Beyond Romance: Fieldwork in Sarawak.
Sarawak has long provided prime ethnographic data for researchers, indeed, "The archives in Sarawak are filled with excellent reports of this nature" (p. xv). Academia's privileging of the written word, however, as a sanctioned product of research, rather than the experience, means that up until the last decades of the 20th century, self-reflexivity was deliberately eclipsed from fieldwork reports and ethnographic accounts.
Beyond Romance, edited by Professor Hew Cheng Sim and Senior Lecturer Kelvin Egay, both from the Faculty of Social Science, Universiti Malaysia Sarawak, was planned as a means of addressing this gap in the Sarawak research record, as well as allowing readers and, for example, local undergraduate students, an insight into the personal experience of doing fieldwork in Sarawak. The editors had no strict guidelines in mind, other than the intent that this should not be a "How to Do" manual of fieldwork methods, and hopefully a "fun" exercise for the researchers. This was a wise decision as the resulting chapters are enjoyably diverse--both in form and content, and capture something of the very different backgrounds and experiences of their authors. The nine contributors come from various academic disciplines, including anthropology, sociology, social policy and history. All of the contributors share, however, an authority informed by the long-term experience of carrying out fieldwork in Sarawak. Beyond this, the nine chapters in Beyond Romance, covering a time span of more than 40 years, are also a commentary on the changing face of fieldwork as well as changes that have taken place in Sarawak during that period of time.
Above all they attest to the fieldwork experience as a humanistic endeavor.
In chapter one, Kelvin Egay introduces the issue of representation, with reference to the exoticism and mystique that have long been associated with Sarawak in the media, reminding us that such representations are simultaneously issues of power. His self-effacing description of his entry into the field (the Bakun Resettlement scheme) turns the image of the "ethnographer as expert" on its head as he struggles to understand the cacophony of voices while attempting to cope with the mundane problems of daily living. His experience is one of estrangement--both intellectual and sensual. I commend the choice of the editors to begin with this essay because it captures so well the confusion, disorientation, and often intense anxiety occasioned on entering the field for the first time. There is an expectation that the fieldworker will have courage; what is not seen so often is the courage shown by Egay in this chapter to share his vulnerability in such detail.
In Chapter 2, Victor King retraces the circumstances that first brought him (accompanied by his wife) to Borneo over 40 years ago, and draws attention to the way that "fortuitous encounters," unexpected "opportunities" and "ideas... generated by a chance reading" (p. 25) so often appeared to intervene and give direction to his research plans, then and since. Indeed, he credits this phenomenon of serendipity as a major influence throughout his working life... a theme that is echoed by other contributors to this collection.
King's doctoral research out of Hull, UK, dates from the early 1970s, and doctoral students today will no doubt be envious of his description of "little monitoring of progress and an open-ended period for writing up" (p. 25). King recalls the early 1970s when the Kuching museum was the center of institutional life for researchers, providing "a source of inspiration... a major sponsor and means of support" and even short-term accommodation when needed (p. 36-37). The Sarawak Club, on the other hand, was the center of social life. He notes that on a later visit in 1981, Malaysian politics had had an impact on both access and subject matter for foreign researchers, and the flow of researchers had slowed.
King's long period of association with research in Sarawak makes him well placed to comment on some of the other changes and developments that have effected researchers and Sarawakians over the past 40 years; improved communications and transport systems for instance have been a major life changer, as have development projects.
Chapter 3, written by Jayl Langub, is a story about a relationship that has continued for over 45 years. It illustrates the way the personal life and connections of the researcher are inextricably intertwined with all stages of the research process, both influencing and influenced by the research experience. The story begins during the author's time in the Sarawak Administrative Service, with a field visit he made in 1971 to four Penan groups (in the Belaga District) who the Sarawak government was proposing to relocate in the interests of development. Langub traces how the bonds established with these groups then, have continued to resurface and intervene in his life for over 45 years, spanning his time in the State Civil Service (the last 13 of these in the Majlis Adat Istiadat) and then as a Senior Research Fellow at UNIMAS. Readers familiar with Jayl's previous publications will know that he always privileges the voices of his informants and that he writes from the heart. To do so is to open himself to the pain of fieldwork; in his case to the pain of seeing the powerless dispossessed of their economic means by powerful others. One might infer, reading between the lines, that any hint of activism on behalf of the powerless in such circumstances is disadvantageous for researchers in Sarawak.
