Listening First: A Personal Recounting of Cuba Dengar Dulu

By Shaun Phuah

              I step out of my Grab car and onto the loose gravel of the area surrounding KongsiKL, a venue buried deep between construction buildings and workers covered in dust, half obscured by metal shutters as they slam metal against metal.
                I make my way by following the fairy lights that begin around an obscure corner and find myself surrounded by various people, some of them with shaved heads, others in traditional garb, and plenty of people in the colourful and baggy clothes and bucket hats that make up KL fashion sense.
            The event itself is Cuba Dengar Dulu and I can see the different art kiosks and mini-exhibits sprawled throughout what looks like a massive repurposed warehouse. My friend and one of the co-organizers of the event, Vic, waves me over and begins giving me a tour of the event space.
              There’s a tall mirror almost in the middle of the warehouse and Vic tells me we can write down what we wish to see more of in Malaysian conversations. Surrounding the mirror are a number of plants and old vintage typewriters and trinkets. My eyes are drawn to a staghorn fern that sits on a plastic chair, unmoving in the still air.
               Vic points at a long table piled high with trays of rice, chicken, hummus, kebabs spiced yellow, and a bright red sauce made of tomatoes and fragrant herbs that fill the air.
               “That’s Picha Eats,” Vic says, “they’re a catering group and they work with refugees.”
          She points over at a table in the middle of the warehouse, full of handwoven baskets and other handmade trinkets and she says, “buying stuff from here goes back to the Orang Asli community.”
              “And if you look over here, this is a photobooth where the artist uses traditional photography where—” Vic turns her head to the front of the warehouse before looking back at me. People who were seated are now standing up and heading to the entrance of Kongsi KL “actually Shaun, I’ve gotta sign some people in. I think a performance is happening now, you should follow the crowd.”
          I nod and follow the growing mass of people up to the front steps of the warehouse where I recognize my friend, Rodney. I tap his back and he laughs, “you’re late, the lady’s already throwing rice.”
                 I look past Rodney and on a square section with green plants lining its perimeter, is Alla, a woman wearing an earth-toned batik of green, black, and brown, and a long tudung which covers her hair and the tops of her ears while letting the rest of it flow down her back in a lush fountain of black cloth.
                   She carries a woven bag full of wheat above her head and showers herself with grain before she grabs whole bundles of wheat from her bag and threshes them on the ground, allowing the grain to loosen and cover the ground in bronze. She has a serene look over her face and I can’t help but think back on the dinners I’ve had with my family and friends over a bowl of rice.
                   This memory is soon taken over by the harsh sensation of rice flung against my body as Alla begins to toss the grain into the audience itself. I watch as both Rodney and Vic flinch at the sudden feeling of hard rice husks hitting our bodies, and I watch as Alla continues to throw rice into the audience for what seems like a long time. People are at first shocked by the feeling of unprocessed wheat on skin but soon get used to the feeling, the audience becoming part of the act itself. Even Vic has looked up from her sheets of paper to look at Alla’s performance.
                I can’t help but feel a sense of punk pride at this willingness to toss things directly at the audience. There is a level of irreverence here, a lack of caring what the audience might think or feel about having things thrown directly at them. From this discomfort comes a tension between the performance piece and the audience itself. Instead of looking idly at a performance happening in front of us, Alla’s performance demands our engagement through physical confrontation. The medium of this confrontation being the rice itself—forces us to think about one of the most fundamental Southeast Asian foods and where it comes from. Here is the original process of threshing wheat aestheticized through dance and then flung directly at us.
                 When Alla finishes her performance and leaves, her presence is still felt by the grain that has been leftover, many bits of grain even hitchhiking on the audience’s clothing. On the faces of my fellow audience members, I see a general look of bemused confusion.
                  Vic comes up to both Rodney and I and says, “damn, I did not expect her to start throwing rice at people.”
                 “I am pretty hungry now,” I say.
                People begin to disperse and I make my way over to the giant spread of food at the Picha Eats table and pile a plate up high with soft yellow rice, kebabs, a drumstick and a heaping spoon of tangy red sauce that gets absorbed by the rice.
                   My friend Doop sits down next to me with a plate filled with as much food as mine.
               “Oh nice,” I say, “you made it.”
                 Already another performance is taking place and it is two people engaged in silat as someone else speaks poetry into a loud megaphone.
                The megaphone distorts the speaker’s voice within a grainy mesh of sound and though I cannot hear the poetry he is speaking, the strength of his voice and the pace at which he is speaking his words adds to a sense of tension as the two people on stage perform their martial art and move in fluid and rigid motions, displaying attacks and defenses that turn quickly into an intricate, choreographed dance. As I watch, I come to think of how Alla’s performance, as removed from the idea of martial arts as it is, is still in conversation with this silat turned dance. It speaks to food’s intrinsic connection to the body. That only through the gift of grain, can the physicality of silat displayed here be accomplished.
              Almost as quickly as it started the silat performance has ended and the performers take their bows.
                 Someone in a paddy hat and a soft batik full of bright yellows, greens, and reds sits on a chair and speaks into the mic near where we’re seated. His voice is loud in the speakers, but it reverberates so much in the large space of KongsiKL that I can’t make out individual words.
                    “What’s he saying?” I ask.
                    Doop shrugs, “no idea.”
                     Another dance is happening, this time at the very back of the KongsiKL warehouse and people are sitting down on plastic chairs pulled up in a loose semi-circle to watch.
                  I end up with my head buried in my food and lose myself in the tastes of sour, savoury sauce, tender chicken, the minty and spicy scents that come from biting on the occasional leafy herb, and buttery rice, and by the time I look up from my plate a new performer is now center stage.
                   A man in a black shirt, Kien Faye, with long dreadlocks that flow over his arms and down his back, begins convulsing and I recognize it quickly as a trance.
                    The space of KongsiKL becomes tense and quiet, with the main sound coming from Kien Faye’s laboured breathing, and I can see his entire body shaking as he moves his arms in a deep trance. His breathing quickens as he moves his arms around him in dynamic motion and I can see the veins appearing in his forehead from the strain of the trance he’s in. His eyes roll up into his head and I can’t help but think about where he’s getting all this energy from. He’s gotten so into the trance now that it looks like he’s completely within his own space, separate from everyone else. There is something approaching uncanny about the performance and the level of intensity that it brings, like watching some kind of calculated possession.
