Rasang and the Spirit World: Rituals, Symbols and Initiation in the Life of a Bidayuh Dayung Borih at Bau Sarawak

Kendy Mitot

“Manah – A Living Legacy”, at Galeri Petronas, Suria KLCC, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 2017. Artwork by Kendy Mitot.

The Dayung Borih, or shaman, play a central role in sustaining Bidayuh culture and belief systems. Dayung Borih (female) and Pinguguoh/Pinyigar (male) serve important functions in many communities’ ritual ceremonies as mediators between humanity and the spiritual world. When in a state of trance, shamans are able to travel to the spirit world to communicate with all types of entities, including the ‘world-spirit’. Generally, shamans discover their spiritual gifts when being summoned upon by a spirit in a dream. When chosen, the candidate normally experiences an episode of serious illness. Undergoing this ordeal and recovering from the illness confirms the shaman's potency, upon which one is subsequently initiated and recognised as a shaman.

Dayung Borih perform Ngirindang dance by circling around the rasang during the Gawea Ngidaan Rasang, while men play rhythmic sounds from the gendang (traditional drum) with increasingly faster and louder beats. Kampung Duyoh, Bau, Sarawak, 2016. Image courtesy of Kendy Mitot.

Not all are qualified to be Dayung Borih as they are chosen by the paddy spirit through a dream. I’eng (spirit) come to them in the form of a handsome man. Even when conscious, they would see the i’eng, causing them to be oblivious to everyone else around them. This also makes  them fall seriously ill for several years: some almost lose their mind and die. They would try various medications to cure their sickness but would inevitably fail, causing them to lose weight and become emaciated. They can only recover after the appropriate ceremony is held. These are the chosen few who have to undergo rituals, albeit involuntarily, to be Dayung Borih. The process takes a year in order for one to qualify as a Dayung Borih. They must not consume certain foods such as taro, bamboo shoots, wild fern, chicken and pork. Most importantly, they cannot eat deer meat for the rest of their lives. Dayung borih also cannot visit graveyards or attend funerals within her one year of abstention.

Rasang by Gimus anak Midi at Kampung Grogo, Bau, Sarawak, 2018. Image courtesy Kendy Mitot.

In preparation for the ritual, rasang is an important sacred object which serves as a new ‘home’ for the i’eng to inhabit. Symbolically, the ritual also binds the Dayung Borih conjugally to the i’eng. Hence, the rasang symbolises the Dayung Borih’s family in another realm. Additionally, Rasang plays an important role as a sacred object in the Gawea Ngidaan Rasang ceremony during the Gawai festival. 

In terms of physical appearance, rasang is a wooden carving in the form of a Ruoi - known in English as a Great Argus, a sacred bird related to the i’eng ritual. The Ruoi is chosen for its beautiful appearance, eyes, feather patterns and colours, especially on its tail. Rasang are made only for women chosen to become a Dayung Borih (shaman). Every Dayung Borih has her own rasang, and the two are bonded for life.

The rasang can be divided into three distinct parts; top, middle and bottom. The carving on top is a male rasang, while the bottom is a female rasang. A storage compartment (the middle) inside the rasang stores the batuh i’eng, which looks roughly like perforated rock crystals, and small wooden carvings such as sinuod (comb), asuol (spears), bisu’ah (paddle) and ba’ie (sword). The head of the rasang is designed as a crown and the shape of the mouth resembles a beak, with jagged lines as teeth. The rasang’s eyes are made from beads, while coconut shells are strung together as a necklace or as earrings. A bead necklace, known as pangieh, decorates the rasang’s neck. A string with bells and beads is placed around the chin. The motifs on the rasang’s tail are wavy and coiled to suggest its tenderness.

Rasang by Soonip anak Gachia at Kampung Opar, Bau, Sarawak, 2016. Image courtesy Kendy Mitot.

Rasang are normally between 1 and 1.5 feet high, and 1.9 to 2.7 feet wide, with multiple wooden ornaments attached, such as the sinuod (comb), asuol (spears), bisu’ah (paddle), ba’ie (sword), cylinder bamboo, and dried leaves. According to the Dayung Borihs, the sizes of the rasang differ depending on the sizes of the i’eng. Rasang are originally painted in dark-red-orange colours. Gradually, as time passes, the paint on the body of the rasang fades to burgundy, while the carved motifs fade into light and dark brown. The motifs on the rasang can be categorized into two types – organic and geometric. Every rasang made has similar motifs, but with slight differences in decoration and carving methods. Some of the motifs on the rasang take inspiration from the male carver’s dreams imparted to them from the i’eng.

The Dayung Borih at the Bawal (altar), Tongon G’tiak (G’tiak tree) and Buluk Bolak (Bamboo Bolak - yellow bamboo) at the Gawea Olan ritual ceremony, Kampung Opar, Sarawak, 2019. Image Courtesy of Kendy Mitot.

