I travel a fair amount for work, so it’s only natural that come weekend, all I want to do is sleep lol.
Once in awhile, though, I come across events that are intriguing enough to get my lazy ass out of the house – like the Selangor Indigenous Arts Festival 2018, held at Taman Botani Shah Alam last weekend. Held annually, this is the festival’s third instalment, and it showcases the arts and culture of indigenous groups in Malaysia and beyond.
In many countries, including Malaysia, indigenous groups are often sidelined. We talk about ‘Melayu,Cina,India’ (Malay, Chinese, Indian) when asked by foreign friends about the ethnic groups in our country, but we so often forget to include the Orang Asli (aborigines, or literally, the ‘original people’).
In West Malaysia, there are about 18 subgroups of Orang Asli, each with their own distinct culture, language and customs. They number around 170,000 or 0.5% of the population in the last census, but I think this number has declined over the years. The three main groups are Negrito, Semoi and Proto Malay, and this is further divided into tribes like the Jakun, Temuan, Temiar and Mah Meri (above). Some have moved out to the city, but many still live a nomadic/semi-nomadic life in the jungles of the Peninsula. Their homes are constantly under threat from deforestation or large conglomerates wanting to take over the land to plant palm oil/crops.
Now that we’re done with the (short) history/anthropology lesson, let’s get on with the event!
I think it’s a great initiative by the local government to educate members of the public on indigenous groups in Malaysia. Most Malaysians have little to no knowledge of the Orang Asli, because they are so far removed from our comfy urban lives that we don’t take the effort to find out more. These events are a great opportunity for them to showcase their culture and arts, and in turn, earn some income.
Parts of the park were converted into a temporary exhibition space, to showcase the different types of traditional homes the Orang Asli stay in. Most are made from materials such as wood, bamboo and nipah.
Also near the entrance was a giant bamboo structure called a kerchang – a puzzle game played by Orang Asli children to test their problem solving skills. The objective of the puzzle is to get the string out from within. There are more than a dozen kerchang ‘levels’, each more difficult than the last. We had a small one which one of the Orang Asli guides said ‘only takes three steps’.
After fiddling with it for more than 15 minutes, we called it quits. Note that this was only LEVEL 1! #noobs
One of the guys joked that if any of us could solve the hardest level kerchang we’d be inducted into the community straight away lol.
The opening ceremony saw participants from Malaysia, Thailand, Philippines and Cambodia, performing cultural dances while decked out in their respective traditional costumes.
We ventured into the pavilion area, which featured dozens of stalls selling everything from indigenous crafts and clothing to indigenous delicacies. Of course, when talking about indigenous groups, we can’t miss out on the large indigenous population in East Malaysia (70.1%), such as the Iban, Murut, Kadazandusun, Kenyah, Bidayuh and more.
There were several booths featuring beaded jewellery from Sarawak, worn as decorative items. Red, yellow and black are commonly featured in the beadwork, as they are also the colours of Sarawak state.
I have one of these. It was gifted by the villagers of a Kelabit longhouse when I visited Bario 😀
Rings topped with giant gemstones.
Lovely bags and hats! Price tag was a bit too steep for my budget, but I understand it takes a lot of effort and time to make these pieces. Bought a couple of bracelets instead.
Tuak, an alcoholic rice wine that is very popular in Sarawak. It is known as lihing in Sabah.
Jungle produce featuring lots of root vegetables, shoots, and ferns.
Another Sarawakian favourite – Pansuh – usually chicken or seafood stuffed into bamboo and grilled over a fire.
More delicacies, including dishes made from tapioca, wild fowl and squirrel meat.
Woven rattan baskets in a variety of bright, vivid colours.
More stuff to explore in the indoor pavilion! There was a games section where visitors could take part in traditional games like the congkak, batu seremban (five stone) and dam.
An Orang Asli man whittling strips of bamboo down to make kerchang.
Colourful baskets – handy to store small items like accessories!
More handmade woven goods.
I was touched to see that the Temiar had also opened a stall, despite the volatile situation of their community. I follow this page called Gerai OA, which comprises volunteers who help the Orang Asli in Peninsula Malaysia, and came to know that the Temiar are manning a blockade to protect their traditional lands from a plantation company bent on turning the area into a plantation for clone durians. The blockade was recently torn down by force by men in chainsaws and bulldozers, despite a minister’s visit and promise to resolve the issue. This is the exact bullshit that I was talking about earlier – oppression of natives rights. Read more here: https://www.malaysiakini.com/news/437425.
And here’s a little video I put together – don’t mind the quality; I did it at midnight yesterday and my brain was out of wack from lack of sleep lol.
I really enjoyed the festival, and I think it has given me a little more insight into the indigenous peoples of Malaysia. I urge everyone to pay a visit to the festival when it returns next year.