(Un)making selves and boundaries in Malaysian Borneo (An essay in the Self-Positionality in the Anthropology of Christianity series)

By Liana Chua (Brunel University)

When I was about eight, one of my classmates gave me and another classmate a thin, fragranced strip of coloured paper with Chinese symbols on it. It was a present, she explained, that would us bring protection and good luck. I’d never seen one of these before, and toyed curiously with it. But my other classmate only looked nervously at her strip. Later, she and I wandered over to the school playing field, where she tried to articulate her concerns. She wasn’t sure what it was either, but she knew that the giver—with whom we played everyday—was Buddhist. What if this paper had dangerous magic in it, or if it drew some evil spirit to us? Was it risky for us, as Catholics, to hold on to it? 

I distinctly remember the prickly, unfamiliar fear that crept over me, swiftly followed by perplexity. Why would a friend that I knew, trusted and liked give us something that could be harmful? Slightly shaken, agreed to ask our parents what to do. While not overly alarmed, my mother told me to throw it away just in case. The other girl’s parents also disposed of the item, then washed her hands with holy water. The message we both got was clear(ish): even though ‘they’—that is, my Buddhist friend and her family—used such paper talismans, ‘we’ Catholics shouldn’t touch them, because they had unpredictable and potentially unclean powers. Although we were all Chinese and part of the same emerging middle-class, there were apparently some differences that couldn’t be bridged.


This episode was one of several that punctuated my childhood in 1980s Singapore. In this peculiar postcolonial, multi-ethnic milieu, religious affiliations could subtly parse the seemingly monolithic ‘racial’ categories around which our lives were organised. These intra-ethnic tensions were, moreover, often entwined with wider power dynamics, such as the structural, ideological and economic privilege that many Chinese enjoyed as part of the island’s ethnic majority. Growing up on a diet of English stories and American pop culture, I had the distinct impression that ‘we’ Catholics were the modern, forward-thinking (=Westernised at the time) ones, while non-Christian Chinese and various ethnic and national others were somehow more traditional, less progressive. 

But still, there were anxieties. As the episode with the paper talisman revealed, being Christian did not guarantee impermeability in a landscape filled with other beings and cosmological forces. In addition to the ancestors, deities and demons associated with Chinese folk religion, there were spirits that dwelled in trees, waterways and other places (toilets were especially popular), and a motley collection of ghosts, ghouls and spirit helpers found across the Malay world. These figures and the logics that underlay human encounters with them were familiar to most Singaporean children, and populated our stories and games: mimicking the zombie-like jiangshi (僵尸) that often featured on TV, joking about a pontianak (vengeful Malay female vampire) following one of us home, daring each other to approach a frangipani tree, the scent of which indexed ghostly presences. 

These playful episodes, however, were anchored in a very visceral awareness that such things might just be real. It manifested itself, for example, in the terror that swept our class when someone reported a green face gazing at her in one of the toilet cubicles, a friend’s stern warning against leaving fingernails, hair cuttings or other exuviae lying around in case they were used to perform black magic against me, and a woman’s theory that her marital strife was precipitated by her allowing her young son to urinate in front of a tree, which may have angered its spirit. Rather than dismissing these dangers, churches offered ways of dealing with them—prayers, holy water, masses, healing—thereby reinforcing assumptions about their reality and potency. But these manoeuvres also reflected broader institutional and individual concerns about how to deal with the different human and nonhuman entities that populated this multi-religious landscape. Celebrate Chinese New Year with a special mass? Fine. Bring home a Buddhist talisman? Not so fine. As elsewhere in the world, being Christian meant constantly making, breaking, evaluating and recalibrating boundaries—not only between past and present, but also between different cosmologies and presences in the here and now. 

As a child, I did not analyse my religious upbringing in those terms. Instead, a growing unease with my fellow congregants’ blithe certitude and superciliousness towards ethnic and religious ‘others’—compounded by a later crisis of faith—eventually propelled me away from Catholicism. When I left Singapore for university in the UK, I simultaneously distanced myself from my childhood religion, becoming fiercely critical of the class- and race-based arrogance I associated with it. I could not, however, have anticipated how this upbringing would later inflect my work.

Be(com)ing anthropological

My discomfort with my upbringing was one of the things that drew me to anthropology, which seemed to offer an open-ended, non-judgemental position from which to apprehend alterity. But this analytical approach was closely, if tacitly, bound up with a particular ideal subject-position: a white, modern, atheist anthropologist whose only admissible failing was ethnocentrism (Chua and Mathur 2018; Daswani 2021). Fieldwork was thus styled as an immersive opportunity for anthropologists to have their basic (=Cartesian, Euro-American) assumptions shaken up, to discover radically unfamiliar realities and ideas, and to then use these as the basis of comparative exercises and conceptual and theoretical creativity (see, e.g., Henare et al. 2007). 

