World Indigenous Day Celebrations 2012

After a long hiatus from working with my friends from the Indigenous Peoples Network of Malaysia (JOAS), meeting them during the World Indigenous Day Celebrations felt like a big family reunion.

I would be lying if I said I did not have my ups and down working with the network. Like with anything you feel strongly about, there are bound to be times of despair and frustration. But all that accumulated tears and sweat just makes the good times even better and the little achievements even more celebrated.

The little achievement during this event for me would be working with the media team to document and update the Center for Orang Asli Concern (COAC)’s Facebook page with same day/ next day photo and video updates. Although I went to Miri without a designated team, everything just sort of went into place organically and an impromptu team worked together to get the job done while having a great time.

It means even more to me because the capacity of the team to do it I feel has much to do with the community-based documentary training done between 2009-2010 to produce Towards Sustainable Forestry (Ke Arah Hutan Lestari). Apart from learning a whole lot from the project myself as one of the facilitators, quite a number of indigenous youth videographers were trained up and continue to document every World Indigenous Day Celebrations since then. It is so fulfilling now to see the continuity from the project applied.

This year, for the first time ever, we uploaded live updates of photos, videos and articles on the Center for Orang Asli Concern (COAC)’s Facebook page.

Here are some highlights from the annual celebrations:

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The event was held at Balai Raya Taman Tunku, Miri (Sarawak) after being rejected from 3 other venues. Here’s Pakcik Arom from Kelantan leading the Peninsular Malaysia group in an Orang Asli sewang performance.

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The opening day was officiated with an Iban Miring ceremony.

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The “Bebiau” ceremony.

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The chicken sacrifice.

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Traditional sports competition such as blowpipe, opening a coconut and tug of war with rattan instead of rope, as always, gathers the most excitement and noise from the crowd.

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Photography competition

It’s my second year with the honor of being one of the judges for it, and I must say, I’m blown away by the improvement in submissions. It was a really tough call this year and in the end Sharis bin Shafie won it, followed by Serengeh anak Useh, Freddy James Tonius and Henry John taking second, third and fourth place respectively.

And of course, each night we were spoilt silly with beautiful dance performances from all 3 regions, Peninsular Malaysia, Sabah and Sarawak with the participants dressed in their respective traditional costume.

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Buah Sumbeh used as face paint.

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Ayon (left) and Rokiah in traditional Orang Asli costumes.

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The Sarawak group preparing for their performance in the tent outside.

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Preparing to put on the “Sugu Tinggi”

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Marker pen tattoo. Why not.

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Traditional drinks (rice wine of course) served at night while participants watch traditional performances and listen to community leaders share their plight and successes.

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Dancing together

On a more random note, I’m not often in Sarawak so it took awhile for me to adjust to working around all the feathered headgear and avoiding getting my eye poked out by them.

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Check out the full updates; photos, videos and articles/ news updates on Center for Orang Asli Concern’s Facebook page here.

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The media team! (from right): Jenita, myself, Yein, Kar Lye, Serengeh, Didi, Kato, Gabe, Leonard, Irene, Nasiri and Dumay. Not in photo: Ros, Shirley, Patrick, Jef and Jubi (Photo taken by Edwin Meru).

Reliving Duck Duck Helicopter Bomb Bomb

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A lighter side of our trip – swimming in the Yeak Loam lake with newly made friends.

Three years ago I made a trip to Cambodia as a field coordinator for Elevyn to meet with some NGOs there. It was a bittersweet experience for me.

It was my first experience in a country where there were so many child beggers. Now, the tour books and websites all warn you about child beggars and how best to deal with them, as if were the same nuisance as dealing with bad weather. But when you’re surrounded by hungry children in rags (which many people would advise you ignore to avoid perpetuating the problem), as you head from a sightseeing tour to a nice cafe for a good meal on you holiday; it was impossible at least for me, not to be in a perpetual state of moral dilemma. To top it off was a sign in our backpacker’s room which says “no sex with children” along other nos like “no drugs” and “switch off the A/C on your way out”. Since then, I never quite looked at poverty the same again.

My 3-week long trip involved meeting many NGOs and social enterprises which were amazing to say the least. The group which hit closest to home was an indigenous Kreung community’s social enterprise. It was after our trip to meet this group through CANDO in Ratanakiri, that I spent one sleepless night in Phnom Penh, typing this story which we posted up on Elevyn’s blog, a story about the significance of a piece of craft played out by ducks, helicopters and bombs.

