KLING. Kling. Kling. A light metallic sound akin to the tinkling of bells coming from somewhere down the ruai (corridor) compels me to raise my weary head. It has been a long day of shooting (for a documentary I'm working on for a TV station) and now it's time to partake in the evening activities of the inhabitants of this Iban longhouse located in the interiors of Batang Ai, an area where some of the oldest Iban settlements can be found. Outside, the high-pitched song of a lone cicada pierces the evening calm.
"Entertainment time," a crew member hisses excitedly in my ear as the tinkling sound grows louder and suddenly, entering into view in a languid procession, a bevy of women — of varying age groups — decked in exquisite traditional costumes. The tinkling sound I'm hearing is emanating from the gerunchung (anklets) adorning the women's slender ankles.
As the dancers take their place in front of us — my production crew and me, and the rest of my "langkau-merry" (langkau is an especially potent rice spirit) longhouse companions — I find myself captivated by the beauty of the costumes, in particular, the resplendence of their glittering adornments.
The sparkle of silver dance coquettishly from an elaborate Sugu Tinggi, or "tall combs" nestled on the head of a particularly attractive young Iban girl as she moves ever so gracefully in a dance of welcome. Beyond the bamboo walls, darkness has descended, shrouding the longhouse in a mysterious cocoon.
"This is the elaborate traditional head-dress worn by the Iban ladies as part of their costume. All that glitter is silver…" trails a voice, the slightest of accent discernible. "It's the Sugu Tinggi," I murmur in awe, and just as suddenly, images of that night of raucous merriment in the Iban longhouse in Batang Ai many moons ago dissipate as I find myself staring into the ornate silver head-dress "crowning" the head of a most exquisite Kumang (Mother Goddess of the Iban back in the animistic days. She's considered a supreme beauty and a great weaver) doll.
"The Kumang doll is very popular with Malaysians," adds the voice, tone laced with pride. As he gently places the Iban "lady" back into place on the display table alongside his other creations, Wesley Anak Juntan, or better known as Wesley Hilton on social media, smiles before asking shyly: "Would you like to see my Orang Ulu doll which I put up for auction?"
CAPTURING THE MAGIC OF BORNEO
Wesley's artistry had caught my eye during a leisurely scroll through my Facebook news feed one morning. As usual, I was on the look-out for potential stories, especially those related to talented Malaysians.
"Wesley Anak Juntan and his customised Borneo Barbie dolls catches the attention of the Ministry of Tourism, Arts and Culture (MOTAC)" — a link, a click and a read later, and I was determined to track down this talented Iban, a flight attendant with our national carrier, Malaysia Airlines (MAS), trending on social media for his Borneo-inspired dolls.
The soft-spoken Sarawak native from the district of Sibu, I duly discover, started dressing Mattel's most popular doll in traditional Borneo outfits to honour the Harvest Festival or Gawai in East Malaysia which falls on June 1.
"I've been doing the Borneo doll designs since the beginning of the Movement Control Order (MCO)," begins the 33-year-old, when I finally meet him at his modern apartment in Kuala Lumpur. Then, pointing to a shelf near the window where more dolls are arranged, he adds: "Before the Borneo dolls, I was making those flight attendant dolls. When I ran out of airlines to make for, I decided to do something else. As it happened, Gawai was approaching."
Unfortunately because of the nationwide "lockdown", Wesley was unable to return home for the celebrations. "I was really sad about that," he confides, sounding wistful. "I pondered at length what I could do to honour this precious celebration. And that's when I decided to create an Iban-inspired doll."
Sarawak, Land of the Hornbills and Malaysia's largest state on Borneo Island, is made up of some 26 different ethnic groups. And according to 2016 statistics, there are almost 60 ethnic groups in East Malaysia in total. The Iban community alone comprises 30 per cent of Sarawak's population, with varying differences in terms of dialect, tradition and ngepan (traditional attire), which is usually worn for special occasions (Gawai), rituals, dances and ceremonies.
It's rich pickings for someone like Wesley who's keen to try his hand at showcasing as many of these ethnic communities as possible via his Borneo-inspired dolls in order that better awareness of their existence and richness of culture can be raised, especially to the outside world beyond the waters of Borneo.
"The communities are unique in their own right. And this can even be seen in what they wear, which actually differs from one community to another depending on where they reside. For example, the costume of the Iban people are not all the same. It depends whether they're in Batang Ai, or Batang Rajang, or wherever," elaborates Wesley, enthusiastically.
