Travel Features > Arts & Crafts

A Grass For All Seasons

Mike Reed investigates the rather specialised craftsmanship
of the Bidayuh and attempts to set a world record for word repetition.

All the great science fiction writers have speculated about wonder materials, the product of technologies and civilizations beyond our understanding. They are invariably substances so strong and so versatile that you can do anything with them except eat them. What would you think, then, of a hollow tube that is stronger than titanium ten times its weight, or a fibre that is far more durable and abrasion resistant than carbon fibre, or a rigid construction material that is made entirely from biodegradable organic chemicals, or irrigation pipes that produce and renew themselves? Impossible, certainly, at least with anything remotely resembling our present technology. And where would you expect to meet a people who could fashion and shape such a material? Ten thousand years into the future perhaps, or living on one of the smaller planets of some distant older sun near the Galaxy's core.

Well, you'd be wrong, wrong and wrong again. The master engineers of the wonder substance are a group of people living in Northwest Borneo, on boring old modern day Earth, in Sarawak to be exact. They are the Bidayuh, and the material in question is a humble member of the grass family called bamboo.

The versatility of bamboo is understood and made use of by many peoples. Throughout Asia it is used for scaffolding on construction sites. Those of us over 40 will remember tonkin cane fishing rods and bamboo-laminated tennis and squash rackets, and maybe even the headmaster's best friend, his sturdy bamboo cane. But these are merely a few uses for bamboo. What is so special about the Bidayuh is that they are adept at utilising and adapting this remarkable material in almost every aspect of their lives.

The first prerequisite of a civilised community is that they build themselves homes, rather than sleeping out under the stars or sharing a smelly cave with all manner of dangerous predators. So the Bidayuh built their longhouses with bamboo, using poles as thick as a man's thigh to support the structure and thinner poles as much as 40 feet (13 m) in length as roof supports and cross-members. These poles are held together not with nails, but with bindings made from the skin of another species of bamboo. Yet another type of bamboo skin is stripped, dried and woven into a dense mesh to form rainproof walls and sturdy, well-sprung floors. Only the roof is made from attap or sago palm thatch, but is held in place by a network of bamboo laths.

Once you've built your longhouse you need a water supply. The Bidayuh were never fond of living on the banks of rivers, as it made them vulnerable to marauding headhunters. Another disadvantage of rivers is that the water you are drinking and bathing in might be somebody else's latrine further upstream. However, pure mountain springs emerge almost everywhere in the limestone rainforest of Southwest Sarawak, but how to get the water to the longhouse? Bamboo again, this time a kilometre-long pipeline of tubes 10 inches (25 cm) in diameter, sealed at the joints with rotan bindings and plumber's putty made from tree sap. A steady, high pressure supply of sparkling spring water is guaranteed, keeping the community well-scrubbed and free of water-borne diseases. It's also very useful for watering the rice fields and vegetable gardens if Sarawak's abundant rainfall is less plentiful than usual.

People need to grow food to eat, and bamboo comes in very handy on the farm as well; hoes and rakes have bamboo handles, and sometimes bamboo blades. Heads are protected from heat-stroke by woven bamboo sun hats, and produce is carried back to the longhouse in woven rotan and bamboo baskets worn as backpacks, and back at the longhouse the rice is winnowed using a woven bamboo sieve.

When the rice is ready you need to cook it, along with some chicken, fish or wild boar which has been caught in a bamboo trap or shot with a bamboo blowpipe. We all know nowadays that steaming is one of the most healthy methods, but the Bidayuh have been preparing healthy food for centuries, placing rice or meat in sealed bamboo tubes and heating them over an open (bamboo-wood) fire, to produce delicious lemang (steamed rice cake) and pansoh manok (chicken cooked in bamboo with rice wine). An added bonus is that one of the stir-fried vegetables served with the meal is likely to be crispy shoots of young bamboo (cooked in an iron wok - there are some things even the Bidayuh can't use bamboo for).