              By the end of Kien Faye’s performance, his convulsions have lessened and his breathing has started to relax all the way until he stands up and does a slight bow, signaling the end of the performance. The audience claps, and I get the sense that after being so caught up in the trance of Kien Faye that now we aren’t quite sure what to make of the whole thing. I know something very tense has happened watching someone go through what looks like an extreme, powerful experience—or at least the representation of one, but its meaning is something I find myself thinking on long after the performance is over, through each convulsive spasm of a person’s body in trance.
                       “I’m kinda hungry, I’m gonna get something to eat,” Doop says.
                     “Oh yeah, me too,” I say.
                     We pile our plates with more of the same delicious food and sit back down at our table just in time to watch someone with a shaven head, Chloe, lift a ceramic bowl up into the air and take a fistful of cooked rice and shove huge amounts of it into their mouth.
                    I figure that this is a pretty good sign and do the same with my own plate of food albeit with fork and spoon.
                      Doop nudges me in the side, “damn, sometimes that’s what I wanna do, just eat a big handful of rice.”
                       “Oh yeah,” I nod.
                      “It’s cooked right?”
                        “Definitely,” I nod.
                    Watching Chloe on stage eating the rice, I’m almost overwhelmed by the sight of that much rice being eaten all at once at this fervent pace, and though Chloe’s face is as neutral as can be in the process of filling one’s mouth with all that plain white rice, just watching them I can already taste the thick smell of starch in the sinuses and coating the back of the throat. It makes me full just watching them.
                    I decide I need something to drink and make my way to the table of food and pour myself a cup of orange juice. I turn and see that another dancer, Hannah, is twirling on stage and there are unprocessed grains strewn across the hard floor.
                  The dance goes until both Hannah and Chloe take their bow and again, the man I now know as Firdaus in his paddy hat and bright batik speaks into his microphone. His head is bowed and his voice is loud and echoes off the high ceiling and the distant walls, turning everything he says into a giant column of sound and I can only make out a few individual words.
                    “Can you understand?” I ask, looking at Doop.
                        “Nope,” she says.
                  When Firdaus puts the mic down and takes the stage. He moves in slow, methodical movements as high-pitched music plays. Like all the previous dancers, there is something hypnotic about the dance as a whole. Firdaus’ face is intermittently obscured by his large paddy hat and again I am brought back to rice and through the hat I think about the people who harvest rice under the hot sun. Firdaus moves in subtle bobs and sways which translate up to the paddy hat. I can’t help but think about paddy farmers, the effort that comes from a bent body in the noon heat, working for hours in a breeding ground for mosquitos.
                    Rodney points at my cheek and says, “mosquito.”
                  I slap at my face and look at my palm to see the black and white specked smudge of a mosquito body.
                 “Thanks,” I say.
                     I take my encounter with the mosquito as part of the experience of the dance itself; a miniscule taste of the paddy field partly only possible because of the setting of KongsiKL which happens to both be hot, humid and mosquito-permeable.
                   Though paddy and rice are synonymous with the joys of Southeast Asian and Asian food and of being Asian, it cannot be separated from the fact that it only reaches our tables and enters our cultural space through the massive amounts of hard work and unpredictable environmental factors the workers who tend the paddy fields have to endure. All the paddy, grain, and rice centric performances point to this, and I look at my almost empty plate, the bits of rice leftover and saturated in red sauce, glistening with oil and feel grateful.
                   The next performance begins and a band takes the stage. A quick soundcheck goes through and soon an electric guitar produces high-pitched notes that float through the air. Two dancers, Ethel and Carrie, appear on stage, their bodies full of motion as they dance to the music of the band.
                   I can feel the bass drum of the percussion and the consistent notes of the guitar turn almost into a sort of droning music that displaces me and makes the dance feel ethereal—as though this is all occurring in a vacuum elsewhere.
                      Even as the two dancers move to the sound of the band’s music, so to does the music seem to dance with Ethel and Carrie, the pace of the drums and the other musicians matching the pace of the dancers when they move more erratically, or slow down into a more fluid, methodical rhythm.
                   Out of thin air Carrie produces a traditional bamboo colander. She swings it around herself in her dance, the roundness of the colander making it look like a bamboo moon orbiting the two people centre-stage.
                    Ethel soon makes her way to the colander and the two of them now hold it between themselves with their arms outstretched. They begin to swing the bamboo between them, and their movements become more intricate, twirling while still keeping the tool in place. The music follows their quickening speeds, picking up its rhythm, the high-pitched notes of the guitar playing over and over again until its trance-like quality has me fully focused on the bamboo circle the two dancers are holding.
                  Other dancers now, from the previous performances get back onto the stage, and the band goes into full force, their music matching the jovial chaos before us, the stage full of smiling faces and bodies in full motion until it all comes to a stop and everyone takes their bows.
                 Someone is on the microphone again and their voice bounces off the walls in a constant echo as one of the dancers points to the very front entrance of the KongsiKL warehouse and people begin standing up from their seats and heading over to where the dancer is motioning to.
               I can see a large clay pot by the entrance, bubbling up with dry-ice fog, and out in the KongsiKL yard, among the fairy lights, is Rithaudin, standing atop scaffolding. He is shirtless and covered in what looks like a white powder all over his body. Beads hang from hoops on his forearms, and his face is a mess of beads, bells, and white face paint, streaked with black colouring. On the sides of his face are two multicoloured masks, thick with as much decoration as his own face. Both the masks have sections which extend above their faces making it so it looks like Rithaudin has a massively tall head.
                 Cradled in his left arm is a decoration of golden wheat.
               There is so much visual noise on Rithaudin’s head and face that it takes time for me to realize that his actual face has been decorated and is not another mask. It becomes impossible to tell what emotions are on his face and so the movements of the body become the main act.
               He dances his way methodically down the steps of the scaffolding as music plays from behind us. As Rithaudin reaches the people at the front of the warehouse, he dips his finger in a small pot of water and wipes a single line down the middle of the foreheads of the audience, leaving an ashy grey trail behind.
               I can almost feel the intrigue and apprehension of the audience around me as Rithaudin continues to rub watery ash against the foreheads of the audience and it makes me aware of the hot sun and the humid heat causing my clothes to stick to my skin.
              I turn to Doop and say, “you know, I don’t really want that stuff on my forehead,” and we head back into the warehouse.

