Monday, 26 March 2012

The Temuans' Land

The calm waters of Sungai Selangor.

A trip to Frasers Hill can be a great experience for travelers. Tourists en route there often stop by the sleepy town of Kuala Kubu Bharu for some good Hailam food. Traditional Hailam noodles and Yoot Loy coffee shop’s homemade Kaya on toast are just some of the specialties the town has to offer to the adventurous and hungry.
To get to Frasers, you’d have to pass the great Sungai Selangor dam. It has become an attraction on its own, and the beauty and the breeze makes it easy to see why.
It would’ve been more beautiful if not for the story behind its making.

The large body of water covers what used to be part of the Orang Asli (that is, the Temuans) home. Judging by the size of the lake, it could’ve been home to hundreds of households, and a huge number of flora and fauna. Like so much of the world’s pristine land, it was altered to meet the needs of the urbanizing lifestyle.
We hear so much about “Going Green” in the media these days. Advertisements, documentaries and government movements scream “Save the environment!” Many of these campaigns have been initiated by the higher authorities throughout the decade.
Water flowing into the resevoir in the Sungai Selangor dam. 

Well, in 2002, a big chunk of greenery and the precious ancestral home of the Temuans was flooded to be made into a dam.
I had the privilege of joining the Chern family, who lent a hand to the 'Portraits of Perseverance' project on their visit to the Temuan community. Despite much of their land having been bulldozered over, the village was still very green and the air was just refreshing. Playing host was Antares, a resident of Kampung Pertak. A brilliant storyteller and guide, he took us us to Sungai Pertak, where the villagers’ lives are centred.
The river was just a few minutes away from the houses. We walked on a mud trail made by several pairs of feet making their way back and forth daily, treading carefully so we don’t slip and fall. To say the understated, Sungai Pertak was gorgeous.
A few village girls walked past us, hair wet and looking fresh from a dip in the river. A Temuan mother was washing some clothes, while her little girl waded in the waters.  Antares hopped on the rocks to get to a spot where the river gushed. He sat himself in between the rocks and indulged in a natural back massage by the swift waters. 

I admired the clear water and the backdrop of tall trees. Mysterious sounds from the forest – what were they, birds? Insects? – interrupted the singing river.

Antares sitting by the crystal clear river.

“This beautiful scenery is merely a fraction of the old village,” I reminded myself.
Our host and “ceremonial guardian of the Magick river”, Antares, said that there used to be more trees, and it was greener back then. Walking back to his home from the river, we stopped to look at a big, empty grassfield.
“There used to be a big tree around here many years ago.” He said, pointing at an empty field nearby his house. “They used to call it the Fairy Tree.”  Grinning with what looked like reminiscent pride, Antares said, “People from around the world would come here and say, ‘Hey, that looks like a tree for fairies!’ “

I’d like to think that children were playing by the Fairy Tree. Maybe they spent their day, sitting on its large roots, beneath the shelter of its leaves, playing with imaginary fairies.

It’s a shame no child can do that now.
As we sat on the verandah of Antares' home, I couldn't help but realize how peaceful the village was  -- a few trees scattered here and there around the houses, the calming trail that led to the river, a lush green environment with clean air. Immersed in surrounding nature, one could hardly imagine the chaos in the environment, just outside the village.
Mrs. Chern smiled, "If one were to sit here when the sun sets, in the evening, it is beautiful.”
The future of this beautiful land may look bleak. But for the present, any one who visits Antares should just enjoy the natural beauty as she suggested.

by Junmey

Sunday, 25 March 2012

Life by Sungai Pertak

At the foothills of Fraser's Hill is the small town of Kuala Kubu Bharu, where rows and rows of buildings house family food businesses and sundry shops.

“There’s something charming about this place,” I thought to myself as the very kind Mr. and Mrs. Chern and I sat waiting for our food in a small Hailam coffee shop. The sweet Chern family had counted me in on their little food trip before heading up the hills. The quiet and simple KKB lifestyle was certainly a refreshing change from the Kuala Lumpur hustle and bustle just an hour’s drive away.

Further up from this town is a winding trail that leads to the small, green Orang Asli village, Kampung Pertak.

It used to be bigger and a lot greener.

Passing by Sungai Selangor
The Cherns were on a mission to deliver a release form for three songs by the indigenous Orang Asli band, Akar Umbi, from their album “Songs of the Dragon”. These pure and beautiful pieces were used by 'Portraits of Perseverance' in the documentary.

Driving up the hill, we came across a rest stop overlooking the picturesque Sungai Selangor Dam. We joined  families, couples and travel groups who were admiring the lake. Large and quiet, the waters glistened in the sun, with the cool breeze as its company. A stretch of distant mountains and clouds in the sky drew a breathtaking picture.

The vast space where the dam now occupied used to be home to the Temuan tribe.

Driving into the village, we set our eyes upon the modern “rumah papan”, made of concrete. Mr. Chern said many had electricity and running water supply. This was the first time I saw concrete houses with fairly high-tech features in a village. They looked really nice, too! I found it strange that some of them were empty of residents.

A sign to let us know that Kampung Pertak was not far off!

I got to meet Antares, a friend of the Cherns and a resident of Kampung Pertak for the past 20 years.

His wife, Anoora, shyly shook our hands as we walked up the stairs to their home. She and the residents of the village are Temuans, an aboriginal tribe, Orang Asli, with animistic beliefs. "They believe in spirits of the forest, that their lives and the lives of their ancestors are connected to the environment in a spiritual way." Mr. Chern explained as we sat on Antares' verandah, looking out at the serene, green surroundings.
To me, it was a beautiful place. But to the Orang Asli, it was so much more.