Rasang can only be made from the g’tiak tree or the situ tree. G’tiak and situ trees are favoured by i’eng as their wood is of high quality and is very hard and durable. Before they can fall the tree to make rasang, however, they need to perform a gawea ritual ceremony. During the preparation of the ceremony, Dayung Borih will ask the men to carve a wooden rasang for them. A rasang is made over eight days and eight nights during the Adat Dayung Borih ceremony. It is then used as an important sacred object in the Gawai Pribarih Dayung ceremony, to megandam (heal) their illness through a method of pribarih (spirit diversion), allowing these women to emerge from the ceremony as Dayung Borih.

Bidayuh people believe that the rasang has its own rules, for example, no one is allowed to touch or play with the rasang. Males, especially, are not allowed to touch the rasang. Any man touching the rasang will fall sick or turn blind, even though the ones creating and carving the rasang are men. This is because the rasang is a sacred object used for Gawai Pribarih Dayung and Gawea Ngidaan Rasang ceremonies. Besides that, it is a sacred object for Dayung Borih and a home for the i’eng. The rasang is kept for a lifetime by the Dayung Borih and will accompany the shaman to her death bed and burial.

Dayung Borih sitting on swing board singing borih songs, chanting prayers and calling/invoking i’eng podi, asking the spirit to return to the village at the Gawai ritual ceremonies at Kampung Duyoh, Bau, Sarawak, 2016. Image courtesy Kendy Mitot.

Kendy Mitot is an artist of the indigenous Bidayuh tribe of Sarawak. The Bidayuh represent 8% of the Sarawak population. As an educator, researcher, and fine artist, Kendy’s research areas include topics related to traditional arts and culture of Borneo indigenous people especially the Bidayuh, in Sarawak, Malaysia, as well as his interest into art innovation- media experimentation, art theory and practices. His artworks reflect the Borneo indigenous people especially in myth, symbols, and ritual ceremonies, as well as his experimentations with difference medium as a visual arts practitioner. You may reach him at kendymitot.arts@gmail.com.


The Mui Tsai Controversy

Yap Lay Sheng

‘Child Slavery in Hong Kong’, written by the Haslewoods. In the 1930s, Commander Hugh Haslewood—a British naval officer stationed in Hong Kong during the First World War—and Mrs Haslewood launched a polemical campaign against the involuntary bondage of mui tsai in the households of wealthy Chinese families. The book sparked a fevered campaign against child slavery in many corners of the British Empire. 

On 6 October 1870, the Chief Justice of Hong Kong Sir John Smale issued a court verdict that would stir entrenched native resistance and inaugurate protracted legal ambiguities over the regulation of the socially ingrained practices related to mui tsai in Chinese households. Smale tried a few individuals convicted of engaging in the human trade of Chinese girls, specifically condemning it for contravening the freedom of persons that none could sell his own person into slavery. Smale’s edict angered the Hong Kong elites: local Chinese merchants immediately petitioned then-Governor John Hennessy to argue for the merits of preserving the mui tsai.

The Chinese merchants disagreed with an outright ban. They reasoned that mui tsai bondage is a patronage system in which wealthy brethren foster girls from poor households, preventing mass infanticide and starvation. They sought hard to convince the Governor to distinguish between abuses of the system and a benevolent spirit alleged to be at the core of the practice. This culminated in the setting up of the Po Leung Kok (Society for the Protection of Women and Children, PLK) in 1880. Similar institutions followed soon after in the Straits Settlements, which briefly quelled concerns over child servitude. Yet, there was no outright ban on the practice. Since its inception, the PLK functioned as an extension of the elite Chinese community’s arm. Funded mostly as a philanthropic enterprise of Chinese businessmen, the PLK enjoyed extrajudicial powers to investigate kidnapping networks, cooperated closely with the police, and most importantly according to its proponents, provided extensive care and place of refuge for kidnapped victims.

The PLK worked to “suppress kidnapping and traffic in human beings”, taking in vulnerable girls who were abused, exploited or sold into prostitution. Having dealt with over 2000 such cases in each decade between the 1890s–1910s, it might be argued that the PLK was successful in its aims. However, the introduction of the PLK did not stem solely from charitable concerns about the status of abused mui tsai. The institution could more cynically be interpreted as a one way to safeguard the continued supply of indentured, cheap labour. It also brought to the fore problems of pride, patriarchal hegemony and a jealously guarded sense of nationalism. The PLK was primarily a ploy by elite (male) Chinese tycoons to forestall the encroachment and intrusion of British colonial power. The enforcement of the law to the fullest extent, as recommended by Smale, would have endangered the Chinese tycoons’ own trade of concubines, children and domestic servants, and reduced their political power significantly.

Mui tsai girls were often forced into domestic servitude under the guise of “foster care” by wealthy Chinese families. Source: ‘Slave-girls carrying children (Hong Kong)’, circa 1910s, postcard. Hong Kong Memory.