In Chapter 4, Sara Ashencaen Crabtree issues a challenge to any suggestion posed by the title of this collection, that researchers should eschew romantic ideas in the interest of objectivity. Instead, she argues, cogently and with a great deal of passion, that "a good dose of romance is a necessary prerequisite for entry into morally engaged research" (p. 103).
As she reflects on her doctoral research, carried out at a Sarawak psychiatric hospital "serendipitously stumbled on," she retraces the way that romance, as "passionate eagerness" first led her to Sarawak, and has continued to fuel an international research career since.
In doing so she grapples with some of the difficult questions and dilemmas involved when undertaking research with an oppressed or marginalised group, not least the realization that in doing so "we become aware of both our power as researchers, but also our grave impotence" (p. 100). There are other contributors to this collection who would surely agree.
In chapter 5. Liana Chua explores how people, on both sides of politically and historically imposed divides, find the means to remain connected when new realities emerge, delineating the ebb and flow of this relatedness and its implications. Chua, who conducted doctoral fieldwork in Kampung Benuk, a Bidayuh village, between 2004-5, opens with a detailed and entertaining account of her experience there as a young researcher. At that time Benuk was beyond the range of mobile phone networks. Married with a young family and now living and working in England, Chua's visits back to Benuk in the intervening years have been necessarily brief. In the second part of this chapter, the author draws on personal experience in recent years to argue that socioeconomic development in Sarawak, particularly communication technology, has not only given the notion of "fieldwork" new meaning, but changed the very nature of the "field" and provided the people of Benuk with new agency. There are important issues for researchers raised in this analysis, not least that it gives a whole new meaning to the question: "Can we ever leave the field?"
If personal life sometimes introduces a pause, it can also affect the research experience itself. In 1985, Monica Janowski, the author of Chapter 6, arrived in Sarawak to begin doctoral fieldwork with a longhouse community at Pa'Dalih in the Kelabit Highlands. She was accompanied by husband Kaz and their daughter Molly, then just one year old. They remained there until March 1988, living in a longhouse apartment with their own hearth, incorporated into the world of their fieldwork population. Janowski returned to Pa'Dalih with Molly in 1992-93 and Molly attended school there during that time. In a retrospective analysis, using fieldwork diaries as a reference, the author reflects on how being a wife and a mother shaped her fieldwork experience in particular ways and gave her unique insights into Kelabit society, especially around parenting and the socialization of children. Many of these insights came about through watching Molly interacting with her Kelabit longhouse friends. The diary entries also make plain that being a mother in a context where parenting is very much a public process, also had its unsettling and threatening moments for the writer. There is an immense amount of interesting material discussed in this chapter, because Janowski "updates" the analysis in the context of events that have occurred since--more than 30 years after the original fieldwork. For example, she is able to identify social and cultural traits in Molly, and in herself, that were internalized as a result of the long-term experience at Pa'Dalih. The descriptions in this account also offer valuable insights into some of the real difficulties faced by researchers in Sarawak in the mid-1980s, such as the physical hurdles involved in simply getting to and from an upcountry fieldwork location and getting access to medical help when it was needed. In these circumstances, having contacts and sponsors who were willing to provide introductions and supply practical support when necessary was vital.
Chapter 7 takes the form of a letter by Hew Cheng Sim to her son who is embarking on his first research job and living overseas. On one level the letter is a cautionary tale concerning the "joys and perils of fieldwork," offering practical advice tempered with a good dose of humor. But it is also an intensely personal and intimate sharing of self, offered with love, ostensibly between mother and son, but also to the reader. The author writes from memory, with raw honesty, disclosing mistakes made (and insights gleaned) as a young graduate and postgraduate researcher in rural Sarawak, knowing that her son in turn will inevitably make his own. This is not an exercise in self-criticism but of acceptance. The final disclosure is about a terrible loss. I was in Kuching, the night of the fire, on 9 (lh) August 2010, the night Hew Cheng Sim became "an academic without history." Perhaps in the act of writing she has, in part at least, redeemed it.
