ANTHROPOLOGY is a study about culture and society. No society can function without culture because culture serves as the social glue that binds all the social institutions of a society together, according to Dr Elena Chai, a lecturer from Unimas.
She said in a society, several institutions existed alongside as part of a social order, adding that the family institution was among the most basic and along with it were the religious, educational, economic and political institutions, without any one of which, a society would be incomplete and could not function as a whole,
“But the binding force for all these institutions is culture,” she stressed.
In a keynote address at a seminar, themed Appreciation of Local Culture, in Sibu, Chai said culture governed “our everyday living, everyday behaviour, and everyday conduct, even the simplest needs of eating, are governed by culture — how we eat, when we eat and what we eat, are all determined by our culture. Every culture is unique in its own distinctive way. No culture presides another, and no culture is under another.”
The seminar was hosted and sponsored by the Sarawak Chinese Cultural Association of Sibu and coordinated by Chai.
She said every society had its own distinctive culture due to several reasons and one of it was place.
“When we talk about place, we often refer to a geographical location. In anthropological terms, place exists in tangible and intangible form. A building with a history of its past glory is a tangible form of a place. A place of worship with the scent of incense, chanting, bells ringing, gongs thumping evoke an intangible sense of place.
“A road in the middle of the city with heavy traffic and with its street name of a local leader is a tangible form of a place but when there is a procession with lanterns, spirit mediums, lion dances centering on the same road, then it is intangible form of a place.”
Chai pointed out that sense of place or sense of belonging was a relationship between people and their surrounding environment.
She added that people conducted activities in a given surrounding environment and the activities sometimes affected the environment and at other times, the environment affected the activities — in other words, the relationship between people and place was formidable and with such potent influence of place over people and vice versa, every community had its unique local culture and transcending ethnicities.
Not all the same
“In simple terms, it means not all Chinese in Malaysia share the same culture. There are similarities in traditions and practices such as Chinese New Year, lion dance, funeral rituals, beliefs in spirit mediums, and so on but the preparations, dance moves, musical instruments, beats, paraphernalias, and chantings are never the same across different Chinese communities residing in different places.
“For instance, Chinese in Sarawak and Peninsular Malaysia may share certain Chinese cultural characteristic like ‘when’ and ‘why’ Hungry Ghost Festival is conducted. But the ‘how’ it is conducted may not be entirely similar. Post-natal food taboos among the Hakka Chinese in Malaysia also differ from state to state. Such differences are brought about by their social surroundings — the place upon the people, and the people upon the place,” she explained.
According to Chai, modernisation has given society more choices, more opportunities and certainly more conveniences.
“Our life has inevitably moved in a faster pace with the advancement of science and technology. However, in the midst of such fast pace, it’s easy for us to lose hold of the ‘ground’, thus losing our sense of identity. Therefore, it is essential for us to realise the importance of culture. Younger people should be more engaged in exploring the issues and study of culture.”
For a start, she said, they should be given more encouragement to look into the local culture of their own place as it related more easily, and the privilege of being an ‘insider’ of a place and its culture should be fully utilised.
She pointed out that an insider would have more knowledge and access to the social network, social background of the place and its people and by giving youths more encouragement in this regard meant they were being steered towards a better appreciation of culture.
“Culture is an invaluable entity. It represents the identity of a society and its people. All cultures that exist today have gone through adaptation, assimilation and diffusion. Appreciation towards culture will enhance the recognition that there is no superior culture, no true or original culture but cultural diversity that should be embraced and respected by all.
“By rendering support and encouragement to our youth in exploring and appreciating local cultures, we are promoting a sense of ownership in them regarding our society, its people and its well-being. It will indefinitely help promote mutual respect and social harmony in our multi-cultural, multi-ethnic country,” she said.
Chai delivered her address on behalf of the Dean of Faculty of Social Sciences, Associate Professor Dr Neilson Ilan Mersat and Associate Professor Dr Poline Bala, head of Anthropology and Sociology Department, Unimas.
