Culture (Bidayuh): Priscilla Siaman Tylors
“We are minorities, but there are a lot of minorities. If we combine all of us together, we actually make a significant number of people in Malaysia.”
“Let’s be open. Let’s not jump into conclusions, let’s not look at someone from the outside only. If we are interested to know about someone’s race or culture, let’s ask them and have a conversation or a chat. Then, we will get to know someone different than us, but we are from the same country. We are basically one but we are different.” - Priscilla Siaman Tylors
We had an amazing opportunity to interview Priscilla Anak Siaman Tylors, a Bidayuh born in Kuching, Sarawak. She shared that her favourite Bidayuh traditional food, Ayam Pansuh, is prepared by cooking pieces of chicken with seasoning and water in bamboo sticks. It has a unique taste and is served during the Gawai Dayak celebration. She also loves Sagu (also known as linut) and tapioca leaves.
Interestingly, she knows two different Bidayuh dialects namely, Biatah and Jagoi. She mentioned that it was quite unfortunate that they didn’t have many learning resources and dictionaries for the languages. Thus, they could only learn from talking and listening to their family members. To master the dialects, she practiced a lot by speaking at home. However, she seldom speaks Bidayuh languages nowadays and only speaks to herself or with her family members during a call.
What traditional crafts is your community most known for?
Our main crafts will be our accessories, especially necklaces and bracelets, as well as leaf-based items. In the Bidayuh community, a lot of our accessories are made of colourful beads that are arranged in strings. We also have a type of anyaman (woven designs) where we cross pieces of dried leaves together to make little bags, containers, or baskets.
What is your traditional attire like? When do you usually wear them?
My traditional costume is called Jomuh. It’s a skirt paired with a short-sleeved or sleeveless blouse, and the headwear is called Sipiah. For males, it is called Tawuop, which is basically a long cloth wrapping the waist with one long end at the front and another at the back, and the headgear is called Burang Sumba.
One of the accessories that I wear is necklaces. A lot of us wear necklaces or bracelets during our traditional events, which are mostly made of beads. Every detail is made of beans and string, it also comes with its own pattern. Some patterns are a bit different but the concept is the same. These traditional attires are usually worn during our harvest festival or any events pertaining to our Bidayuh community.
What are some of the traditional games that you played when you were young?
When I was young, which was a long time ago, I didn't play much but we played the usual childhood games like Batu Seremban, and we used a specific type of stone. This is not very unique to my community, but a lot of us back then played with the skipping rope that we had to build ourselves. Some of us use getah (rubber bands), some of us would use different items as a skipping rope, but we mainly play outdoor games.
What are some of the festicals celebrated in your community?
The festival that we celebrate is the Harvest Festival which is known as Gawai and it is celebrated every 1st of June. It is aimed as a celebration of harvesting rice on our plantation and it is the way we thank nature and the divine for the good year of harvest produced.
We haven't done this last year because of Covid, but we will normally go back to our village. We celebrate Gawai at midnight on 31st May before going into 1st of June, and the elderly will play the gong loudly to signify that it is our harvest festival. After the gong, we will then continue to play our Gawai music. People will just gather to have some food or drinks and to catch up with each other in a very relaxing village setting.
Speaking of festivals, are there any traditional song, instruments, or dance that is practiced in your community?
There is one traditional song that we usually play at weddings and the title of the song is ‘Bekikis Bulu Betis’. ‘Bekikis Bulu Betis’ is a combination of different dialects and it's actually a typical love song about a guy trying to pursue this girl, and he is saying that every time he sees her, he feels this strange feeling within him. We also have our own Bidayuh’s traditional music which is usually played with the sound of gong.
Our main instrument is our gong, and apart from that, we usually adopt instruments by other ethnic groups, like Sape. Sape is similar to a guitar and we also play it together with the gong.
Along with our traditional music, we have a few moves that are distinctive to the Bidayuh community, and you can consider it as our traditional dance. It is called Rejang.
How are weddings organised in your community?
This is mostly affected by religion, but if we were to put cultural value to it, we would have dinner, which is usually organised at the bride or the groom’s family. People will gather to celebrate like a normal dinner, but we will invite our close family and friends.
After the marriage registration, we would gather in the evening, where the bride and groom are introduced to the guests through a special entrance. We are not supposed to see them before the event starts, so when they enter, it is usually accompanied by one of our songs or traditional music. They would be brought to their seats and say a few words to the guests. It is a lot similar to what a lot of us do these days but the difference is probably in what we wear and also the music that we play.
Is there a special ceremony for a newborn baby?
When a baby is born, after the baby is brought back home, we would usually have this Mandi Bunga (flower bath) ceremony. We will prepare a warm bath consisting of different types of flowers, where the baby would be bathed in that water. It is supposed to give good luck and blessing to the baby.
When there is a death in your community, how are the funeral arrangements like?
Right now, for most of us who are Christian, we follow the Christian procedures. In terms of our culture, once the deceased is allowed to be taken home from hospital, the families and friends will gather for 3 consecutive days at the deceased’s home. We basically have these gatherings to send our blessing and to pay our last respect in those 3 days. We will prepare some food for the guests for them to eat and also just to be around the deceased. It is sort of like our way of giving comfort to the soul of the deceased and the family so that they can be at peace after that .
