Why You Should Visit The Orang Asli Crafts Museum: Muzium Seni Kraf Orang Asli, Kuala Lumpur

When visiting the National Museum of Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur, most people make a beeline for the grand main building – a three-storey structure with various galleries within chronicling the history of Malaysia from Palaeolithic times up until the modern era.

Next to it, however, is a smaller, humble-looking building that can be easy to miss – which houses the Orang Asli Crafts Museum, aka Muzium Seni Kraf Orang Asli. Displays are limited but they offer an interesting insight into the often overlooked Orang Asli community in Malaysia.

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The Jahai tribe. Image via Muhammad Adzha from Penang, Malaysia / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)

The Orang Asli (literally ‘aborigines’ or the ‘original people’) are natives of Peninsular Malaysia who pre-date the arrival of the Malays. Numbering around 150 – 200, 000, they form around 0.7% of the population.

Despite being the true natives of the land, many of them live below the poverty line, with their rights often trampled upon (especially in regards to land ownership, as many Orang Asli live off the land) and their access to modern facilities such as healthcare and education are limited. There are three distinct groups: the Negrito, Senoi and Proto-Malay, further divided into 18 ethnic tribes, each with their own language, culture, traditions and practices. Most still live in or close to forests, and practice animism. Some of these tribes include the Mah Meri, Jakun, Temuan, Temiar, Seletar, Bateq and Semai, among others.

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Most of the items on display at the Museum are masks and carvings from the Mah Meri and Jah Hut tribes. The Mah Meri of Selangor are among the most well known Orang Asli tribes. They live close to the coast and make a living as fishermen, although in recent years, tourism has also become an important source of livelihood. They are extremely skilled at woodcarving, hence the masks which are used in rituals and ancestor worship. Ancestor Day, a massive celebration that honours the tribe’s ancestral spirits, is a spectacle to behold, attracting tourists from all over the world to Pulau Carey, where most of the tribe are concentrated at.

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Typically carved from Pulai wood which is soft and pliable, Mah Meri masks are a representation of their ancestor spirits, called Moyang. Some are based on animal figures as well, such as Siamang (monkey – far left), and cow (top row, far left). The masks are named after the Moyang Spirits, such as Moyang Bojos, Moyang Hapok and Moyang Belangkas, which the Mah Meri believe are imbued with extraordinary powers.

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Tools used for carving.

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Masks are not the only thing unique to the Mah Meri, as they also have statues that represent the spirits. (Above) Spirit of Mother and Baby, carved from Angsana wood, depicting a mother carrying a suckling babe.

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Another wood carving of a tiger spirit in chains.

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Aside from Mah Meri carvings, visitors will also find many Jah Hut wood carvings on display. The Jah Hut live in the highlands of Pahang, with the name ‘Jah Hut’ meaning ‘different people’ in their language. They live in or near forests with agriculture as their main income, as well as hunting and gathering the bounty of nature. Pahang is home to lush and dense rainforests, and the Jah Hut, like many Orang Asli, have a strong connection to spiritualism and the land. Their carvings are representation of beings from their beliefs and mythology.

(Above) Spirits of Genting, Batu Hulu and Sawan.

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The carvings are actually a little frightening to look at, almost demonic.

I believe that there exists a realm beyond our own, which is why you should never disrespect anything while you’re hiking in a jungle (in Malaysia, we believe in ‘makhluk halus’ and ‘penunggu‘, ie spirits). Having to live off the jungle, I’m sure the Jah Hut know more of these things than we city folk do, and who is to say that these representations are not real?

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Another room in the museum houses displays on traditional clothes, arts and crafts, tools and burial ritual items.

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Pensol or nose flute, a traditional musical instrument

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Some Orang Asli tribes, such as the Jah Hut, build wooden tombs for their departed, while others place the body in bamboo or a simple wooden coffin.