              Weeks after the event and I still think about Rithaudin’s performance. I can’t help but wonder why I had such a reaction to the smudging of the forehead. I am generally a big fan of discomfort in art. An example being my love of horror and I enjoy the feeling of being entirely unseated by the art I’m engaging with. But the smudging at the end of Rithaudin’s performance was still something I chose to opt out of.
                Rithaudin brought a level of physicality to the performance I did not expect and which I respect the artist for. There is a level of powerful callousness here, in some ways similar to Alla’s piece where the audience is suddenly made a part of the performance itself. Both these artists have not only created a sense of space through their entrancing dances but they pull the audience itself into this space through direct touch.
               I believe Malaysians tend to have a bit of an arm’s length attitude to art, where we tend to shy away from participation. Here, Rithaudin’s performance demands participation. From the more basic level of looking up at him at the height of his scaffold to the direct demand of asking for an audience’s forehead to be smudged.
                  Of course, it is not as though Rithaudin forces the audience to do anything. I chose to leave, after all. But I think Rithaudin’s piece challenges the audience in a way that the medium of dance allows but is often left unexplored.
               I was pleasantly surprised by all the dance performances. Though they chose to honour traditional roots and stay firmly within that space of the traditional ideas of the paddy, the workers of the field, and the very necessities of food and what they mean culturally, they managed at the very same time to be at the very contemporary edge of dance. 

