The Last Ring Ladies of Sarawak, Malaysia: A Lesson of Cultural Documentation
The Bidayuh indigenous community is one of the main ethnic communities living in Sarawak, Malaysia. Most of them live in the Bidayuh Belt located at the western end of the state. Traditionally, the Bidayuhs practised animism and paid great respect to lands, mountains, forests, and rivers because they were involved with hill paddy planting, which generated their source of income. In recent years, many shifted to planting cash crops and rearing animals to ensure a sustainable income. They also began converting to Christianity due to the introduction of formal education and modern medicine, which resulted in them adopting Christian names and celebrating Christian festivals. The Bidayuhs observe a close-knit lifestyle – they usually live together in longhouses built in the mountains, which provided protection against attacks from the Iban indigenous community. They speak the Bidayuh language, which entails of four main dialects and 29 sub-dialects, although none are mutually intelligible. Due to the many varieties, they encountered challenges in standardising their language, posing a threat for survival. Hence, efforts have been made to ensure its development and revitalisation. The Dayak Bidayuh National Association, with support from
the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL), established a unified orthography for the Bidayuh language vowels. In 2006, SIL and UNESCO started introducing Bidayuh as medium of instruction in kindergartens. As funding began ceasing, the kindergartens had to rely on public donations to fund the teachers’ remuneration and teaching materials. Because many young Bidayuhs have moved to Kuching (capital city of Sarawak) or other parts of Malaysia
for better job opportunities, they rarely speak their language, which resulted in them to practise less of their cultural traditions. Little is known regarding the faith of these traditions and therefore, this paper fills in the gap by discussing the approaches for cultural documentation.
The first approach is through film documentary. From 2015 to 2018, director Nova Goh filmed a documentary of the last ring ladies from the Bi’embhan sub-ethnic group of the Bidayuh community. The documentary highlights these ladies carrying the tradition of paad padi (bringing home paddy from the field) while wearing ruyank’ng and rasunk’ng (gold-coloured copper rings worn on the forearms and calves). It also features renowned fashioned
designed, Leng Lagenda, recreating their costume to suit a contemporary bridal collection.
The second approach is through mural painting. In 2020, artist Leonard Siaw captured the remaining five ring ladies in his mural. The ladies were seen wearing their traditional costume and practising their natural habit of chewing betel leaves, a tradition of thousands of years.
This paper concludes that cultural documentation should not be undervalued because the process involves opportunities for engaging with the indigenous community, speaking and learning their language, and understanding the cultural traditions. Without such documentation, the younger and future generations will not know of the existence of these cultural traditions that have been carried on for generations. Therefore, this paper serves as a wake-up call for documenting cultural traditions of any ethnic communities in which the process is mutigenerational and never ends because every effort will be met with new challenges and larger goals.