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

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