“They (the Orang Asli) actually knew that every tree, every rock, every mountain, every river, is an entity that’s got its own story, that it is in fact a manifestation of their ancestors. Their physical bodies became the physical landscape.” Antares said.

“It’s the flesh of their ancestors. “

I wonder how they felt when their ancestral land was bulldozered and cleared out to be made into a dam.

“Orang Asli have the tendency to inhabit a certain biological region for thousands of years. Ten, twenty, thirty thousand years.“ We listened to Antares speak as we took sips from the tea he brewed.

“When you’ve stayed in this area for so many generations, you know that the ground you’re walking on - your great-great-great grandmother was buried here! And out of (the land) where she was buried, this big durian tree grew!” He gestured to the grass. “You have a sense of continuity of life. The tree grows out of the place where your great-great grandmother was buried, so she becomes part of the earth, the earth becomes part of the tree, the tree rots and goes back to being the earth, so the flow itself is sacred!”

That really hit me in my tummy area. It’s a sad, inevitable reality that sometimes, in order for new things to bloom, old tradition and life has to be torn down.

A calming view of the river.
It isn’t just the ancestral land that is dying little by little. In recent years, the Temuan culture has been fading. What sped up this process is the passing on of the older generation of Temuans, like Mak Minah Angong. They were probably the last generation who held on to the memory of their ancestors. During the twenty years of Antares’ stay in Kampung Pertak, he has watched the young villagers grow up and as is the cycle of life, he’s also seen many of the older folks, the generation of storytellers, pass away.

“They started dying two years after I arrived,” Antares said. “Anoora’s uncle was the story-teller. For two years, I had the benefit of befriending him.” (Many of the stories are recorded in Antares’ book, Tanah Tujuh, available on

And as these storytellers left forever, it seemed like they took many of the Temuan lullabies and legends along with them. The beautiful tradition is fast dying among the younger people, like Anoora and her son, Ahau. 

According to Antares, the young ones grew up with television as entertainment, “generally the most toxic intrusion that you could have in your home”, in lieu of their ancestors’ traditional songs and stories. The “mediocre programmes” on TV do not feed the villagers with helpful knowledge.

The deterioration of the younger generation is fuelled even more by their poor grasp of English, which has become so important during these times. 

”They were denied the opportunity to actually master English. English is taught in school, but minimally. If they were fluent in English like how they are fluent in Malay, they would have a much bigger range of options in life. They would be able to access – like the rest of us who are English-speaking – information in the whole worldwide web. It gives them a complete spectrum.” Antares said with much passion.

“So, because of their language limitation, and their being subject to the encroachment of so-called modernity,” the young Temuans are not able to compete with the rest of their generation in the city, they are not able to improve their lifestyle. At the same time, they are losing touch with their roots.
A young Temuan man walked past Antares’ house carrying a big bunch of “petai” plants. Mrs. Chern stopped him to ask if he would sell them to her.
”What they do for a living?” Mr. Chern asked.
“Well, the young fellas invariably end up ‘potong rumput’,“ was our host’s reply.
“How about working in plantations?”

Kampung Pertak up ahead.

"No, no, no.” Antares said firmly. 
“But there are other things that they can do but they don't want to do. See, they (cannot) see simple things. I was hoping they’d see immediately why there’re so many people coming every weekend. Why are there people from all over the world coming here? Because it’s beautiful!
“Look at the beautiful river! What is there to stop them from building a few beautiful chalets? Teaching their kids to speak some English, so they can do a small homestay kind of business?” he said, voicing his hopes about his fellow villagers. “By learning how to do that for tourists, they would preserve the beauty of the environment, (and at the same time,) they would become independent owners of their own business. Even the capital involvement is minimal!
“But, I don’t want to initiate it, I want them to initiate it!”
“So what’s stopping them from doing it is their mentality?” I couldn’t resist asking.
“Lack of initiative. Lack of self-esteem." Antares thought for a moment, then shrugged,  "Fear. A lot of fear.“
I guessed he meant that the Orang Asli, who lead such simple lives, are afraid of disapproval from the authorities, maybe even afraid of failure.
“Do they plant vegetables here? “ Mr Chern pointed at the bottom of the houses. “Or they just go to the forest and collect (resources)?”
“The Orang Asli are so relaxed because for thousands of years (it’s been like this) - No food? Go to the backyard, walk ten steps (to the) tapioca tree, harvest a few young leaves – you’ve got ‘pucuk ubi’.” Antares explained. “Go to the river, catch some fish. A gang of kids would go there, 5 or 8 years old. One hour of playing in the river, they’ll get enough fish for lunch.”

At Antares' home. From left: Antares, George (a friend of Antares), Mrs. Chern and Mr. Chern

“So, they’re used to this fact that abundance is all around them and there’s no need to worry about the future. They don’t think about planting because they find it easier to just go to the jungle and get some ‘cemperai’ leaves, some ‘rebung’ (bamboo shoots). They can eat ‘cendawan’ as they know which fungus they can eat. They can eat roots, tapioca, yam. There’re thousands of things to eat from the jungle, as long as it (the jungle) is not destroyed!"
“They know that even tapioca leaves, ikan bilis or a few fried fish – that’s a meal. Or catch ten fish from the river, grab a handful of tapioca leaves – that’s dinner. And they only cook once a day. So, they cook a big pot of rice, they cook the fish and the tapioca leaves. They might have something on the side. They might have some ‘tempoyak’ ( which is durian sambal, fermented durian with chilli and salt) from the last durian season .”
By the time Antares described how delicious the ‘tempoyak’ was, my mouth was watering.
“It’s a nice meal.” Antares nodded. “Everybody is fed. They don’t have to worry so much, not this bunch of people, because they have the forest around them and they have the river.”