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Many tribes are also known for their weaving skills, such as the Temuan and Temiar. In recent years, NGOs such as Gerai Orang Asli have helped to promote these handmade crafts to the public, where they have amassed a loyal following – thereby providing the women of these communities a way to utilise their skills for income.

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Mah Meri clothing, which consists of a tree bark shirt and palm leave skirt, as well as additional garments and accessories that are intricately plaited. The headdress worn by both the men and womenfolk resemble long dreadlocks.

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A life-sized carving of Penjaga Gunung Tahan or the Guardian of Mount Tahan. Tall and long limbed, the guardian is shown as having long protruding fangs and holding a stick, with a loincloth and a container slung around the waist. A scary apparition to bump into if you’re out hunting, to say the least.

While the Orang Asli Crafts Museum is not large by any standards, the displays are certainly interesting, offering a fascinating insight into one of Malaysia’s smallest but oldest communities. The Orang Asli have been here for thousands of years, way before any of the great civilisations came to be, and their knowledge of the land and seas have been handed down the ages. Their language and culture is slowly being eroded in modern times – which is all the more reason to educate the public on the importance of preserving them.

That being said, I think there are a couple of things that the museum can improve on to make visitor experience better:

  • Update the data and stats on display, which are a little outdated.
  • Improve the information billboards, especially the portions in English. The explanations were rife with odd syntax and grammatical errors, which is unseemly for a national museum.

How To Get There 

The Orang Asli Crafts Museum is located within the grounds of the National Museum complex. From KL Sentral, KL’s main transportation hub, there is a 240-metre covered walkway to the museum grounds. Alternatively, take an MRT and alight at the Muzium Negara station.

MUZIUM SENI KRAF ORANG ASLI (ORANG ASLI CRAFTS MUSEUM) 

Jabatan Muzium Malaysia, Jalan Damansara, 50566 Kuala Lumpur

Opening hours: 9AM – 6PM

*Tickets cost RM2 (USD 0.50) 

Post Event: The Selangor Indigenous Arts Festival 2018

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.

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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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’.

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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.

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The opening ceremony saw participants from Malaysia, Thailand, Philippines and Cambodia, performing cultural dances while decked out in their respective traditional costumes.

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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.

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I have one of these. It was gifted by the villagers of a Kelabit longhouse when I visited Bario 😀

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Rings topped with giant gemstones.

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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.

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Tuak, an alcoholic rice wine that is very popular in Sarawak. It is known as lihing in Sabah.

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Jungle produce featuring lots of root vegetables, shoots, and ferns.

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Another Sarawakian favourite – Pansuh – usually chicken or seafood stuffed into bamboo and grilled over a fire.

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More delicacies, including dishes made from tapioca, wild fowl and squirrel meat.

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Woven rattan baskets in a variety of bright, vivid colours.

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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.

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An Orang Asli man whittling strips of bamboo down to make kerchang.

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Colourful baskets – handy to store small items like accessories!

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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. 

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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.

 

Travelogue Borneo: Inside A Kelabit Longhouse in Bario, Sarawak

The concept of communal living may be alien to many of us who live in the city. Our apartments are like tiny cages, our gated and guarded homes a substitute for cells.

For some indigenous peoples in Sabah and Sarawak, however, communal living is the only way of life they have ever known. Long houses have afforded its residents protection, safety and convenience since ancient times, and allows a unique bond to form between family, neighbours and friends.

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I had the privilege of staying at one of these long houses recently, on a trip to Bario, Sarawak, where the Kelabit people live. We stayed at the Bario Asal Lembaa Long House, the largest longhouse in the area and home to 23 families.

During our visit, it was like a big party, as not only were the people from Volvo Trucks  there for the official launching ceremony of their CSR projects, so were some research students as well as NGO volunteers. The atmosphere was festive, and reminded me of days when I was younger and everyone would congregate back in our hometown during the holiday season (not anymore since the grandparents died. Sigh

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Dating back to 1958, the Bario Asal Lembaa long house is a living piece of history, where generations of families have lived and died. Elevated on wooden stilts, the building is mostly made from wood and has numerous entry and exit points.