Folk Dance in Malaysia: Redefining Cultural Memory

By Dorothy Cheng

“To understand the culture, study the dance. To understand the dance, study the people.”

The quote above is commonly attributed to Chuck Davis, an American choreographer and dancer focused on traditional African dance. He was known to spotlight and celebrate African dances originating from the villages of Senegal to the suburbs of The Gambia. Evidently, Davis was one of many who saw dance as not only an expression of culture but a valuable lens through which one could study a culture.

The dancers of Tuai, a site-specific dance experiment celebrating the harvest festival in Malaysia, have the same idea.

Just as tribal African dances reflect the diverse cultures and peoples of that continent, what do the different traditional dances in Malaysia have to say about us?

Dance for the Working Classes and Marginalized

There is a perception of dance and the enjoyment of dance as a bit of an elitist activity, stemming from high-brow, classist sensitivities. Those perceptions of performance – as something highly-priced used merely to entertain posh crowds and show off objectively judged technique and skill – can be attributed to the neoliberal thinking of the well-meaning yet ill-executed ideology of certain sects of the Western Enlightenment.

Yet, is folk dance not something that is primarily created, enjoyed and performed by the working class?

As part of Tuai, eight different dances were performed, representing different elements of the harvest as experienced by people living in what we call Malaysia.

The very nature of the harvest is that it is an activity typically performed by the working class. In that sense, Tuai is not only celebrating the spiritual and cultural significance of the harvest, it is also effectively celebrating the working classes that make harvest possible in the first place. Ultimately, it is not the landlords who own the farm or plantation who have the lived experience to create dances inspired by the act of harvest – it is the harvesters who first defined and then mastered those movements.

The dance piece Kerbau, a representation of a trance involving the possession of the dancer’s body by the kerbau spirit, exemplifies this idea of the lived experience.

“My dance practice was trained in a similar fashion to that of a paddy farmer. My legs work in a grounded position. In Asia, especially South East Asia, the physicality of farmers bears a strong connection to local cultural practices.”

So says Kien Faye, the dancer of this piece. In their mind, it is necessary to embody the physicality of a farmer, not just in terms of athleticism, but in terms of the very positions and movements farmers tend to adopt when doing their work. This celebration of the traditional farmer’s physicality is something generally applicable to all cultures – despite the unfairly perceived “unskilled” nature of their jobs, farmers are generally respected as significant contributors to our societies. But how often do we actually acknowledge and recognize them? The first performers of kerbau trances were likely farmers themselves – but does wider society rightfully perceive such working-class people as the originators of culture that they are?
The dance Parai adds another dimension to this idea of recognizing the people who actually create culture. According to dancer Alla, Parai was inspired by the women who are crucial to Indigenous cultural practice and folk legend: Bobohizans and Huminodun.

The legend of Huminodun goes that she was offered up as a sacrifice to save her people from famine. She willingly accepted and became cemented in Kadazan Dusun culture as a hero of the people.

Bobohizans, on the other hand, are high priestesses, ritual specialists and spirit mediums in Kadazan-Dusun rites. As part of her charge, a Bobohizan must work to appease the rice spirit during the harvest festival.

Alla danced Parai not only to honour the bounties mother nature gives us and the farmers who harvest that bounty, but also the mothers and women who have been and still are central to feeding people and communities.

Around the world, women’s unpaid and undervalued labour, especially in care work, is a significant contributor not only to economies but also to the well-being of communities. Malaysia is the same.

“Women start off well in the workforce but gradually decline in participation, employment, hours worked and wages as they grow older, coinciding with childbearing and parenting years. A majority of women cited housework as an impediment.”

How often does our patriarchal society recognize the contributions of women to the economy and society? Even when an acknowledgment is made, are actual changes made in policy and societal outlook that bring on needed improvements to the lives of women?