She thanked the Sarawak Chinese Cultural Association of Sibu for hosting and sponsoring the seminar, Tanjong Piai member of parliament Wee Jeck Seng for his support and sponsorship, and the audience for their attendance.
She said it was a privilege for her and her students to be invited for the seminar.
Ten papers presented
Ten papers were presented by the Unimas undergraduates — (1)The Effect of Local Culture towards Lion Dance Industry Development in Kluang, Johor, by Tan Soon Guan; (2) The Social Development by Temple Organisation in Engkilili by Violet Yeo; (3) The Effects of Housing Policy and Social Development in Kukup Village, Pontian, Johor, by Teo Yi Chang; (4) The Social Life and Customs of Kanowit, Before and After by Yong Mun Yi; (5) Factors Underlying Beliefs of Traditional Chinese Medicine Efficacy among Chinese Community in Kajang, Selangor byTan Pei Qin; (6) The Commercialisation of Chinese Funeral in Kuantan by Shong Jia Pei; (7) Chinese Ancestor Worship and Christianity by Stephanie Lau; (8) Folk Religion in Kuantan: The Belief of Spirit Medium among the Cantonese Chinese Melvin Foo; (9) Folk Religion among Penang Chinese: Fire Watching Ceremony by Leonard Cheah Yeong Ping and (10) Food Taboos among Pregnant Women: Chinese of Kanowit by Yong Pik Lan.
The Department of Anthropology and Sociology, Unimas, has a three-year programme which started in September 2012. The programme envisions to make Unimas a leading centre for teaching, learning and research through anthropological and sociological studies in the region of Borneo.
Courses are available on historical and contemporary ethnic, cultural, sociological issues and concepts in Borneo. The first batch of students graduated in November 2015. The group of presenters at the seminar are from the second batch of graduates under this programme.
Earlier, the association hon president Dr Hu Chang Lek welcomed the 10 Unimas presenters and participants. He thanked the Unimas undergraduate presenters who had been doing their field research in East and West Malaysia, and Chai, their lecturer and the seminar co-ordinator.
A local teacher said she learned something new from Chai at the seminar.
“It’s interesting to learn how anthropologists define place. I’m beginning to learn that one word can have multiple meanings and concepts. Attending a seminar like this is eye-opening.”
A professional present said she was very happy to have had the opportunity to attend such an informative seminar. She revealed she had wanted to pursue such a course but it was not on the scholarship list. Moreover, due to financial problems, she took a scholarship loan to study accountancy instead.
She pointed out that the seminar had really opened her eyes to the details of study in the field of anthropology, hoping Sibu could hold more educational seminars like this.
“The people of Sibu should try to create a culturally rich society,” she suggested.
Chinese literary achievements
Sibu is fortunate to have such an association to promote culture and publishing activities.
It has seen the uninterrupted and dedicated work of the helmsman Chua Cheng Chung, who has been the guiding light of Chinese literary achievements in Sibu, starting from the time he graduated as a Chinese teacher. Later, he started collecting and preserving rare documents on history, photographs, written records, oral history and Chinese literary works.
Chua, who has put Sibu on the world’s cultural map, has always kept a very low profile.
He was happy the seminar — the first to be organised by the association for Unimas undergraduates or any other universities – had gone well.
He lauded the undergraduates for presenting very well-researched papers, hoping they would be the vanguard of Chinese cultural research.
“Seminars must be held from time to time to offer undergrads opportunities to present their research findings. Apart from helping the researchers interact with others in the same field but from different universities,
these will also benchmark their works, further their research and improve their professional skills,” he said.
The role of the Sarawak
Chinese Cultural Association of Sibu in holding seminars and dialogues has been significantly felt not only in Sibu but also the whole of Sarawak. Since 1990, it has been committed to the promotion of Chinese culture, literary works and folk culture. Some of its notable public-cations have been in both Chinese and English.
Sarawakians, in general, and Chinese society, in particular, will benefit from the collections, publications and the legacy of this private non-government organisation, globally recognised as an archive for Sarawak Chinese culture and literary works.