May 312017

Today is the start of Gawai Dayak, an annual festival celebrated by the Dayak people in Sarawak, Malaysia and West Kalimantan, Indonesia. It is a public holiday in Sarawak and is both a religious and a social occasion initiated in 1957. Gawai Dayak was the concept of the radio producers Tan Kingsley and Owen Liang, and taken up by the Dayak community. The British colonial government refused to recognize Dayak Day until 1962. Instead, they called it Sarawak Day to include all Sarawakians as a national day, regardless of ethnic origin. Gawai Dayak comes from “Gawai” meaning festival and “Dayak” a collective name for the indigenous peoples of Sarawak, Indonesian Kalimantan and the interior of Borneo. The population estimate is 2 to 4 million. The Dayaks, previously known as the Sea Dayak are mostly Iban people. Other ethnic groups such as the Bidayuh people (Land Dayak and Orang Ulu) are included. The Orang Ulu include the Kayans, Kenyahs and Lun Bawangs. There are over 200 riverine and hill-dwelling ethnic subgroups in the region. Although these peoples have common traits, each has its own dialect, customs, laws, territory and culture. Dayak languages are generally categorized as Austronesian languages. Originally Dayaks observed various forms of animism or pantheism, but since the 19th century times, many have converted to Islam or Christianity.

On 1 June 1963, Datuk Michael Buma, a Betong, hosted the celebrations of the first Gawai Dayak at his home at Siol Kandis, Kuching. On 25 September 1964, Sarawak Day was gazetted as a public holiday acknowledging the Sarawak part in the formation of the Federation of Malaysia. The holiday was first celebrated on 1 June 1965 and it became a symbol of unity, aspiration and hope for the Dayak community. It is an integral part of Dayak social life. It is a thanksgiving day marking a bountiful harvest and a time to plan for the new farming season or other endeavors ahead. The mode of celebration of Gawai Dayak varies greatly from place to place and preparations begin early.

In those villages where longhouses are the norm, the longhouse is cleaned, repaired and repainted through co-operation amongst its residents. Timber and wooden materials for repairs are obtained from nearby reserve forests (“pulau galau, pulau ban”) or purchased in towns. A “pantar” (long chair) may be built along the upper area of the ruai (gallery). The seat is raised and the tanju (verandah wall) is used as the back rest. Some old wooden longhouses (“rumah kayu”) are renovated with concrete and bricks to make a terraced structure (“rumah batu”). The inside walls of the longhouse are decorated with “ukir” murals portraying tree and wild animal motifs. Men with decorating skills make split bamboo designs. The Orang Ulu are famous for their colorful paintings of the tree of life on their house walls and their house posts are elaborately carved. Highly decorated shields are displayed near the family room door. Heirloom jars and old human skulls obtained during headhunting raids, if still kept, are cleaned and displayed. Deer horns may be secured on the longhouse posts in order to secure highly decorated swords and other household items.

In preparation people gather sago, aping, sawit or coconut palm shoots which are used for making soup. Vegetables such as wild miding fern, fiddlehead fern, bamboo shoots, tapioca leaves and Dayak round brinjals from nearby jungle, farms or gardens are also gathered. After the gathering of plants and vegetables early in the morning, the poultry is slaughtered. Enough meat is cooked in aged thin-walled bamboo logs to make a traditional dish called “pansoh” (or “lulun” in the Iban language). The meat is first mixed with traditional herbs like lemon grass, ginger, bungkang leaves and salt. Any remaining meat is preserved in salt. Animal heads are roasted over an open fire to be served hot with tuak. Wooden cooking implements are made from small tree logs.

Some glutinous rice is cooked in bamboo logs to soak up the bamboo aroma. Normal rice will be cooked in pots at the kitchen hearth. The addition of pandan leaves gives a special aroma. Smoke from the fire wood also gives a distinctive aroma. Some Dayaks, especially Orang Ulu, will wrap rice in long green leaves before steaming it inside a pot. Rice may also cooked using a gas stove or rice cooker.

Highly decorated mats for guests to sit on are laid out on the longhouse gallery which runs the entire length of the building. The Dayaks make various types of traditional hand-woven mats. There are reed mats woven with colourful designs, lampit rattan mats, bidai tree bark mats and peradani mats. The walls of most family rooms and galleries are decorated with traditional blankets such as the woven Pua Kumbu and the tied cloth (kain kebat) blankets which are made with unique Dayak designs. During the festival, women are keen to display their skills and hard work at mat-making and hand-weaving. Some traditional baskets are also seen.

