“Maybe as Malaysians, if we eat while we talk, I think it will make us even closer… Step out of our own comfort zone and try to make an effort to know someone outside of our own culture and learn about their culture as well.” - Guinevere
We had a wonderful opportunity to speak to Guinevere Aring Pakar, who has Bidayuh and Kenyah heritage. While different Bidayuh groups all have their own distinct dialects which are different from each other, she speaks the Bidayuh Bukar Sadong dialect. She shared with us some of the Kenyah traditional food that she likes such as Kelupis, Sungkoi Tungkus and Assam. Interestingly, she mentioned that Assam does not taste sour, as it is prepared by cooking chicken rice in bamboo.
We learned about her Bidayuh and Kenyah cultures, customs, and beliefs which have been passed down from both of her communities. She also expressed her indifference about being labeled as ‘lain-lain’ and hopes that the younger generation steps up to preserve the dying culture in the community. Find out more in our interview below.
What traditional craft is your community most known for?
In Kenyah, Uleng is one of the traditional crafts which is still being made. My grandma made one for me using a long strand of manik (beads). We also have this Baby carrier called a ba’, which is made using manik, and a Sun hat called saong, also made using manik as a decoration on top of it. Kenyah is more famous for beadwork while Bidayuh is more known for weaving (anyaman).
What is your traditional attire like? When do you usually wear them?
My traditional Kenyah women's costumes are the skirt (Ta’a), sash (Bilang), belt (Beteng), topi (Tapong sek), earrings (Balaung), baju (Sapai), and necklace (Uleng Lavang).
These traditional costumes are worn for performances, traditional dances, wedding photoshoots and competitions such as the Beauty Queen competition (Kumang Gawai). We don’t really wear these costumes for normal occasions.
What are some of the festivals celebrated in your community?
The Bidayuh festival that we celebrate is Gawai, which is celebrated on the 1st of June. We usually will have a reunion dinner, where we either have an open house or we will go visit other people. My family will prepare and cook traditional food such as Paklo Duck and Tauhu Sumbat, which is fried tofu with stuffed minced pork.
Speaking of festivals, is there any traditional song, instruments, or dance that is practiced in your community?
Our main Kenyah traditional instrument is the Sape. While Bidayuh’s traditional instrument is the Gong, also known as Biragung. We call the gongs ‘Agung’.
Kenyah traditional song is Liling. It is a song that we sing when we are together with the community. The meaning of the song is about getting together with a community as Liling means going round. That’s why during the song, we will walk around in a circle. It’s just a song people sing when they get together. Usually, one person will sing the verse and everyone will respond by singing the chorus together. The verses are poetic lines that describe the occasion.
Sagak Leto, the Women dance is Kenyah’s traditional dance, in which the dancers imitate the movement of the hornbill. The fun fact is that the ones usually seen during performances are different compared to what is performed in the kampung areas because the ones seen performed are the culturally standardized version of the dance.
Are there any traditional games you played when you were young?
We played teng teng (jumping game),Batu Seremban (stone toss), and we mostly played in the river. If it’s not the river, we will just entertain ourselves with climbing trees, or following our aunties or grandfather to the farm, to look at the pepper because my grandfather has a pepper farm. We will also catch some fishes, or maybe help to sell durians by the roadside. It was a very free kind of lifestyle.
How are weddings organised in your community?
I think weddings today really depend on the couple whether they want to do it the modern way (in the church, in the hotel, dinner in the restaurant) or if they want to infuse some traditional elements into it. For my sister’s case, she decided to include the Kenyah traditional wedding ceremony as well for her reception.
When a couple gets married they will try to invite as many kampung (village) people as they can afford to depend on that family’s status in the kampung. Some couples, they will do the modern one in the hotel, they have their wedding in church then they do reception in the hotel, the usual stuff. Then, the extra one, which is in the kampung, the couple is costumed in the wedding dress and they just announce to the whole kampung that they are married and enjoy the food and the beer.
Most of the time when we think about celebration, it is all about food. So, I think the only activity we have is definitely cooking. Behind the scenes for weddings is definitely to cook together, to slaughter a pig and chicken together, that kind of thing. When they cook, they really cook a lot at one time because they have to feed hundreds of people. That’s the only activity I can think of besides wedding planning.
Is there a special ceremony for a newborn baby?/
For Bidayuh I don’t think so as far as I know of. For Kenyah, the closest I can think of is the Pusau (child naming) ceremony. The Pusau ceremony (pusau anak) is not done after a baby is born. It’s a ceremony done in a very big manner once every few years because it requires a lot of work and food to do it. The last time one was done along the Baram River was in Long San in 1962.
When there is a death in your community, what are the funeral arangements like?