Antares walking us to the river in the cool evening.

Evening was fast approaching and the Cherns and I had to make a move. I peered into the sitting room where Anoora lay with a sarong pulled up over her shoulders, watching a Hindi movie that Astro was featuring. Ahau  ( his son) was in his own room, sleeping the afternoon away.
We got into Mr. Chern’s car and started driving out of the village. Along the way, we passed a group of young Temuans who were probably my age or younger. They waved at us strangers with big, white smiles that contrasted their dark skin. What a pleasant send-off!
I couldn’t help but wonder how lost the young Temuans would feel, as their ancestral land is being torn down,  their culture and identity becomes less and less clear each day.

I listen to the lullabies on the Akar Umbi CD. Mak Minah’s voice is beautiful. Also eerily haunting.

Would her recorded voice be all that’s left of the Temuan culture, say, in thirty years to come?

by Junmey

Saturday, 24 March 2012

What the interns think

eHomemakers has had its fair share of interns for the 'Portraits of Perseverance'  project. Being part of the team means that we all know Morgan. At some point in our internships, we had to accompany her if she went somewhere to film the documentary (not because Morgan wanted us to or anything, Ching Ching insisted we did to protect her)  Or we learnt from her by watching her edit the documentary footage.

Now its time to write a blog on what the interns really thought about her! And since she isn't here anymore, there's really nothing she can do about what we say. *evil smile*

The impression we all have in common about Morgan is how dedicated and hard-working she was in completing her role in the documentary. When all of us were sleepy, tired and lazy... Morgan seemed to be the complete opposite. She never complained about being tired and she was always alert!  Morgan's walk was always fast-paced and full of determination while the rest of us usually had to run a little bit to keep up with her 'long Canadian legs'.

Junmey especially liked Morgan's 'go-get-em' attitude. She never gave up and there was always a plan B if plan A didn't work out. When Nisha and Sulastri were unreachable via handphone, Morgan went to PT Foundation by bus and train anyway and caught them during their lunch break.

Morgan loved to eat chocolate. But no matter how much chocolate she ate, she was good at losing it quickly. This is something we all couldn't understand. It seemed that Canadians are good in burning chocolate calories while Malaysians balloon up if we gobble chocolate the way she did.

"Can the two of you walk down to get some snacks for the office and deposit these checks?" Ching Ching asked Tzer Haw and I one afternoon. The two of us groaned.

"I'll do it!" Morgan said. "I need the exercise anyway!".

Although at that moment Tzer Haw and I were spared from the 20 minute walk, the consequences were ours to face. Both of us now have big flabby butts, while Morgan still fit into her tight jeans the day she left .

Intern Xian Ting remembers Morgan carrying her camera, Marvin, all over the Crown Plaza Hotel with ease while we were filming there. A camera like the one Morgan used was already heavy by itself, but Morgan didn't seem to care. Sometimes, she even carried the tripod as well. That was why we sometimes felt so useless around Morgan... she seemed to be able to do everything while we couldn't.

When we asked Tzer Haw what he thought about Morgan, his only reply was, "I realized girls can do a lot of things".

Well, obviously girls can do a lot of things. So after some persuasion, we got Tzer Haw to further explain what he meant, to which he replied "I used to think that what Morgan is doing is only done by men, not women. Furthermore, in a normal production, you will have one person behind the camera, one holding the lighting equipment, one interviewing and one standing around watching... But here Morgan does everything by herself. Even I can't do that".

Morgan would probably never know how big of a mark she has left on the 'Portraits of Perseverance' interns, especially the ones who just finished SPM last year. For the girl interns like Xian Ting, Junmey and myself, we learned that us as girls are capable of multi-tasking with technology, and as for the guy interns like Tzer Haw, well... I guess we can say his respect for women has definitely increased after meeting Morgan.

Cheers to you Morgan!

Love from

The Interns


Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Mak Minah, Uncrowned Queen of the Temuan

In a world where old values, tradition and culture are inevitably being torn down to make way for modernization, a group of people decided to document the beautiful Temuan lullabies, forming a band that would go down in the history of Malaysia's cultural scene. That band is Akar Umbi. And at the core of the band's talents was Minah Agong. Portraits of Perseverance has gotten the permission to use three of the band's songs - songs that had grown to become the hearbeat of the old Temuan tribe and Mak Minah herself. The story of her life, and eventually her death was intertwined with natural resource usage conflicts. Who better to tell that story than Mak Minah's very own bandmate and friend. The man who paved the way for the forming of Akar Umbi: Antares. 

Yes, I am pleased to tell you my story. But as I cannot write things down, I will ask my friend to help. He is among those who knew me well in my last years on this earth. I whisper these words in his mind’s ear, for he is still in the world of the living, while I am already back in the realm of spirit, and happily so.

My bones now lie buried on top of a hill overlooking the saddest sight you can imagine. Majestic hills stripped of trees, mountains blown up to make a dam. I may be dead but my spirit lives on in my songs, and in the sacred (and now badly scarred) landscape I love so dearly.  One day my songs will be heard and they will soften the hardened hearts of the greedy ones who destroy more than they construct. When men’s hearts heal, so will the land.