Due to the lobbying power by elite Chinese, the mui tsai system persisted on the grounds that these were ‘legitimate’ adoptions and were part of a domestic convention built around the practices of concubinage and maintaining brides-in-waiting, all of which the Chinese community insisted were treasured traditions. The introduction of PLK forestalled further reformists’ attempts to abolish the mui tsai system. After all, the term mui tsai, loosely translated as ‘little daughter’, allowed multiple ambiguities to traffic under a charitable guise of the provision of foster care. The argument that mui tsai bondage is a traditional custom found its loudest support among Orientalists, who declared it inconceivable to think that women enjoyed “individual relations apart from the relations of the family” and argued that mui tsai were better off within the household of a patriarch. According to contemporary defenders of the practice, the mui tsai was a role that was introduced into the household in an equitable relationship as the “hired domestic”, “the wife” and the patriarch’s “own son”, further framing the practice as a mutually beneficial system of social support infrastructure.

After Chief Justice Smale’s short-lived campaign, the bondage system attracted powerful reformist opposers, including the Social Science Association, Society for the Protection and Aborigines, Anti-Slavery Society and various missionary groups. While campaigning ostensibly for the welfare of the mui tsai, anti-mui tsai sentiments also functioned to reinforce the British empire’s civilisational superiority through advancing the rhetoric that mui tsai girls were the “hideous stain” tarring the sanctity of empire (according to the Hasslewoods). Thus, Lieut-Colonel John Ward, in a House of Commons debate, called the mui tsai system “a disgrace to the British Empire.” Empire’s moralising mission to rectify Chinese stasis and degeneracy allowed it to monopolise a moral high ground. The mui tsai’s bodies became instruments to mark empire’s moral distinction and pre-eminence—they justified the Europeans as overlords over the protection of vulnerable “oriental” women.

Moreover, the missionary forces that took up the task of rehabilitating the mui tsai were less motivated by the religious altruism of benefaction, than by a zealousness to civilise the margins of empire. One documented case occurred in the Home for Slave Girls in Yunan, Southern China, which was founded by the British China Inland Mission. Not only did the Home often prefer able-bodied girls to those with health conditions and physical ailments, they were expected to spread the gospel once they were older and became the missionary mainstays in China. A Sister Maria Wehrheim even expressed her wishes to bring one of the girls’ home “for our household [duties]”. Life in these houses were often just as trying as their previous ones. In Xiamen, at the Society for the Relief of Chinese Slave Girls, a house set up by a local Chinese Christian, multiple mui tsai were reported to have fled the Home in its initial founding years, despite the purported security and comfort offered for the destitute mui tsai. The mui tsai’s supposed liberation merely released the girls into yet another form of harsh regimentation and asceticism, rhetorically cast as training centres to produce good Christian women for missionary work.

Photos such as this typified the way British campaigners organised against child servitude systems. Photographs of nameless Chinese girls dissolve into anonymity, their life stories summarised in a paltry few sentences for the consumption by the liberal audience in the metropole of the British Empire. Source: Photo of a Mui Tsai, 1929, from Sandy Chang 'Across the South Seas- Gender, Intimacy, and Chinese Migration in British Malaya'

The mui tsai’s stories point out a particular dilemma in writing history. Accounts of mui tsai often vacillated between two narratives— either they were subjugated slaves or liberated humanity. Little is left to write a history of their own existence. The term ‘mui tsai’ is a descriptive label that renders legible the figures of Chinese child slaves in history. But it is also a label which already performs the work of disfigurement. To render her presence visible as mui tsai is an acknowledgement that her narratability is only possible as a subject marked and constituted via the colonial encounter.

Narrating her life stories is necessarily a narration of her stories as seen through the gaze of missionaries, colonisers, and of the patriarchal, phallogocentric order monopolised by colonial Hong Kong elites. Repeatedly and violently grafted onto contradictory discourses of indigenous customs and colonial modernity, the mui tsai’s presence was largely dictated by the contours of dominant debates. The power of discourse dictates that her form, her presence and her voice are recognised only through her binary construction either as enslaved subject or liberated agent. Historians should be cautioned against a naïve reconstruction of the mui tsai’s distressed existence.

Sources and Additional Readings

Anti-Mui Tsai Society, 1922. Manifesto of the Anti-Mui Tsai Society. Available at the LSE Women’s Library Archives.

Bradley, J., 2011. The Colonel and the Slave Girls: Life Writing and the Logic of History in 1830s Sydney. Journal of Social History, 45(2), pp. 416-435.

Carroll, J. M., 2009. A National Custom: Debating Female Servitude in Late Nineteenth- Century Hong Kong. Modern Asian Studies, 43(6), pp. 1463-1493.

Haslewood, H. L. & Haslewood, C., 1930. Child Slavery in Hong Kong: The Mui Tsai System. 1st ed. London: Sheldon Press.

Jaschok, M., 1994. Chinese 'Slave' Girls in Yunnan-Fu: Saving (Chinese) Womanhood and (Western) Souls, 1930-1991. In: M. Jaschok & S. Miers, eds. Women & Chinese Patriarchy. London: Zed Books, pp. 171-195.

Pomfret, D., 2008. ‘Child Slavery’ in British and French Far-Eastern Colonies 1880–1945. Past & Present, 201(1), pp. 175-213.

Sinn, E., 1994. Chinese Patriarchy and the Protection of Women in 19th-century Hong Kong. In: M. Jaschok & S. Miers, eds. Women & Chinese Patriarchy: Submission, Servitude and Escape. London: Zed Books, pp. 141-167.

