The treasures of Sarawak and keeping cultures alive

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SONGKET, woodcarving, beading, rattan weaving – what comes to mind first when you think about Sarawakian indigenous crafts?

From the multiple tribes and ethnicities scattered across Sarawak from the border of Kalimantan to the edge of Sabah, Sarawak is rich with cultures that breed skilled craftsmanship.

One of the most abundant crafts you may find in Sarawak is beadwork. You may find colourful beads adorned on traditional clothing, weaved into baskets, necklaces, bracelets, and household decorations.

Historically, beads stood as currency and symbols of wealth and status in many cultures. They were made out of animal bones and teeth, and shells found on the island beaches.

Even though they are no longer used for the same purpose, the colourful beads of Borneo remain as a means of cultural expression and identity for many Sarawakians.

There are growing concerns for cultures dying out, especially as society charges through the modern ages. It is a consequence of time that the memories of our ancestors fade, along with their knowledge and skills. 

I do not believe our crafts are destined to die in the worn and calloused hands of our elders, but the torch must be passed onto the next generations for tradition to survive. It is up to our youth to carry the responsibility to learn and grow the skills of indigenous handicraft. 

I spoke with Lucille Awen Jon, a beadmaker from the Bidayuh-Jagoi tribe. She owns her own social enterprise called Pungu Borneo that helps native families uplift their lives through handmade crafts.

Above: Lucille in her gallery at The Steamship Building, Waterfont, Kuching.

How were you introduced to the beadworking world?

“I learned from my grandmother and my mother when I was about eight or nine years old at my village in Bau. We were also taught beadwork in primary school to fix our cultural accessories and clothing, so that was when the passion grew. Occasionally we played with the beads in school and created our own jewellery from jungle roots and tree barks. It became a hobby of mine when I started working in 2010. When I came back to Kuching in 2016, I decided to make it my full-time job.”

What needs to be done to ensure the survival of Sarawakian handicrafts for generations to come? 

“Pungu Borneo conducts workshops for both youngsters and people of older ages to introduce them to the world of traditional crafts and teach them about why we need to upkeep our heritage. We need more support from local authorities to fund cultural events that target the youth to expose them and bring them closer to the local arts and crafts. There also needs to be handouts or books about handicrafts that are accessible to everyone for them to learn more.”

I think you’re right there, accessibility is key. During this pandemic we lost the privilege of walking into town or the local handicraft centres to shop, making it largely inaccessible for many. Do you have any idea on how to further expand the handicraft market on digital platforms?

“Now it’s more about how we are going to promote and generate more income for the crafters because most crafters are now equipped with the technology to sell their products online. It is time to give them a proper platform to expand their market. Are they going to go national or international? I believe we should look towards utilising not only social media but also other greater technological advancements such as artificial intelligence, robotics, augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR).”

Above: “Pangieh batuh bratak” Bidayuh-Jagoi traditional necklace
Above: “Eamar” necklace made from ceramic beads by local artisans

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How has your career blossomed from your platform? Has beading opened up new doors for you?

“I’ve been beading for the past six to seven years. Yes it has given me a lot of opportunities to develop myself and contribute back to my community. As a social entrepreneur, I am responsible to help preserve the Bidayuh-Jagoi traditional heritage. Beadwork has brought me to Geneva to talk about traditional cultural expression and traditional knowledge of the Bidayuh-Jagoi at the Women Entrepreneurs of Indigenous People and Local Communities Conference. It has also given me the chance to showcase my work in Singapore and Hong Kong. I was selected to share my jewellery collection internationally during the International Digital Fashion Week 2021.”

Has your work brought you closer to your culture? What connection is there between handicraft and our Sarawakian identity?

“When we talk about Sarawak, we always remember the hand-crafted products by our skillful Sarawakian people. Over the years, craft-making has become the main source of income for quite a handful of families across Sarawak. I feel closer to my people ever since I started beadmaking. I have spoken on behalf of the Bidayuh-Jagoi on the history and culture I would love to nurture for future generations.”

Above: “Bree” handstitched earrings inspired by Melanau headgear known as ‘terendak’
Above: “Leis Rami” multipurpose chain made from freshwater pearls, handstitched pendants, rose quartz stones and assorted glass beads
Above: “Polas” necklace made of fresh lantern chilies, bird-eyed chilies, cinnamon stick, green pepper, and job tear seeds

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The new generation of skilled craft makers keep their heritage alive through their innovations by creating traditional pieces with a fresh modern charm and purely traditional pieces with the same unmatched detail that you would see from decades ago.

The survival of a culture is no light burden. With the responsibility weighing heavily on the shoulders of the current handicraft community, the fruits of their work will be enjoyed by future generations who will hopefully still get to learn and admire the ways of traditional indigenous art.

Nevertheless, as Sarawakians we are blessed to be a part of such a rich cultural heritage and we should all do our part to support our local craftspeople.

Find Pungu Borneo on:

Instagram: @punguborneo

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Punguborneo/

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