The City Slicker
Asun and Mimi sit in a cafe off the waterfront in Belaga, a town of 2500 souls and the major trading hub of great swathes of Sarawak rainforest, a hundred and fifty-odd miles upriver from the coast of Malaysian Borneo.
“Chinese wedding?! No!!!” Asun exclaims. “Chinese wedding, one day, you have one table, cost 350 ringgit.”
Mimi chimes in. “And you need many tables. Big family. I have ten brothers and sisters, so…”
“We had a Kayan wedding,” says Asun. “With a Kayan wedding, all you need to do is buy a pig, and everyone from the longhouse eats. One pig! Three hundred ringgit…”
“Was it a Christian wedding?” I ask.
“Oh yes, Christian,” they reply, in harmony.
The Evangelical Church of Borneo is very active upriver. It has been since the Methodists moved in, soon after the head-hunting stopped.
Asun’s longhouse community of 900-odd folk has its own pastor, regular services, plus Bible Study on Sunday evenings, occasions for which the men of the community change out of their uniform of football shorts, tattoos and rubber sandals and into shirts and smart black trousers, and little girls wear a hybrid of Sunday best and party frocks.
The pastor will tell me that everyone in the community is Christian, a fact only belied by the traditional tombs across the curve of the Balui River, to which the bodies of couples who follow the old beliefs are ceremoniously ferried on their journey to join the spirits.
When they married, Asun was sixteen and Mimi the ripe old age of 25. At 29 she’s expecting their first child. “I am so old,” she says. “So old to be having a baby…”
I tell her that in England women in their 40s have children. “45, 46, maybe even as late as 49.”
She looks at me bewildered. At 45, Asun’s mother is definitely in grandmother territory, on the wrong side of that weird precipice over which indigenous people seem to fall, tripping effortlessly from youth to old age, smooth, plump skin to chasms of wrinkles, a sort of Eurydice stumble but with old age, not mortality, when you look back.
Of course, I am closer to her age than to her son’s. And he is closer to Z’s age than to mine…
They live together, in what Asun terms a room but is more of an apartment, in the main longhouse of Asun’s kampung.
In structure, though the materials have changed, the Kayan longhouse remains very much what it was when the nineteenth-century colonial anthropologists Hose & McDougall wrote the splendidly-titled The Pagan Tribes of Borneo.
A long building, raised on stilts to first floor height, with a wide, communal verandah out front and ill-nourished, unwelcome hunting dogs below. Off one side of the verandah, doors lead to each family’s room. By the balcony are platforms used for sleeping, resting, sitting, beadwork, repairing tools…
… And smoking…
Everyone but the pastor smokes like chimneys. Pregnant, with babies on their back, ancient enough to have long, looping earlobes and tattoos covering their calves and forearms — even the man who, popular belief says, is one hundred years old — they’re constantly twirling short, fat conical cheroots (in lieu of Rizlas, a twirl keeps the ungummed banana leaf paper sealed).
The local tobacco, farmed smallscale on precipitous hillsides and sold, if you don’t grow your own, at a dollar for about 250 grammes, has a hay taste, reminiscent of American Spirit, and a harshness on the draw that makes me think of cigars.
There’s a general belief that it is better for you than Western tobacco. And, of course, it keeps the bugs off.
In fact, I have to restrain Z from berating a bewildered mother who is passing her cheroot to her six-year-old daughter. “No, no, no!” he says. “She can’t smoke. She’s too young to smoke! Smoking is very, very bad.”
It doesn’t help that he is slightly taller than her, so not just metaphorically but literally talking down to her. While she may not understand English, she clearly understands the tone.
“Z,” I say. “Leave her alone. I know children shouldn’t smoke. But we need to stay within the cultural norms, and a child telling off an adult is completely inappropriate.”
Granny puts it rather better. “We are staying with these people, in their community. We need to allow them to live the way they live. And you can’t tell her how to live.”
In fact, Asun would rather be a city slicker. Mimi’s family are from Sibu, an industrial and logging city a hundred and fifty miles downriver, a veritable megalopolis whose population runs into the (very) low six figures.