White, C., 2014. "To Rescue the Wretched Ones": Saving Chinese Slave Girls in Republican Xiamen. Twentieth-Century China, 39(1), pp. 44-68.


History, Fantasy and Mitos Nusantara

Jin Tee

Jin Tee is a young graphic designer in Kuala Lumpur interested in the intersection between visual culture, history and fiction. In this article, she reimagines the mythological creatures of nusantara as folktales for a contemporary audience.

The inspiration for the first creature, the Weretiger, was a story in William Skeat’s 1900 book, Malay Magic. A seminal work of a colonial officer on magic in the peninsula, the book was an attempt to rationalise and document “real” folk beliefs in the form of an ethnographic portrait of rural Selangor. This myth is here reimagined graphically, with a suite of other original characters: in these drawings lie an act of transgressive interpretation, blurring the boundaries of historical fact and popular fiction.


The weretiger is powerful, proud and haughty. It was once a human who could transform into a tiger at will. Sang Bagas used his power to defend his village from real tigers, and was thus much celebrated. However, this magic caused its wielder to lose their humanity if they remained in their tiger form for too long.

Once, a real tiger the size of an elephant arrived at the village, and so the weretiger transformed and defended his territory fiercely. The fight lasted three days and three nights, and the tiger-king was felled in the end. Alas the weretiger was too ensnared in the magic, and upon transforming back, found itself unable to do so completely, stuck instead in a half-human, half-tiger form.

The weretiger despaired at its embarrassing appearance: wide-chested, fanged and clawed, but attached at the waist to the slim rump of a human. The villagers, fearful that it would forget its humanity and turn on them, offered praise and bowls of milk to distract and entreat it to continue protecting the village.

The half-tiger continued to defend the village for many generations, but always out of sight of the villagers. When the village fell to ruin, it roamed the Malay archipelago, a wandering feline without a master.

Sang Bagas can be enticed to do your bidding, if it strikes his fancy. To invoke it, take his image in your hand and lay a bowl of milk at the entrance of your house overnight. If it is empty the next day, all your enemies will be intimidated by you; anyone giving you the evil eye will find themselves blinded momentarily.

But the weretiger is a prideful thing. Once you have invoked its power, you must continue to do so consistently. You must offer it a bowl of milk every dawn, and praise it for its beauty and power. Fail to do so, and you might wake up with mysterious bruises and scratches.

His eye markings belong to those who will pierce their enemies’ morale with its unrelenting stare.


Yani is a celestial pangolin with a gift of finding everything and anything. With a keen sense of smell and strong claws that can dig through anything, it can unearth treasure at the bottom of the sea, and even find a missing loved one. Its scales are impenetrable and its tips glow in the dark.

This pangolin-fish makara is harmless and has a timid nature, but can be coaxed out of the sea with offerings of candied ants. Fill to the brim three bowls of ants. Add one cup of sugar and a quarter cup of water. Cook until a layer of crystallised sugar forms around the ants. Bring it to the coast and describe that which you seek. Those who harm it are said to never be able to find what they lost ever again.

Its eye markings belong to those who can find what they seek immediately, with pinpoint accuracy.


Enggang is a half-snake-half-hornbill. When it is not flying, it curls its tail around tree trunks and sleeps with its beak under its wings. Its appearance is the same as a common hornbill, but where clawed feet should be, there is a snake’s tail. Its beak is lined with pointed teeth, but it only sinks its teeth in fruits, not flesh. The fruits are what gives its horn colour.

Accounts about its size vary greatly: some say it is small, preening its feathers in the company of a flock of common hornbills; some claim that its wings are large enough to blot out the sun and darken the skies, and makes a great show of baring its teeth, but this account almost always come from loggers.

The locals regard it as the jungle’s chimeric guide of the lost. It is known to appear before explorers and hikers, leading them through the dense vegetation to open, well-worn trails. Its partially sinuous appearance unnerves many, especially the visitors. It doesn’t shy away from humans, and is easily mistaken for a normal hornbill unless you spot the muscular tail gripping the tree branch it is perching on.

Its eye markings belong to those who are a compass to the lost and weary.


This creature takes on the form of a young Malayan tapir, and can hide itself away in an instant by dissolving into the jungle floor. Ilang is the protector of lost children, and appears only to the innocent and sinless. It is playful, with a ringing laugh, and will seek out lost children in the jungle to play with them. It is fearful of adults and hides away from their eyes, but if peopledo manage to catch a glimpse of it they will only see a strange shimmering in the air.

Ilang seeks out the lost and frightened, tending to their bruises and cuts and cheers them up by tickling their faces with its funny nose. When night falls, Ilang curls up around them, and brings them the solace their homes could not. When daylight breaks, Ilang casts a spell over them and grants them the invisibility it has: to be hidden from the eyes of those who would harm them, and adults. The jungle will be their home, and Ilang their immortal playmate.

Its eye markings belong to those who give to those with nothing, and never let go.


The weredeer is quick and bright, with a needly smile. She is extremely knowledgeable and is an excellent strategist in all manner of things: from tomorrow’s exam to business deals, from where best to place your auspicious item to how to attract the eye of a love interest.