Writing a memoir can be a complex business. In Chapter 8, Daniel Chew reflects on the experience of writing his deceased father's biography: "A Hakka Civil Servant in Sarawak." The author identifies two issues at the outset that complicated the editors' brief to "write in the first person" and one senses the author is not entirely comfortable with the exercise. First, self-reflection of the kind called for ran contrary to Chew's academic training as an historian. This issue is somewhat resolved by a decision to share "insights" and "trade secrets" of a historian. Secondly, the author grew up in a "strict patriarchal environment" where there was a distance between father and son that continued through adult life until his father's death in 1985. In consequence, neither the author nor his siblings knew much about his fathers' work and early life. Daniel, an historian, was nominated to undertake the biography, with his brother as "research assistant." He details how he went about it in detail in the rest of the chapter, providing also an example of how fieldwork research is constituted through the doctrinal teachings and texts of a particular discipline. Some interesting historic commentary surfaces in the course of this chapter. No family documents at all were found relating to the pre-Second World War and the Japanese occupation. And the author was refused access to old files relating to the time of British governance and the influence of communist ideology when he visited the register of societies in Kuching to seek archival information about his father. There is also a mention of Michael Leigh who, as a young researcher in Sarawak in the 1960s, sought information from, and shared a friendship, with the author's father. Readers who are interested in reading the finished biography will find the reference at the end of this chapter.
In the final chapter in this collection, Elena Chai explores the unpredictable and serendipitous nature of fieldwork through the lens of her own research experiences, particularly since 2012 when she was conducting research in Tua Pek Kong temples around Sarawak and most recently in West Kalimantan. This is perhaps the most reflective chapter in the collection. The author raises a number of important questions and issues to consider such as "To what extent does the personality of the researcher influence research opportunities?" While I doubt there can be consensus regarding the answers, this does not mean they any less important to contemplate. Personally. I also feel that some research areas (such as ritual, spirit mediums, and altered states of consciousness) tend to generate these sorts of questions. The author's proposition that the "field" can seem to have a life of its own and appear to "pull" the researcher in certain directions falls into this category. There is also an interesting discussion in this chapter concerning the ambiguity of identity--a Hakka by birth, Chai nevertheless did not have an intimate identity with Hakka culture. This chapter is a fitting conclusion to the collection because the author addresses a question raised in an earlier chapter and one I think all researchers have reason to think about--where does fieldwork end? I agree entirely with the answer given: "Ethnographic writing... is always partial and incomplete... Doing ethnography ... like living life... is never finished" (p. 181).
What is evident from all the accounts in this collection is that the role of the researcher is an emergent one. It begins and ends outside the physical context of the field. As the title suggests, the experiences go beyond the "romantic" image that mention of Borneo often conjures up, yet paradoxically, every chapter also makes an argument (more or less explicitly), for "romance" aka "passion and commitment" as a driving force.
I have no hesitation in recommending this hugely enjoyable and accessible collection of personal reminiscences and feel that it deserves of a wide readership, from the researcher starting out to the veteran scholar and even beyond academia. The papers would also provide an inspirational teaching resource for undergraduates, especially in local universities, since they offer a useful combination of ethnography and theory in a context that will be familiar. I am confident that Beyond Romance will be a valuable addition to the Sarawak archive.
My criticisms are few and editorial. The map on page 78, in chapter 3, is far too small to make out the place names and would be better enlarged to a full page and better placed opposite page 61, (where the locations are first mentioned), rather than after the references section at the end. Chapter 3 also contains three references to photos that are missing from the script. These things are easily fixed before the book is reprinted.
(Ann Appleton, Auckland, NZ)