Dinner is served in the ramin (living room) on an elegant bamboo serving mat, carefully laid on top of the tough bamboo floor mats. Plates, spoons and forks are of conventional materials, although the cutlery may well have bamboo handles. If tuak (rice wine) is served, it probably comes in glasses, but beakers made from freshly cut and washed bamboo are also widely used.

After dinner, a little entertainment may be in order. Modern Bidayuh longhouses and villages have fallen victim to the ubiquitous guitar, but a few of the older folk (and some traditionally-minded youngsters) can still knock out a song or two on a bamboo nose flute or mouth organ, rhythmically accompanied by the krumboi, a kind of maraca made from two river snail shells mounted on a piece of forked bamboo. Finally, before retiring to bed, it's nice to share a relaxing sirubok (bamboo water pipe) filled with strong, dark home-grown tobacco.

It's clear that bamboo plays a crucial role in the everyday life of the Bidayuh, but there are a number of people who have elevated the traditional craft of working with bamboo into a fine art. Foremost amongst these artists is Sijan anak Eson, former Penghulu (chief) of Kampung Pichin, a small village between Serian and the Indonesian border. Sijan comes from a long line of master bamboo carvers, and his devotion to this art form has brought him acclaim throughout Malaysia and beyond. He has passed on his skills to his sons and other talented young men of the village, turning Kampung Pichin into something of a centre of excellence for bamboo carvers, conducting craft workshops and setting up a village handicrafts shop.

With the future of bamboo carving in safe hands, Sijan left the village a few years ago to take up the position of leader of the Bidayuh community and resident bamboo carver at the Sarawak Cultural Village in Damai, near Kuching. Here he works daily on his miniature masterpieces, producing water pipes, blowpipes, dart holders, drinking vessels and all manner of exquisitely fashioned everyday items.

Sijan is nor possessive about his art, and is happy to let visitors into the secrets of successful bamboo carving, taking time out to explain to a young visitor how he achieves a particular colour or effect. The work is extremely detailed, and requires a steady hand and infinite patience; a particularly fine foot-long (30 cm) sirubok can take weeks to complete. To decorate the bamboo containers and implements he carefully pares away the top layer of skin with a fine steel knife (sina payad), revealing motifs that appear in the bamboo wood as if they had grown there. Most of the motifs are botanical; ferns, bamboo shoots, mushrooms and flowers are woven together in a tapestry of fine lines and etchings.

Sijan is also a fount of wisdom on anything to do with bamboo, like when to cut the stem (at 100 days old, but never during a full moon because it becomes vulnerable to termites), or how to produce square or oval bamboo (easy - you put a wooden mould around the young shoot), and which of the many different kinds of bamboo to use for different applications. In earlier times, a man of Sijan's age (56) would have been forced to retire because of failing eyesight, as it's hard to manipulate knife and carving under a magnifying glass. The invention of tri-focal spectacles (and having a good optician who knows how to prescribe them) should extend his working life well into old age. Maybe he should try making his own bamboo spectacle frames. Who knows, he might just start a fashion.


If you want to know more . . . . .

  • For further reading on bamboo carving, try Heidi Munan's Sarawak Crafts (Oxford University Press), Sarawak Cultural Legacy by Lucas Chin and Valerie Mashman (Society Atelier Sarawak) or the excellent small booklet Bamboo Carving published by the Heritage Resource Centre, Sarawak Cultural Village.
  • Sijan anak Eson can be seen at work in the Bidayuh longhouse, Sarawak Cultural Village, Pantai Damai, Santubong, Sarawak.
  • Good bamboo carvings are on sale in many of the handicraft shops along Main Bazaar, Kuching.
  • If you want to see a well-preserved bamboo longhouse, the best bet is Anna Rais Longhouse, Jalan Pedawan, about 1? hours from Kuching. Local tour operators can arrange guided excursions, or just take the bus from Gambier Street, Kuching, and turn up at this friendly community by yourself. A small charge is levied to help pay for the preservation of the longhouse.
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