For Bidayuh, if the person dies, they will wait for a few days before the actual funeral for the relatives to come or their family members to come. During that time, when the body is at the house, there is food all the time, we feed people. They have a kitchen committee, who is going to cook food for lunch and dinner. At night, you can expect a table of people gambling at the side. We have the Christian prayers. Other things are, we put on a black cloth on our sleeves, as a sign of mourning. Then, we will have a gathering on the seventh day, on the fortieth day and on the hundredth day after the person’s passing.
Who usually leads the rituals and ceremonies in your community, is it the men or women?
On my Bidayuh side, in terms of leading the celebrations I guess it’s like equal. It is based on who is in the committee members but it’s always the elders or whoever is the remaining elder.
For the Kenyah side, the elders will discuss among themselves and they will determine who is like the most rightful person to do it.
Is there any "pantang-larang" that is still observed in your community? How are they being shared or passed down?
I guess the pantang is during the mourning period, you cannot celebrate anything within a year.
When we go into the forest, people say we have to ask for permission to come in. Maybe just say I am coming in, I am not going to disturbed your house because they believe that there are spirits and they are animistic. So, they believe like the trees have spirits, the birds are spirits, the birds are gods, like there is spirit everywhere, like god is everywhere. Then, you also cannot talk too loudly and you don’t call each other names. It’s because the spirit might imitate your voice and try to lead you astray. So, we always go like ‘shh’ or some other noises to get each other's attention.
It’s mostly shared orally by someone older than you, mostly the older ones will go and tell the younger ones not to do certain things when it is necessary. So, we don’t have a set of written rules.
Could you share with us a well-known folklore in your community?
For my Kenyah side, we actually have a book, with a lot of folklores written down. All I remember was one of the stories I read was about a certain rock along the Baram River. The rock is quite big but there’s a hole in the middle. According to legend, the hole was created by a powerful warrior when he blew his blowpipe through it.
What are the common stereotype(s) said about your community?
For the Bidayuh community, they like to name their kids very weird. Like the chances are if you see a name which is like Jessica but it has a ‘Z’ in it and a ‘K’, we will always say that might be a Bidayuh and chances are it’s true.
Another one is the way they speak, the accent they have when they speak English especially the older ones, maybe the younger ones not so anymore because they are like educated in the city. For the older aunties, there are some Bidayuh communities (not mine) which have a different dialect, so when they speak English there is a lot of ‘sh’. Basically, their accent shows.
How does it make you feel to be classified as a 'lain-lain'?
I feel so jaded about it. I am so used to it that I don’t really care much. I think it doesn't really affect me so much in Sarawak, unless I have to fill in government forms. But most of the time the forms I fill in Sarawak, they do list down the specific names of all the other natives as well.
What are the current challenges faces by your community? What are your hopes for them?
I guess the first one is urban migration. Like trying to find work outside the community. For the Bidayuh people I know in Serian, they have to travel one hours or two hours down to Kuching to work. For rural areas, the problem is that more older people are left behind in the kampung because the younger ones all go to cities to study, to work and not many go back.
Another one is Internet connection. It’s hard to get a stable line and I have to walk outside of the house to get Internet or data. So like if I want to email someone I have to sit in the driveway.
The younger ones should learn more about our culture, try to keep it alive, especially the language. Once my grandma’s generation passes on, we might lose a bit of the knowledge already. For example, some of the songs and old stories. So, those things will be lost if my generation and the one younger than me do not continue on and really ask all the questions. I just hope that we'll keep it alive as long as we can and pass it on to the next generation.
How can Malaysians get to know each other better?
I think we just have to talk about it. We just have to sit down and really talk to one another. Be humble and really listen when another person is speaking. Maybe as Malaysians, if we eat while we talk, I think it will make us even closer. You know, conversation through food. I think all about getting to know one another is sitting down and being brave to get to know another culture.
Also, to step out of our own comfort zone and try to make an effort to know someone outside of our own culture and learn about their culture as well.
How would you want us to remember you/your community?
I hope that you will get to know us, both my Bidayuh and Kenyah communities are very hospitable people. If you ever are in Kuching, we’ll feed you every single day, for every single meal. I think we are very warm and hospitable people.
We are happy when people want to join us and understand our cultures and want to learn who we are. Just have to come and ask us.
From this interview, we resonated with her sentiments on how food can unite us as Malaysians. The endless conversations we can have around and about food is definitely an opportunity for us to get to know each other.
It was a great experience learning about the Bidayuh and Kenyah culture from Guinevere. Beyond the traditions, customs, and beliefs, we need to have a greater understanding of one another. Like Guinevere said, it’s important to be humble and willing to learn other cultures. Only then we can keep our traditions alive and pass them on to the next generation.
___ Interviewer: Ivy Ng Shie Yin & Rica Hiew Sheng Mei, facilitated by Faye Lim Written by: Ivy Ng Shie Yin & Rica Hiew Sheng Mei Edited by: Yasmin Mortaza