FOR a closer look at Sarawak’s cultural heritage, we speak to three people who are involved in heritage, traditional craft and ethnic cuisine.
Nanggok Budit has been weaving pua kumbu since learning the craft from her grandmother when she was eight.
“I am now actively teaching the younger generation this textile art.
“Weaving pua kumbu used to be a sacred and spiritual process for the older generation. The textile is very significant to Iban culture as we use it for all Gawai occasions and rituals, including weddings and funerals,” she said.
To prevent it from dying out, Nanggok believes we have to build interest among the younger generation to pick up the tradition.
“There are many designs for pua kumbu and my work is often inspired by my dreams,” she explained.
Nanggok also weaves pua kumbu modelled after older designs to ensure those traditional motifs can be passed on for generations.
At the same time, she tries out new motifs to keep up with modern times.
Weavers usually use natural dye from materials such as tree roots and bark but Nanggok finds it more convenient to buy yarn from the shops these days.
“It will take me about four months to complete a standard piece measuring 2.4m by 1.2m.
“I’m glad that this traditional Iban textile has begun to garner global interest.
“I notice that pua kumbu designs and textiles are used in other products now. This is good for promoting and preserving the textile, as well as enhancing interest in pua kumbu to boost the local handicraft and fashion industries,” she said.
She also believes that the economic potential of pua kumbu can lead to more interest among youths to preserve it.
Ethnic food entrepreneur
Ethnic cuisine restaurant owner Livan Lah is a firm believer in preserving ancient flavours for modern times.
“I was brought up in a family that has always been involved in our Kayan cultural heritage. I’ve been taught from young both the language and the food.
“I was also taught to be proud of our culture as well as to promote it,” she said.
When Livan opened Lepau in January 2014, there was no eatery in Kuching or anywhere else in Sarawak that specifically served Orang Ulu cuisine, which is why she decided to venture into it.
“This building was originally a simple wooden structure which didn’t have walls, which gave us the idea to set it up like a ‘lepau’, which means farm hut in Kayan.
“Pansoh (meat cooked in bamboo) is one of our popular dishes. Tapioca leaves are another of the staple foods in our diet.
“We feature ingredients such as the jelaut plant because we want to introduce people to the different types of plants used by the various ethnic groups.
“We also want to show how we cook river fish traditionally, which is slow-cooked in banana leaves,” she said.
Livan’s aim is to introduce ‘kampung’ food in the city. For example, she said, the restaurant served stir-fried chillies as an appetiser, which was a popular dish for visitors to the kampung to photograph.
The ambience at the restaurant is also very cultural.
“We have put up walls to give diners the feeling of being in a longhouse, and we put up Kayan craftwork for people to learn more about the Kayan and appreciate our culture. We also have a musician who plays the sape at the restaurant,” Livan said.
She believes that authentic traditional food faces a danger of disappearing if we don’t preserve the knowledge of it and its recipes.
“Even now, when I go back to my kampung, there are certain types of food that the older people talk about that I’ve never tasted.
“That’s the main reason why we opened Lepau. It is really to promote our food and keep it going,” she said.
Sarawak Heritage Society president Datuk Seri Robert Jacob Ridu is a firm believer in preserving culture.
“What we have here, its harmony, is a consequence of the tolerance that we have for one another despite where we come from.
“This is manifested also in our built environment. Our buildings are harmonious as well. It’s what makes Kuching so lovely. There’s a sense of serenity and peace because of the tolerance of our society,” he said.
Robert said we should not destroy old buildings. Instead, we should find a way to keep them and make it possible for the owners of these buildings to maintain them.
According to him, some owners have taken the trouble to keep old buildings intact and use them in a new way, such as the Ranee Hotel, Marian Boutique Lodging House and The Junk restaurant.
“We want to be able to protect our tangible and intangible assets because they reflect who we are.”
The intangible assets include songs and dances, way of life, food and even flora and fauna.
“Management of cultural heritage is important to help maintain Sarawak’s identity in the midst of market-driven globalisation and short-term gains.
“This applies to both tangible heritage such as buildings, sites and cultural landscapes, and intangible heritage like crafts and traditional trades. It is the blend of the two that gives Sarawak its unique sense of place,” said Robert.
He said that it was important to preserve heritage because it’s who we are and what our society has become. The by-product of this is that it’s good for tourism. Well-managed cultural heritage brings in tourists and visitors, he believes.
Sarawak’s tourism is driven by the state’s exceptional nature and biodiversity and, arguably, even more by its rich cultural assets.
Yet tourism promotion is not the main determinant of the preciousness of its cultural heritage.
“To us, heritage conservation is primarily a cultural endeavour. We take pride in showcasing it.
“The Sarawak Heritage Society’s mission is to promote the conservation, permanent preservation and sustainable management of Sarawak’s cultural heritage assets.
“We want to make stakeholders aware of the importance of preserving our heritage, to inculcate a sense of appreciation and ensure that we all keep these things as stakeholders,” said Robert.