Wednesday, July 6

From ‘Dayak Day’ to ‘Gawai Dayak’


Over the years, the Gawai Dayak has been celebrated in all sorts of formats, observes the columnist. — Photo by Chimon Upon

SEVERAL Kuching-based media practitioners had asked me about the Gawai Dayak – who first conceived the idea and why; its significance in terms of its role in a multiracial society like ours.

There are several versions of the origin of the festival.

For what it is worth, I have mine too.

While I was studying in Kuching from 1953 until 1958, I was living with my mother’s relatives at Tabuan and Simpang Tiga. We formed part of the Dayak community in Kuching; others were settled along the Sekama Road, Ellis Road, and Ban Hock Road (at Kampong Pinang). Dayak villages at Simpang Tiga and Kampong Pinang, and to some extent Ellis Road, have disappeared to make way for modern housing and commercial developments.

I cannot possibly remember every single name of the then living settler – but there were the musical Bayangs like Brangka Bayang and Joshua Swayne. The Ngs were related through Madam Barbara Bay – her house was a refuge for a number of Dayak girls while waiting for employment at the General Hospital. The house of the Senadas in Ellis Road was the venue for the meetings of the women and men working on the formation of SDNU (and me, a schoolboy from SimpangTiga, taking down minutes of their meetings); the Empenits and the Jitams of Ban Hock Road, and many others.

All these were supporters of the ‘Dayak Identity’ seeking a symbol of recognition by the government, a day in the calendar year to be known as ‘Dayak Day’. There were all wondering if they would fare well once Sarawak became independent of Great Britain.

Personalities like Robert Jitam, Edward and Eliab Bayang were worried about the future of the Dayaks in the new environment. These people had formed Sarawak Dayak Association (SDA) during the campaign for the restoration of Brooke Raj, initiated and organised by the Sarawak Malay Union (MNU); they were looking for a place or play role in any future government of Sarawak.

To a schoolboy brought up in a rural environment, this ‘Dayak Identity’ idea was very vague.

Nevertheless, I was curious.

Not until I met the advocates themselves did I get a clue to what the people in this community were talking about. But the meeting with Aki Liap (Eliab Bayang, brother of Barbara Bay) was something that I could not forget. He told me: “Sarawak is going to be independent of Britain soon, Chu”, adding: “But the Dayaks are not prepared for it,”

Why the ‘Day’ was rejected

Now on reflection, all this agitation for a ‘Dayak Day’ could have been the reason why the quest was rejected by the government. Michael Buma, a teacher from the Anglican Mission, and housewife Tra Zehnder from Kampong Astana were so worked up about the ‘Day’ that they organised a Gawai to commemorate the Dayak Day on June 1, 1963, in Che’gu Michael’s house at Siol Kandis, Kuching, off their own bat.

Years later, Austin Coates, Kuching District Officer and Secretary for Chinese Affairs told me that the government was worried that the Dayaks might be drawn to communism by the infiltration of the leftists among them.

That gathering at Michael Buma’s house didn’t start the slippery slope to communism at all; instead, it led to more pressure on the government to recognise the Dayak Day.

Support came from Dayak leaders such as Austin Jaga of Mile 10 and Skrak Baru (Seratau), Michael Sadin and Temenggong Salau of Bau, and from Bangau Anak Renang (Sibu).

From the Baram, came the endorsement from Temenggong Lawai Jau.

Tra Zehnder was appointed a member of the Council Negri. This gave her a good platform to campaign for the recognition of the Dayak Day to be gazetted as a public holiday.

She stumbled, but she never gave up; somewhat to the polite exasperation of ‘Mr Speaker’. She brought it up again and again in the Council Negri.

Fast forward to Independence. The first Chief Minister of Sarawak, Stephen Kalong Ningkan, sensing the popularity of the issue politics-wise, gazetted the ‘First Day of June’ as a public holiday, to be known as ‘Gawai Dayak’ with effect from the following year.

Enter the officials of the Broadcasting Station, Radio Sarawak. Led by Gerunsin Lembat, Andria Ijau, Pancras Eddy, Edward Kechendai and Albert Dass were hard at it, promoting the concept of the Gawai to the Dayak Community: the importance of observing one Sarawak-wide celebration like the Malays (Hari Raya Puasa) and the Chinese (New Year) do annually.

Instead of celebrating individual, longhouse-wide Gawais, and in the process incurring heavy household expenditure, the Dayaks were advised to save time and money – better spent on income-generating work or saved for the family for the rainy day.

I was actively involved in the organisation of the Gawai in Kuching from 1966. The format was: family dinner for family who would not go to a grand dinner at the Sarawak Union Club or at the Jubilee Hall at Padungan; on occasion a VIP or VVIP would be in attendance; at the stroke of midnight, May 21, there would be the toast conducted by the VVIP who would lead in drinking of the ‘Ngirup Ai Pengayu’ (‘Drinking of Water of Long Life’). After that, everybody would start shaking hands with one another, wishing everybody good luck before dispersal.

That festival was supposed to finish soon after the toast, or when the VVIP His Excellency the Governor, Tun Abang Haji Openg, had left, but it continued in individual houses until the wee hours.

Modern Gawai

I note that over the years, the Gawai has been celebrated in all sorts of formats.

In the 1980s and the 1990s, it was heavily politicised. A ceremony called ‘Ngiling Tikai’ or ‘Ngiling Bidai’ was added for a few extra days of jollification.

This was the very thing the original Gawai proponents wanted the community to avoid – unnecessary expenditure and waste of time!

This year, I noticed that some advertisers omitted in their publicity posters the word ‘Dayak’ – just ‘Gawai’ or ‘Ari Gawai’.

I’m sad to say that they seem to be ashamed to write ‘Gawai Dayak’ in full.

Are they afraid of the spirit(s) of the Dayak Day?

>Comments can reach the writer via