Men and women may wear “ngepan”, the traditional costume, especially when guests are arriving. The traditional dress of men is a loincloth (sirat or cawat), animal skin coat (gagong), peacock and hornbill feathers (lelanjang) headware, chains over the neck (marik), silver armlets and anklelets along with a shield, sword and spear. Men are decorated with tribal tattoos (kalingai or pantang in Iban) which signify their life experience and journey. A frog design on the front of the man’s neck and or tegulun designs on the backs of the hand indicate the wearer has chopped off a human head or killed a man in military combat. However, some designs are based on marine life which are meant for protection and rescue of the wearers when on the water.

Women wear a hand-woven cloth (kain betating) worn around the waist, a rattan and brass ring high corset around the upper body, selampai (a long piece of scalp) worn over the shoulders, a woven bead chain over the neck and shoulders (marik empang), a decorated high-comb (sugu tinggi) over the hair lump (sanggul), a silver belt (lampit), armlet, anklet and orb fruit purse.

Celebrations begin on the evening of 31 May with a ceremony to cast away the spirit of greed (Muai Antu Rua). Two children or men, each dragging a winnowing basket (chapan) will pass by each family’s room. Every family will throw some unwanted article into the basket. The unwanted articles will then be tossed to the ground from the end of the longhouse. At dusk, a ritual offering ceremony (miring or bedara) will take place at every family room, one after the other. Before the ceremony, ritual music called gendang rayah is performed. Old ceramic plates, tabak (big brass chalices) or containers made of split bamboo skins (kelingkang) are offered to the deities.

The Iban Dayaks believe in seven deities: Sengalang Burong (the god of war which is represented by the brahminy kite in this world); Biku Bunsu Petara (the great priest’s second in command), Menjaya Manang (the first shaman and god of medicine), Sempulang Gana with Semerugah (the god of agriculture and land), Selampadai (the god of creation and procreativity), Ini Inee/Andan (the god of justice) and Anda Mara (the god of wealth). Iban Dayaks also call upon the legendary and mythical people of Panggau Libau and Gelong, and some good helpful spirits or ghosts to attend the feast.

Offerings to the deities are placed at the four corners of each family room, in the kitchen, at the rice jar, in the gallery, the tanju and the farm. Other highly prized possessions such as precious old jars and modern items like rice milling engines, boat engines or a car may also be used as offerings. Any pengaroh (charm) will be brought out for this ceremony to ensure its continuous effectiveness and to avoid madness afflicting the owner. Wallets are placed among the offerings to increase the tuah or fortune of the owners.

Each set of offerings usually contains seven traditional items: the cigarette nipah leaves and tobacco, betel nut and sireh leaves, glutinous rice in a hand-woven leave container (senupat), rice cakes (tumpi), sungki (glutinous rice cooked in buwan leaves), glutinuous rice cooked in bamboo logs (asi pulut lulun), penganan iri (cakes of glutinous rice flour mixed with nipah sugar), ant nest cakes and moulded cakes, poprice (made from glutinous paddy grains heated in a wok or pot), hard-boiled chicken eggs and tuak rice wine poured over or contained in a small bamboo cup.

After all the offering sets are completed, the chief of the festival thanks the gods for a good harvest, and asks for guidance, blessings and long life as he waves a cockerel over the offerings (bebiau). The cockerel is sacrificed by slicing its neck. Its wing feathers are pulled out and brushed on to its bleeding neck after which each feather is placed as a sacrifice (genselan) on to each of the offering sets. The offerings are then placed at the designated locations.

When a longhouse agrees to host Gawai Dayak, they may need to plant extra paddy and organize labor (“bedurok”). Rice may be purchased from the towns if the festival is in a place where paddy farming is absent or insufficient. The traditional Dayak liquor is rice wine called tuak. It is brewed at least one month before the Gawai Dayak. The drink is brewed from the glutinous rice from a recent harvest mixed with home-made yeast. Traditionally, tuak was made with rice milk only but is now cut with sugar and water in a process called ciping. A stronger alcoholic beverage made by the Ibans is “langkau” (called arak tonok” (burnt spirit) by the bidayuhs). This drink is made by distilling tuak over a fire.

Traditional cake delicacies are prepared from glutinous rice flour mixed with sugar. The cakes include sarang semut (ant nest cake), cuwan (molded cake) and kui sepit (twisted cake). The cakes can last well whilst kept inside a jar because they are deep-fried until hardened. Penganan iri (a discus-shaped cake) are made just prior to the festival day because they do not keep well. This is because the cake is lifted from the hot frying oil while not fully hardened. The sugar used can be the brown nipah sugar or cane sugar.

Before the eve of Gawai Dayak, the longhouse residents may organize a hunting or fishing trip to gather wild meats and fish. Both can be preserved with salt in a jar or smoked over a firewood platform above the hearth. Any wild animal parts like the horns, teeth and claws, and feathers are used to decorate and repair traditional costumes.

