Sarawak aims to be the next creative city for craft-making and design through the Rainforest Fringe Festival

Sarawak aims to be the next creative city for craft-making and design through the Rainforest Fringe Festival

Kuching calling

Text: Tracy Phillips

Image: Rustic Photography,
Tan Wei Kheng,
Richard Koh Fine Art,
Dennis Lau

Festival director Joe Sidek chats about the return of Sarawak Fringe Festival for the second year and what this means for Sarawak, its people and the region

I have a confession. Whenever overseas friends asked if they should visit Malaysia when planning a trip to Singapore, I'd be less than encouraging. "Maybe just Penang, for the street art and hawker food and try to go in August when The Georgetown Festival is running." This was before last year when I ventured East for the first time to the Malaysian state of Sarawak and discovered its unique history, diversity and culture compared to the region and even Peninsular Malaysia itself. Quickly I understood why my East Malaysian friends always proudly declare that they're from Borneo or Sarawak, rather than simply calling themselves Malaysian, identifying more with their tribal heritage.

Aiming to showcase just how different Sarawak is in the 10 day-long Rainforest Fringe Festival (RFF), the festival returns for its second year. To be held in Kuching from 6 to 15 July, a celebration of Sarawak's rich indigenous history and way of life is celebrated through its music, art, nature, craft, film, photography and food. A long-term project with a proposed five-year plan, the festival aims to shift Sarawak's existing reputation from adventure and eco-tourism to a cultural destination that draws tourists from all over the world. The man leading this project on behalf of The Ministry of Tourism, Arts, Culture, Youth and Sports Sarawak is festival director Joe Sidek, the man also behind the now well-established Georgetown Festival in Penang.

Festival Director of RFF, Joe Sidek

What makes Sarawak so unique?
From the White Rajahs — three generations of the British Brooke's family that ruled over the land for 100 years — to the inspirational figures like the last paramount chief of the Iban, Tun Jugah, Sarawak has a complex and layered identity and accompanying traditions. Not forgetting their 40 sub-ethnic groups, each with their own distinct language and culture to boot. 

"Sarawak is hugely undiscovered — the people's heritage and creativity can be harnessed further in so many ways," shared Sidek. "I want to work on programmes that will push Sarawak as the next creative city for craft making and also design. I want everyone to experience Sarawak in all its splendour and to celebrate all that is about this land. There is so much to be immersed in and there is so much to be connected to here. As the Festival Director of the Rainforest Fringe Festival, together with my dynamic team, everything we do is about place-making and story-telling that is deeply rooted to Sarawak. It is curated to seek and achieve what fuels local economies, increases innovation, pushes cultural diversity and embraces nature. The level of energy was high during the inaugural RFF in 2017 and this year's programmes are much more varied with a focus on the untapped potential of Sarawakian talents, musicians, designers and visionaries and most of all, Sarawak's heritage, bringing to light the First People presence."

At Adau, performing at The First People Party during the RFF opening

Connecting Sarawak and Singapore 
One of the few cities that has a direct flight to Kuching, Singapore is just under a two hour flight ride away. In the mid 1800's, both were treasured for their natural history and anthropological discoveries by colonial explorer and naturalist, Alfred Russell Wallace. While each respective place has kept a different pace of life, Sidek thinks that there is much we can learn from each other and has ventured to deepen connections by bridging talents from Singapore and Sarawak together. Last year's inaugural RFF saw Singapore-based fashion label Ong Shunmugam collaborate with artisans who weave traditional patterned ceremonial cloth known as Pua Kumbu. This year, Singaporean host and yogi, Denise Keller will lead Yoga In the Wild, a three-day yoga retreat at the newly refurbished Cove 55 as part of the festival programming.   

Sarawak's leading luminaries
During the press conference for RFF last month, members of the press were given the opportunity to meet some of Sarawak's leading luminaries, brand owners, entrepreneurs and creatives who are leading the charge in establishing Sarawakian craft, culture and hospitality for the future.

