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Above: The late KF Wong's (or Wong Ken Foo) pioneering black-and-white photography capturing the various Dayak tribes and which remains an invaluable source of historical information on Borneo will be showcased at The Old Court House.

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Above: The late KF Wong’s (or Wong Ken Foo) pioneering black-and-white photography capturing the various Dayak tribes and which remains an invaluable source of historical information on Borneo will be showcased at The Old Court House.

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Above: The festival also features a craft and vintage market to browse for accessories, household items and objets d'art.

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A fashion gala at the Waterfront Hotel will demonstrate some of the influence of tribal cultures on high-end Sarawakian clothes and accessories, with designs by Tom Abang Saufi (pictured), Edric Ong, Ramsay Ong, Tanoti, Neng Kho Razali and Priscilla Ong Shunmugam.

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Above: With 44 different communities living in harmony, Sarawak boasts a rich and authentic food culture.

Celebrating Sarawak's arts and culture

The rich but underrated culture of the Malaysian state is explored in the inaugural Rainforest Fringe Festival which accompanies its famous music event.
Jun 2, 2017 5:50 AM

FOR the past 20 years, the Rainforest World Music Festival held in Kuching, Sarawak, has drawn tens of thousands of music fans from around the world. The three-day event sees musicians mingling freely with the audience, and it has been frequently voted as one of the best music festivals in the world.

As a prelude to its 20th edition this mid-July, an inaugural 10-day arts and culture festival will be held from July 7 to 16 to celebrate the rich diversity of Sarawak's arts, culture and heritage. Called the Rainforest Fringe Festival, a broad programme covering food, fashion, visuals art, photography and more has been curated by Joe Sidek Productions, the company behind the very successful Georgetown Festival in Penang.

Joe, 58, says: "Sarawak has a remarkably diverse cultural landscape, and this can be seen from its many tribes, its history, the products of the rainforest, and the kinds of food you find there. It is about so much than orang utans - something it gets hyped for - and it's time we see Sarawak for all it has to offer."

During the festival, The Old Court House will host an exhibition of works by homegrown artists who include the late KF Wong (or Wong Ken Foo) whose pioneering black-and-white photography capturing the various Dayak tribes remains an invaluable - and evocative - source of historical information on Borneo. Showcased alongside Wong's works is the photography of Jimmy Nelson, a chronicler of indigenous tribes and communities around the world.

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Sarawak has a population of approximately 2.6 million. Malays and Chinese each account for a quarter of that number, while nearly half of Sarawak's population comprises indigenous tribal peoples. The largest tribe, the Iban, makes up about 30 per cent of the population, while the Bidayuh of southwestern Sarawak represent almost a tenth of the population.

Joe notes: "In Malaysia - as in Singapore - we think in terms of the four different racial categories - Malays, Chinese, Indians and Others. But in Sarawak, there are 44 different communities, each with its own language and culture, living in harmony with each other."

A fashion gala at the Waterfront Hotel will demonstrate some of the influence of tribal designs and aesthetics on high-end Sarawakian clothes and accessories. It will feature the designs of Tom Abang Saufi, Edric Ong, Ramsay Ong, Tanoti and Neng Kho Razali. The festival also features a craft and vintage market to browse for accessories, household items and objets d'art.

The Singaporean fashionista would be thrilled to note that Priscilla Ong Shunmugam, the much sought-after Malaysia-born Singapore-based designer, will be debuting a collection which sees her collaborating with pua kumbu artisans. Pua kumbu is a traditional multicoloured ceremonial cotton cloth used by the Iban tribe.

The biggest highlight of the Rainforest Fringe Festival is a musical showcase starring local stars such as powerhouse songbird Dayang Nurfaizah, Noh Salleh and Tony Eusoff. Also appearing is Matthew Ngau, the world's foremost player of the sape, a traditional stringed instrument of the Orang Ulu, the "upriver people" of Sarawak's northern interior who live in the longhouses that line the rivers.

Anyone interested to go deeper into Sarawakian history and culture may also wish to attend a series of talks on Alfred Russel Wallace and Charles Hose, two British explorers who were among the first to study the region's flora and fauna. Sarawak's equatorial climate has allowed tropical rainforests and abundant animal and plant species to flourish. In recent history, however, much of it is endangered due to deforestation and modernisation.

Reflecting on Sarawak's diversity, Joe adds: "Very often, we don't appreciate what's on our doorstep. But hopefully, this festival will help open our eyes to what's in front of us all along."

  • The Rainforest Fringe Festival runs from July 7 to 16, while the Rainforest World Music Festival runs from July 14 to 16. For more information on the Fringe Festival, go to www.rainforestfringe.com