Asun wears an Arsenal shirt, expensive-looking Aviators and leather shoes which, he explains, cost several hundred ringgit. His hair is tinted orange, the furthest, I understand, that local bleach will go.
“I like to live in kampung,” Mimi says. “The city is too much for me. Whenever he says, we go live in the city, I say, ‘No way.'”
At the moment, of course, they live in the family room, strictly more of an apartment, in the main longhouse.
Two largish rooms set on either side of a store room and a kitchen-cum-bathroom area that is not for the faint-hearted, it’s home to Asun and Mimi, his sister and one of his two brothers, his parents, and a six-year-old niece, the daughter of the other brother, who lives in Sibu.
She’s a sweet little girl. But in the UK she’d no doubt have some label or other to describe her condition. Which, while it would enable her to “access services”, would also leave her stigmatised and victimised. Here, well, “She doesn’t like school.”
Now, Asun makes decent money for these parts. When, I ask, will they move out of the family home and into what Virginia Woolf would probably not have called A Room of Their Own?
It’s a process that clearly happens. One of Asun’s aunties lives next door. And there’s what looks like a half-built longhouse part-way across the way (the previous one burnt down after someone left a pot on the stove: one of many reasons that the Malaysian government is trying to coax folk out of new-style longhouses and into clapboard bungalows or the traditionally styled longhouses they build down West for the tourist trade).
“Well,” says Asun, looking a little on the spot. “I can live in the new longhouse. But first I need to buy” — he gestures at the ceiling — “Zinc? Is that the word? And things for the floor…”
It appears neither he nor Mimi are in any particular hurry to leave.
In the family home everyone sleeps on thin, floral print mattresses which are unfolded, futon style, every evening, leaving clear passage to the doors and the bathroom. The form is to sleep clothed, in sarongs for the women and football shorts, for the men.
I wonder how on earth Mimi and Asun manage to have sex but I lack the courage to ask.
In the evening, we sit with them and watch Z’s choice of movie on their TV, one of few in the longhouse, and so a magnet for Kayans from 5 to, well, so old they have no birth certificate, whether watching from the room or the verandah.
Mr and Mrs Smith.
“This Angelina Jolie,” says Mimi, as the pirate copy flickers across the screen and the generator chugs in the background. “I want her body.”
“Me too,” I say.
“She was modelling before?” asks Asun. (He would like to go to Thailand one day but is worried he will never come back, because of the women he has seen in movies.)
“Just a little,” I say, delving through my mental repertoire of Heat magazine as an elderly lady, her forearms solid blue with tattoos and her earlobes like elongated doughnuts, squints at an elaborate piece of beadwork. “She is the daughter of a very famous, well, quite famous, American actor, Jon Voight, and a French model. I think she modelled for a little bit, but then she was an actress.”
“But she was modelling?” asks Asun, who has models on the brain.
“I heard she likes children very much,” says Mimi.
“Yes,” I say. “She has three children and has adopted three more. Six, I think.”
Six children, of course, is not a noteworthy total hereabouts. “Is she married?”
“Yes,” I say. “To the guy in this film. Brad Pitt. This is the film where they met.”
We are through the preliminaries, and the lavish New Jersey mansion in which Mr and Mrs Smith’s marriage loses its spark appears on screen. “The rooms are so big,” exclaims Asun. “Are all rooms so big in America?”
“No,” I say. “This is a very expensive house. One million dollars US, or maybe more.”
“I would like to go to America,” Asun says. For this cheeky chappie, just out of his teens, who once killed a 20-metre python which he found digesting a piglet, and divvied all forty kilos of it around the longhouse at ten ringgit a kilo (the piglet, sadly, was past redemption, having started to smell), the Hollywood dream is very much alive.
“It’s not all like that,” I say. “This is a very, very expensive house. It is a film house, a movie house. Most people do not live like this.”
I am not sure he believes me. I don’t think he wants to. Because in America, I guess, the streets are really paved with gold…