"Cover of Akar Umbi CD 'Songs of the Dragon' (released August 2002)"

I was born in Pertak, Ulu Selangor, between two world wars, into the Temuan tribe. The identity card issued by the government says I arrived on September 14, 1930, and records my name at birth as Menah Anak Kuntom.  People knew me as Mak Minah because that was my stage name as lead singer with a band called Akar Umbi. Perhaps the most exciting moment of my life was when we performed before 40,000 people at the biggest stadium in Selangor. Afterwards, so many people came and congratulated me. I had a photograph taken with Sharifah Aini and Sahara Yaacob, who were also performing that night. We looked like three queens together!

Anyway, Menah or Minah makes little difference to me, since I can’t spell. Our names keep changing as we change. But once we write anything down, it becomes harder to change. Take my sister’s name: although we have the same father and mother, her name is recorded in her identity card as Indah Anak Merkol, after our  stepfather. My mother’s name was Beresih but all her children called her Mui, which is the Temuan word for Mak or Mother.

"Akar Umbi in 1995 rehearsing for 'Out in the Open' festival at Carcosa Seri Negara. For details click here" 

As a child I remember life was carefree and fun. Fish was abundant in the streams, and the forest supplied all our needs, except for luxuries like sugar, salt, and milled rice. Fresh meat was easily available as there were many animals that could be hunted or trapped.  We Orang Asli can eat anything, with or without legs or wings, as long as it’s not poisonous (we even know how to remove the poison from some wild plants so that they become edible). Apart from fish and wild boar, we also eat porcupines, pythons, leaf monkeys, deer, birds, and bamboo rats (whose flesh is very clean and sweet, as they feed only on bamboo shoots). These are all gifts of the Great Spirit That Dwells In Everything.

The only education I received was from my grandmother, who enjoyed telling us stories. 
She explained how human beings were seeded on Tanah Tujuh (which is what we call this physical world) by Mamak and Inak Bongsu, a brother and sister who survived the Great Flood by clinging to the top of a gaharu tree on Gunung Raja. 

My grandmother was full of wonderful tales about the beautiful elven races (Orang Halus) who left the planet for the higher heavens when the Difficult Times began. Some chose to remain, because they had grown to love the earth, but they gradually became invisible to human eyes.

"Minah Angong, Rafique Rashid & Antares (not visible in pic) perform with Anak Dayung at the first Rainforest World Music Festival in Sarawak, August 1998." 

People ask me if Orang Asli have any religion. I always reply that we don’t need religion because our God is not separate from the everyday world in which we live. The Great Spirit That Dwells In Everything takes all forms and speaks to us as the song of the wind in the bamboo grove, or as the neverending gossip of the river. Sometimes it is the distant call of a mist-covered mountain. Other times, it is as close as a sleeping child breathing gently in its mother’s ear.

During my lifetime I saw how people became blinded by ambition and greed. They began to mine the earth for metals and log the forest for wood. With each passing year the land became hotter and the rivers became dirtier, so we could no longer drink the water without boiling it first.  With each passing year we had to walk farther and farther to find some bamboo or catch some fish because people would come into the forest and take out more than they needed. And with each passing year we saw more and more wilderness cleared so that towns could be built. 

"Rafique Rashid, one of the key musicians of Akar Umbi, with the Temuan at Pertak Village."

I enjoyed going to town where many things could be bought, but to do that we had to sell durians, petai, bamboo, cane (manao) and aromatic wood (gaharu) for cash. Yet I could never imagine myself living in a town where it’s always so noisy and hot. Like all Orang Asli, I dearly love the jungle which is our natural home and hunting ground. I would rather die than be forced to live in a town.

When I was 12 the world turned upside down. Planes dropped bombs in the jungle to destroy bridges and railway tracks. We had to hide in caves on the slopes of mountains. For many years my family stayed hidden deep in the forest, for fear that we may be captured or killed by the invaders. During those war years we missed the taste of salt and sugar. We lived in the middle of the Malay Peninsula - far from the sea – and had grown accustomed to flavouring our food with salt bought from the Chinese merchants.  My mother taught me how to make cooking oil from the perah nut.

After the war life became even worse for us. The government put us all in detention camps, surrounded by barbed wire, and guarded by soldiers. They said it was to protect us from the communist guerrillas. Unused to suddenly being confined in a small space so close to town, many of our people became depressed, fell sick, and died. This is how I lost both my parents. 
"Antares playing the flute in an Akar Umbi number."

But I was already an attractive young woman with many admirers. My life stretched ahead of me like a newly laid road, and I had a taste for adventure. I found myself married to a man I hardly knew. At least he could take me away from the confines of the resettlement camp. We ran back to our beloved jungle and built a hut along the river, along with many others who could no longer bear living within a fence.

My first marriage was a tragedy. I was too young to be a dutiful mother. My children died of illness and my husband left me. For a while, I flirted with the idea of becoming a white man’s mistress. Then I met Angong who had recently become the Batin (headman) of Kampong Gerachi. He was a patient man with great wisdom. It was he who taught me the ceremonial songs passed down to him by his ancestors. Angong taught me to be proud of my noble naga (dragon) lineage. Not every family has an animal totem. Only those with some knowledge of jungle medicine (jampi) or who possess magical powers (dukun) have special allies in the animal kingdom. 

I bore Angong five children and greatly missed him when he returned to Pulau Buah, where souls go after they drop their physical bodies (which we call baju, or clothes). When my children grew up and started their own families, I moved to Kampong Pertak to live with my younger sister Indah and her husband Rasid. My elder brothers, Diap and Utat, lived nearby.  My eldest son, Ramsit, took over as Batin of Gerachi.