Who usually leads the rituals and ceremonies in your community, is it the men or women?
It is usually one of our elderly and is always the male, unless he is unavailable or he has passed.
Is there any "pantang-larang" that is still observed in your community? How are they being shared or passed down?
There is this pantang-larang (taboo) that when we are about to leave someone's house, whether it is our family members or friends, but someone in the house is cooking or eating, we cannot leave without having a taste of the food or at least get one pinch of the food. Otherwise, something unfortunate or bad might happen on our way out.
Back at home, in my grandmother’s house, we share this pantang-larang because it somehow feels like a taboo. Although a lot of us don’t really believe in these things, but out of respect, when we visit our grandmother or some of our older relatives, we will still practice it, so that it gives comfort to them.
Could you share with us a well-known folklore in your community?
The folklore is called Ma Tarui (Tarui’s Father).
There was a family in a village consisting of a father, a mother, and two sons. The older son was named Tarui. His father was called Ma Tarui (short for Sama’ Tarui or Tarui’s father) and his mother was called Ndu Tarui (short for Sindu Tarui or Tarui’s mother).
Ma Tarui, was notoriously known as a fool who was mentally challenged. When the family was going to burn the land at their farm to make new farming grounds for new vegetables, Ma Tarui wanted his youngest son, who was still a toddler, to see the farm more clearly. So, he tied the toddler to a tree nearby. When the fire was burning up the land, the smoke and heat got to the toddler, making him unconscious. When Ma Tarui saw the darkened, burned face of the toddler, he just laughed because it looked funny to him. Ndu Tarui, the mother, cried and got angry at Ma Tarui because he caused their youngest son to get hurt and died.
A few days after their youngest son’s funeral, Ndu Tarui went out to get some cooking ingredients. She reminded Ma Tarui to give Tarui, their eldest son, a warm bath because he was having a cold. Ma Tarui boiled some water to bathe Tarui, but he used hot water directly. Tarui’s body was scalded and he was in so much pain that he ended up dying.
In our culture, the parent or grandparent isn’t usually called by their own name. We usually use the name of the firstborn (son or daughter) to call the parents or grandparents. Also, because of this story, we would jokingly comment that someone is like “Mun Ma Tarui eh” (you’re just like Tarui’s father) if they have done something foolish.
What are the common stereotype(s) about your community?
One of them would be that we live on trees. I am sure some of us have heard that, but we really don’t. I don’t know where it comes from. But you think of it, living on trees is actually quite a modern thing, we can still even do it right now. We used to live surrounded by trees but not on top of trees. Our houses are built on lands, some on hills.
How does it make you feel to be classified as a 'lain-lain'?
When I saw in the official form that we have to choose our race, I always have to choose Lain-Lain or others. It makes me feel like I'm not being included as a Malaysian.
Now, I'm more understanding of it and I realise that a lot of my friends, including those in the Peninsular are actually more aware of us. I know it's probably not very practical to list down all of those in forms. So, I am now okay with lain-lain as long as you can probably leave a space for us to actually write down what the lain-lain is.
What are the current challenges faced by your community?
One of it will be the lack of assistance or lack of connection that the main communities in Malaysia have with us. I think a lot of us, a lot of our relatives are still living, studying and working in remote areas. A lot of us do not have access to technological things, even the Internet, and also some are having difficulties with electricity and water. So, I feel like we are not being assisted or being helped with as much as the others yet.
I wish that more people would be open to getting to know us, so that they know that there are a lot of us. We are minorities but there are a lot of minorities. If we combine all of us together, we actually make a significant number of people in Malaysia. I hope more people are more open to getting to know us and actually treating us like we are one of them as well.
How can Malaysians get to know each other better?
First of all, let’s be open. Let’s not jump into conclusions, let’s not look at someone from the outside only. If we are interested to know about someone’s race or culture, let’s ask them and have a conversation or a chat. Then, we will get to know someone different than us, but we are from the same country. We are basically one but we are different.
How would you want us to remember you/your community?
I hope that people will remember Bidayuh as a hardworking group of people as that is what I see in my own community. So, I hope that people will see the hard work and the effort that we put in everything that we do, something big or small. And people will remember us as a community that gives our best in whatever we do.
We learned that it is important to have self-awareness towards society and every issue that is happening around us. We are ashamed of our ignorance towards minority groups in Malaysia. Although we are all Malaysians, all of us are distinctive and unique in our own ways, and this should be acknowledged and celebrated.
Secondly, we agree that greater efforts for inclusivity are needed because our ethnic minority brothers and sisters still feel discriminated against in their own country. We have to be humble, curious and open-minded to accept the cultural differences which also make up a significant part of Malaysia.
___ Interviewer: Liew Shan Xiong, Karthik Shetty, Mandy Chan Man Yi, Eleanora Khan Vechtomova, Queenie Chiew, Wong Li Hong and Tan Jo El, supported by Faye Lim Written by: Rica Hiew Sheng Mei & Ivy Ng Shie Yin Edited by: Yasmin Mortaza