This included Jason Brooke, the grandson of the last ruling White Rajah of Sarawak. The director of the Brooke Trust, he opened Brooke Gallery, a gallery containing artefacts on loan from the Brooke family and Sarawak Museum Department. Located in the refurbished Fort Margherita Kuching and opened in 2016, it's largely supported and maintained by an enthusiastic group of local volunteers, a testament to Sarawakian pride for their history.  Jason Brooke, Director of the Brooke Trust

Also on hand was Hans van de Bunte, senior project leader for the Sarawak Museum Campus Project at Sarawak Museum. While the first Sarawak Museum opened in 1891, the Sarawak Museum Campus is currently undergoing a multi-million dollar expansion and re-opening in 2020. Poised to becomes one of the finest museums in Southeast Asia, it will showcase over 200,000 objects on the natural history, archaeology and the cultures of Borneo. The temporary exhibition, 'Urang Sarawak: An Exhibition about Us', is curated across just 400 sqm but gives a taste of things to come. Van de Bunte walked us through the exhibition, noting the many items that have been brought out of storage and yet to be exhibited before as well as the use of videos, audio and interactive displays, all of which will be a hallmark of the new campus.

Hans van de Bunte, Senior Project Leader of Sarawak Museum Campus Project at Sarawak Museum

One of the champions of Sarawak's craft is the brand Tanoti, a congregation of Sarawakian women weavers and artisans who are dedicated to the production and proliferation of hand-crafted fabrics. Passionate about improving the lives and livelihoods of womenfolk and rural communities through the ancient art of songket weaving, Tanoti co-founder, Jacqueline Fong, is a galvanising force who is constantly finding new ways to reposition Sarawak's craft traditions. Her weavers will be participating in RFF's installation, 'Forbidden Fruits' large sculptural woven 'fruits' in the form of light shades to shine a lot on the female weaving community, their stories, strife and contributions.

Joe Sidek's RFF highlights
"In the style of the famous Sarawak layer cake we also focus on having the "lapis" layers for each programme so that they are varied and so that everyone can enjoy the festival," shared Sidek.

1. Sarawak: An Indigenous Journey
A 45-minute musical theatre that will open the festival, the performance layers the traditional with the contemporary and will feature one of Sarawak's most up and coming talents, Raziman Sarbini. A dancer and choreographer based in New York, he will be performing with celebrated Kuching-born soprano, Dewi Liana Seriestha, the first Malaysian to hold the title of Miss World Talent at the Miss World 2014 competition.

Dewi Liana Seriestha

Part of this Sarawak showcase will feature performances from the Paiwan Tribe from Taiwan to add an international element to the evening. The Paiwan Tribe is one of Taiwan's most interesting indigenous showcases and stars actor and theatre director Hao-Hsiang Hsu (Life of Pi) and Paiwan ancient singer, Seredaw Tariyaljan, who performed at the Pre-Grammy Party at the 55th Grammy Awards. This performance combines cocoon, percussion instruments and aboriginal folk songs to present a pure aboriginal musical performance celebrating the beauty of the aboriginal culture of Taiwan.

Paiwan Tribe from Taiwan

2. Bamboo that Binds and Wood
An interactive series of programmes including forums, workshops and installations, it's curated by born-and-bred Sarawakian designer Wendy Teo. Aiming to encourage innovative use of bamboo and wood, this programme will be the window of what the world can expect in terms of innovative design and up-to-date sustainable use of materials.

Wendy Teo of Borneo Art Collective

3. Photography exhibitions
Festival goers can also expect amazing works at the exhibition space by renowned artists such as Chris Rainier on his tattoo photography and Dennis Lau, Sarawak's premier photojournalist exhibiting his photography on Sarawak's orang asal (natives).

Borneo People by Dennis Lau 

4. The Market
Branding it as the "Chatuchak of Kuching", this will host the best of Sarawakian artisanal products. For the first time, book fair Big Bad Wolf will be coming to East Malaysia.

The Rainforest Fringe Festival (RFF) began in 2017 and is an annual 10-day spectacle for all to celebrate the spirit and energy of Sarawak. Hosted in the heart of Kuching, the festival honours Sarawak's eclectic culture and vibrancy of the land and the people through music, art, craft, film, photography, and design, giving festival attendees a holistic view and true sense of its splendour. It is hosted by The Ministry of Tourism, Arts, Culture, Youth and Sports Sarawak.

RFF 2018 will be held on 6 to 15 July.