"Akar Umbi doing a workshop with Scottish group Shooglenifty at RWMF 1999."

It was fated that my life would begin to change in 1992. I met a few people from the big city who happened to be musicians. They heard me singing and decided to record my voice, adding musical instruments to give my traditional sawai (healing) songs a modern sound. The first song we created together was called Burung Meniyun. I was asked to sing it on stage during a performance by a famous dancer named Chandrabhanu who lived in Australia. I was surprised and touched that people in the big city would receive my humble song with such open hearts.  Never before had I sung for so many strangers in such a large hall! Chandrabhanu himself was quite a colourful character, dressed up as some kind of witch doctor with all sorts of strange objects dangling from his body. I found it exciting to meet so many new friends who were delighted to hear my ancient songs. 

It all happened so quickly. One moment I was just an Orang Asli widow gathering firewood and tapioca leaves in the forest and going fishing with my sister. Then suddenly I was on national TV singing for thousands of people in a huge stadium! I shall never forget the pleasure of hearing the loud applause and shaking hands with everybody afterwards. I felt proud to be able to please so many people with my simple songs. For once I could feel that no one was looking down on me, or ignoring me, for being an uneducated Orang Asli. 

Can you imagine how it feels to be recognized by someone in Ulu Langat who had seen my performance on TV?  When I went to the market in town, people came up to me and congratulated me on my performance. But back in Kampong Pertak, I was greeted with a mixture of wholehearted support and suspicion. Some whispered behind my back that I was soon going to be too sombong (proud) to be their friend. That really hurt my heart.

"Minah Angong, diva of the rainforest, wowed the crowd at RWMF 1998 (photo: Wayne Tarman)."

I enjoy singing for people, and my late husband taught me that these songs handed down from our ancestors carry healing power. They are medicine songs. When I sing I can feel my spirit expand like a strong wind blowing through a tree. Naik angin, we call it.  Once I start I must carry on until the wind becomes a breeze and goes quietly on its way. If I don’t let the spirit wind flow (lepas angin) I can get very sick.

My first experience of flying was when Akar Umbi performed in Sarawak at the Rainforest World Music Festival. I had such a grand time and made even more friends. I returned to Sarawak with Akar Umbi the next year, for the last time. At the party after the close of the festival, my newfound friends sang me a rousing Iban farewell. My heart was light and heavy at the same time. Perhaps I knew this was our last meeting on this earth.

Even as I felt the pleasure of being applauded, I could feel the pain of losing our past and future. The dam project would soon destroy Kampong Gerachi and its durian orchards. A man-made lake would fill the Selangor River Valley, drowning a once-beautiful forest, along with our ancestral graves. I could not imagine anyone so foolish as to declare war against the forces of nature.  Did they have no understanding of, or respect for, our deep love of the land? Were they totally unaware that destroying the land would mean the end of our livelihood and future?  We are the land. If the land dies, we die. 

"Minah Angong and Ahau, Antares' son."  

My sister Indah and brothers Diap and Utat felt the same way that I did. We cherished our traditions and would never lose our heart connection to the land, even if we were offered vast amounts of money.  The 
Temuan tribe has lived here for many thousands of years; the hills and valleys and rivers are much, much older than that. Our fruit trees can live for over a hundred years and as long as we keep planting new ones, our great-great-grandchildren will never starve. But if they destroy the wilderness and put our people in housing estates and make us work in factories, our tribe will be disappear within a generation. Our nenek-moyang (ancestors) told us: “When Orang Asli are no longer visible on this earth, the sea will rise, the sky will fall, and everything will perish.”

It all seemed hopeless. My own son, as headman, had signed an agreement with the dam builders and loggers, allowing the destruction to begin.  I tried to talk him out of it, but he silenced me, his own mother.  My sorrow ran deep.  Before it had even started the dam project had split our families apart. 

But there were thousands of voices raised against the dam, and I was glad that we had so many friends, people who knew the true value of the rainforest and fought hard to stop the destruction.  I was interviewed by many reporters and I told them how I felt about seeing our way of life being taken from us.  One reporter asked me: “Don’t you want to see your grandchildren getting a good education, which they can only get when development reaches the rural areas?” I replied: “All those who cut down the trees and make the hills bare, causing landslides and floods, aren’t they educated too? If that’s what being educated means, then we Orang Asli don’t want to be educated!” The reporter had nothing to say to that.

"Mak Minah's gravestone which was placed in the middle of an old tree near Kg Gerachi. The tree had been struck by lightning but somehow survived. Sadly, her firstborn the Batin of Gerachi subsequently chopped down the tree, haunted perhaps by the memory of his mother who had been vehementy opposed to the dam project. The gravestone has since disappeared."

In a way, I’m glad I didn’t live to see the bulldozers and excavators arrive. Three weeks after I performed in Sarawak, I fell ill and surrendered my body to the earth.
It has become part of the sacred landscape of my ancestors. But my spirit is reunited at last with the Great Spirit That Dwells In Everything and I am happy.

© Antares (Kit Leee) 2002


Mobile: +60102007346

Sunday, 18 March 2012

Connecting Women through the Art of Quilting

Just last week, Rhonwyn (my fellow intern), Lucy and I took a taxi to Bangsar Village Mall to meet Gill, a quilter who lent a hand to the Portraits of Perseverance project.

Prior to meeting Gill, I read an article on how an American woman used the art of quilting to help a group in Rwanda overcome the grief that a genocide had caused.

Hearing from Gill opened my eyes to how quilting helped four Malaysian women express themselves, just like how it helped the people of Rwanda.

