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Heritage Snippets of Sarawak
By Heidi Munan
That’s a question I’ve been asked many times.
“Wah, you’ve written one whole book! How long did it take you to write it?”
Not easy to answer. I only write non-fiction.
I imagine that the fiction writer has an easy time of it once inspiration has struck. He sinks deep into a creative trance, manipulating his characters from innocent beginnings to dramatic endings without even pausing for proper meals. The actors take on a life of their own, they escape the author’s control and let fate carry them swiftly to the inevitable, triumphant conclusion… So, it shouldn’t take very long to write a novel.
To write non-fiction you need inspiration too, of course. In my case, the inspiration is Sarawak. Sarawak the land, Sarawak the history, the sort-of-history, Sarawak and the outside world, Sarawak the people and all the fascinating things the people do. Or don’t do. Sometimes that is the story.
My new book, The Sartorial Heritage of Sarawak, is about what people wear. So, how long did it take to write?
The question should be, how long does it take to research the material that eventually becomes a book? The short answer: many years.
I travelled into remote nooks and corners of our land to gather materials for a book on beads, but beads don’t exist in isolation. They are closely connected with dress and costume. The many experts who patiently answered my often ignorant questions, and who generously shared their knowledge, never stuck narrowly to one topic. We talked about beads, about clothing and hats, about taboos and prohibitions, about food and farming, about life and the hereafter, and I try to preserve in my books what I gleaned from many friends.
When I decided to start on a book about clothing, I had to put all the information into some sort of order. For instance, where did it all start? Old books are of some help here – ancient Travellers’ Tales yield interesting snippets about what ‘the barbarians of the southern seas’ used to do, to wear, but mainly what they produced that was useful for the maritime trade, 1,000 years ago!
That’s how we know that homespun textiles were worn by ‘the common people’ of our region, but the upper class could purchase imported cotton and silk fabrics.
In more recent times we find some interesting descriptions of the ‘happy simple natives of Borneo’, sometimes illustrated with a few sketches.
And then came photography. From about 1880 onwards we can meet our ancestors face-to-face, most of them staring into the camera because they were told not to move, not even blink an eye, while the operation was in progress!
We can see what they wore, how they wore it, we see them in very basic everyday attire (not a lot, in most cases) or dressed up for a gala event. We see our ancestors at work – who hasn’t admired that classic photo of three Chinese gold miners with a small child? – or on grand occasions like weddings, when a bridal couple was ensconced in finery and drapery until they must have nearly suffocated!
Research gets less straightforward but much more exciting from about 1920 onwards. No, I wasn’t here at the time, neither were most of my informants. The stories start with ‘…we don’t do this nowadays, but when my grandmother was a child they always..’ whatever it was. Not allowed to drink cold water, schoolboys’ hair shaved off, girls kept inside their family compound, wear a sarong to school, sew their own blouses by hand…
And then comes the time of living memories, ‘when I was a little girl’, or boy, for men and women were all kind enough to share memories. The wash-amah with her scrubbing brush. In a village, slapping wet soaped washing against stones. Starched shirts and shorts to wear to school, or to work. The way you could tell at a glance who a person was, just by the way he or she dressed.
When it comes to the last 50-odd years, I was a participant as well as an observer of the sartorial scene. Oh yes, we all wore tight kebaya suits, with stiletto-heeled slippers, as popularized by P Ramlee films!
We watched the street scene liven up with colour once batik shirts became acceptable semi-formal wear for men. The vegetable market was bright with floral-print sam-foo (short-sleeved pyjama suits). The Iban ladies of the SIDS (Sarakup Indu Dayak Sarawak), getting tired of the constant snickering at their ‘topless’ sisters in the longhouses, got together and designed the baju modern which has become an iconic costume. Schoolteachers wore the sarong kebaya, while their students were put into uniforms – first individual to each school, then the national uniform.
The Sartorial Heritage of Sarawak is something like a brief tour of what our people wore, wear, and (?) are going to wear. It is by no means a complete record, more a selection of tidbits. Please get in touch and tell me what YOU remember!
Heidi (Adelheid) Munan was educated in Switzerland and New Zealand. She has been studying the material culture of Sarawak for over 50 years. In her capacity as a private researcher and Hon. Curator of Beads at the Sarawak Museum she has had ample opportunity to study and learn from indigenous experts and foreign scholars in this and related fields. Besides an active involvement in tourism and handicrafts promotion, she has published books, articles and papers on various topics related to the history and material culture of Sarawak and Borneo.
“Heritage Snippets of Sarawak” is a fortnightly column.