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Traveling to a Kreung village by bike. The journey was not so kind on the butt.

The main source of water in this Kreung village in Cambodia is from the water pump.

I want to bring life back to the story and memory because I was informed last week of the passing of Mr Saphork, our village host who is also a volunteer for the Kres village community-based craft enterprise. According to our NGO friend, he had passed away in his sleep. In memory of his kindness, hospitality and generosity, here’s an excerpt from that blog entry featuring the interview with Mr Saphork.

“Duck…duck……helicopter….. zero?” I read out. Looks like our indigenous people here in Cambodia are quite modern, I thought to myself as I wade through an array of scarves with traditional motifs, ducks and helicopters.

These villagers had no electricity, no television and are pretty much surrounded by thick forests – why would they weave helicopters? Guessing it was a novelty from a picture or something – I asked to affirm it.

“In memory of the Vietnam war, we were affected by it as our village is so close to the border,” explained Saphork from the Kreung village where these scarves were made.

“Those are bombs dropped from the plane,” he added pointing to the patterns that looked like ‘O’.

I must have looked quite silly looking at him with round eyes going “Wow….”

Spellbound by these hand-loomed textiles, I longed to own every single piece I got my eyes on. They came in all kinds of textures and colours; from rough to soft, from ones coloured with natural dye and those coloured by market dye.

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 (Puah Sze Ning)But I was not too sure about those with duck patterns though. I love animals and I made a personal pact not to eat farmed animals simply because of my love for them. But I’m not exactly a fan of ducks.

“What’s with the ducks?” I asked – guessing it must be for children.

“Oh, during the war we had to keep moving. So we couldn’t take our ducks with us and we had to leave them in the forest,” Saphork explained.

After a short pause he added, “We really regret it…”

I decided then that I loved ducks.

Note: Translation from Khmer and Kreung to English by CANDO team members

(View original blogpost here)

On days when I feel like I’m losing direction in what I’m doing, I remember Mr Saphork’s story and it gives me a sense of humility I hope to embody on a day to day basis.

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In memory of the late Mr Saphork and his lovely farmhouse.

 

Sabah: Unpublished photos

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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.

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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.

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

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Subsistence rice fields.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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

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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.

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Relocation project site in Sabah (Kg Gana)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Running home. Children at Kampung Mansiad, Sook.

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

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The view from Kg Buayan.

 

River play

Children bathing in the river while the intestine of a cow, sacrificed for a feast that evening, is being washed downstream next to them. (Puah Sze Ning)

I daresay I’ve probably missed a number of opportune moments to take river shots. We go to the river to bathe in the evenings and I normally leave my camera behind out of sheer exhaustion from travelling, fear that I might slip and dunk my camera into the water and other thoughts such as making sure my sarong does not come loose and float away (we bathe in the open with a sarong wrapped tightly around).

Here are some photos from times when I brought my camera with me.

The top photo was taken during our filming of Drowned Forest and Damned Lives, a campaign documentary against the construction of the Kelau dam which would relocate two Orang Asli (indigenous minorities) communities without their free prior and informed consent. We took a bath in the Kelau river and just as we were done, some Felda settlers came fresh from slaughtering a cow and were washing parts of the cow (like the intestine in the man’s hands) in the river.

Below are some photos from Sabah and Peninsular Malaysia.

Chewong child jumping into Sg Rengit for a swim | 2007 (Puah Sze Ning/Puah Sze Ning | szening.com..)

Chewong girl from Kuala Gandah leaping into the river. (http://szening.com)

Chewong child jumping into Sg Rengit for a swim | 2007 (Puah Sze Ning/Puah Sze Ning | szening.com..)

Chewong kids from Kuala Gandah having run in the river. (http://szening.com)

These shots of the river are from Kg Mengkawago. It’s a rural village where the villagers are dependent on the rain and river for water. Unfortunately illegal logging upstream has polluted their river, jeopardizing their water source, worst felt during the drought.

The women here in Kg Mengkawago depend on the river to bath, wash their clothes as well as their cooking wares. (http://szening.com)

Children in Kg Mengkawago bathing in the murky river, polluted by illegal logging upstream. As a result, many of them suffer from skin ailments. (http://szening.com)