As PhD students in Cambridge, my peers and I were trained to inhabit this persona—a seemingly neutral benchmark of anthropological legitimacy and excellence. And this was the professional self that I tried to bring to my PhD fieldwork (2004-5) in a Bidayuh village in Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo. My initial aim was to understand processes of cultural revitalisation and collective memory-making in a moment when many previously self-sufficient rice-planting villages were turning into relatively networked, ‘modern’ spaces linked to urban areas. On a previous trip, I’d spent time with the elderly owner of a village-based ‘mini-museum’, who invited me back to work with him as a ‘student of culture’, learning, documenting, and writing about the old stories, rituals, and customs. By studying with him and living in the village, I hoped to gain a ground-up understanding of shifting village socialities in a time of transition.

Before long, however, it became clear that I could not understand the village without understanding Christianity. Apart from a shrinking handful of elderly practitioners of the old rituals (gawai), everyone belonged to one of three Christian churches—Anglican, Catholic, and evangelical. Prayer gatherings and Sunday services were vital everyday nodes of sociality, interaction, and community activities. Christian stories, theological concepts, and moral models mingled with local conventions and ritual prescriptions to shape people’s ethical choices and concerns. Christianity was also a powerful ethnic marker, often invoked as a foil to the country’s dominant Malay-Muslim majority (Chua 2007). In short, the constant refrain that ‘here, we are all Christian’ was a heartfelt, powerful claim to being and belonging on multiple scales. 

Without planning to, then, I became an anthropologist of Christianity—a move hastened by the realisation that contemporary formulations of ‘culture’ were indelibly shaped by Bidayuhs’ conversion experience. This shift was not entirely unexpected. Like my fellow PhD students, I’d been told to expect my research to evolve, even swerve wildly off course, as my fieldwork progressed. But what precipitated this shift was not—as we were told to expect—the fact that I was overcoming some ethnocentric (=Western cultural) preconceptions. On the contrary, my engagements with Bidayuh Christianity entailed as many convergences and affinities with my Singaporean upbringing than encounters with difference.


While not fully comfortable with the idealised, unmarked anthropological figure of my PhD training, I tried at first to stick with it, seeing it as a way of checking any unwitting deep-set biases against ‘others’. Acutely conscious of my relative privilege and mobility, I was basically afraid of being too Singaporean. But these concerns were not obvious to my interlocutors, who had their own ideas about me. 

During fieldwork, I was simultaneously referred to as the ‘child of M [my adoptive mother]’ and ‘that Chinese girl’. These were not contradictory positions. Several families had Chinese ancestors and relatives; as elsewhere in Sarawak, intermarriage and the incorporation of (most) ethnic others into Bidayuh communities are relatively common and unproblematic. Villagers also had many historical and day-to-day dealings with Chinese people, who were said to own all the shops, restaurants and businesses in the nearby town and capital city, and who—unlike the government, it was frequently said—gave Bidayuhs jobs. Although Chinese had a reputation for being hard taskmaster, then, they were also styled as sympathetic benefactors in a country dominated by Malay-Muslims, who were said to ‘eat’ Bidayuhs’ land (‘man tanah Dayak’) while refusing them work or development (pembangunan).

During fieldwork, I was largely shunted into this Chinese slot. In keeping with prevailing notions of Chinese people, I was expected to be extra generous with my gifts, research payments and favours to others, and occasionally asked to help find jobs or loans for villagers. But these requests were also tinged by unexpected invocations of cross-ethnic camaraderie. At gatherings, I was often reminded that Chinese and Bidayuhs were very similar because they liked consuming pork and alcohol. These were not simply affirmations of similar culinary taste, I discovered, but also enactments of a shared sociality and autonomy that was associated with not being Muslim (Chua 2007). In a milieu where, as my acquaintances repeatedly argued, non-Muslims were constantly discriminated against, it was important to eat and socialise with those you could trust. At times, my Singaporean identity also became entangled in these conversations. On several occasions, I was told that my country had done the right thing by ‘leaving’ Malaysia in 1965 and becoming independent. Look how rich Singapore had become! my interlocutors would reflect. Maybe Sarawak should have done the same thing, they mused, then we too could have been rich and modern like you. Again, Malay-Muslims—this time in the form of the Malaysian government in Kuala Lumpur—emerged as a culpable ‘other’, as only ‘caring for’ (piduri) their own kind while leaving the rest to struggle. 

