Sarawak folktales for all to enjoy

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Tay and her ‘Sarawak Folktales For All’ book series.

TAY Yit Ping has always loved reading.

The 45-year-old started reading at a very young age, and her favourite stories were local folklores.

This formed the foundation of her book series, ‘Sarawak Folktales For All’, which was launched earlier this year.

Published by Illustrato Studio, the series is targeting junior readers aged five to 10, and it comprises five stories adapted from local tales: ‘Kumang and the Ungrateful Python’, ‘Three Good Friends and A Hungry Dog’, ‘Udin and the Transformed Patin Fish’, Modi and the Magic Stone’, and ‘The Widow and the Colourful Clothed Frog’.

Tay said the ground work began in August last year.

“Folktales, as I remember them, often contain magical elements; those that can make you feel like the world was full of endless possibilities,” said the author.

“Being Chinese, most of the folktales that I have come across are from China. Later on, I got to know some Malaysian folktales like ‘Sang Kancil (Little Deer) and the Crocodile’, but I had yet to have the opportunity to explore folktales from Sarawak.”

Growing older, Tay began to feel like it was a natural course for her to be more involved in storytelling.

In this regard, she had the chance to interact with international storytellers from around the world, all taking great pride in sharing their respective folktales on the grand stage.

 

The ‘Sarawak Folktales For All’ books are suitable for children aged five and above.

Collecting stories

However, Tay admitted that up to that point in time, she only knew about the legend of the ‘Princess of Mount Santubong’.

“Sarawak is a land of diverse cultures, so I really believe that each ethnic group has its own stories that have been passed down orally from generation to generation.

“It’s quite sad that published folk literature specifically for children seemed very rare, but on the bright side, there were recent efforts to document many of the oral stories in writing.”

Guests, teachers and pupils gathering for a group photo after the book-launch at SJK Chung Hua Stapok in Kuching.

This gave Tay the inspiration and boost to compile Sarawak’s own folktales, having them come in the form of children’s picture books.

It was very opportune for her that she was already in a team out to create such series, and her role was to specifically handle the adaptation of stories to suit the targeted age segments.

From the five folk’s stories in the series, four were collected by Dr Elena Gregoria Chai Chin Fern, a senior lecturer at the Department of Anthropology and Sociology under the Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities in Universiti Malaysia Sarawak (Unimas).

“Dr Chai frequently conducts field and research works in different regions, and the stories she collected came directly from the local communities that she met during her visits,” said Tay.

Dr Elena Gregoria Chai (third right) at the launch of ‘Sarawak Folktales For All’ book series at SJK Chung Hua Stapok in Kuching. On her left is the Chinese primary school’s headmistress Jong Siaw Hui. Tay is at second left.

Adaptation

“The other one story was ‘Kumang and the Ungrateful Python’, documented from an oral tradition from our Malay translator, Fenny, whose mother has been sharing with numerous folktales since she was a child.”

The process of adaptation was another matter altogether, said Tay.

“Oral tales are almost always not organised, and many are very lengthy – plus, there are some elements that may not be appropriate for children.

“So, it’s my call to decide what to keep and what to leave out, and this requires me to rewrite some of the narratives to make them more children-friendly.

“There are some stories that are too short – for example, I added more characters into ‘Modi and the Magic Stone’.

Tay during a promotional tour of her books at the Tunku Putra School in Kuching.

Tay also said the plan was to create a picture book, with minimal texts, so as to make it more appealing to children.

“The ground work had more texts, which I later condensed to accommodate more illustrations.

“Also, I originally wrote the stories in Mandarin. Then, the manuscript was then handed over to an English translator. We chose English, believing that it could reach a broader audience.

“After that was done, we moved to the storyboard. This process took several months as the illustrator needed to undertake research to gather reference materials such as clothing, food, everyday objects, and also the historical context relevant to the stories’ setting.

Storyboard artist Nur Masradibah Materang from Illustrato Studio presenting the story flow.

“Then, there were the multiple discussions to revise and refine the storyboard. We wanted to ensure that each story would flow smoothly and capture the essence of each tale.

“With the storyboard done, the illustrator began the artwork – a process that also involved me ‘revisiting’ the texts to make sure that the words and artwork would complement each other, or to omit redundant and repetitive points.”

Tay said after all this was done, the raw books then underwent numerous rounds of reviews and modifications, including proofreading.

“The publisher even flew to the peninsula to personally oversee the process of printing the final product.”

However, Tay acknowledged that despite their best efforts, there were still some errors.

“Should anyone come across any discrepancies, we highly welcome their feedback and constructive input.

“The good thing is this serves as a valuable learning experience, highlighting the challenges that come with publishing,” she said.

Discussion session with the artists.

Moral of each story

On stories featured in ‘Sarawak Folktales For All’, Tay said each upheld a noble virtue.

“Seeing the title ‘Kumang and the Ungrateful Python’, you would have guessed that the moral of the story is for us to never be ungrateful.

“Filial piety is the theme in ‘Modi and the Magic Stone’; ‘Udin and the Patin Fish’ highlights the importance of keeping one’s promises; ‘The Widow and the Colourful Cloth Frog’ underlines the value of empathy; and ‘Three Good Friends and A Hungry Dog’ serves as to inspire us to be compassionate.

“These are the messages conveyed through the stories.”

Tay expressed hope that her book series would bring joy to the readers – children and grown-ups alike. For the Sarawakian audience, she held even greater expectations.

“I hope they would read our own folk stories with a sense of pride and solid identity.

“Furthermore, I aspire for our young readers to become the custodians of these stories, ensuring that our folklores would continue to be passed down from one generation to the next.

“It is also my hope that through this book series, it could bring greater attention to Sarawak’s folklores. I also hope to inspire more authors to write Sarawak folklores for our young readers.”

The storyboard process can take several months, says Tay, as it requires multiple revisions and discussions.

About the author

Tay is a former journalist for a Chinese daily, having also written columns for newspapers.

Later on, she became a freelance writer.

She was introduced to picture books during her days as a Sunday school teacher at Hwai En Methodist Church in Miri and Chinfu Methodist Church Kuching between 2003 and 2012.

In 2013, she set up Ika Picture Story House – an independent children’s bookstore that is still operating, but is without a physical shop.

“It was upon entering motherhood, combined with my time as a Sunday school teacher, that I fully realised the importance of fostering parent-child reading, and instilling a love for reading in children from a young age.

“And through ‘Ika Picture Story House’, I began to participate in international storytelling activities and got to know many stories.”

Tay said the work was not yet complete, despite having published ‘Sarawak Folktales For All’ books.

“There are still many more challenges ahead, and one of the most crucial ones is how to get the published books into the hands of our readers.

“It is only when the readers have the opportunity to read the books that we can consider our mission is accomplished,” she said.