Gill (left) and a staff member in her shop, Quilt Gallery.

Gill's quaint little shop inside the shopping mall had several shelves of quilts, cloth, patchwork, needles of various sizes and other quilting materials. Being an art junkie myself, I couldn't help but admire the many ready-made hand stitched bags, purses and decorative cloth of assorted colours.

A few people sat around the prepared tables in her shop, working at their crafts. In contrast to the rather quiet environment of her shop, Gill is extremely bubbly and lively. As we were ushered into her workplace, Gill's friendly chatter had me feeling comfortable.

Making the quilt!

Under Gill's guidance and with her expertise, the four women of Portraits of Perseverance put together their stories in the form of a beautiful quilt. "That was my deposit in my spiritual bank account." Gill said, explaining her idea of linking and bonding women of different backgrounds and from different places through quilting.

"I like creating, I love colours," but in Gill's opinion, quilting is more than just an artistic outlet. Through quilting, the Sai Baba disciple found that she could find her idea of spiritual fulfillment. "Along the way, I realized it (quilting) is a healing process. I'm connecting to women. It's a healing process. It's also very much an interactive process."

Gill assisted Nisha, Sulastri, Lucy and Pong to understand and express themselves better through the quilting project. Somehow, she felt she was fated to meet the women, and to help out. "There are no coincidences in life."

The quilting project gave the women a chance to express their thoughts and feelings. I believe the women have had to endure their fair share of being judged by people throughout their lives. But when we asked Gill about her thoughts concerning the four ladies, before and after she met them, her reply was simple.

The four women with their works of art.

"When I look at the five women, who am I to judge?" Gill shrugged.

If only more people could think that way and stop judging others. Then maybe the world would be a better place.

To some people, the quilt may just be a beautiful quilt and nothing more. Definitely not for Gill, as she found the stitched butterfly an artistic piece that stood out among others. Quilting one's story is a symbol and expression of freedom, which I believe is ultimately what these women are working to achieve. Freedom from judgment and freedom from hurt.

"We all want freedom. I'm using quilting as a form of expression, putting all moods and thoughts into the making of the quilt."

The few hours we spent listening to Gill's stories and her views on women and religion was a refreshing experience for me. And as we left, I think I gained a little something from Gill, just like how I believe Nisha, Sulastri, Lucy and Pong did.

By Junmey

Meeting Lucy

I met Lucy on the third day my internship. The lady humbly sweeping up fallen leaves outside the office at 8.30 a.m. looked about my mother's age. But her chime of "Hello!" sounded much younger. Her bright eyes were instantly warm and friendly!

I walked into the office to see my friend and fellow intern, Rhon having her breakfast. As I sat down to join her, the lady came in from outside. 

"This is Lucy!" Rhon introduced.

I had previously heard a little bit about Lucy and her involvement in the Portraits of Perseverance project. Hearing from others about her overcoming amnesia and working despite having Lupus, I thought to myself, "Hey, she sounds cool!"

But finally meeting Lucy was a whole different story! I was baffled to hear about her taking five jobs in her condition, most of which are volunteer work. Not to mention the hard work she put in to raise her family. Five jobs and three kids? "Cool" was definitely an understatement! 

Not only is Lucy fun to be around (her giggling ALWAYS sets off a round of giggling among us), she really struck me as a strong mother figure and woman.

Lucy's face brightens up whenever she talks about her children, and she laughs about having the Empty Nest Syndrome. I imagine that's how my mother sounds like when she tells her friends about us kids.

She takes inventory of the homemade baskets with so much detail and SPEED (so quick I scrambled to keep up with her!), and she taught us the kitchen secret of making sour oranges sweet!

Watching Lucy check the baskets

That's for us to know and for you to find out!

Getting to know Lucy these few weeks is shaping up to be an inspiring experience. Her love for the community drives her to wake up at 4 a.m. so she can leave at 6 a.m. to get from Kajang to Petaling Jaya. At times, she takes her old car, but very often, it's public transport for her. She told us that sometimes, even if she leaves her house at  6 a.m. , she arrives at the office four hours later. 

Being one who has always had problems with waking up at any time before 9 a.m. , I really could not imagine how she went through with the routine every day.

"That is insanity!" I mumbled in shock.

Lucy shrugged and smiled.

Despite these daily challenges, she still braves the ruthless city street jam and finds the most convenient way to get herself to work, then braves the ruthless city street jam and finds the most convenient way home in time to lay food on the table for her husband and her 18 year-old daughter. Lucy does it all without a word of complaint. Such a wonderful spirit to have!

It remains a mystery to me how she manages this, and still has time (and strength) to spend on her family and other jobs. And through it all, she never loses her smile.

Must be what they call the magic of a woman. 

By Junmey

Missing Canada!


"Thank you for believing in me, for taking care of me, for giving me this opportunity.......As I leave now, looking back, I know it was meant to be.  God brought me here for a reason.  ............Malaysia is beautiful, the people, tjeir smiles, their hospitality, their warmth, that is what I am taking home with me.......I feel like I am taking home some of this 'warmth' with me..........I've changed during my time here,,,,I am so happy that I have. I was looking for something and i found it in the comfort of these walls and these strange streets. It felt like home to me...because of you."

As I read Morgan Reed's farewell card to me, I got all emotional. I called the taxi driver, Mr Gill, who was taking Morgan to the airport. "Can I talk to Morgan?" I begged.

"She just left your house less than an hour ago and you already miss her? How are you going to live in the next few days?" Mr Gill laughed.  He has been the eHomemakers city guide cum body guard for female foreign interns.

