Fiona Marcus Raja

The Tenun Director

As time passes, we learn new things and things around us change. Unnoticed, they either evolve or disappear, culture included.

As an ever increasing number of us migrate to the cities from rural areas, leaving the older generation to tend the “kampungs” we came from, we gradually just end up waiting for our annual gatherings during the festivities of Cheng Meng, Gawai and the like to return; our cultures slowly being left behind all for but once a year.

At Tenun, we seek to break the chains of what we see as a dilution of our cultures. Most projects of today are too focus-centric on reminding people of the culture that is prevalent in our communities. We, on the other hand, believe that culture should not be a remembrance or reminder – rather, it should be practiced, and lived. Our cultures are still very much alive, they still flow deep in each and every one of us; albeit in major need of transformation; and what we need as a people is not to just be reminded of what defines us as a race, or ethnicity through events and community outreach – but really of what we do right now that really makes us… us.

Growing up as a Kelabit-Chinese, I faced an identity crisis whereby I was often unsure of my own race, my own cultures and roots, often asking myself ‘Am I a Kelabit or am I a Chinese?’. When asked, I would proudly announce that I am a Kelabit. Then, learning how to play the piano seemed more important than learning to play the Sape’. However, growing up as a Kelabit, I had always envied how other kids within our extensively extended family could have proper Kelabit conversations with our grandparents while I often felt left out not understanding what was being said, sometimes feeling ashamed to be called a Kelabit but knowing very little about the culture and traditions that came with it.

I have never realised how significant it is to perform, teach and inculcate our obligations and duties of making sure that our cultures do not disappear as time goes by, but now I do.

Being a mother of 3 beautiful children, observing how Kelabit culture is slowly losing its position and importance in my society, especially among the younger generations had made me acknowledge the dire need of preserving our own roots and cultures. We adopt other people’s cultures easily but seemingly take our own for granted. Through the centralised system of education in our Nation, it is undeniable that our children are swayed by having Malay and English as the main communicative languages. Having said that, my kids grow up with very minimal attachment to Kelabit and Chinese culture – at times, they also mistake themselves as Iban as their peers ask about their culture and race. My son once asked me “Mom, what does Kanid mean?”, in the language of Kelabit, kanid refers to cousins and this portrays also the importance of kinship in the community. Widespread use of auntie, brother and cousin make already-complex family webs even more confusing for outsiders.

How many of our kids today understand their own roots and cultures? Is this what we are hoping our children to be in the future, losing their cultural identities and forgetting who they really are? What defines us?

Reflecting the origins and roots of Kelabit and Chinese culture, I am determined to weave together the world through our arts, culture and heritage. I’m not alone, as there are others, I can recognise them without asking. I can also tell that there aren’t many of us doing this particular task, which can lead to misunderstandings. I want to get closer to my roots and culture once again, where my friends and family belong – that truly defines us as a Sarawakian!

It is with this that I implore you, my dear friends, family and partners – to join us in our efforts through the TENUN INITIATIVES to fight to protect our culture for the next generation. Every culture is unique and stunning in its own way therefore we should all play our role in making sure that they will not become something of the past and no longer lose the identity of Borneo, but strengthen what makes each and every one of us Sarawakian!

After all, our Cultures Define us.