What people don’t know— what she would never confess— is that she is the very same mousedeer that inspired the founding of the Sultanate of Malacca. After dodging Parameswara’s hunting dogs, she tore through the jungle and found herself in an ancient candi The place was dark, with claustrophobic brick walls and leaky ceiling. It did not seem like it was built for the living.

Still anxious from the chase, she stumbled into a hallway that opened up to a massive underground chamber. She knocked over an intricately carved box—it emitted a blinding light, and when vision returned to her eyes the world revealed all its secrets to her. It spoke to her from the draft blowing in from above, and following the smell of rain she emerged from the temple armed with a newfound power.

Her knowledge dissolved away her timid, skittish nature. She manoeuvred through difficult situations with confidence, and even had a brief stint as an advisor to a monarch, until he began to claim her wisdom as his own. But when she refused her service she also lost access to the library he had amassed, and now spends her days looking for new tomes to peruse and collect.

The weredeer cannot resist a book she has not read before, so to invoke it you must procure such book. Go to the spine of the peninsula; lay the book open with an image of her, in the dead of the night. She will appear, and ask to look at the book, and you must delay her with questions until you are satisfied. The weredeer delights in both absorbing and imparting knowledge, but exhaust her patience and she may answer untruthfully.

Her eye markings belong to those who can see through lies and recall everything she has seen.


Knowledge and Indigeneity - An interview with Welyne Jehom (Part 2)

An interview conducted by Sheau and Lay Sheng 

This is part two of a two-part interview conducted by O For Other editors Lay Sheng and Sheau with Welyne Jehom, a senior lecturer of anthropology, on Sunday, 6 October 2019. Read the first part hereThe interview has been edited for length and clarity.

O: You talked a lot about the category of the master weaver and the idea of intangible heritage. What goes into the hierarchisation of weaving patterns, and how does that correspond to the idea of the master weaver?

WJ: Designs have been categorised. I asked them to explain how they categorised it to me: it operates on a system from 0 to 10. So they gave me the names of each design that fits into each level. So if you are a young weaver, you cannot weave at level 10. There is a taboo that comes with that, such as falling sick or angering the spirits.

Basically, what I realized was that when you are young, there are certain techniques that you have to learn before you are able to make a difficult design. With design, there are also steps: you do big curls, then you do smaller curls, then you have to be able to connect the curls with the branch and the main pillars. Designing pua kumbu, you need to be able to count based on the design that you are looking at: how many kayu, how many belebas. If not, you will not have it symmetrical. If you are a new weaver and you don’t know these rules, your designs will not be straight, it will be as if the textile is bleeding. But of course the weavers don’t explain it, they say that it’s taboo. Taboo is a scapegoat word. “Mali,” in their words.

O: You talk a lot about pua kumbu as an intangible cultural heritage. What do you think of that term and its political connotations? 

WJ: When I use the word “intangible” at the beginning, I didn’t know that it was very political. Only when I saw so many people using the word did I realise. When we speak about conservation, we always speak about the tangible aspect: in fact, Malaysia only introduced “intangible heritage” in 2015. I saw it on UNESCO’s website. Malaysia still doesn’t have many listed, just mak yong and some others. There are so many dying arts. Even songket has not been listed, a contested cultural legacy claimed by both Brunei and Indonesia. Even the word “ikat,” Indonesia was trying to list it at UNESCO. But ikat is a method, it’s used in India, China, everybody uses the word “ikat.” That’s why it was rejected. It’s a tie and dye resist process. But I’m trying to list “kebat,” which is also a method, but it’s more elaborate. Iban kebat is very difficult: even though Indonesia is also doing it, but only in Kalimantan, but they have lost that particular knowledge.

O: This idea of intangible heritage, especially when you get international organisations like UNESCO in, is embedded with the idea that this knowledge belongs to the world. What do you think of that kind of categorisation, and do you think the idea of intangible cultural heritage has lost some of the force it had in the beginning?

WJ: It’s very conflicting for me in that, yes, it should belong to the world as that is the only way we can ensure its survival. The more people know about it, the more people practice it, it can go on. With Iban’s pua kumbu, only now have people started becoming interested in its knowledge - not the material artefact. Because they are realising that if you own antique pua kumbu, that’s it, it stops there. The intangible aspect of pua kumbu will continue to bring you the tangible aspect. The textile will be able to be reproduced. I faced a lot of questions from collectors - they always ask, is this antique? Is it the tangible or intangible? I say, “This is newly woven, but the design is very old. So how do you categorise this? Would you rather keep the old textile with lots of holes and has been eaten by mites, and you will never ever get another one because you only have the textile but no knowledge of it, or would you rather get this one, which can be reproduced through the same technique. This is not merely a replica, as the value of the textile is precisely in this knowledge and technique which requires a lifetime’s accumulation of weaving knowledge. Hence, the classification of something as ‘intangible’ is very political in ways that promote and undermine our heritage. There are no easy answers..

O: Are there sometimes tensions between you, as an ethnically other anthropologist, and the community.