As liberal society continues to engage with the contributions, both cultural and material, of the working class and marginalized, we must not forget to remember what we owe them in turn.

Dance for Memory

The topic of remembrance brings up the age-old question of the role performance art plays in preserving cultural memory.

Some of the performances in Tuai had the effect of transporting audience members to an older time and place. From the opening herald’s call performed by Melvz to Wak Gelek: The Gudang Show, it is apparent that the performers in Tuai not only conform to their setting in a physical sense (by structuring their dances around the space of their given venue), they also somehow inadvertently make the audience conform to their metaphorical setting by immersing us in a cultural story.

In Wak Gelek, Romo, one of the performers, donned fake facial hair and a wig and put on a character I can only describe as befitting of old black-and-white P. Ramlee films. A duo then performed a silat-inspired dance. Despite my lack of familiarity with the art form, the effect of this “time travel” was not lost on me. I felt transported back to older days when heralds would call townspeople to a gathering place where dances by the folk were performed for the folk… what good old days, right? How nice to be reminded of something I never personally experienced, but somehow have a memory of because I’ve fashioned an image of it from all the movies, documentaries and old-people anecdotes I’ve seen and heard. And then I stopped myself.

It is tricky to talk about time and memory when it comes to tradition. When you say you feel transported back in time by a piece of art, are you implying that that art form is now extinct in the world you live in? Or that, at the very least, it is not modern? I do not think that “modern” and “traditional” are necessarily antonyms. Does being modern mean rejecting tradition? Is modernity not also the ability to live with tradition? We must resist the knee-jerk urge to fetishize traditional art forms as relics, museum dioramas or at best, conduits for us to relive our pasts, whether real or imagined.

Performance art has a unique ability to engage and interact with the audience. Its ability to move space and time is more potent, and as such, its ability to evoke an emotional response is amplified. This is important because when it comes to art, our relationship with memory is not always triggered by actual experience but by emotional memory. We associate certain feelings with certain concepts – for instance: nostalgia, longing, forlornness, comfort or piousness with anything that appears “old” or “traditional”, which can include anything mystic, spiritual or pagan – and feel those feelings authentically even if we have never been a mystic or a pagan ourselves.

When observing the trance performance Kerbau, another dancer described feeling a deep uneasiness and running away from the performance.

“No matter how much we change, we still have a connection to our traditions. There will be triggers,” he said, alluding to the fact that before Islam and even Hinduism, Malay folk religion had strongly-held beliefs around the nature of the spiritual world that may be considered heretical in the monolithic view of religion today.

The dancer in question identifies as a devout Muslim, as do a number of other dancers, but they insist that certain triggers can bring them back to certain beliefs they simply cannot refute.

Another dancer expressed that they participate in folk dance performances as a way to “look back at who we were before religion came.”

One of the dances in Tuai is a tari balai-inspired dance, performed by Firdaus, also known as MarkYong. Tari balai has a bit of a contested status in Malaysia today, with its connections to animist and Hindu-Buddhist roots invoking the wrath of certain factions. Yet, Firdaus believes that this dance must be preserved as a cultural heritage indigenous to Malaysia.

They clarified that it is possible to represent these dances and honour them for their cultural significance without going against their current religious beliefs.

A number of the dances performed are partly inspired by Indigenous folklore depicting gods from those traditions, and both dances showcase performances by Malay dancers.

“Our dance represents the spiritual beliefs of the Kadazan-Dusun. In the Sumazau dance, inspiration is derived from nature, specifically birds. This is the same,” said Ethel, who performed Tari Sila, a duet with K that paid tribute to the traditional spiritual forces of good and evil in Kadazan-Dusun culture.

It cannot be wrong to simply depict something, can it? What happens if you stop depicting it altogether? If it were birds, they would not cease to exist in our collective memory, for they can be observed in the natural world and there is physical evidence remaining even of birds long extinct. But for gods, who live in the hearts and memories of people, a refusal to mention them or depict them will mean they cease to exist.

Or does it? What about the dancer who claimed that triggers will always bring a person back to their ancestral beliefs? The implication here is that these beliefs so strongly shape culture and a person from that culture that its influences can never be fully erased.

It begs the question: what does banning anything actually serve to do? More importantly, who does it serve? In the same vein, why is it necessary to remember these things of yore, these ancient gods, these old ways?

Art, including dance, has a political purpose. They can be made to serve specific political agendas, too. Culture is also political. An insistence to continue representing elements from a culture or art piece that are deemed heretical, unlawful or inappropriate simply speaks to an inherent human tendency in all of us to explore boundaries, break down walls and speak truth to power.

