LONGHOUSE LIFE HAS BEEN A long-term choice of Sarawak’s rural communities. These singular structures, housing anywhere up to several hundred families, have made Sarawak special yet, as anthropologist Peter Metcalf put it, they are not necessitated by any ‘simple feature of ecology or geography.’ They are a choice, one taken in a world of traditional cosmology and shifting cultivation and especially in a world of unparalleled community ties.

But, the traditional longhouse is vanishing along with traditional lifestyles. As cultures shift and cultivation becomes increasingly rooted, the life in the longhouse is diversifying, fragmenting and fracturing. Sometimes replaced by modern materials, sometimes moving into individual residences, the old super-structures of belian and bamboo are either fading into memory or are increasingly unoccupied. Even worse, images of wooden longhouses consumed in flames go up on social media with depressing regularity, the whole state going up in arms over the tragedy of another traditional structure consigned to ash.

Stambak Ili, the family longhouse of Phyllis anak Nelian was made entirely of belian from top to bottom, with techniques to create a new look of longhouse, built to last.

But, in reality, longhouses were rarely designed to last. Despite their size and durability, they were always a fluid construction, dividing and mutating with the community before space constraints and agricultural complaints would drive them to migrate. Permanence itself is a new idea, born of new beliefs, new traditions and new lifestyles. Longhouse life, it seems, has always been on the move.

Phyllis anak Nelian, now in her seventies, has experienced a range of these lives, both rural and urban, communal and detached. She said goodbye to longhouse life at the age of twenty as she married into an urban Iban family. The Linangs were landowners in what is now central Kuching and they were a seismic shift away from the life she had been used to. Moving to her In-law’s house on Jalan Mendu in 1963, the year of Malaysia’s formation, she describes Kuching as still a small town and, living on the outskirts, she was initially lonely without the buzz of the longhouse filling her every moment. But it was still the big city and she talks of gas lamps and other modern conveniences that made her sad as her lifestyle was already significantly more comfortable than her family’s at home.

However, her longhouse journey from Stambak Ili to Tabuan Dayak also tells a story about the state of the longhouse in modern Sarawak. Born during the Japanese occupation, her longhouse had already been standing on the Layar river for around three decades. A small community of only 12 doors, rising to 14 in later years, theirs was a breakaway group from Gensurai, upriver from Betong. This area was once the stronghold of the trailblazing Iban Chief of the Saribas basin, Orang Kaya Pemanca Dana Bayang, who commanded an unprecedented 40 longhouses, Phyllis’s ancestor and the father of Aji, founder of nearby Stambak Ulu, also on the Layar, and Buda, famously the first Iban convert to Christianity in this area.

Stambak Ili represented a new phase of life in the Saribas. Their community was established by her grandfather, Saban anak Langgie, who wanted to plant padi and centred his new longhouse near fertile fields and, of course, the new church dedicated to their new faith – St Augustine’s, which stands today. Unlike Gensurai, which at that time still followed the adat lama, Stambak Ili was built to last. Made entirely of belian from top to bottom, Saban put his own strength into construction but borrowed his techniques to create a new look of longhouse. Octagonal rooms and carved kaki atap in the Malay style created a hybrid for an innovative, new community which settled into padi planting and later became the first to plant rubber trees in that area. He even built a chapel as part of the structure.

This is a source of obvious pride for Phyllis, the longstanding connection to the work of her grandfather, unusual in Iban communities in which longhouses would expect to be rebuilt periodically as the community pindah (migrated) for pastures new. With that healthy dose of Iban competitiveness, she wryly pokes fun at nearby Gensurai, once her family’s ancestral home, which has been through four incarnations in the hundred years that Stambak Ili has stood, comparing the weathered belian of her longhouse to the original ‘atap apong’ that they had come from. However, she also tells of strong ties between the two, the lifeblood of longhouse life. She recounts the fivehour journey upriver several times a year to visit one another for funerals, weddings, for harvest and general fun.

But Phyllis was not the last to leave Stambak Ili for city life and now her longhouse stands empty. For many years, it was tended by a lone family member who grew the padi singlehandedly and looked after the place, but even she has now gone. Phyllis’s children and grandchildren are all now urban Kuchingites, born in the city and wedded to its lifestyle. Valentino Ngabong anak Peter, her first grandson, whose mother hails from Stambak Ili and father from Gensurai, still claims a connection to longhouse life, just so long as it doesn’t have to last for too long! He loves the longhouse at Stambak Ili for its history and tradition but farming is not for him. What is a city boy to do day in day out in the rural areas? But he makes a point to get back to Betong for family occasions, so the link remains unbroken.

Meanwhile, Gensurai’s latest lifetime has seen a rebuild in bricks and mortar. Now tiled and with aircon over two storeys, it is wholly modern and their last timber longhouse has been taken down, the wood shared out between the families. Valentino is sanguine about the contrast with Stambak Ili. While city folks like the idea of the traditional longhouse, he says, those who live in them want the conveniences that the city folk enjoy. Besides, he adds, the new construction is safer from fire, once considered the ultimate mali and still a major threat to longhouse communities across the state.

But, the longhouse life within Gensurai remains, still filled with more than thirty families. December 2018 saw an enormous Gawai Antu at Gensurai with the community there welcoming all those all those connected to the longhouse, by proximity or by familial ties, numbering in the thousands, including some city folk who originated in Stambak Ili, now deserted nearby. The traditions remain though the structure changes. As for Stambak Ili, after much debate about whether to rebuild, those who maintain a bilek have opted to keep the original building. After all, it was built to last.

Karen Shepherd was enthralled by the Gawai Antu at Gensurai, its power undiminished by the modern surroundings, though she still secretly longs for the log steps and timber interiors of the longhouses of old. But she doesn’t live in one!

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