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The longhouse is divided into three ‘sections’, the first being the tawa – a long covered hallway that stretches from one end to the other. Used for ceremonies, gatherings and official functions, the space is lined with portraits of the families who live here, as well as historical figures and important community leaders within the Kelabit community. It felt a bit like a family museum, and I was touched to be welcomed into something so precious and intimate.

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Bario, Sarawak

From the hallway are narrow corridors that pass through private living quarters, usually a space with a living room and several bedrooms. These lead to the kitchen area, which is the real heart and soul of the community, and where most of the residents hangout while in the long house. I shared a room with two others at Sinah Rang Lemulun’s Homestay. It was a spacious unit with several rooms and a living area. The kitchen, which was interconnected with the other units, had a simple dining table and a pantry.

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Real cosy! Photos of the family decorated one side of the wall, and there was also a bookshelf filled with books on the other. Various knick knacks added to the homely vibe. Loved the pouffy sofa chairs. Used to have those at home and my bro and I would built forts out of them 😀

The day starts early in the longhouse. The loud ringing of the church bell nearby announces the arrival of dawn. From there on, it’s a flurry of activity, and unless you’re the kind that is dead to the world while you sleep, you’ll hear every creak of the floorboard, footsteps making their way through the kitchen as the longhouse ‘aunties’ prepare breakfast, and conversations cutting through the early morning air.

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Exiting the room, we come to the ‘tetal’ (sounds like ‘turtle’), aka the kitchen area. This is the heart of the longhouse, and where residents spend most of their time, either cooking, socialising or going about their daily lives. The hearth is a simple square-shaped fireplace in the center of each space, stocked with a special type of wood that we were told will not ‘spread’ when burned – you have to keep pushing it into the fireplace. They use these because the long house is made of wood and a fire would be disastrous.

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For guests, meals at the longhouse are prepared by your respective hosts. Although I was staying at Auntie Sina Rang‘s homestay, my food was prepared by Auntie Rita coz I swapped rooms earlier. Yes, they call everyone Auntie and Uncle here, it feels very homely!

Breakfast for me and the guys was simple but tasty – bread, Bario’s famous pineapple jam, eggs, and fried, battered slices of something that resembled yam. She also prepped halal and non-halal fried bihun to accommodate our Muslim friends. 🙂

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As some homes are not equipped with water heaters, people tend to take showers in the afternoon or evening. At night, temperatures dip to the teens, hovering around 15-16 degrees, so a sweater is recommended.

Some of the villagers like to sit around the fireplace for a chat after a long day, where they’ll put a kettle to boil and enjoy mugs of warm tea and some food. We joined the elders for awhile, and when they retired to bed, we moved on to the next ‘tetal’, and so on and so forth, from one end to the other!  Maklumlah, orang bandar… we don’t sleep so early. 😀

At another hearth, we sat down on low stools that our guide Julian jokingly called ‘Ogawa Bario’, and listened to stories – about their lives, developments in Bario, things happening around the world, etc. By the way, if you’re worried about communicating with the locals, fret not – the Kelabit speak very good English and Malay, in addition to their mother tongue. Although the school in Bario only offers classes up to Form 3, many youngsters venture out to  big towns to complete their tertiary education and go on to get professional jobs, before returning to the village. Auntie Rita, for example, was a nurse in Miri for many years before she retired, and Julian was an engineer in KL.

My experience staying at the Kelabit long house was an awesome one. I was extremely touched by their warmth and hospitality, as never have I felt so at home or so welcomed by people I barely knew – something that’s rare to find in cities.

If you’re looking for a homestay while in Bario, I highly suggest staying at the Bario Asal Lembaa Longhouse. Prices start from RM90 for a night’s accommodation. For more information, visit: facebook.com/SinahRangHomestayAndHandicraft/

*^ Auntie Sina Rang’s homestay – she also sells handicrafts! 

More of Bario to come! 🙂