Ushering me to one corner of the modestly-furnished apartment where he has set up his "office" — complete with work table, shelves, sewing machine, lights, tools of the "trade", plastic containers housing numerous eye-catching accessories for the dolls, and various other creative paraphernalia — Wesley proudly points to a doll displayed in a glass cabinet.
"See that one? That's the first Iban doll I made," he exclaims, eyes sparkling. A closer look reveals it to be an exquisite Kumang based on the Iban of Saribas. "That one I made with my housemate. It went viral and I received so many encouraging comments. Some people even asked me to do more. That's when I decided to challenge myself to explore the other ethnic communities, like the Orang Ulu, Bidayuh and from Sabah, the Kadazan Dusun."
Another doll, resplendent in her sparkly, colourful costume, complete with sequins and tassels, and what appears to be a feather head-dress, catches my attention too. Nodding to the beauty in the box, my quizzical look is met with a wide smile.
"This doll is Keligit Long Sela'an — the doll I offered up for an auction," he replies, proudly. Wesley named the doll thus to honour the charity event that he collaborated on with Hitz Sarawak. Money raised from the auction — RM500 being the highest bid — was presented to the people of Long Sela'an in Ulu Baram who lost their longhouse and community hall in a fire recently.
Enthusiastically, the soft-spoken Capricorn beckons me to a display table, where the rest of his doll collection is arranged for better viewing. "Seven dolls," I mentally count before lowering myself slightly so that I'm eye level with the beauties. Certainly, a lot of work and attention have been put into the individual dolls. Not only in terms of their costumes, but also in their physical appearance.
"See, the eye lashes. I put that in. And the lips? I painted that too," confides Wesley, beaming.
Adding he says: "The biggest challenge is ensuring that everything is as authentic and real as it can get because this is our identity. And that means making sure that the hair (to the hair colour) is right; the accessories that adorn the dolls are accurate to the ethnic group; and of course, the costume has to be right."
LABOUR OF LOVE
A lot of research has to be undertaken before beginning on a creation, shares Wesley. "I look through books, videos (of local pageants) and YouTube for my reference. But sometimes, the costume of a particular ethnic is not there because either it's disappeared or is less known, so that poses me with my biggest challenge."
Pointing to another doll, Wesley continues: "See this one? It's of a lady from an Iban tribe in Batang Rajang. In real life, this costume is hard to find as not many people have it or make it anymore. This is one of the reasons why it's so important for me to 'bring it to life' so that people know what it looks like. It would be a shame if it disappeared just like that."
The self-taught designer, who had, prior to this undertaking designed wedding dresses too, concedes that he doesn't really have a solid "bank" to refer to as no one has actually undertaken something like this before.
Musing aloud, Wesley says: "Sometimes, I'd be at my work-station for hours, wondering how to realise what I see in the videos and pictures. Like this one with the ornate beadwork. I've never done beading before so I really had to study how to put it all together."
Touching on his work process, the 33-year-old shares that the first thing he does is look for the doll. "Not just any doll. It has to look right — so of course, no blond Barbies! The features also have to be as accurate as possible. Once I've selected the doll, then I need to look for materials and accessories."
He'd diligently trawl local craft stores in town for that and also visit shops selling products for tailors. "I do this on my 'break time' from the designing work. I like to check out the shops and once done, my guilty pleasure would be sitting in some cafe, sipping my flat white and watching the world go by!"
A typical "work" day for Wesley would commence at night. "I only sleep at 6am," he confides, eyes dancing as he notes my aghast expression. "I find it so much nicer to work at night because I can focus better. I'll have the music on but other than that, it'd just be me and the dolls and the silence (of the night). And when I start, I can't stop. So I just keep going until I see the sun peeping out!"
With the country still in Recovery MCO, Wesley admits to enjoying the lull from flying so he can focus on his designs. "I have more time on my hand now but I do worry what will happen when things resume to normal," he confides, softly, before adding: "It's okay. Like with everything in my life, I'll just take things one step at a time."
The doll designs proudly displayed on the side table are, I duly realise, predominantly from various ethnic communities in Sarawak. Only one is from Sabah — a "lady" dressed in a dark Kadazan Dusun costume, minus the extravagant sparkles found on the "Sarawak dolls".
The trimmings and embroidery are simple but the doll comes complete with himpogot belts commonly made from silver coins, and three sets of hip belts called tangkung. "I'll do more Sabah dolls soon!" exclaims Wesley sheepishly when I share my observation with him.