WJ: The knowledge of pua kumbu is very political. I receive little support from Iban associations because I am Bidayuh. In the beginning, I received notes put under my door saying, Who are you Bidayuh doing in the region of Iban? What is your intention in doing research into pua kumbu? Are you trying to steal our knowledge? The master weaver had to announce in gatherings in front of other weavers to say, “This is my adopted daughter. I want her to know what I am doing because I want her to help me document the knowledge”. That’s why I only work with one master weaver, not only because she is very innovative but also because she understands the importance of the intangible aspects of pua kumbu has to be passed down.


WJ: I don’t know if you believe in black magic?

O: Yes.

WJ: I never believed in it, but I’ve never dismissed it, because I come from a community still steeped in certain “traditions”. I have healer’s blood. All my ancestors are healers - they don’t do “black magic”. Naturally, we are born with that kind of knowledge: there are little things you do and things that you are sensitive towards. I’m very sensitive towards energy. I just know what is going on when I’m in a bad situation. Three years ago, I suddenly couldn’t walk. I couldn’t bend my knees, I started to have nightmares. I always feel that I’m being followed by something and I started to act crazy with my family. I was very violent. My husband said there’s something wrong with you. The French, they’re all Cartesian, they don’t believe in these things.

The master weaver sensed the oddity of my situation. She said “There’s something wrong with you, I can feel it.” And she prayed and everything. Finally, my uncle brought me to the house of distant relative, who is a powerful healer. There were so many people, some had even come to the peninsula to come and see her. The moment I came in, she stopped. “I need to see you first, you look so heavy,” she said. “You are carrying seven people on your back.” Really? I came in and she stopped everything with the rest of the people. She told me to sit down and strip off - but with a sarong - and she asked me to stand on a white sheet. Then she quickly did something and said, “I need to clear you because it is going into your system.” I said, “What’s going into my system? How can you see?” Then she didn’t touch anything, she was praying, and took turmeric leaves and hit me with the turmeric leaves - that’s it. And she has no pockets and she was just wearing a sarong and a T-shirt. It is impossible that she could carry these things with her. And one by one, objects started falling off my body. Shattered fluorescent glasses, small perfume bottles with needles, another bottle that has been wrapped with red cloth, another bottle with my hair in it, and there’s another bottle which I saw, the other side of my diamond stud which I had been looking for since the year 2013. But of course, I couldn’t take it. It was a gift from my husband when I gave birth to my second daughter. I said, “My diamond stud!” “Ya, it’s been in your body.” I couldn’t explain it to my husband. For three days, I couldn’t walk. For three days, I was in bed, having fever and everything. After that, I was fine again. I felt light for the first time in a while and I stopped having nightmares.

There was a second time when someone tried to poison me. The master weaver just threw my plate as I was about to eat. She could feel it, and see that something was wrong in my plate. I said, “Why did you do that?” “If I don’t do that, you’re going to die,” she said. “If you don’t believe me, I’m going to feed your rice to the dog.” True enough, the dog died. It turned blue. I felt sorry for the dog but she was trying to prove her point. These stories, are just misfortunes that come with the work.

O: You are positioned here as an intermediary of knowledge. Even just now, you asked us if we believe in black magic and you were apprehensive. But you also deal with people like Palgrave MacMillan.

WJ: I don’t write anything like that!


WJ: There are two sides of me. When I am writing my academic paper, it’s really an anthropological write-up. I don’t put myself as part of the experience, I just see whatever I’ve seen and experienced as part of my observations. So that’s why I take a long time to write - it’s very hard to filter. As an indigenous person writing about indigenous knowledge, it’s even harder. Sometimes I cannot see the boundaries of this kind of knowledge - whether I should include it or not, whether I’m crazy to include it. I’m writing strictly based on anthropological observations and experiences.

O: Do you practice anthropology differently?

WJ: Of course, I also bring my own research values into a project. I always ask myself, “When I am communicating with them, am I interviewing them?” Especially with this kind of research, I can’t be bringing my papers. So when I interview, I just put my handphone on, and I tell them that I am recording them, I am doing research. But the way I do research is a form of learning with my “subjects”.. Not from you, but with you. There are certain words you use in their particular language. If you say, “I want to learn from you,” they will not share. Say, “I want to learn with you.”

O: So this relationship is not purely extractive. They are also coming to you to ask you what certain patterns mean.

WJ: Yes, yes. They also learn how to teach from me: It’s a kind of exchange of knowledge. When I started to get involved in the production of pua kumbu, especially in the aspect of product and design development, fixer and colour development and all this based on research, the other anthropologists were saying to me “You are not a real anthropologist because you are intervening on their practices and lives. As an anthropologist, you are supposed to leave your subject matters as they are.” But when I engage with this community, I want to gauge their acceptance and reaction towards new ideas toward conserving intangible knowledge, and to develop further so that it does not die with them. So I stage in this community: I was introducing different methods of learning and teaching textiles. I interrupt their traditional way of passing down knowledge. I started to have video tutorials, and created a space where younger ones could communicate with the weavers. They are being given a frame to practice.

