This was written in Borneo, February 2013.

50 years ago when the world was inconceivably vast, unfathomably mysterious, and infinitely varied, an English idiom betrayed our complacent parochialism. We heard it from a collector of vivid phrases, my dad, whenever he needed to describe a bizarre or irate female – she was “like a wild woman of Borneo!”

That phrase is not used any more but its currency in the past suggests that Borneo outdid all other countries in terms of the primitiveness of its inhabitants in the eyes of the developed West. So lodged was the idea that Western writers on Borneo have frequently referenced it before going on to describe in depth the advanced cultural heritage of the many indigenous peoples here. One such book was even titled Wild People in conscious irony. These authors, including Charles Hose, who wrote Natural Man, more or less align themselves with the Noble Savage notion of the 18th century.

Headhunting and skull worship, now discontinued and not publicly discussed, must have helped to assign Heart of Darkness status to Borneo. Perhaps also the predisposition amongst Malays to running Amok. Possibly also the practice of earlobe elongation using weights. Interestingly, none of these were primarily carried out by women.
borneo 2013 15  Kuching Orang ulu plaque 2
The taking of a head and the subsequent tattooing bearing witness was formerly an essential badge of manhood and a prerequisite for courtship. However, no one was very insistent on a fair fight and most heads were taken from relatively defenceless victims. As for running amok this seems to me to be a culturally specific temporary psychosis much like mass shooting in the USA

The “wildest” people here, the Punan, are nomadic jungle dwellers, famously silent and shy, and their assimilation into modern life is taking longer than with the numerous Dayak, Iban, and upriver peoples, the longhouse dwellers. This at a time when the Punan are running out of jungle to roam in. It’s being converted into oil palm plantations.

Come here quick if you want an experience of a myriad of varied races and cultures because, despite efforts both sincere and tokenistic to preserve languages and cultures, these cultures are merging and modernising. I was given a ride in a 4 X 4 by a man who is half Kenyah and half Punan, is Christian, and is married to a woman who is half Bidayuh and half something else again, and I’ll bet he’s more adept on a mobile than I am. By miles.

I finally saw an aged lady with extended earlobes which almost reached her shoulders, in a coffee shop in Miri town. She sat quietly while her grandson finished his rice. He looked like any other Sarawakian. She had a nice face. She said nothing, ate nothing, and, when I looked up again, had disappeared into a world now disappointingly small, universally similar, and all too explicable.


Picture is of a relief on a monument to Merdeka (Independence) in the grounds of the Sarawak Museum, Kuching.

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