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 KINO GAWAI SPECIAL 
MY NAME IS MUK TITO
 BY DUNSTAN CHAN

Ringleaders of the Ring Tradition

                                   PELUK AK ABEH             "MUK TITO" SINGAI AK NIKAN                 TAWAD AK LUHAN

The Last of the Ringed Ladies in BRS Kampung  Semban,  25 miles from Kuching

In the early morning, Semban is above the clouds, barely touching the roof of the world. The village was a tough four- hour hike from the Bengoh Dam, brought closer to the city by the road constructed for the dam site, now ironically even closer that the dam has been impounded at a mere 20-minute boat ride, but nevertheless still isolated. However, there has long been a steady stream of visitors heading up to this village deep in the wilderness, drawn not just by the natural wonders but also by a diminishing group of people, the last of the ringed ladies of Sarawak. While the practice has lasted for many centuries, from Burma and Thailand and across in Kalimantan, prevalent among their relatives in the villages of guun and Bisikung on the other side of the border just beyond Sibuti, these women were once exclusive to this single village in Sarawak though now they are even closer to Kuching, brought down by the rising waters of the dam which will flood three neighbouring villages – Sait, Bojong and Rejoi. Now five women remain, the last of an age-old practice, housed in a new home.

The BRS (Bengoh Resettlement Scheme) is just an hour’s drive from the state capital. It is a far cry from their old home in the clouds. This is a place with many modern conveniences, sealed roads and concrete drains run around double-storey concrete houses each on a decent-sized compound, one for each family.

Arranged in neat rows, the roofs come in four different colours; a memory of the four villages the occupants originated from. There is something telling in that scheme of colour-coding. It seems to be an acknowledgement that modernization has the effect of erasing traditional identities and a new method of differentiation has to be put in place. For the BRS is just a patch of barren ground with barely a tree in sight. Apparently the plant growth here is slow because the fertile topsoil was removed when they leveled the place for the new settlement.

Deep into the wilderness, through waterfalls and canopy bridges, it required a four hour hike from the Bengoh Dam to reach Semban.

Burma and Thailand and across in Kalimantan, prevalent among their relatives in the villages of guun and Bisikung on the other side of the border just beyond Sibuti, these women were once exclusive to this single village in Sarawak though now they are even closer to Kuching, brought down by the rising waters of the dam which will flood three neighbouring villages – Sait, Bojong and Rejoi. Now five women remain, the last of an age-old practice, housed in a new home.

The BRS (Bengoh Resettlement Scheme) is just an hour’s drive from the state capital. It is a far cry from their old home in the clouds. This is a place with many modern conveniences, sealed roads and concrete drains run around double-storey concrete houses each on a decent-sized compound, one for each family.

Arranged in neat rows, the roofs come in four different colours; a memory of the four villages the occupants originated from. There is something telling in that scheme of colour-coding. It seems to be an acknowledgement that modernization has the effect of erasing traditional identities and a new method of differentiation has to be put in place. For the BRS is just a patch of barren ground with barely a tree in sight. Apparently the plant growth here is slow because the fertile topsoil was removed when they leveled the place for the new settlement.

Their old farming life is over. They are no longer in the land of verdant hills, beautiful waterfalls and misty mountains – now their feet are firmly on the ground. Of course, their home in the hills of padi and pepper was not entirely easy. The vertiginous slopes made farming back-breaking, leg-aching work, scaling the mountainside to plant and reap. Yet these women worked with the rest of them, in spite of their added weights. While the practice might seem to some reminiscent of the lotus foot, where Chinese women were forced to endure unimaginable pain to achieve four- inch perfection, this is in no way the beauty ideal of idleness and leisure.  Instead, it seems more like a symbol of fortitude. The rings are in fact coils of brass or copper tube, purchased from the hardware store. They take time and knowledge to apply, a skill passed down from mother to daughter – an exercise in bonding over binding, if you will.

       

       Semban is above the clouds, barely touching the roof of the world...

 

The BRS (Bengoh Resettlement Scheme) is just an hour’s drive from the state capital. 

 

         

         Dashin, one of the five ladies, removed her rings for a period of time, only to decide to put them back on again.

 

For Goi-an, Muk Tito's daughter, the ring tradition was not to be followed.

For most of the villagers, going to mainstream schools contributed to the end of this practice.

Singai anak Niken, as she is on her IC, is known as Muk Tito, a mark of respect to her position as matriarch and grandmother to Tito. She remembers during gawai, when people came from the surrounding area, including from across the border, she was envious of the girls who had rings. She felt a bit of an outcast. So when her mother asked her at the age of 5 or 6 whether she wanted to wear the rings, she remembers agreeing with excitement. She wanted to be as beautiful as the other girls and to be accepted into the elite group of beauty. She felt honoured; she didn’t hesitate; and they did it immediately. In her whole life, she thinks she only took them off a few times, maybe 4 or 5 if memory serves, and only when discomfort overwhelmed the discomfort of being without them. One lady, Dashin, had taken her rings off a few months ago and was about to put them back on. She had just completed replacing one leg and the other was wrapped with a cloth. But the thought of showing her bare leg to strangers was unthinkable - as if she felt naked and exposed without the rings.

In many ways, the rings are links, but perhaps to the past, part of an old world and a former community. Up until now, it is almost as if their lives have had no footing in the outside world of bureaucracy and officialdom. Not only is the name on her IC different, but also the age, down as 64 but up for debate. Her 55-year-old son-in-law puts her at over 70, remembering her being about 16 years old when he was born. Even then, she had already been wearing the rings for a decade. But it is ultimately that outside world that put paid to the practice. Her daughter goi-an did not follow her mother in this example. By the 1970s, when the children started to go to mainstream schools, the practice died down. Apparently the schools discouraged it until eventually none of her classmates had them, even though all their mothers did. It seems likely that the binding will pass into history with the village itself.

The Bengoh dam may be a symbol of development but it has submerged three villages of the Bidayuh Biatah people, taking a traditional lifestyle with them. While 49 families from the first three villages have chosen not to move to the Resettlement Scheme, they are retreating up above the dam where they will establish the new villages of Nyegol, Sting, Mokayung. I feel very blessed to have been given the privilege of meeting the last of the people with this cultural practice, a practice that with the passing of these women will be consigned only to our memory. Now the word “last” has really hit home. These are indeed the last of a people whose home is indelibly altered and the last vestige of their unique culture will soon be at an end.

Dunstan Chan, speaker, writer and trainer. Grew up in Mukah- lived in Britain for a big slice of his life, where he was trained as a barrister. Now resident in Kuching, he divides his time between speaking, writing and running training programs in leadership and communication.

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