I also established a one-stop weaving learning hub at the longhouse, so that other weavers from other regions can come and stay for a week or two. I also introduced workshops to give accounting literacy, because when they sell their product, they always get cheated. When they get commissioned, they often get cheated as well. They are very vulnerable and have been exploited to the highest level. That’s why I put in this structure, so they are taken care of and there is conservation work which is truly a work on conservation: not merely in their art, but also on themselves and the way they think. And also, I give values to their work, in the sense of monetary cash and… I set up, ok. In the beginning, when you are weaving you should not be charging as much as the higher ones because that will create jealousy. You have to understand that. So what I did with them was that with all the weavers, we categorised the designs from 1 to 10.

O: Right, so you’re using their own scale.

WJ: Right. So there are different prices. When new weavers saw that kind of level, they dare not weave it because they know they can’t. When they see the kind of prices for the higher levels, it encourages them to learn more. So those kinds of things didn’t exist before. When I first met them, there was so much friction, and this friction was caused by two aspects: the competition in pua kumbu weaving, which has been implemented since the 1980s by Sarawak Atelier Society with the state government, with Sarawak Craft Council. It created conflict and jealousy among the top weavers. The most skillful weavers, the top weavers with the most beautiful designs never won because they were not on good terms with the jury. The jury always comes from the same region, so only people from the same region would win the competition. So instead of working together, they became enemies.

O: What was the relationship like before the competitions started?

WJ: They don’t hate each other, but they are not in communication. But they exchange designs. See, after the competition, they don’t even talk to each other. They poison each other, according to the master weaver. Just for the small amount of money. But for them, it’s about prestige, it’s not about the money. When you are picked as the winner of pua kumbu weaving, it’s not even their design, often it is copied. Just to measure the skill… by Sarawak Craft Council and state government, and Sarawak Society Atelier which is related to the World Craft Council, it’s about prestige. And then the second aspect is the friction caused by different patrons. Since the 1980s, different individuals commissioned different groups of weavers to weave for them. They buy thread and send it to this group of weavers. They only choose a small group. So this particular longhouse, when I went there were 5 different groups. And there aren’t many of them: one group can have 3 people. So there is one group that belongs to a minister, one that belongs to the Iban Woman Association. Iban Woman Association is meant to help women to work together right… totally the opposite. There’s one from Deputy World Craft Council that has been involved with them since the 1980s, but when I went to the longhouse for the first time, they didn’t even have toilets. So that created the question: selling very expensive, very expensive overseas, but why don’t they even have toilets? Craft exploitation. That’s how I first came into the research actually, by asking that question. It made me want to know why.

O: What have you done with this knowledge?

And then, because I really wanted to create a social lab: I wanted to see what kind of new knowledge can bind them together so they can actually work as a community and I can execute a project for them to see if they are acceptive of different methods to improve their production. To make pua kumbu, you must work in pairs. You cannot work alone to stretch the thread, to do the dyeing. The master weaver said, “I am going to pair people who don’t talk to each other, and make them weave side-by-side.” I said, “If you say so.” She said, “I’m very excited!” I said, “Me too!” So she paired them purposely. Each pair would be given 5kg of thread, to produce 6 pieces of 6’x2’ shawls. On the first day, they came individually to me to say “I don’t want to work with this person.” I said, “Remember? The condition to do this project is to work with each other.” They said, “I can work with other people!” I said, “No, it’s the decision of the master weaver. If you want, you go argue with her, don’t argue with me. I’m just putting in structure.” And they were so angry with me. But then they started to work together. They didn’t talk, that’s fine. But they had to work in pairs. I said, “You have to finish this shawl before my exhibition.” This was in 2016, when I had a big exhibition at UM Gallery. I was displaying about 125 designs. Over 75 countries came to see this exhibition. “You have to finish this within 5 months.” “We don’t talk to each other, how do you expect us to finish within five months?” “Then start talking to each other!” I said. “There’s no membership fee. If you feel comfortable, you stay after this project and we do another one. If you don’t feel comfortable, you can leave.” Not only did I get more weaver, I got them to talk to each other, and they finally understood that all this time they have been manipulated by different patrons.

O: Thank you, Welyne, for your time. See you at Rumah Gareh at Amcorp Mall.


Indonesia, Melayunesia

By Simon Soon

This is second in a series of five articles. Access the first here. 

As a self-financed scholarly venture from 1847 - 1859, the contents found within The Journal of the Indian Archipelago spans geography and natural history, observations of local life and culture, philology and history, commerce and labour. In many ways the journal laid the foundations for a European knowledge convention of producing sustained academic inquiry in the British Malaya. An intellectual and philosophical movement in 18th century Europe known as the Enlightenment was the impetus. The period was defined by privileging of reason as the primary source of knowledge – methods were developed to obtain information that can verify the truth or falsity of a claim.

1856. Journal of the Indian Archipelago and Eastern Asia New Series 1:2.

In the emerging field of science, this type of information was regarded as empirical evidence. Whether obtained through observation or experimentation, each study played a part in building up this vast reservoir of information. In the prospectus, Logan explains by what means knowledge should be accrued, ‘Everything physical and moral should be considered descriptively so as to fully express its individual intrinsic existence, and quantitatively, so as to ascertain its relation to the whole, that is, its importance and influence in the general system of things of which it forms an integral part.’

