.5 metres off the ground.

Curious about the history of headhunting, I had a conversation with my dad about it. He could not give me the kind of explanation I wanted on the subject, though. But according to him, back in the days, the men would go out for a headhunting expedition once in four (4) months. The first to bring home a head is considered a hero. Sounds to me like headhunting is a form of sport. And sort of… Evil?

But our ancestors were animists, and the skulls were said to possess powerful forms of magic. Since the ideas of manhood were also bound up with the practice, the skulls were considered trophies of manhood and bravery.

Dad also spoke about tribal wars. Our ancestors’ headhunting skills played no small part to their aggressive culture of war against other tribes. When there is the need of territorial expansion due to overpopulation, there is the need to intrude on lands belonging to other tribes. Thus, there is the need for brutal confrontation as it was the only means of survival. And during that time, while the Bidayuh men were killed, the Bidayuh women were taken and raped (a common scenario in any wars).

But our headhunting days has long gone. It was outlawed in the 19th century through the efforts of the colonial Dutch. Conversion to Christianity or Islam had also suppressed the practice. And our humility and peace-loving reputation had opposed our headhunting past.