Our food is a symbol of our unity
My journey to know other Malaysians started off as an idea at the end of 2014 when a lot of negativity surfaced around Malaysia. There were devastating occurrences, one after another, and it felt like we had gone through a lot of challenges in such a short time. Many Malaysians took to social media platforms to rant. It felt as if there were no possible solutions other than contributing to the already negative remarks.
It came to a point where I prayed and asked God, “Is there anything I can do with who I am and what I have, to show that this country is not as woebegone as it seems?” Immediately, I sketched down my thoughts, took time to observe my surroundings and from there, I asked myself what I loved about Malaysia. It was the beautiful tapestry of the people, the Malaysian humour, the culture, the celebrations and the land.
Finally, I asked myself, “What is one common factor that all Malaysians can relate to and love a lot despite everything?” The answer to that is obviously, Malaysian food! Food is symbolic of love when words are inadequate. Moreover, Malaysian food takes bonds to the next level and we Malaysians know that! Our food has always been the gesture of peace which allows us to sit, eat and enjoy one another's company despite our differences. It is our differences that makes us unique. Our food is a symbol of our unity.
That was when I thought to myself, “Why not showcase our own various faces using the food of Malaysia?”
That led me to using food as the key element to tell stories and the idea of The Rojak Projek was thus born.
Colour-blindness has always been the go-to trend to address unity in diversity. Although it was a great concept, we looked at it in a different light. I had this desire to move from being colour-blind to colour-embracing in a time where the call for unity has never been more profound. To us, the beauty of being a multicultural Malaysia shouldn't be diluted to shades of grey because beauty lies where our colours are!
It occurred to me that the variety of Malaysian food is similar to the diversity in all of us. There is laksa in Johor, Sarawak, Kelantan, and Penang, and they are all different. Can we really say they are the same? No, but do we love them all? Of course we do! It is those differences that make the dish special! Once I had developed the idea and sketches, I started approaching others and getting them on board to give this project a shot.
So on the first day of 2016, our first 60 artworks of creative and positive perspectives on how our Malaysian diversity is truly beautiful were shared. This was done through a series of conceptual artworks featuring yummy Malaysian food of our friends, with their vision for one Malaysia. These artworks are not only about the beauty in variety of Malaysian food but the underlying deeper message that our diversity is equally beautiful.
We pushed this project further as we travelled around Malaysia from 2016-2017 with two key things in mind — to film a documentary of our journey where Malaysian stories are collected as an attempt to understand different cultures in different states and to continue our art movement while learning more about our Malaysian food which lead us to know more about other people and cultures.
By 2017, our journey allowed us to produce 540 artworks showcasing Malaysians from all the different states. Why 540, you wonder? Because it was 54 years prior to 2017 when East Malaysia was included as an essential part of the Malaysian federation. Without Sabah and Sarawak, Malaysia would not be Malaysia. The final 10, to make it to a grand total of 550, was added in conjunction with Malaysia Day* in 2018.
The most vivid encounters I had on this journey was to experience the level of kindness and loving gestures of fellow Malaysians all over Malaysia who welcomed and embraced us when we really needed help. While writing this down, I can already picture all their faces from Perlis all the way to Sabah.
“Next time you come back here ah, you do your art at my house okay. No problem”
“When are you coming back?”
In fact, just remembering the moments when we were doing the artworks in all their respective houses, just having them sit near us to ‘kay-po’ and watch how we produce the artwork was beautiful! I still hear their laughters of how they could not imagine our local food being transformed into something else.
The feeling of being accepted by many around Malaysia was extremely beautiful and almost magical. There were many places where people allowed us to stay in their houses. They enjoyed whatever we were doing whether it was filming or creating the artworks. In fact, they wanted us to come back again! They didn’t charge us for anything and said since we made them smile and laugh, we were more than welcome to return.
Just imagine, back then, despite our lack of funding, we continued and came out of our zones to travel around Malaysia. We didn't cover the entire country due to lack of time and budget but through the help of old and new friends and family members, strangers and the kindness of the public, we managed to travel to every state. We stayed in their respective homes whether it was in the city or villages in our short time to film our documentary and to create our artworks. People also contacted others to make sure we were safe.
