Beyond the historical facade

  • Nation
  • Sunday, 02 Jul 2017

Widad: ‘Visiting elders and serving bameah (asam daging) are Raya musts.’

GOING from door to door visiting neighbours has become an unpopular practice during Hari Raya Aidilfitri celebrations today.

But not at the Lebuh Acheh Muslim enclave in George Town, says Widad Rawa, 58, a long-time resident and member of the Badan Warisan Masjid Melayu Lebuh Acheh Pulau Pinang.

At the oldest Malay village in Penang, the age-old tradition is one that is preserved and followed until today, says Widad.

“Although many of our younger generation have moved out to the suburbs and bigger cities, it is a must for them to visit the elders in the kampung every time they come back for Hari Raya.”

It is the “adab” or good manners for the festive period in the close-knit community, she adds.

Adab is the value the Lebuh Acheh community plans to evoke at the George Town Heritage Anniversary Celebrations 2017 set to be held next weekend from July 7 to 9, 2017.


Special skill: Visitors can learn to write their names in different languages at the ‘Walk the Talk: Oral Traditions and Expressions’ street festival.
Special skill: Visitors can learn to write their names in different languages at the ‘Walk the Talk: Oral Traditions and Expressions’ street festival. 


Organised by George Town World Heritage Incorporated (GTWHI), the heritage celebration is an annual event in Penang to mark the inscription of George Town, jointly with Melaka, as a World Heritage Site by Unesco on July 7, 2008.

Since 2014, the celebrations have been designed based on the intangible cultural heritage as listed by Unesco, such as traditional crafts and games, festive foods and sports. This entails the GTWHI team working with the individual communities – through their respective associations – to curate the specific aspects of their culture.The particular cultural heritage is then showcased and shared at a street festival in George Town, which has since become the highlight of the event.

To celebrate the 9th anniversary, “Walk the Talk: Oral Traditions and Expressions” will showcase the oral traditions and expressions of 13 George Town communities.

This is a near-invisible but an important facet of George Town’s living heritage, says one of the curators of the celebration Kuah Li Feng.

“Oral traditions and expressions are also directly related to us – communities worldwide have used various forms of oral traditions and expressions to pass on knowledge, cultural and social values, as well as collective memories from generation to generation,” says Kuah.

Her co-curator Lim Chung Wei agrees.

“Shared through festive and cultural celebrations, as well as our upbringing and family customs, they help make us who we are.”

He points out that its main component, language, is a vital vehicle for the intangible cultural heritage but it has been reported that some 80% of the 136 languages used in Malaysia are considered endangered, according to the Ethnologue Report, a database of the world’s languages.

With a myriad of forms of oral traditions and expressions – from proverbs, riddles, nursery rhymes, myths, folktales, epic poems and songs to charms, prayers and chants – waiting to be unearthed, their curating work this time around has been a challenge.

That is why GTWHI has decided to focus on the core values that bring the community together for the celebration.

“They are rarely talked about but they show how oral tradition functions,” Kuah explains.


Traditional treat: Abdul Azeez Seeni Mohd preparing Ais Tingkap.
Traditional treat: Abdul Azeez Seeni Mohd preparing Ais Tingkap.  


With that aim in mind, in November last year Kuah and Lim started engaging the leaders and elders of each community to choose a core value that they feel represents their community best.

One “elder” is 73-year-old Halijah Hashim from the Lebuh Acheh community.

They chose adab because it is a core value in Islam, she says, and Islam is the central aspect of the community: Lebuh Acheh used to be known as the second Jeddah as before the 1970s, pilgrims bound for their Haj in Mekah from across the country, as well as Indonesia and Singapore, would congregate there before taking the boat to Saudi Arabia.

Adab covers all the good things a Muslim must do, in line with the Quran, she adds.

“Since I was old enough to reason, my mother taught me adab – we were taught to honour our parents and not to raise our voice to them ... Adab not only covers praying and fasting, it even covers how you eat: you shouldn’t gobble your food or reach across the table for a dish, always wait or ask for it to be passed...”

At the street festival on Saturday, Halijah and other members of the community will be on hand at their Lebuh Acheh “station” to talk to visitors about “adab” and share other aspects of their oral traditions such as folktales, pantun and proverbs. They will also have a “writing booth” where they can teach visitors how to write their names in Jawi (the Arab script used in the Malay language in the past).

“We can share the legacy our ancestors left us and other community memories, things that cannot be found in history books,” says Widad.

Each of the other participating 12 communities including the Straits Chinese, Indian Muslim, Punjabi, Teochew, Hainan, Malayali and Gujarati communities, will have their own “station” along the George Town heritage trail where visitors can get an insight into their oral traditions and expressions.

Identifying their community’s “core value” was not easy for some at first, Lim concedes.

“Our themes are very common and are a part of our everyday life – like ritual foods that our grandmother and mother cooked or games that we played when we were young – but sometimes that is what makes it difficult.

“In Malaysia, we take our culture for granted and are usually not aware of it. Malaysians rarely look at themselves and reflect, so we hope our celebration can spark their cultural memory,” he says.

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