Woven into everyday discourse and constantly rehashed through stories of lost job opportunities, withdrawn development projects and forcible conversion to Islam, these sentiments illuminated the counter-hegemonic role that Christianity played in Bidayuhs’ lives. Unlike my childhood religion, however, Christianity here was a means of punching up from a position of endemic ethno-religious marginality: simultaneously a buffer against Islamic proselytization, a theological and moral tool for critiquing and holding the state accountable, and a practical means of obtaining donations, financial support and care via charitable national and regional Christian networks (including, I was reminded, Singaporean church groups).

Most anthropologists would have learned about these concerns over time. But my Singaporean Chinese-ness—with its beneficent but also non-Malaysian undertones—shaped my learning process in specific ways, enrolling me in relations of affinity that preceded and exceeded my individual subject-position. These did not negate my socio-economic privilege, but recast and retooled it—through a presumption of shared ethno-religious alienation, commensality, the invocation of parallel histories, and claims on my assumed access to jobs and capital. In the process, they prised apart that unmarked anthropological self that I’d sought to inhabit: like it or not, my interlocutors had already marked me in ethnic and national terms. And as my exploration of Bidayuh Christianity increased, further dismantling of this self began to take place.

Doing- and being-with

Even though I never outwardly stated my religious orientation, I was identified as Catholic in the village for two reasons: because my mother’s family in Singapore ‘followed’ Catholicism, and because my adoptive mother, to whom I’d been introduced by a priest I’d met previously, was Catholic. In a milieu where not having a religion was fairly unthinkable, this meant that I was by default embedded in the village’s Catholic community.

Nervous and insecure, struggling linguistically, I did not contest this identification. To refuse to join in such a significant part of village life would have been both disrespectful and counterproductive. Moreover, Catholicism felt like a life-buoy in a sea of unfamiliarity—one of the few things that enabled me to stay afloat in a new place. I may have been rubbish at rice-planting and nearly cut my fingers off with a machete, but Catholicism I could (just about) do. At one point I even contemplated re-embracing my childhood religion. While I dithered, however, a bevy of older converts took it upon themselves to teach me to be Catholic. At services, rosary recitations and prayer sessions, I’d be handed hymnals and service booklets to follow, nudged, prompted and physically manipulated into the ‘right’ positions. A couple of prayer leaders would even break off their recitations to shout instructions across crowded rooms. ‘Brajar [learn]!’ they insisted. ‘If you want to learn about our culture, you need to learn to do [nai] Christianity properly!’

It is hard to know whether my acquaintances would have taken a white male anthropologist, for example, under their wing in the same way. Because Christianity was widely said to have originated in rais branda (white people’s land) and originally brought to the area by British missionaries, all white visitors were assumed to be Christians who knew what they were doing. Conversely, as a young Chinese student, I was not expected to have the same innate knowledge of the religion. Even if my family in Singapore were Catholic, I still had to be taught to do it the village way. And the village way, I discovered, was distinctly praxiological and relational, characterised by doing- and being-with. 

Rather than centring belief (as an inner state of assent), village Catholicism revolved around getting things right via the correct, efficacious combination of actions, words and objects (Chua 2012a: Chapter 3). It was also about being with and there for others, physically, affectively and spiritually manifesting Jesus’ injunction to ‘love thy neighbour’ (Chua 2012b). These were often prioritised over semantic content and theological intricacies; indeed, many older converts cheerfully admitted to not fully understanding Christianity’s teachings and stories, putting their energies instead into praxis and conviviality. Nevertheless, many them instinctively grasped key tenets. A Catholic lady who’d only just heard about transubstantiation from me, for example, took it all her stride. After all, she said nonchalantly, spirits and deities were always turning into other things, and Jesus had obviously done the same!

Fieldwork thus encouraged me to re-learn and ‘alterise’ my childhood religion, suspending my disbelief and earlier sense of alienation, while coming to appreciate its social, moral, and cosmological embeddedness in the community. Over time, my regular participation in Christian activities gave rise to a relational, corporeal understanding of ‘belief’ as ‘an embodied epistemology’ (Morgan 2010:8) that could be diffused across multiple spaces, bodies and subjectivities, including, I later suggested, that of the anthropologist (Chua 2011). Hovering awkwardly between secular and religious standpoints (Howell 2007), I edged away from the atheist gaze of that ideal Western anthropological figure, drawing instead on a peculiar combination of affinity and alterity to navigate village Christianity. But there was another element of my upbringing that both complicated and enriched these efforts.