Contemporary city-dwelling Dayak who are Christian or Muslim hold a much more Western-style celebration, but it still involves traditional foods. Unless you have a wood fire, green bamboo stems, banana leaves and Sarawakan herbs and spices to hand, not to mention vegetables, I suggest taking a Malaysian trip if you want to sample Dayak food.  Here’s a video to give you an idea:

Jul 222015


Sarawak Self-government Day is an Independence Day celebrated on 22 July every year by the state of Sarawak in Malaysia. The holiday has been celebrated widely by the Sarawak state government and citizens only since 2012, after public discontent about Merdeka Day (Malaysia Independence Day) being too Malaya-centric.


Originally, the Kingdom of Sarawak was granted independence by the Sultanate of Brunei in 1841, but came under British “protection” from 1888 onwards. At this time, Sarawak was not fully granted independence although it had some autonomy. After the end of World War II, the territory was administered by the British Military Administration, then became a Crown Colony in 1946. The transferring of the territory to colonial administration sparked a major protest by Sarawakian citizens who wanted full independence. This led to the assassination of Duncan Stewart, the second governor of the Colony, by Rosli Dhobi, who was captured and subsequently hanged for murder. The position of the Governor was taken up by Anthony Abell, who also became one of the members for the Cobbold Commission which brought Sarawak and North Borneo into the Federation of Malaysia.


Sarawak was granted self-government on 22 July 1963, on the condition that it join with the newly forming Federation of Malaysia on 16 September the same year. Before the Independence Day ceremony on 16 September 1963, Alexander Waddell, the last Governor of the Colony, left the Astana (governor’s house) and boarded a white sampan to cross the Sarawak River, then handed the administration of Sarawak to the Sarawakian citizens, with the Colonial flag lowered and the Sarawak flag raised. Before he left, the Governor appointed Stephen Kalong Ningkan as the first Chief Minister of Sarawak.


Sarawak is one of the two Malaysian states on the island of Borneo. It is also one of the founding members of the Malaysian federation alongside North Borneo (Sabah), Singapore (expelled in 1965) and the Federation of Malaya (Peninsula Malaysia or West Malaysia). Like Sabah, this territory has autonomous law especially concerning immigration, which differentiates it from the rest of the Malaysian Peninsula states. Today, the state is known as Bumi Kenyalang (“Land of the Hornbills”).


Sarawak is situated on the northwest of Borneo, bordering the state of Sabah to the northeast, Indonesia to the south, and surrounding the independent state of Brunei. The administrative capital is Kuching, which has a population of 700,000. Major cities and towns include Miri (pop. 350,000), Sibu (pop. 257,000) and Bintulu (pop. 200,000). As of the last census (2010), the state population was 2,420,009. Sarawak has six major ethnic groups: Iban, Chinese, Malay, Bidayuh, Melanau, and Orang Ulu. Several minor ethnic groups include Kedayan, Javanese, Bugis, Murut, and Indian.


The Iban comprise the largest percentage (almost 30%) of Sarawak’s population. The Iban are native to Sarawak, and Sarawak has the highest number of Iban in Borneo. The great majority of Iban are Christians. However, like most other ethnic groups in Sarawak, they still observe many of their traditional rituals and beliefs. Sarawak celebrates colorful festivals such as the generic Gawai Dayak (Harvest Festival), Gawai Kenyalang (Hornbill Festival), Gawai Burong (Bird Festival), Gawai Tuah (Luck Festival), Gawai Pangkong Tiang (House Post Banging Festival), Gawai Tajau (Jar Festival), Gawai Sakit (Healing Festival) and Gawai Antu (festival of the dead).


Sarawakian Chinese are said to be Han Chinese because 99.99% are classified as ethnic Han (which is a matter of statistical convenience more than reality). All 55 recognized ethnic groups of the People’s Republic of China are represented. Chinese pioneers are believed to have first arrived in Sarawak as traders and explorers in the 6th century. Today, they make up 24% of the population, and consist of communities descended from the economic migrants of the 19th and early 20th centuries. They are classified as a non-Bumiputera (non-indigenous) ethnic group.

The Sarawak Chinese belong to a wide range of dialect groups, the most significant being Cantonese, Foochow, Hakka, Hokkien, Teochew, Hainanese, and Puxian Min. The Chinese maintain their ethnic heritage and culture and celebrate all the major cultural festivals, most notably the Chinese New Year and the Hungry Ghost Festival. The Sarawak Chinese are predominantly Buddhists.

Fuzhou people came to Sarawak in 1901 from Fuzhou, Fujian due to numerous violent incidents such as the Boxer Rebellion that occurred in the Qing Dynasty in 1899. During the Boxer Rebellion many Chinese Christians were brutally murdered. Wong Nai Siong a Christian leader, led them to Sarawak to live and to create a community by agreeing with terms and conditions set by Charles Brooke, then Rajah of Sarawak, and later allocated them a nearby town called Sibu and decided to name it the New Foochow Settlement. However, due to the sizeable presence of other Chinese sub-ethnic groups such as the Hokkiens, Hakka, and the Cantonese they ultimately retained the original name of the area.


