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Sarawak traditional handicrafts in danger of being lost

In a paper published in the Sarawak Museum Journal in August 1983, former Sarawak Museum director Lucas Chin came up with a list.

The list is made of Sarawak traditional handicrafts he had observed would become extinct.

It has been almost 40 years since Chin listed down these items. Going through the list, however, we could not agree more that these Sarawak traditional handicrafts are in danger of being lost or have already vanished.

So here are the endangered Sarawak traditional handicrafts in need of revival according to Chin in 1983:

Wood carvings:

  • Kenyah carved wooden utensils: dishes, bowls and spoons which are elaborately carved and decorated should be revitalised and promoted.
  • Kenyah traditional ceremonial wooden masks. He recommended that smaller but genuine versions be produced for the market.
  • Sape musical instrument – smaller versions should be produced and sold together with the cassette music tape.
  • Parang Ilang- Chin noted that those produced in the Baram and Belaga were very coarse and simplified. Traditionally, the parang ilang blade is proportionately cut and decorated and the sheath decorated with tufts of hair or fibre and carved bone.
  • Blowpipes which are only produced by the Penan should be further promoted.
  • Traditional walking sticks which are more elaborately carved than those simplified ones available in the market today, should be encouraged to be produced and promoted.
  • Traditional ceremonial Iban hornbill carving, a stylised interpretation of a striking bird, which holds and honoured place in the Iban folklore – smaller genuine versions are recommended to be produced and promoted.
  • Iban carved trap charms (tuntun peti) – these small carvings in the form of squatting human figure with the elbows resting on the knee, etc., were traditionally made and used by the Iban to attract and lure game, especially wild pigs. The Iban no longer produce these as most of them own shotguns.
  • The series of sickness images made by the Melanau in connection with their healing ceremonies, should be encouraged to be produced and promoted. Traditionally, these images were quickly carved from sago pith. It is recommended that carvers should produced these images from more lasting soft wood (for instance jelutong) but not hard wood as it is difficult to carve the intricate designs onto hard wood.
  • The series of fishing fetishes elaborately carved from the antlers by the Melanau as fishing charms, should be encouraged to be produced and promoted. Antlers are difficult to get nowadays, but it is recommended that other bones, like those of buffalo, should be used by the craftsmen for carving these items.
  • The series of bamboo items such as ceremonial shields, walking sticks, tobacco pipes, pencil holders, etc., which are still being popularly produced by the Bidayuh of Kampung Pichin, need further improvement as their workmanship and standard somewhat deteriorated.
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Textiles Weaving

  1. The Sarawak famous Kain Songket, Kain Berturus and other garments produced by the Malay, should be revitalised and promoted. Apparently only one elderly lady living along Datu’s Road (sincd renamed Jalan Datuk Ajibah Abol after Sarawak’s first female minister) could produce this craft.
  • Iban textiles like blankets, skirts, jackets and other smaller garments traditionally woven on simple loom, should also need to be looked into as the technique is gradually being modified. Weavers nowadays no longer take the trouble to collect, prepare and process the raw materials for weaving. Instead, more and more weavers prefer to use commercial coloured threads, dyes, etc.,
  • Kenyah/Lun Bawang/Kelabit bark cloth – it is recommended that simple sleeveless jackets made of bark and decorated with traditional designs should be revitalised and promoted, not so much for wearing, but for decorative purposes.

Basket, Mats and Hats

  • Smaller versions of the tikar lampit produced by the Kayan, Kenyah and Kelabit and should be encouraged to be produced. Nowadays, it is difficult to see any good tikar lampit on sale. It is suspected that the saga rattan is getting difficult to obtain in the jungle nowadays;
  • The Kayan/Kenyah sun hats (saong in Kenyah/hong in Kayan) traditionally produced by the Kayan and Kenyah should be encouraged to be produced and promoted as these items are popular among tourists.
A Kayan woman weaving traditional mat.

Hopes for Sarawak traditional handicrafts

Some of these handicrafts that Chin predicted as ‘in danger of being lost’ have become extinct 40 years later due to a number of factors like change in lifestyle and depletion of natural resources.

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There is no way we could revive Iban hornbill carving, for example, as the bird is an endangered species. Even so, we still can find other alternatives to revive this art form without harming the environment.

Overall, other Sarawak traditional handicrafts on Chin’s list have potential to be revitalised. For example, promoting the Kayan and Kenyah sun hats just as vigorously as Vietnam promotes their leaf hats. You can find them in almost every handicraft store in that country.

Thankfully, Sarawak traditional handicrafts such as sape and Iban textiles are still being promoted and produced today, even taking on the world stage in contemporary art and music.

Other items like the Iban tuntun peti, fishing fetishes carved from antlers and Melanau sago carving, however, are almost never heard of nowadays.

What Chin wrote in 1983 still rings true today:“A country without heritage can be likened to a person without a passport or identity. Although the Government is making gradual efforts to preserve and protect our heritage, I believe that the people themselves should also play a major part in preserving their heritage.”

Patricia Hului
Patricia Hului is a Kayan who wants to live in a world where you can eat whatever you want and not gain weight. She grew up in Bintulu, Sarawak and graduated from the University Malaysia Sabah with a degree in Marine Science. She worked for The Borneo Post SEEDS, which is now defunct. When she's not writing, you can find her in a studio taking belly dance classes, hiking up a hill or browsing through Pinterest. Follow her on Instagram at @patriciahului, Facebook at Patricia Hului at Kajomag.com or Twitter at @patriciahului.

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