More significantly, a central undertaking of the journal is dedicated to the report on knowledge, principally publishing translations of earlier Dutch and Spanish writings on the region into the English language. To create a consolidated knowledge network, one is required to be familiar with existing scholarship as well as locate one’s research endeavor in conversation with one’s scholarly peers. In this sense, Logan’s journal acted as a bridge that brought greater awareness to past knowledge of the Malay Archipelago in the Dutch and Spanish languages, while also serving as a conduit for contemporary Dutch and British scholarly exchanges.

Finally, a consolidated knowledge network could be sustainable because of two factors. Firstly, it operated on the principles of the collective. Institutions that were described as ‘public’ were established in response to a new sense of collective ownership resulting from a newly created political system called the nation-state. Institutions like the museum, the government bureaucracy, the library, the school and the university facilitated access and retrieval of knowledge that could then be selectively deployed by artists and politicians to define and contest new collective values for the citizens of the nation-state. The knowledge infrastructure of our current society today is not so different.

The encyclopedic nature of the journal’s coverage on both the natural world and human life in the Malay Archipelago was highlighted as a chief source of inspiration that the Society hoped to emulate in the publishing of its own journal.

Establishing a spiritual link between the Society and Logan’s Journal was therefore crucial. To do so, Hose’s inaugural address took care to note that the Society also inherited the Journal of the Indian Archipelago’s intellectual mandate through bloodline. Here he mentioned that JR Logan’s son, Mr. Daniel Logan, who did not attend the inaugural address, was elected to the office of Vice-President of the Society in Penang at an earlier founding meeting.

At the same time, there was a crucial difference between how Logan and the Society saw the region. Logan’s scholarly ambition was to produce a map of an invisible world, covering not just the Malay Archipelago but also a reach that stretches westward to Madagascar and eastward to the Polynesian islands. This world was linked together by a cognate linguistic and cultural denominator that stretches across the Indo-Pacific. The centre of this universe was the litter of islands he christened ‘Indonesia’.

An Indonesian tourist ziarah-ing the keramat of James Richardson Logan at the Protestant Cemetery in Northam Road/ Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah. 

From 1850, numerous terms were advanced by various scholars to describe the Malay Archipelago as a culture and geographical region for which no name was deemed suitable or satisfactory. Logan favoured the term ‘Indonesia’ as shorthand for the Indian Archipelago, to emphasise the geographic qualities of an area made up of many islands that would be a significant home for a larger Malayo-Polynesian cultural and linguistic community that spans the Indo-Pacific region.

This is to say, Logan studied language and culture under a broader scientific interest in Natural History, therefore he was more interested in characterizing the geography of the land more than attributing the land to a people. Other scholars who were more strongly inclined towards theories of race preferred instead to underline the ‘Malayan/Malaysian/Melayunesian’ cultural and linguistic attributes as the primary identifier for the archipelagic region.

While the Society saw itself as the inheritor of Logan’s spirit of scholarly inquiry, it adopted the cultural marker of Malayan rather than Indonesian to circumscribe the region of study. The choice reflected a different set of contingencies that might clarify why the Map of the Malay Peninsula was of importance to the inaugural address. For the election of an ethnic marker over a geographic one, connected the enterprise of the Society to an equally ambitious European scholar who undertook the first systematic, comprehensive but also ultimately deterministic study of the Malay language, William Marsden.

Interested to explore the topic further? Here are some recommended sources, books and articles:


1878. Journal of the Straits Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, July. Inaugural issue. Available online at: http://www.sabrizain.org/malaya/library/jsbras/jsbras01.pdf

James R. Logan. 1847. Prospectus of the journal of the Indian Archipelago and Eastern Asia. [s.n.] Available online at: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/printheritage/detail/f83896d8-a4bf-4b9f-909c-9af2a041fd27.aspx

An incomplete set of the Journal of the Indian Archipelago and Eastern Asia (1847-58) can be found under the ‘Journals’ folder:

Remaining volumes of the journals can be found on:

For clarification on the use of Indonesia and Melayu-nesia,

Russel Jones. 1973. ‘Earl, Logan, and “Indonesia”’ in Archipel 6, 93-118. https://www.persee.fr/doc/arch_0044-8613_1973_num_6_1_1130 [Accessed 1 September 2019]

Additional readings

Joshua Chia Yeong Jia & Bonny Tan. 2009. ‘James Richardson Logan’ in Singapore Infopedia. Available online at: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/infopedia/articles/SIP_1146_2009-10-27.html [Accessed 1 September 2019]

Matthew Schauer. 2012. Custodians Of Malay Heritage: Anthropology,

Education and Imperialism in British Malaya and the Netherlands Indies 1890-1939. PhD Thesis. University of Pennsylvania.

J. Turnbull Thomson. 1881. ‘A Sketch of the Career of the Late James Richardson Logan, of Penang and Singapore’ Journal of the Straits Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society 7 June, 75-81.



Malaysia Design Archive
Visual Art Programme, UM