Malays make up 23% of the population in Sarawak. They mostly populate the southern region and urban areas of Sarawak. Despite being Malays, Sarawak Malay has a distinct culture and language from that of other Malays in Peninsular Malaysia. They speak a local variant of Bahasa Melayu Sarawak (or Sarawak Malay), and have been classified as Bumiputera Sarawak.

saramelan1  saramelan2

The Melanaus are thought to be amongst the original settlers of Sarawak; they make up 6% of the population. Today most of the Melanaus community are either Muslim or Christian, though they still celebrate traditional animist festivals such as the annual Kaul festival.

sarabid1 sarabid2

Concentrated mainly on the West end of Borneo, the Bidayuh make up 8% of the population in Sarawak. The Bidayuh speak a number of different but related dialects. Some Bidayuh speak either English or Sarawak Malay as their main language. While some of them still practice traditional religions, the majority of modern-day Bidayuh have adopted the Christian faith.

saraorang1 saraorang2

Orang Ulu is a multi-ethnic group in Sarawak. The various Orang Ulu together make up roughly 6% of Sarawak’s population. The phrase Orang Ulu means up-river people and is a term used to collectively describe the numerous tribes that live up river in Sarawak’s vast interior. Such groups include the major Kenyah and Kayan people, and the smaller neighboring groups of the Kajang, Kejaman, Punan, Ukit, and Penan. Nowadays, the definition also includes the down-river peoples of the Lun Bawang, Lun Dayeh, Berawan, Saban as well as the plateau-dwelling Kelabit.

Orang Ulu is an ethnic designation politically coined to group together roughly 27 very small but ethnically diverse tribal groups in Sarawak, with a population ranging from less than 300 persons to over 25,000 persons. Orang Ulu is not a legal term and no such ethnic group exists or is listed in the Malaysian Constitution. The term was popularized by a minority association known as “Orang Ulu National Association” (OUNA) that was formed in 1969. The Orang Ulu typically live in longhouses elaborately decorated with murals and woodcarvings. They are also well known for their intricate beadwork and detailed tattoos. The vast majority of the Orang Ulu groups are Christians but old traditional religions are still practiced in some areas.

Sarawak cuisine is a mix, of course, with heavy influences from Malaya and China. But the dishes all have a Sarawak twist – mostly in the combinations of flavors and the raw ingredients. Hard to replicate if you are not there (as ever). This is a good site For today I’ve chosen laksa which is popular throughout the country and comes in many styles. This one is rice noodles with chicken and shrimp in a very complex sauce/soup. Most of the ingredients for the sauce can be found in the West with a little digging. The noodles may be a challenge but you can substitute any thin rice noodles.


Sarawak Laksa


300g medium prawns
1 lemongrass bulb, bruised
1 small onion, coarsely chopped
1 small chicken (about 1 kg)
500 ml coconut milk
100 g dry roasted peanuts, ground
30 g roasted sesame seeds, ground
2 tbsp chopped fresh cilantro
Juice of 1 lime
Salt and sugar to taste
oil for cooking
500 g beehoon or yellow noodles, blanched in hot water before serving

Spice Paste

15 shallots, peeled
6 cloves of garlic, peeled
2 cm galangal, peeled
15 dried chiles, deseeded and soaked in water
4 candlenuts
3 lemongrass bulbs, chopped
2 cm toasted belacan (dried, fermented shrimp paste)


1 whole cucumber, peeled, deseeded and cut into matchsticks
2 fresh red chiles, sliced
3 spring onions, chopped
8 calamansi limes, halved
2 eggs
soy sauce


Simmer the chicken in light chicken stock for about 1 hour. Remove the chicken and let cool a little before stripping the meat from the bones and cutting in bite-sized pieces.

Peel the shrimp and put the heads and shells into the chicken stock along with the with the chopped onion and lemongrass. Simmer for about 30 minutes, strain the liquid and reserve.

Put all the spice paste ingredients into a food processor and blend until smooth. Heat a little oil in a pot and fry the spice paste for a few minutes. Add the chicken pieces and cook over low heat for another few minutes. Pour in about .5 liters of chicken/prawn stock, chopped cilantro and coconut milk. Simmer for 20 minutes.

Add the ground peanuts, sesame seeds, and lime juice, and season with salt and sugar to taste. Stir well and add the prawns. Continue cooking over low heat until the prawns are done.

In the gaps, beat the eggs with a little water and soy sauce to that they are a little thin. In a small frying pan make thin, dry omelets. Cut them into thin strips and put in bowls.

Put the noodles in the bottom of deep bowls, divide up the prawns and chicken, and pour the sauce over the top.

Set out the garnishes in bowls for guests to help themselves.