Boundary problems

Midway through fieldwork, I came down with an ailment that sent pins and needles shooting through my body. The (Chinese Christian) doctor in the city couldn’t identify its cause, and prescribed painkillers and vitamins in the hope that they would help. But as I prepared to leave, she leaned over conspiratorially and said, ‘You know, sometimes these people… practise, you know…black magic. I’m not saying it’s that, but… you should be careful in the village’. Her comments first chilled me, then felt like a punch to the gut, reminding me suddenly of Buddhist paper talismans and unfairly maligned ‘others’. 

Driving home full of righteous rage (and pins and needles), I vowed not to be rattled by this ignorant, derogatory hypothesis. But that evening, as I described my symptoms to my adoptive mother, her face darkened. ‘Have you been to Grandfather G’s house recently?’ she demanded. ‘I heard you went to see his things’. Grandfather G was an elderly Anglican who was reputed to know a lot about the old rituals and dangerous magic, abetted (some whispered) by his own familiar. I’d recently spent a few afternoons with him looking at his ritual paraphernalia, recording stories and spirit injunctions, and learning about various unseen beings. Now concerned, my mother asked if I’d eaten or drunk anything at his house, because maybe he’d poisoned or worked some ‘bad’ magic on me. 

The ailment faded about six weeks later, as inexplicably as it came. But this puzzling experience was a visceral reminder to me and my village acquaintances of our shared vulnerability to unseen entities and forces. Despite being Chinese and stuffed with vitamins (a bottle of which had been spotted at my house), I was, my interlocutors kept reminding me, as prone as the next person to such dangers. Not that I needed much persuading. Try as I might to adopt a methodologically atheist stance, I could not suppress the instinctive shiver that ran down my spine when hearing someone mimic the ‘tok-tok-tok’ noise that a certain ghost made while circling a house, learning about the long-haired woman in white who was occasionally spotted along the main road leading to the village, and seeing the small, wriggling, blood-red critters that a dukun (spirit medium and healer) extracted from a sick man’s body days before the latter’s sudden death. Mingling with these anxieties was respect; an acknowledgement that you just didn’t mess with these presences. It thus made perfect sense to be capak-ed (marked by protective substances) at gawai rituals to protect me from spirits, to quietly inform (da’an) place-spirits of my presence and activities in parts of the jungle, and treat abodes of the village’s guardian spirits with care and deference.

These were not simply radically unfamiliar moments to be analysed and turned into conceptual fodder. For me, they were real and powerful precisely because they were familiar—part of a sprawling, varied other-than-human ontology that spanned the Malay world. As such, they demanded neither explanations nor leaps of faith—they were just there, part of the relational tapestry of the village. Like my Singaporean Chinese-ness and Catholic background, my attunement to such beings allowed for specific convergences, alignments and shared experiences during fieldwork. This, too, involved a constant process of de- and re-familiarisation—of learning to know and feel with my interlocutors, but from a starting position of affinity and understanding rather than alterity and perplexity. 

These shared understandings, however, also undergirded a set of anxieties and dilemmas that I found deeply familiar: how to calibrate and manage relations with the old spirits, rituals and gawai practitioners? Not unlike that Buddhist paper talisman, these pre-Christian elements were unnerving but insistent fragments of another dangerously proximate ontology that blurred the boundaries of ‘self’ and ‘other’. That they had to be lived with was clear; the only question was how (Chua 2012b). In the end, much of my research involved tracing different groups’ and individuals’ projects of making, dissolving and evaluating boundaries between the mostly-Christian present and bits of their pre-Christian past. Looking back, my interest in these processes was perhaps more personal and involved than I was willing to admit. Far from escaping my religious upbringing, I found my research being filtered through and shaped by it. It turned out that I was, after all, too Singaporean to fit that idealised anthropological figure. 

Unmaking the anthropological ‘I’

When I returned to the UK after fieldwork and mentioned that I’d intuitively ‘got’ and even felt the presence of unseen beings in the village, I received strange looks and leading questions about whether I ‘really’ believed in them. Of course we were meant to take these things seriously—but not that seriously! At a time when anthropology was tilting towards an ‘ontological turn’, taking seriously meant analysing phenomena on their own terms and using them as the basis of conceptual innovation. Actually ‘believing in’ such phenomena, however, was surely a step too far towards ‘going native’ (see also Engelke 2002).

