Sabah: Unpublished photos

 (Puah Sze Ning)

Like most other places, the landscape in Sabah is fast changing.

A few years back I had a love affair with Sabah, a Malaysian state in the island of Borneo. It was a time when I wanted so much to fit in and be accepted, a time when I thought things had to be perfect. Like much of the photos I published online at that time, I was obsessed with getting an all encapsulating photo.

I’d say I did a lot of my “growing up” in my mid-20s in Sabah. The most important thing I think I learnt is to not take things so seriously. It is not that I care any less, but now I’m rather more focused on embracing the moment.

Although there’s a lot more I’d love to share about Sabah, in the spirit of embracing moments, here’s a short series of unpublished photos from that very special time of my life.

 (Puah Sze Ning)

A lot of roads have opened up, making once hard-to-reach places now very accessible.

Growing up as a Chinese diaspora in an urban environment, I will never truly understand what it’s like to be indigenous to a certain place and have traditions and cultures so closely linked to the land. But in all the villages, no one ever held my awkwardness against me and very zealously encouraged me to find a Sabahan husband.

 (Puah Sze Ning)

Day-to-day life was certainly different and everyone kept busy putting food on the table in the literal sense.

 (Puah Sze Ning)

Subsistence rice fields.

 (Puah Sze Ning)

Chasing away birds that will eat up the padi in the evenings with a makeshift flag.

 (Puah Sze Ning)

CAUGHT! Padi-eating birds.

In some areas, rice is still grown for subsistence use. Wild vegetables and wild game often compliment a rice meal. For really poor families living in a degraded forest, they make do with salted fish and rice. There’s even a very catchy local song about how boring it gets to be eating salted fish every day, Silaka Ikan Masin.

 (Puah Sze Ning)

A fox being chopped up for the frying pan.

Wild meat went a little unappreciated on me as I was not a huge fan of meat.

 (Puah Sze Ning)

Highly prized porcupine bezoar stones.

I never fell very sick in a village before, but a man once approached me to see if I wanted to buy porcupine bezoar stones which is popular and highly sought after in Chinese medicine. He said he dreamt he found a porcupine with the said stone in its stomach. Sure enough, when he went hunting the next day he had caught a porcupine with these “black gold” in it.

 (Puah Sze Ning)

The smell of money smells much like sewage.

And of course, no “well to do” village is not without the stench of rubber being dried when rubber prices are high.

 (Puah Sze Ning)

Merry-making nights, depending on one’s mood and alcohol tolerance, can be highly anticipated or dreaded.

 (Puah Sze Ning)

A Sungai Rumanau elder (left) and woman (right).

 (Puah Sze Ning)

Carrying chickens to be slaughtered for a feast (left). Taking a nap in a government-issued house (right).

Like with most developing areas, the pressure for indigenous communities to integrate into a more organized and controlled system gets higher over time, for better or for worse. Though a lot of people find that it is very much for the worse.

 (Puah Sze Ning)

Relocation project site in Sabah (Kg Gana)

 (Puah Sze Ning)

Traditions gone moldy?

I for one have always admired the way the people of Sabah adapt to change and foreign influence while at the same time maintaining a very strong sense of their own identity.

 (Puah Sze Ning)

Traditional Murut dance.

There were many times when I felt overwhelmed by the richness in culture and diversity, only to feel a sense of lost, the lost of my own cultural identity.  Have I lost it all? Am I just part of this global, homogenized, mainstream society that drinks Starbucks and watches 12 seasons of American Idol? And is that what would become of the indigenous people? (Puah Sze Ning)

Traditional Rungus dance.

 (Puah Sze Ning)

All night “exchange of poems” singing during a Murut wedding celebration.

Having fun in the river. (Puah Sze Ning)

The next day after the wedding, the kids in the village dressed up like their elders using dried leaves as they were playing in the river.

With all that being said and shown, I’m so pleased and excited to also announce that I’ll be going back to Sabah for a very special photography assignment soon! I certainly anticipate it like as if I am going home.

 (Puah Sze Ning)

Running home. Children at Kampung Mansiad, Sook.

Till then, I’ll just be dreaming of the chilly clear Bornean evening air.

 (Puah Sze Ning)

The view from Kg Buayan.


22 thoughts on “Sabah: Unpublished photos

  1. Dear Sze Ning,
    These pictures truly reflect your profound passion in doing what you love. They are eye-openers and you’ve injected so much life into them… very beautiful indeed. it’s always a pleasure to step out of our bustling schedules and view life in pictures… keep them coming!

  2. Hi sze ning , I do love your photos and i do miss my native chin villeges and township in Myanmar i do apreciate for your professional art .

  3. Many says amazing photos, but I need to give your words a mention. Very well-captioned and written!

    looking at your photos it reminded me that in last year’s Hari Orang Asal in KDCA, Yein and I were in some of the crafts booths, looking at stuff while chatting up with the orang kampung. They mentioned if we knew you?….”Kamu kenal si Sze Ning? Dia itu sanggup ikut Colin masuk kampung…….Ambik gambar semua itu, bagus dia….” I remembered those words quite clearly. Sanggup was the keyword.

    Okay la. Have fun in Sabah! 🙂

    si karlye
    ps: i too am in love with everything Sabah.

  4. Keiisha, Yudisthra and Dorai – Thank you so much for the kind words and encouragement 🙂 I really appreciate you taking the time to comment.

    Yaw Han – Thank you! I’m honored you feel that way. Your work with music and your community inspires me a lot.

    Kar Lye – Thanks for sharing that story, it’s very nice of them to say that rather than “get that girl to stop stalking my every move” haha… Saggup masuk kampung? I think you and I mati-mati mau masuk kampung.

  5. Beautiful, inspiring and the another side of Sabah I never seen! Awesome, Szening, you are amazing in taking pictures! 🙂

  6. And there is one sentence I felt the same too about being in Sabah… “The most important thing I think I learnt is to not take things so seriously. It is not that I care any less, but now I’m rather more focused on embracing the moment.”

  7. I’m impressed and thanks for sharing such beautiful/inspiring pics , keep it up!! Do come back more often for more pics…

  8. Thanks Jessie. Looks like many of us “Semenanjung-nites” feel the same way about Sabah 🙂

    Thanks Awunk, Jollence and LLim for your kind comments. It is very motivating and I will try to update more frequently.

  9. Truly inspiring. These scenes are in danger of extinction when the government decided to have foreigners in large numbers as voters to keep them in power and these people are beginning to look up for lands in the forests for their communities. They have no respect for natures and traditions and want to amass wealth as much and as fast as they can. Look at our islands and beaches.. take pictures of them now… the beauty will be gone soon.

  10. Hi Frisco. It’s a shame what’s going on. Hopefully some sort of reconciliation can be reached. Thank you for dropping a note.

    Thanks Tony, it’s an honor for this blog to make it all way the to NZ!

  11. Pingback: 2013, the party just started | Sze Ning

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  13. Hi Sze Ning…..i am yr story is amazing could you kindly tell me more about the bezoar where perhaps i could get it….i want to buy for my sick mom…suffering and coping with her swallon knee cap…big thanks…regards Daniel Fong

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