A specific, vivid memory that really moved me the most was to experience inclusiveness during my first trip to Sarawak back in 2016. Rachel Lee and I travelled with Anderson Kalang, a fellow Kelabit whom I met during Hari Kamaatan and Hari Gawai celebration parties in Kuala Lumpur where we had the opportunity to meet many Malaysian Borneons and captured their photographs.
He welcomed us to carry out the trip together and as we got to know Anderson and his family members, they treated us with so much love and care. The level of love and hospitality with them was so unique. That gesture of love was so powerful that by the end of our trip, we were adopted into their Kelabit family.
Now, I have an extra set of parents! I have Daddy Kalang who has so much patience, love and wisdom and Mummy Supang, who exudes such wonderful warmth and love towards us, alongside the other family members. Their humility is so beautiful that I am truly thankful to have such wonderful Sarawakian parents! Imagine having not only your own family but also more family members out there. I seriously think it’s so cool to be accepted by other communities.
From then on, I remembered Mummy Supang naturally referring to the others in her family as “our” cousins and introducing other family members to us as our "cousins". She could have easily said, "This is Anderson's cousin..." However, she didn't. Instead, she said, "This is your cousin".
I would like to see the growth and continuation of this newly found journey to another level. People may comment it is normal not to know your country very well, but I truly believe that we should know our people and country as well as the back of our hands, and we need to create that open platform and pathway to make it easier for people to understand one another better.
Under the new movement, #RojakNation, we are on the mission to meet all of the 250 unheard Malaysian ethnicities to document and understand their cultures and traditions through their food. We are hoping that through the food artworks we create along this journey, it will enable others to know and get a better understanding of different cultures in Malaysia. We want others to know that they are welcome regardless of their nationality and it will be an honour to have them on board because we believe their participation will bring about awareness to educating and inspiring others.
I truly believe it is time for this generation to take rediscovering and understanding our Malaysian people better, to the next level. To me, there is no excuse to act as if others do not exist. Now with this pandemic, it is definitely harder for everyone to do things together physically and let's be real- we also know that not everyone has the money to travel and/or experience different cultures around Malaysia.
I look towards a global support and collaboration with The Rojak Projek in reaching out to many unheard Malaysian voices regardless of age, gender, race, ability or social status and to bring awareness to the rich, unseen culture that can be found in Malaysia.
Malaysia tak sama kalau kita tak bersama. In English, it means Malaysia is never the same without us being together. I definitely cannot imagine my life without my Indian, Punjabi and other ‘rojak’ friends and family members. Now, I also cannot imagine life without the Sabahans, Sarawakians and Orang Asli whom I have met during my journey. I definitely look forward to meeting more such people in time. After travelling around Malaysia, I can conclude that being Malaysian means ALL OF US, TOGETHER.
If we can name three races in Malaysia, why can’t we name them all (including those who are of mixed race)? My vision for Malaysia is to have Malaysians be truly proud of who we are as colour-embracing citizens of this nation. I hope to see this nation actively knowing one another and creating a strong link that bridges any gap to a whole new level. For we are one, we are many, and we are Malaysians.
My vision for the younger generation is to be humble, teachable and unafraid to make new good friends of different ethnic backgrounds and to learn from one another. I envision them to be the doers, thinkers and problem solvers of this nation and to participate in nation building and contribute back in many ways.
*Note: Many of us had not known about the existence of Malaysia Day, formation of federation between Malaya, North Borneo (Sabah), Sarawak and Singapore on 16th September 1963 as many of us here in Peninsular / Semenanjung or West Malaysia mostly celebrate Merdeka Day (31st August 1957). This was the moment when we had no idea that due to our lack of acknowledgement to Malaysia Day, it was a sign of not acknowledging the existence of others in Sabah and Sarawak.
The Rojak Projek
In collaboration with The Rojak Projek, the Portraits of Colours in Malaysia campaign are about embracing the complex diversity and nuances of our cultures, individuality and colours, as we take a dive into ourselves and our communities, acknowledging the beautiful medley of flavours and colours each and every one of us bring to the table.
THE ROJAK PROJEK, an initiative by TRP CREATIVES, is a social enterprise centred on promoting unity through cultural and diversity awareness.
For more information about The Rojak Projek, visit their website at https://www.therojakprojek.com/