Sunday, April 19, 2009
Regatta Lepa-Lepa 2009
The month of April has returned, and I was once again in Semporna to capture the cultural atmosphere and learn more about the traditional houses in this East Coast region of Sabah. The ten-hour bus coach ride from KK-Semporna from the Inanam Bus Terminal left me a bit nauseous, but it’s all part of the adventure of getting to Semporna town by land.
This year however, I came prepared, having booked my accommodation some weeks in advance; it is practically impossible to find guestrooms in Semporna town during these festivities – every guesthouse is fully booked! The celebratory mood was in the air when I arrived. The excited crowd packed the streets and cars moved slowly, as locals and tourists alike gathered to watch this annual event.
A few things have changed since I visited Semporna last year. The new Semporna public library is now open within walking distance from SK Pekan Semporna, a primary school originally built in 1939. The original Semporna district office – also built in the 1930s - is currently being restored as a heritage building by Jabatan Warisan Negara. I hope that the existing billboard now blocking the views of this historical building will be removed to a more suitable location when the restoration is completed, but that said, I am glad to see that the town of Semporna is setting a good example for the architectural heritage conservation effort in Sabah, and hopefully it will spur other local towns to consider restoring significant local buildings which are historical to their native communities.
I deliberately came a couple of days earlier so that I could get to know the local people. For those who have yet to see this festival, there are two types of boats; the elaborately decorated Lepa, and its smaller, less ornate cousin, the Kumpit.
Walking along the Seafest Hotel’s pier where the traditional boats were being moored, I noticed that a majority of the boats are of the Kumpit variety and not so many Lepa. It would seem like the traditional art of making Lepa boats is dying.
How do we keep this unique boat making culture alive? For starters, I believe that the key of protecting our cultural heritage rests with our youth – the next generation. Could learning a traditional craft such as traditional boat carving be incorporated as part of Kem Bina Negara (Malaysia’a National Service)? Rather than have kids running around collecting garbage and going through obstacle courses, an alternative option would be to teach them an interesting skill, such as take part in the making an actual Lepa boat. Pity that National Service did not exist during my teen years; I wouldn’t have minded learning this craft - as opposed to three months of communal camping, as fun as that may be.
There were two main attraction spots during the Regatta Lepa celebration – the Seafest Hotel pier where the traditional boats were docked and at the Semporna town padang, where a concert stage and some traditional houses were built. Every time I visit Semporna for the Regatta Lepa, it never ceases to amaze me, the wealth of culture that exists in this locality. Some of the cultural dances were very intriguing, and hopefully with some research funding, I can come back to Semporna at a more suitable time to do a comprehensive study of these unique communities.
Unfortunately for this year, there were only four traditional huts built for the festive Regatta Lepa celebration. I was told that the budget for traditional houses was slashed this year, which was a real pity, considering that in 2008, at least ten traditional huts were showcased, giving each of the local ethnic groups in Semporna, a chance to highlight their living cultural heritage.
Having experienced the wonderful kaleidoscope of local culture, dance and music at the very same venue last year, the drastic drop in the number of traditional houses on display was very disappointing, to say the least. I hope that the benefactors of the annual Regatta Lepa festival can sit down with the local organizers to sort out this matter; it would be a shame to neglect the land-based cultural activities as I find that it just as interesting as the Regatta’s sea-based events. The welfare of the local village performers during the festival needs to be attended to; at very least, an allocated stipend for bottled water and packed food for the cultural village performers at each of the traditional huts for the duration of the event.
Perhaps it would not be such a bad idea for Semporna town to have a permanent exhibit of the region’s traditional houses; it could be the East Coast equivalent of Sabah Museum’s Heritage Village built on the West Coast. I have noticed that there is a seemingly vacant park on the grounds of the USIA building that could be a perfect location for this suggested project.
That said, I am extremely happy to be part of this year’s Regatta Lepa celebration; my fondest memories from this year’s event will be the smiling, happy faces of the Bajau boat people when I surprised them with some of their photos taken during the event, to keep as a personal memento. We forget sometimes, how small acts of kindness can make a world of difference to others, and it is the warm-hearted people and friendships that I make during my travels that fuel my passion and interest in advocating for Sabah’s architectural heritage conservation.
I would like to thank Dato’ Seri Tengku Zainal Adlin, Chairman of Sabah Tourism Board for hosting me during this year’s event, as well as Tn. Hj. Nurjaileh Maswadin, Native Chief of Sulabayan and Coordinator of the Regatta Lepa activities, the Semporna District Office as well as the locals of Semporna town for their help and assistance.