Farewell dinner with intern Tzer Haw's family.
Morgan came to the phone, I was so touched by what she wrote that I didn't know how to put my feelings into words, "Hey you, your cards is making Rhon cry. She is sniffing and tearing now. I am about to follow her too...."

"Ohhhhhhhh," she said. "I will miss you guys too!"

That was how we said our last goodbye.

Morgan at a steam boat buffet, and then being treated with a rainbow cake!

I've dealt with 20 foreign interns or young volunteers for eHomemakers in the last seven years. Some  left imprints in eHomemakers while some leave unsavory memories. None has left such deep footprints in my life like Morgan has done. The documentary we were working on required both of us to discuss issues from different perspectives.  Her homestaying with me also meant that we were closely in touch with each other, day and night! This could bring out the worst in our relationship if we couldn't stand each other! 

But in our case, it helped us to reach out to each other,in very human way.

Her cheerfulnees, energetic body, limitless enthusiasm, commitment and the 'can-do' attitude reminded me of the many peopole I met while I was a student in U of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, Canada.   I have fond memories of people in Saskatchewan  --- their genuine friendliness, and their kindness to a foreigner without strings attached.

Barbara Block visiting KL in December 2011. 
City families like the Blocks adopted me as if I were one of their daughters. I made Malaysian dinners for them and got to eat things I couldn't afford. The whole Block family sent me off at the Greyhound bus station when I left for Vermont to do my master's. Mother Block made me sandwiches, put oranges,apples and canned drinks into two brown lunch bags for me. As the bus left the station, the scene of all the Blocks waving their hands at me etched in my memory. 

Kodak moment in my mind. 

Now when Babara Block, their daughter who lives in India, visits me, I make sure she got her delicious pork dishes, dim sum and anything she can't get in India ! The Canadian kindness they gave me when I was a lone poor student can't be repaid with all the meals I can give to Barbara!

Then there was the LaBar Family whose farm in Birsay was my playground. I went there many times to milk cows, picked blueberries and raspberries, sat on the combine when it was harvesting wheat, and yelled at the top of my lungs while riding pillon on a motobike which was flying off the rolling hills.  I used to help Mother LaBar made butter from fresh milk, and head cheese from cows they just slaughtered.
Kodak moment in my mind.

And there was my Agro big sister Irene whose family taught me to roast turkey and made Christmas cookies.  A picture of me holding a big fat turkey was their family's favorite picture for many years.
Kodak moment in my mind. 

Although I was a poor student, these Canadian familiues showed me their best hospitality, feeding me, taking me to the lakes and Banff for camps, driving me to see the Northern lights and teaching me to hunt moose. And when they could, they tried to made me drink beers and milk like they did ( except the Block family..)  And there was so much joy and laughter. Those years were the best carefree years of my life!

I haven't been back to Saskatchewan since I left almost 27 years ago, it seemed like yesterday when I was there learning how to x-country ski so that I could get to the university on time because it was faster for me to to ski than to sink into deep snow that almost reached my knee...........

Morgan told me that Saskatoon is now a cosmopolitan city, it is much bigger than the time when I was there.  Things have changed in Saskatoon and much of Saskatchewan. 

Morgan's bright smile is what endeared others to her. 

Except for the Blocks, I have lost touch with the other famiilies who adopted me. I wish I have the opportunity to see them and find out what has happened to them all these years.

Morgan having BBQ lamb at a luk luk stand in TTDI. 

Image of Morgan carrying the camera on her backpack with the tripod perched on her shoulder will be another Kodak moment in my mind.

She was just like like the first strong Canadian woman I saw when the Air Italia plane I was in landed in a bad snow storm at the Toronto airport in January 1980.  She was the lone woman who directed the plane with two luminant beacons, and then she moved a ladder-like trolley to another plane on her own, walked up and scraped  ice from the window, her long blond hair laid neatly at the back of her neck in a French braid.  Beautiful.                                                                                 Kodak moment in my mind. 

Coming from a country where the state owned utility company sent six men to fix a broken street lamp and taking an hour to do so with a lot of shouting and talking, the woman on the snow covered pavement left a big fooitprint in my mind with her bravery.  She was 'unusual' and fascinating to me because she was in men's work domain and she could multi-task effortlessly.  

Now years later, I am seeing a 27 year old young Canadian lady doing the same thing-  carrying heavy equipment on her own and doing professional work without any assistance. Morgan's genorosity -- buying the HD camera when we couldn't get any sponsorship of such a camera and her arguing with me in my kitchen about why she should pay for her share in the Cambodian trip instead of me paying for her  -- is stlill fresh in my memory. 

The people in Saskatchewan were so very genuine then, and I am still seeing it now in the form of Morgan.

Morgan trying chicken feet, still smiling. 
Now that I think about it, this is what I miss since I left Canada. Life has led me to many countries, meeting with many people and seeing many things.  But I haven't met the kind of genuine people I used to meet as a student in Canada.

I have been living in my own country for over 17 years now.  Sometimes when people give me somethng and then ask somethng back from me, or kick up a big fuss when I ask for help from them ( which is rare and I always make sure I pay them back with restaurant meals or gifts or my personal time to do somethng back for them), I think back about the times when I was in Canada.  I miss the human warmth and the natural instinct of being kind to others.

One day I shall go back to Saskatchewan to thank Canada for giving me an opportunity for an education that changed my life, and I want to tell the families who adopted me that I have tried to be that woman in the Toronto airport in my way all these years.

Oh Canada!