But I hadn’t ‘gone native’, because, I now acknowledge, I’d never truly occupied its alter—that unmarked (white, Cartesian, atheist, etc.) figure that still defines ‘the anthropologist’ today (Chua and Mathur 2018; Daswani 2021). Despite my disciplinary training, this was not a figure that I could—or wanted to—be. This realisation was precipitated by my engagements with Bidayuh Christianity, which gradually unmade that normative anthropological ‘I’, as well as the ‘familiar’/‘strange’ binary that it ostensibly mediated. The corollary to this was a shift in my own scholarly priorities: a move from alterity-centred ethnography to a mounting interest in the complexities and contradictions of being co-present in the world (Chua 2015). 

For me, then, unmaking the conventional anthropological self has also meant unmaking the binaries and analytical frameworks that it underpins. Similar work has been undertaken by various Christian anthropologists, who have sought to nuance our understandings of this interface between self, ethnography and analysis, particularly by drawing out the affinities between Christians in multiple socio-cultural contexts (e.g. Fountain 2013; Howell 2007; Howell and Paris 2011; Meneses and Bronkema 2014). But while chipping away at part of that idealised anthropological figure—its assumed secularism—these writing tend to leave its whiteness and Westernness intact. As this collection suggests, however, there’s lots more that can be done to interrogate and dismantle that figure, and to lay bare its fictitiousness and fragility. 

Disassembling this anthropological self also opens up the possibility of reconfiguring and reimagining the sort of anthropology that this self can do. And here the question arises: how else might that interface between self, ethnography and analysis be conceived in the anthropology of Christianity? One response, perhaps, is to re-enchant the anthropological self (so to speak): to draw it into full view as a lively, imperfect being bringing its own imaginative projects and commitments (religious, political, ethnic, etc.) to bear on its engagements with Christianity. How might we acknowledge and build on, rather than suppress, these projects and commitments? What tensions, but also connections and affinities, with Christians/ity might these generate? How might such projects and commitments be put in dialogue with Christianity’s own imaginaries, projects, practices? And what modes of doing, being and thinking with might such a move precipitate? These questions disrupt the dis-enchanted atheist, alterity-focused gaze of the default anthropological ‘I’, gesturing towards a plurality of differently-connected ‘we’s. As such, they expand the scope and reflexive boundaries of the anthropology of Christianity, inviting us to ask not only who or what is a Christian (Robbins 2003), but also who is trying to figure out the answer, and why this matters.  


Chua, L. 2007. ‘Fixity and flux: Bidayuh (dis)engagements with the Malaysian ethnic system’. Ethnos 72 (2): 262-288.

2011. ‘Soul encounters: Emotions, corporeality, and the matter of belief in a Bornean village’. Social Analysis 55 (3): 1-17.

2012a. The Christianity of culture: Conversion, ethnic citizenship and the matter of religion in Malaysian Borneo. AAA Contemporary Anthropology of Religion series. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. 

2012b. ‘Conversion, continuity, and moral dilemmas among Christian Bidayuhs in Malaysian Borneo’. American Ethnologist 39 (3): 511-526.

2015. ‘Troubled landscapes, troubling anthropology: co-presence, necessity, and the making of anthropological knowledge’. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 21 (3): 641-59.

Chua, L. and N. Mathur. 2018. Introduction to Who are ‘we’? Reimagining alterity and affinity in  

anthropology, ed. L. Chua and N. Mathur. Oxford and New York: Berghahn, pp. 1-34. 

Daswani, G. 2021. ‘On the whiteness of academia’. Everyday Orientalism blog. 17 February 2021. https://everydayorientalism.wordpress.com/2021/02/17/on-the-whiteness-of-academia/

Engelke, M. 2002. ‘The problem of belief: Evans-Pritchard and Victor Turner on “the inner life”’. Anthropology Today 18 (6): 3-8.

Fountain, P. 2013. ‘Toward a post-secular anthropology’. Australian Journal of Anthropology 24 (3): 310–328.

Henare, A., M. Holbraad and S. Wastell, eds. 2007. Thinking through things: theorising artefacts ethnographically. London: Routledge.

Howell, B.M. 2007. ‘The repugnant cultural other speaks back’. Anthropological Theory 7 (4): 371-391.

Howell, B.M. and J.W. Paris, eds. 2011. Introducing cultural anthropology: a Christian perspective. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

Meneses, E., L. Backues, D. Bronkema, E. Flett, and B.L. Hartley. 2014. ‘Engaging the religiously committed other: Anthropologists and theologians in dialogue’. Current Anthropology 55 (1): 82–104.

Morgan, D. 2010.’Introduction: the matter of belief’. In religion and material culture: the matter of belief, ed. D. Morgan. London: Routledge, pp. 1-17.

Robbins, J. 2003. ‘What is a Christian? Notes toward an anthropology of Christianity’. Religion 33 (3): 191-199.