“I think we need to spark a serious conversation about this. Adults have to do it first in school for the younger generation to understand. If a child is ignorant about this issue, sure we can blame it on the educators, but there is no excuse for adults to be ignorant about this. Adults should take the initiative to educate themselves about this.” - Faye Lee Chin
We had the privilege of interviewing Faye Lee Chin, a Chinese-Berawan descent. It’s our first time talking to someone who is of Berawan ethnicity as well! She shared a bit about her heritage as a Berawan, including her favourite traditional food (ubi tepoh), community traditions (craft, festivals, and even weddings), and memories of growing up in Sarawak.
Faye strongly believes in the importance of teaching the younger generation about different cultures and ethnicities from an early age. We couldn’t agree more since the school is a child’s second home, where they learn the most after their parents. As adults, we cannot be ignorant about other cultures and respect each other’s traditions.
As we delved deeper into the customs of the Berawan community, we also learned about the stereotypes they face, and Faye’s hope and vision for Sarawak and for Malaysia.
Can you tell us a bit about your background and cultural heritage?
My Chinese name is Faye Lee Chin, but I’m also known as Dayang in Berawan. My father is a Chinese man from Kedah, while my mother is a Long Berawan from Miri, Sarawak. We are all Catholic Christians.
There are 4 different Berawan dialects based on the 4 main longhouses - Long Terawan and Batu Belah (which are along the Tutoh River), as well as Long Jegan and Long Teru (along the Tinjar River). I speak the Long Terawan-Berawan dialect.
Growing up, I lived a normal kampung life where I played with other children in the area along the river and trees.
We ate traditional food such as ubi tepoh (rice porridge), licham (Berawan version of kimchi, usually made from fish or pork and preserved together with rice), as well as Nangah (Berawan version of ambuyat, a dish made of sago).
What traditional craft is your community most known for?
Most tribes have similar crafts, but I think my community is most known for something called Talam.
We also make Belatak, which is a rattan bag that is used to store food, clothes, and other things - almost like a multi-purpose luggage. There is also another version called Lagak, which is a small bag made from rattan and bipin (a plant similar to bamboo), which is used to store small things when someone goes hunting or fishing. Another one is Sekiyong, a large hat used by people to cover themselves from rain and sun.
What is your traditional attire like? When do you usually wear them?
The dress I am wearing now is called a Yun Sarat. I use a shawl over it called Yun Bikeh, together with another beaded shawl, which is known as Talam Bokeh. The headgear is called Pekah. I am missing an anklet, which is called Dekeq.
We differentiate ourselves from other tribes through our necklace, where ours have a large ornament called Talam Labang. Talam means beads.
We wear these traditional attire when we attend weddings and even to church on a weekly basis.
What are some of the festivals celebrated in your community?
Of course, Gawai and Kaamatan (The Harvest Festival) is celebrated in every community, even ours.
We used to celebrate Nulang, which is a celebration of planting rather than harvesting. We planted paddy 3 or 4 times a year, so we celebrated Nulang every 3 to 4 months.
Most of us are now Christians, so we celebrate Christmas in the longhouses. It can be quite unique where various activities will be planned by each house within the longhouse.
During festive celebrations, families will go hunting and bring a whole boar to provide to other families in the long house.
Speaking of festivals, is there any traditional song, instruments, or dance that is practiced in your community?
I’m not too sure about traditional songs, but there are instruments called Sape (a string instrument similar to a guitar) and Buluh Pagin (which is going extinct).
We also have two types of dance or kanyet, Kanyet Lakeh (danced by men) and Kanyet Dichu (danced by women)
How are weddings organised in your community?
In Berawan tradition, weddings are a 3-day celebration. It is very festive because it is held in a longhouse with a huge community. Wedding preparations are not a concern because the families in the longhouse will volunteer to serve food, decorations, and other wedding plans. There’s also a lot of music, dancing, and drinking because everyone knows each other in the longhouses. Not to mention good food!
Younger generations today prefer simple Christian weddings, but some have opted to go back to their village to do it the traditional way. Sadly, there’s not a lot of people who prefer traditional weddings.
Is there a special ceremony for a newborn baby?
Not that I know of, but there is a ‘pantang-larang’ (taboo) for pregnant women. They are not allowed to take naps throughout the entire 9 months of pregnancy or submerge themselves in the river (for unknown reasons).
When there is a death in your community, how are the funeral arrangements like?
In the past, the community would build a throne called Suran. This is practiced by many Borneo tribes. The general idea is that they will dress the deceased well and let him sit upright on the Suran, which is decorated with his past belongings. A baby black chick will be tied to the deceased’s head to let the chick make noises to bring life to the deceased in a way. Grass cigarettes will be placed in one hand and the other would hold bitter nuts. This would last for up to 5 or 6 days.
Who usually leads the rituals and ceremonies in your community, is it the men or women?
A mix of both but because Christianity has spread among the community, traditional rituals and ceremonies are getting rarer today. Only my grandmother is familiar with the traditions and practices.
In a Berawan household, the woman will be the head of the house and she will have more authority managing the household.
Is there any "pantang-larang" that is still observed in your community? How are they being shared or passed down?
There’s a few, which are now only believed by the older generation. The elders will usually share these beliefs or taboos with the community. For example, when it rains on a sunny day, they believe a ghost called “Agang” would come out to hunt. The people would take dead leaves and wear it on their ears in order to differentiate themselves from the animals that “Agang” would hunt.
