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Beading With The Kelabits

A curious visit to Berjaya Times Square for The Kelabits Live In Kuala Lumpur 2023 was fruitful beyond my expectations. Kuala Lumpur is certainly not a stranger to exhibitions run by the diverse races and ethnics living in the country. That’s what made our society unique (or at least as what we have been taught in school since young), we respect and appreciate different cultures, even those distinct from our own.


This past weekend, the Kelabits took over the foyer of the famous Berjaya Times Square and showcased their gorgeous cultures including dances, crafts, costumes and even food. The Kelabits are one of the smallest ethnic groups in the country, with most settlements located in Bario in Northeast Sarawak. Bario is a community of some 13 to 16 villages in the remote Kelabit Highlands, and it lies about 1000m above sea level. These villages are longhouse settlements and the people worked a myriad of occupations in modern days despite their traditional roles as farmers and headhunters. Today, beyond producing the high quality ‘Bario Rice’ and cultivating other tropical and highland crops, the Kelabits also work in civil service, the oil and gas industry, and other professional fields including medicine and engineering.


The Kelabits speak their native language known as Kelabit, as well as Malay and English. Their forefathers were animists, which means they believe that there are spirits in all natural objects including animals, plants, rocks, and natural phenomena like storms and earthquakes. However, today, most of them are Christians.


While it might be challenging for many to travel to Bario to study their cultures, The Kelabits Live In Kuala Lumpur 2023 brought Bario to us. The two-day festival gathered Kelabit exhibitors with their beaded goods, woven crafts, traditional costumes and food; dancers even performed in their most authentic costumes and accessories to their indigenous music. While everything looked intriguing, what caught my attention the most was the beading (nu’uk ba’o in Kelabit) workshop.


Ms Supang Punn, who works as a counsellor in Miri, was teaching two young girls how to bead when we arrived at the festival. We were offered to participate in the session by recreating a design that Ms Supang had created prior to the event.


Ms Supang has been beading for around 20 years, having learnt the skills from her late aunt. She explained to us how the designs of a typical three-string beaded necklace would start with a staggered number of beads in the middle, so it would help display the front of the necklace over the wearer’s chest. The rest of the beads are arranged in an orderly manner along the three strings, but the overall pattern and design are unique to each individual necklace. We were given time to complete an unfinished piece of work based on a prototype provided.

Beading is akin to a therapy session. Immense patience is required, but in turn it provides calmness. As a craft-lover, recreating a beaded necklace from a standard design given was a relatively easy task for me. Through our conversations with Ms Supang, we learned that these high quality beads were sourced from Indonesia and the necklaces could be worn regardless of gender. The most common beads used among the Kelabits are made of wood, plastic, glass and metal. Did you know? Antique beads are often highly valued, especially if they are centuries old, and they could sometimes serve as family heirlooms.


In fact, Ms Supang was more than elated to share her beading skills with us, especially since the reception at her workshop had been slightly underwhelming. The cultural festival itself had garnered quite some attention from both mall-goers and cultural enthusiasts who specially visited the festival. However, I noticed that most people were more attracted to the dance performances than a sedentary, patience-requiring activity like beading. Moreover, from my observation, recreating a full beaded necklace really did take approximately two hours to complete. I believe that was why most people were not interested in attending the beading workshop. Yet, I was so grateful that Ms Supang was willing to teach without charging us!


Seeing the energy we brought to the table, Ms Supang took us to the side and taught us how to dance! While I did not manage to catch the name of the dance, I could not help but notice that the dances performed on stage were of a similar concept. They involved swinging the arms gently at the side and slowly turning our bodies in circles and switching directions at times. The only difference was the dancers held accessories like fans made of hornbill feathers. The focus is on the feet as well- knowing where to step according to the beat is how dancers synchronise their movements. As we awkwardly mimicked Ms Supang’s graceful, confident dance moves, I had a lot of fun and felt like I was welcomed by the Kelabit community.


What I had experienced at the festival was surely not enough to capture all that the Kelabits had to offer. The bag weaving workshop was on as well, but I supposed that would take quite a bit of time to complete, given that replicating a beaded necklace already took almost an hour for us. I wished I had more time to learn about what else the Kelabits do. Thus, at my polite and friendly (read: manja) request, Ms Supang agreed to lead us into more cultural experiences when we visit her in Miri one day. In fact, she welcomed the idea! Miri is only around 40 minutes away from Bario, and she often organised culture-sharing sessions with the local educational institutes. Earlier this month, she went to Curtin University, the Malaysian campus located in Miri, to perform a cultural dance with her troupe.


Let’s hope that everything goes well for my plan to visit Miri soon. Nowadays, the Kelabit Highlands have become a tourist destination, being known for the cultures of the indigenous people as well as the natural beauty. Perhaps then I get to share more about the Kelabits than what I could manage this time round, plus some insights on the local developments in Bario.


Written by, Euan Thum, Journalist 22/23, Charisma Movement.

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