Rhon's feet after cycling in Angkor Wat. Morgan's Canadian feet were in worse shape, with more mud!!
Kodak moment in my mind


A Week After Morgan Left

My hammock without Morgan. Her water
bottle is still sitting on the reclining chair.
It is Sunday,today  -- exactly seven days since Morgan Reed, our documentary film-maker and editor, left Kuala Lumpur.  My house was her homestay for four months.

And it is time to jot down a list of things which I have done since she left.

1. Cleaning and tidying up the house -- Over the last six years, I have been hosting foreign interns in my house. Often I ended up cleaning dirty rooms and bed linens after they left. Morgan left her room clean and tidy, it was a gesture that indicated her appreciation of our Malaysian hospitality.

Due to the hectic schedule of the documentary-making in the last four months, I didn't finish house improvement projects that I started last October. It was only after she left for the airport that I got into the 'house' mode again!

2. The king of fruit in Malaysia -- I was at a hypermarket looking for a DIY shelf, and 'wow', I saw durian!  The scene of Morgan rushing out of the house announcing quickly that she needed fresh air when I tried to show her a packet of durian flashed through my mind. Eh........, I should have some durian now that she is not in the house any more!

When I got home, I wolved down five slots of durian in a few minutes, I wonder why.........

(Here is Andrew Zimmerman's bizare foods episode in Penang, Malaysia, about durian

3. Coconut juice and flesh -- When I passed by the fragrant pandan coconut stand at the hypermart, a thought flashed passed, "Morgan loves this! I should get some for her."  Then I remembered, she had left for Regina!  So I bought some for the house and told myself, "I am going to enjoy this beautiful delicious gift from the earth just like Morgan." 

My food habit has been changed by a young Canadian!

4. Morning routines -- The last six weeks before Morgan left, we walked to the office together every morning around 8.15 am and then had breakfast together.  She would then sit comfortably on the couch in the living room to edit the documentary and I would worked in the admin room upstairs.  At about 11 am, I would be down to the kitchen to make teas or cut some fruits. Then I would sing her name in a sing-song manner, "MOOOOOrGAAAANNNN, do you wAAAnt soooome?"  She would sing back, "Ooooooooh yeeees, danka!"

On Wednesday morning, I caught myself when I was about to sing, "Moor.." while I was pouring home-made herb tea into a cup.

5. Daily chocolate -- On Friday, I was passing by the KLCC shopping area to the Crowne Plaza Hotel for a meeting, and there was a chocolate stand. The normal me never bothered to stop by because I am not a chocolate fan. This time, I actually stoped and examined the chocolate tidbits,  and even tried a few samples. My mind kept asking, "I wonder if Morgan would like this..........."   And when I saw durian cake with chocolate frosting, I almost bought a slice, but I held back, "Who is going to eat it now that Morgan is not here?"

6. My favorite spicy noodle soups -- I made curry laksa for dinner tonight. It was spicy. Morgan would choke sampling it.  I chuckled as I sprinkled chilli powder to make the lightning strikes in the mouth.  I heard her choking on a spoon of laksa soup, her cheeks very red.......... and her voice cracked, " ......verrrrry deee (cough cough cough) liceeeee(cough) ous, (cough).

'Ha, ha', I laughed, "That Canadian!"

 7.  Chilling out at night -- I put the mohito and tequila bottles away, it is no fun without anyone to cheer to. And I have been a 'bad girl', I watched four episodes of CSI on Monday and Tuesday...... because the disciplinarian was gone!

Those six weeks while Morgan was editing was a period of calm for me. The documentary was filmed and everythig was in Morgan's hands for editing.  We worked 8-10 hours a day, and then we had dinner together, took an hour's break for shower and Morgan to skype her sweet heart, then around 10.30pm, we would have a shot of Mexican fun before we watched two episodes of CSI.  Morgan would stand up from her reclining posture on the marble floor and said, "Ok, it is time to go to bed," and she would do her 'Morgan stretch' (which you can see in a scene in the last part of the documentary  -- me stretching my side torso while my arms stretched to the right and to the left while walking in the park). And we all went to bed because CTV Canada had said so!

8. The ballerina stretching exercise -- Me doing the Morgan stretch in the office whenever I am stiff -- a legacy left by Morgan.

9. Tourist spots -- I passed by China Town on Friday night on my way home from a 
meeting, "Oophs, I didn't have time to take Morgan here....."

Morgan having BBQ lamb at a luk luk van in TTDI.
As I browsed through the various food stalls, I screamed excitedly to myself, "Wow, Morgan would try this intestine stuff.... I think she will put this in her mouth......oh, she will like this preserved octupus......." 

Since it was a night without Morgan, I decided to play tourist and boarded the U88 bus that would go through Brickfileds, the Indian area. As the bus cruised through Indian open air night stalls, temples, churches, and old buildings, I said to myself, "Morgan would love walking around this area at night! It is full of stories for a film-maker!"

10. Night food stands by the roadside -- Last night I walked passed the area where our favorite luk luk ( a mobile truck with sea foods, meats, vegetables on skewers and you dip them into boiling soup to cook the foods before you eat them with a choice of five kind of sauces) van was. Several people were standing around the van while another two were sitting on stools by the roadside. I stood there watching, frozen in a time not long ago.

"Didn't the Canadian TV anchor almost made me teary when she sat on the stool by the roadside?"  A TV anchor who humbled herself to eat street foods by a drain....ignoring passing cars and stares.........that is precious!

The list has 10 points and it isn't finished yet.

I guess I am missing MOORRGAANNNNN!