KOTA KINABALU, May 29 — The grounds of the Kadazandusun Cultural Association (KDCA) building, fondly known as Hongkod, comes alive like no other time during the Kaamatan month of May.
It is the biggest, most anticipated festival of the year to Sabahans, where elders dust off their traditional costumes and pull out their colourful beads, while the young try a smattering of their native tongue and they all celebrate their cultural heritage with aplomb.
Upon entry into the gates of the KDCA, the steady rhythmic beating of gongs that accompany the sumazau dance can be heard, often vying with the modern classic Kadazandusun songs and even rock songs being eagerly belted out on karaoke.
On the left, the festival retains its cultural roots, showcasing aspects of the various ethnic tribes from the Kadazans of Penampang’s Sumazau, to the Murut longhouse where the traditional communal trampoline or lansaran is still taking on bouncing crowds of delighted children and their minders.
The stage nearby often offers some kind of ‘live’ performance of traditional music or dance, while traditional games of arm wrestling, buffalo racing, stilt walking and blow piping offers a glimpse into local pastimes and entertain locals and tourists alike.
But to the right, is often where everyone converges to at some point — a myriad of stalls offering a veritable feast of food offering any pusas — edibles to accompany your drink —and pop up bars to the thirsty merry makers.
The smell of roasting meats and the accompanying waft of smoke is unmistakable — whole lamb being barbequed, smoked wild boar, burgers to suit every taste, satay, an array of fried foods, local cuisine and rice wine, fresh grilled seafood like fish and oysters, chickens being roasted over a fire, and lots and lots of pork...
“There is even more variety of food this year than ever before,” said Joneville Tinun, a stall owner who has been a regular at the Kaamatan festival in KDCA for the last five years.
The 36-year-old healthcare consultant goes into business only once a year, at this event, offering his signature whole spit-fire roast pig which sells out within hours.
Every year, people vie for these coveted spots to operate a business, and the price has gone up from RM800 to RM2,500 since he started. This year, the demand is higher as instead of the usual month-long celebration, they are only allowed to run for two weeks.
Even though coinciding with the beginning of Ramadan, the flow of visitors has not stopped, partly thanks to the long weekend before May 30 and 31. Vendors can take home anything between RM300 to RM1,000 per night gross profit during peak days.
In general, beers are sold for RM16 to RM20 per set of three cans, depending on the brand while Tinun’s “Babarian lechon” pork is sold for RM20 for 165g.
“I sell one pig every night until the last few days, when there are more people so I make two. Business is as good as ever, but that is not why I do this,” he said.
“For me, Kaamatan is a time for everybody to meet and get together. I see so many people who I don’t get to see on a regular basis — from school, my childhood — ‘hi bye’ friends — and you get to talk to them and catch up,” said Tinun.
He has made friends with people who visit his stall every year – he estimates 60 per cent of the people he mingles with at his 10 feet-by-10 feet stall are “friends you don’t know”.
“Sometimes you know them, you hang out, you talk about family and chat like old friends — but you don’t necessarily know their name. But Kaamatan brings people together like that,” he said.
Several of his repeat customers even come from abroad — usually after being introduced to the event by local spouses — and make it an annual pilgrimage.
True to Sabah’s reputation as a tolerant multicultural society, stalls of pork burgers sit side-by-side to grilled fish and chicken wings, operated by Muslim owners who don’t seem to think twice.
“Ini Sabah bah. Asal tidak makan, teda hal,” (This is Sabah, as long as you don’t consume it, there is no issue) said Amin Duihin, who grills a variety of whole fish, chicken wings and chicken butt skewers next to a stall selling grilled pork burgers.
He said his customers do not seem to mind and he has had no complaints in the three years he’s operated his stall during the event.
“I don’t even think about it anymore. It’s just the way it is,” he said.
“I love that we can do this here. People of all religions and race can just get together. This spirit during Kaamatan is why I keep coming back. Other than because I love seeing people enjoy my food, that is,” said Tinun.
Max Yong, who operates a stall with two of his friends selling beers, said that it was not uncommon to have tables of people of all races sitting at his stall, with their chosen beverage, and having a good time.
“They come to spend time with each other, whether that involves drinking, eating, singing karaoke, or just chatting,” he said.
Kaamatan was once a spiritual and cultural event, marked by ritualistic ceremonies by the bobohizan and bobolian or high priestesses offering prayers and sacrifices in their ancient language, to thank their gods for a bountiful harvest.
Over the decades, it has evolved into a merry-making festival that celebrates Sabah’s own diverse community where people of all races, colour, creed and cultural traditions come together over a platform and venue for fostering, preserving and propagating harmony and unity.
The rituals are still carried out, in the main community hall at KDCA during the final two days of the month-long festival, often attended by state dignitaries and is still considered sacred and revered.
The festival culminates on May 30 and 31 and ends with the crowning of the Unduk Ngadau, the Kadazandusun beauty queen, an honour that is bestowed on the worthiest of lasses.
Festivities during these two days begin in the morning and last till late at night. The food and drink stalls usually begin business at about 5pm.