As to the cost of the dolls, Wesley explains that it depends on several factors. Elaborating, he says: "For example, the ornateness of the accessories used, the complexity of the costume design, the labour involved and so on. The cheapest doll currently is the Kadazan Dusun doll from Sabah because it's the least complex."
And the most expensive? "The Batang Rajang Iban doll with the ornate beadings and Covid hair!" he replies, with a hearty chuckle. In other words, he's referring to the Iban doll sporting a magnificent Dujung Marik headdress and Baju Ujan beaded dress! The most one might look to be parting with for an elaborate doll is RM600 plus.
What keeps him going with this laborious undertaking?, I ask, curious. The Iban lad smiles again, before replying: "After I completed the first one and received so many positive comments, I was inspired to keep going and create another one. And then the next. And then more."
Adding, he confides: "The more I do, the more I realise that I'm driven by the desire to highlight the lesser known ethnic groups in Borneo so more interest can be generated, which will in turn lead people to find out more. This will keep their rich and unique culture alive. This is important to me because if the culture dies, so too does the value of our self. It's my culture!"
Next under his creative scrutiny is a Bidayuh doll from Bau, a gold mining town near Kuching. Gently picking up a design in the making, he says: "A customer from Padawan has commissioned me to create a Bidayuh doll. This will be quite interesting as the design elements involved really are quite exciting."
THE PROUD IBAN
Leaving the dolls behind and taking our place on the comfy settee in the living area, I ask Wesley to share with me about his life back in his hometown of Sibu, the largest port and commercial centre in the Rejang Basin, where his formative years were spent in a blissful idyll among his family and a close-knit community in a 17-door longhouse.
"My uncles, aunts, cousins, parents all lived together in this longhouse," he begins, eyes suddenly misty. "I had a lot of friends. During festivals and weddings, we'd all come together and help, like in the traditional gotong royong. This is the very spirit that I want to preserve."
Wesley, the youngest of four siblings, admits to being particularly close to his mother and father who ran a kedai runcit (grocery store) not far from his school. Smiling fondly, he recalls: "When I was in primary school, I remember every recess time, I'd be the first one to come out from the classroom and go to the kedai runcit to help my mum sell kuih and whatever."
Was he creatively-inclined at all when he was small? He pauses, brows furrowing as he reflects on the question. "Maybe not in primary school. But when I got to secondary school, which was a boarding school, I enjoyed art. In fact, I loved to do portraits and paint. I was also part of a cultural troupe, where I was a dancer."
His career trajectory, I duly discover, is totally unexpected. "I'm a marine biologist by qualification," he says, chuckling sheepishly. In fact, after completing his secondary school education with flying colours, he left the familiar comforts of Sibu to pursue a degree in marine biology in Terengganu.
"Yes, I left the nest from a young age. Everyone else stayed behind," he says wistfully, a discernible choke in his voice causing me to look up from my note-taking. "Two different worlds, I know. During that time I was away, I truly missed my family and the bond that we had. But (he says, wiping away tears that had suddenly started to slide down his cheeks), I know they're proud of me. Today, I'm playing catch up."
Although his design work seems to be taking centre stage at the moment, Wesley shares that he's still very much a fulfilled flight attendant with MAS. "To be honest, being a flight attendant was my dream job, a childhood ambition. I wanted to see the world and travel."
But little did he envision that he'd also have a foot in the door in the world of design. "That said, I did love to see pretty things when I was younger," he concedes happily, adding: "In secondary school, I loved to draw portraits of beautiful women, beauty queens, you name it. After I started flying, I started designing dresses and wedding gowns too."
Proudly, he shares that he never had any formal education in design. "I'm fully self-taught. I bought myself a sewing machine, studied YouTube and Instagram and learned. I just derive immense satisfaction from seeing my design come to 'life' from mere sketches."
A quick glance at my watch reveals that it's almost lunch time — and time to make a move before the start of midday traffic. What's your ultimate dream, I pose to the affable young designer. Again, a pause ensues as he contemplates the question.
"This design thing is another dream come true although I never dreamt that I'd be doing this," replies Westley, softly. "Now it's becoming a business. Yesterday I met with the Tourism Minister (Datuk Seri Nancy Shukri) and she said my dolls would make a great gift for our foreign guests and ambassadors."
Eyes thoughtful, he concludes: "I want to be an inspiration for other young East Malaysians. I never believed I could be doing this and getting this far. But I have. I know it's still early days but I'm here. It's all about passion, perseverance and belief. And looking at the bigger picture, this is my contribution to my community and culture. Maybe one day I can train the young people to do this. It'd be an honour!"
Source: New Straits Times