But there is a more personal side to it too: the feeling that something within us is lost when we give up our culture.

The performance Ascend is a story about an Indigenous god exploring the implications of being forgotten by his people. Its performer, Din, says the god is angry.

I think you’re supposed to feel a bit of fear, or at least sheepishness, as Din rounds on you during the performance. By the end of it, he chooses a few people from the audience to absolve, by swiping a little ash on their foreheads. Those he passed over can’t help but feel a small sense of regret. Why do we feel guilt for forgetting our past?

“Religion cannot overtake culture,” said one of the dancers.

“We want the youth to look at our performances and think about where it is they came from and what their roots are,” said Alla.

The truth is, I struggle to see the objective measure of what it is we lose and why it is bad to lose those things. It is natural for cultures to evolve and for people to forget the gods of old. Some cultures even disappear altogether, organically. But the fact is that in my travels, I have noticed people all around the world, and Asians make up a big faction of this, who yearn for more cultural connections with their roots and who feel robbed that they do not have that connection.

That is the difference: changing along with your culture, or having it robbed from you. The world is ruled by a cultural hegemony of capitalism and a restrictive idea of what “civilized” means, ideas which largely originated in the West but have since adapted to local fascist flavours all around the world. When someone is forced to give up their culture or told which parts of their culture are more accepted and which makes them outcast and savage, when push factors remove people from their traditions – that is when people feel like something priceless has been lost, and you can’t help but feel a little guilty for losing something, whether it was your fault or not.

It is no surprise that Tuai exists in Malaysia. With colonization, scores of people living in this land were pushed to quickly adapt to norms set by others. Perhaps the ways of the older generation make more sense now, when they urge us to not forget our traditions: they were robbed, and they now look to us to find the lost pieces.

Dance for Cultural Discovery

Hana, who is Kadazan-Chinese from Sabah, is one such example of a younger person seeking to find those lost pieces.

“My culture was not passed down to me and I don’t live in my tradition.”

The solutions seem like water in the hands of the younger generation. How do we find something that we don’t even know exists? How do we look for something if we don’t know what it looks like?

There is a bit of a global movement among Asians to better represent our culture in art and media. It is safe to say that part of this comes from the aforementioned desire to reconnect with something lost. But how do we know that what we are putting out is authentic?

Is it right to assume that authenticity is necessary for a valid experience of a culture? Do these youth not end up making their own culture when they participate in an experience of culture?

Hana talks about dancing warrior dances from Sabah – a performance typically reserved for men. She says she wants to redefine femininity. In so doing, she is also challenging some traditional aspects of her culture. Personal experience supersedes authenticity – no, becomes authenticity for the dancer.

For Tuai, Hana and Chloe performed Harvest, a deeply personal interpretation of what the titular concept means.

Chloe, who is Chinese, kneels sombrely in the middle of the dancefloor and eats rice from a bowl. Perhaps her experience of her culture is heavily tied to her experience of her culture’s food. I am the same, and yet I can barely speak Mandarin or other Chinese dialects. Is my experience of Chinese culture less valid?

It is an interesting experiment to bring Chloe and Hana together for a reinterpretation of what harvest means. Whatever their intentions, they ended up providing an interpretation of how different cultures in Malaysia interact with each other as well as an interpretation of Malaysian culture as a whole.

In fact, Tuai is full of such harmonies and contradictions. Malay and Chinese dancers perform Indigenous Sarawakian and Sabahan dances as well as incorporate dance motifs from other Malaysian cultures not of their own. Genders are bent. Religious customs are represented by non-believers.

In a different cultural landscape, we may be tempted to bring up the issue of cultural appropriation. But in the context of Malaysia, we must inquire about the value this kind of cross-cultural sharing brings to a society that has traditionally been divided along racial and religious lines.

It is evident from the representation of multiple ethnic groups and cultural dances in Tuai that celebrating the harvest is a concept that is universal among different Malaysian cultures. By coming together and celebrating what the harvest means to each of us, and by partaking in the harvest celebrations of others, we are in effect creating a new culture of shared harvest celebrations that blend motifs, timelines and approaches. We are creating a new culture of remembering and reconnecting with lost aspects of our past and recognizing the corners of society that were previously uncredited for their contributions to culture. We may not have found what was lost, but we are creating something new.


Tuai was performed at Cuba Dengar Dulu, an event jointly hosted by Article 19 and Projek Dialog.

Quotes used in this article have been edited for brevity and clarity.