Sunday, 1.30 pm
We arrive at Muzium Teknologi Melayu a little after 1:30 pm, not knowing that the place closes at 2 on Sundays. It is nestled deep within the winding roads of Simpang 482, Kota Batu, where two ceramic cats welcome us at the mouth with a sign – for a residential house. It’s another five-minute drive before a white building with sloping, pillared maroon rooves come into sight. The day is a hot one, the parking lot empty, the tarmac roads sparkling beneath the scorching sun.
“Eh, ada orang,” someone quips from inside as we approach the main door. We scan our BruHealth App and an officer, a lady – masked, with kind eyes – takes our temperatures.
The ground floor has changed since I last visited; it is now divided into two, one side filled with glass-encased wooden games and instruments, the other with a gallery of painted art. I learn later that it is an exhibition organized by MuzArt, a portmanteau of the Malay words, ‘Muzium’ and ‘Artist’, and an interesting nod to classical musician Mozart. Perhaps it’s a modern, wittier take on the classical art form, a quest to preserve Bruneian painted art in an increasingly modern world – but I don’t stay long enough to find out.
Bridging both exhibits is a flashy, bright blue sign with yellow words. It details the bygone days of traditional games that used to entertain our ancestors. Paraphrased: here lies the graveyard of the traditional game, massacred by the information age. I suppose I know museums are meant to immortalize important parts of our history and heritage, but being in this monumental building, surrounded by Things of the past grounds me a little. I am more acutely aware of the tiled floors, the large wooden doors fashioned with ornate carvings, the clinical, blue plastic chairs stationed around for rest.
Are museums meant to transport you back in time or are they meant to preserve a piece of history in the present?
Ready to find some answers, I take one step towards the furthest corner of the room, where a contraption made of long sticks of wood intricately entwined by rattan ropes sits, but find myself redirected towards the counter. A logbook, crinkled, soft, malleable, waited. We sign our names, leave our belongings in plastic boxes and finally set off to explore the traditional games of the Bruneian people.
There are a total of thirteen games, all tagged with a number and a name, but only four come with a description. I recognize some of them from my primary school days, like the large wooden board of Pasang (though I still do not know how to play it) peppered with black and white buttons, or the boat-like Congkak with 18 scoops of coloured pebbles (a game I have fond memories of.)
I quickly learn that the contraption made of wood and rattan is Salok-salokan, a game of wake and wait. It has roots in the ceremonious Dusun tradition of mourning. For 14 days, Salong, a wooden lamp, will be lit up in honour of the deceased and a guard must keep watch over it. To stay awake, the guard would trap themselves in Salok-salokan and attempt to escape from its fibrous ropes.
Most of these games were supposedly played by young teenage boys, with many resembling weapons. The Senapang Pek is made from a long bamboo stick that is fitted with fruit seed pellets and rattan to mimic a rifle. The Kereta Rajung, popular among Tutong boys sliding down steep hills in the little district, resembles a skeletal wagon and is adapted from the early days of a motorcar. The Bamboo Cannon is, well, a cannon. It was played in various ways but was prominently used to break fasts during Ramadhan and deter pests in rice farms.
By the time I read through all the signs, it’s close to 2 pm. The reception ladies are ready with their purses, the door to the other exhibitions is closed but I am still wandering in my conjured thoughts of the simpler days. I think of when bamboo and rattan, sweet suns and dirt hills, rice farms and fruit trees were enough.
And, as I make my way out of the museum past the flashy, bright blue sign, I think perhaps it is an obnoxious scream for attention, the yellow words a piercing reminder of our disappearing heritage. A reminder that the days of fruit seeds and bamboo stalks have long gone and all that’s left of those days are bits and pieces of wooden games and contraptions encased within glass, locked in a yellowy hall, nestled deep in the winding roads of Kota Batu.