Windows on to an evolving culture: experiencing Sarawakian festivals

Law, Ming Ming Geraldine (2010) Windows on to an evolving culture: experiencing Sarawakian festivals. PhD thesis, James Cook University.

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Malaysia's nationhood is recent and its creation is based on racial diversity and a culture of mutual respect. Part of the responsibility for that respect devolves on the young nation's extensive festival calendar. This celebrates the richness of Malaysia's cultural heritages and allows each racial group to celebrate in its unique way and to showcase the dimensions of that celebration to friends and colleagues in the community. This sharing is at the heart of the 1 Malaysia concept and strategy.

In the context of a dearth of published documentation about Malaysian festivals, this research focuses primarily on the experience of festivals from the perspective of the ordinary person in the community. The thesis scopes the major festivals in the Malaysian Festival Calendar in terms of historical background, key celebratory and cultural dimensions. This synthesis is used to select key case study festivals using three criteria: festivals with (a) a significant lineage of traditions over time; (b) a broad range of cultural dimensions (e.g., music, culinary tradition, visual pageantry, dance, etc.); and (c) demonstrated potential for maximizing involvement across the generations and the various ethnic groups within the community.

The study focuses on Kuching, the capital of Sarawak and investigates the experience of the four key festivals thus selected: - Chinese New Year, Gawai, Hari Raya Puasa, and Christmas. Data was sought across government, societal and people levels with a particular emphasis on the people level through interviews with ten families intact across three generations for each of the four study festivals. Interview questions ranged from general perspectives on festivals to festival specifics.

Key values across all festivals related to festive food and the importance of family unity/family reunion as integral to festival celebration; the social merriment/interaction element was also deemed to be central to festival celebration. Overall, the weight of opinion was that the significance of celebration was greater in the past than in the present.

In relation to specific festivals, the visual symbolism of Chinese New Year, for example – with its emphasis upon the colour red, the activity of spring cleaning, the gift baskets dominated by oranges, the lion dance – is extremely strong and evocative to participants and observers alike – and it is the backbone of the cultural tourism related thrust of this festival. However, the strong rootedness in the family and its personal traditions is much more integral to the family unit and unlikely to be readily accessible to the cultural tourist as a consumer of cultural spectacle; yet there are signs that this core is under threat.

In relation to Gawai it is clear that the commodification of the rural longhouse rituals as cultural spectacle fuels cultural tourism but begs the question as to what will become of the festival celebration per se. For Hari Raya Puasa, the results suggest that the togetherness of preparation with its intrinsic benefits (e.g., learning to cook, success with fasting, joking/chatting in togetherness) is compromised by a higher percentage of the female population being in paid employment, children studying and expressing a no time willingness to assist parents in preparations. By contrast with these three festivals in potential if not actual crisis, Christmas appears to be a stable festival rather than one in transition. Moreover, despite the widely vaunted policy of Open House at the Government level – and its demonstrated efficacy in promoting cross cultural understanding at a public level, the research reveals a clear difference between public and private festival celebration patterns and values. The thesis argues that, if there is no longer any participatory substance to the festival, all that remains is likely to be the sanitized and often commercialized cultural spectacle at the periphery. This is considered in the context of what has been referred to in the cultural memory literature as the dilemma of remembering to forget or forgetting to remember. The implications of this and the current study are explored in terms of governmental policy, education and further research.

Item ID: 19023
Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Keywords: Chinese New Year, Christmas celebrations, cultural heritages, Gawai, Hari Raya Puasa, Malaysian festivals, Malaysian holidays, participation, Sarawak, traditions
Date Deposited: 27 May 2013 00:29
FoR Codes: 20 LANGUAGE, COMMUNICATION AND CULTURE > 2002 Cultural Studies > 200202 Asian Cultural Studies @ 50%
20 LANGUAGE, COMMUNICATION AND CULTURE > 2002 Cultural Studies > 200299 Cultural Studies not elsewhere classified @ 50%
SEO Codes: 95 CULTURAL UNDERSTANDING > 9503 Heritage > 950304 Conserving Intangible Cultural Heritage @ 50%
95 CULTURAL UNDERSTANDING > 9599 Other Cultural Understanding > 959999 Cultural Understanding not elsewhere classified @ 50%
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