Another one is about a bird called Manok Bud. When this bird is heard in a nearby vicinity, it means someone passed away. Surprisingly, it is always accurate based on my experience.
Could you share with us a well-known folklore in your community?
In the olden days, the people of Berawan testified that praying to “Semayau Bungan” will protect their household from danger. In Mulu, there are several famous caves such as the Deer Cave and the Wind cave. Visitors are not allowed to take anything out of the cave. The tour guide will warn visitors very seriously at every visit. A lot of visitors might take it very lightly thinking they can’t take it because it belongs to the park. The reason is because everything from the cave belongs to the entity that owns the cave, and it is disrespectful to take away anything from it. How this story started is lost but the people of Berawan just err on the side of caution and listen to it.
What are the common stereotype(s) about your community?
Berawan is rumored to come from the word “melawan” which means fight. One instance is fighting against the authority to pay taxes. Another reason is because there were many head-hunters. When I was a child and introduced myself as a Berawan, I would get teased about head-hunting. Children would play-pretend poison darts with me. It was so silly! These hunting methods were done in the past but not anymore.
How does it make you feel to be classified as a 'lain-lain'?
Since my parents are of Berawan ethnicity, I feel proud of being classified as “lain-lain”. I do like it when I fill in the forms, they do let us fill in the blanks. Some forms they just have us tick lain-lain as if they don’t care.
When people think of Sabahans or Sarawakians, they immediately think of Iban, Bidayuh or Kadazan as the main people of orang asli (aboriginals). Although more than 60 years have passed. Malaysians in general still have a very long way of understanding the amount of tribes there are in East Malaysia.
You might think our education system could do something about it, but here we are. I wouldn’t say I am mad or upset about it. I don’t think it is anybody’s fault as well when they don’t understand where I am from. It is mostly a question of what the people of authority are doing about it. They are the ones where my frustrations are directed at.
What are the current challenges faced by your community?
We’re on the brink of extinction. There are only 2000+ of us remaining and we’re not reproducing fast enough. Part of the reason is that our people no longer stay in longhouses. They prefer to migrate into the cities. That is because we don’t have sufficient electricity. There are occasions when the government came and announced to provide electricity but that is only provided to that one particular village. There are so many more surrounding it that need it. West Malaysians witnessed one village getting electricity and they thought the problem was solved. That is not the case.
I remember as a child, I hated going back there because we had to depend on a generator for electricity. We rely on the generator which runs on diesel from 7:00 PM to 10:00 PM, 12:00 AM if we are lucky. Day time is extremely hot and night time is quite cold. We can only turn on the television at night time. Diesel is too expensive and precious to be spent on the television. Our longhouses are considered lucky to be able to afford a generator. In the past, I know of certain villages who couldn’t afford a generator. Today every longhouse in every village has its own generator now. That is why the younger generations are moving out.
What are your hopes for your community?
I hope that more of our culture, especially language, is more coded. In Kedah, I only speak the Berawan dialect to my mother. Sure, when I go back to Sarawak, I can speak with my grandmother and other relatives in Berawan but I couldn’t expand my vocabulary when I only come back to Sarawak occasionally. I really wish the Berawan dialect would be coded.
What is your wish for Sarawak?
Highways! There are no highways in Sarawak. I cannot wait for the day when Sarawak has its own highway. Do you know how long it takes to drive from Miri to Kuching? 12 hours! This is also why every single house in Sarawak has a 4-wheel drive vehicle.
It is not just a matter of convenience too. I remember there was a funeral a few years ago that my grandmother went to. It makes me so sad to think of a 60+ year old lady who couldn’t get a plane ticket to move around Sarawak, so she had to use a bus. To picture a frail old lady having to take the bus for 12 hours just breaks my heart. It’s not just my grandmother, it could be someone else's grandmother as well. My wish to see a proper highway in Sarawak.
What are your vision and hopes for Malaysia?
How can Malaysians get to know each other better?
I hope for more West Malaysians to actually travel to East Malaysia. I have relatives from my father’s side from Kedah who have been to so many countries abroad but they have never been to Sarawak.
Even in primary school, our class on geography will only consist of 1 chapter about Sabah and Sarawak. There is an instance when I remember a Punjabi was introduced to us and someone just goes to classify them as Indians. I think we need to spark a serious conversation about this. Adults have to do it first in school for the younger generation to understand.
At least in my University, I do appreciate that they have plans for a cultural Sabah/ Sarawak Day. If a child is ignorant about this issue, sure we can blame it on the educators but there is no excuse for adults to be ignorant about this. Adults should take the initiative to educate themselves about this.
How would you want me to remember you or your community?
I never really thought about being remembered as a Berawan. I want my people to be described and remembered as the custodian of Mulu. I would like for us Berawan to be remembered as the ones connected to nature.
I know my Berawan cousins who have obtained their Degrees and Diplomas, they didn’t go abroad to look for better opportunities or settle themselves in the cities. They chose to come back to Sarawak to help build up the place to be better. I really aspire to be like them to use what I’m learning to help my people back home in Sarawak.
Having an interview with someone from Berawan really widened up my spectrum. It was a great opportunity to learn more about Malaysia. It was lovely meeting her. Faye is an optimistic and beautiful young lady who shared her thoughts with us. We were all ears for her childhood tales and stories about her community. We really enjoyed the interview and were able to reflect on the different topics that were discussed.
Ramisha Adil and Alex Oi, supported by Faye Lim and Kenneth Phua