What really lies in Borneo? A quick check on the internet will reveal the following – dense rainforests, reptiles, orangutans, tuak (rice wine) and the occasional mention of the Rainforest World Music Festival.
For Malaysian TV host, influencer, actor and model, Henry Golding, however in Borneo lies the key to his identity and heritage. The heart-throb, who stars in the Hollywood movie, Crazy Rich Asians, was born in Sarawak’s Iban tribe – a much-feared tribe from Borneo known for their headhunting skills. Years later, he is back in his native land of Betong to attain his bejalai, a voyage of discovery and adventure that every Iban must undertake.
Documented as a six-part television series by Discovery Channel, Surviving Borneo, which premieres on September 10, 2017, will take viewers on a journey from Henry’s Iban homeland in Betong to the mountainous region of Bario, home to the Kelabit tribe, and finally into the deepest interiors of Sarawak to seek out the mysterious Penans, Borneo’s last remaining nomadic tribe.
"Surviving Borneo is a very personal journey for me more than anything else," said Henry Golding in an interview with Malaysia Tatler.
The talented actor, who tied the knot with his girlfriend Liv Lo earlier this month commented that he couldn’t have found a better time to embark on a journey to discover more about his heritage, right before starting a new life chapter in his life.
From eating smoked wild boar to getting a traditional tribal tattoo, the Crazy Rich Asian tells us more about how he managed to survive Borneo.
What was the reaction you received when you first decided to go on this bejalai (journey)?
The reactions I received transitioned somewhere between "what the hell are you doing" to "you are going to have the time of your life, man." I guess people were excited about the whole concept because these are the sort of adventures that everyone wants to experience.
Did this expedition help you to discover something more about your heritage?
I think heritage is in some respects a birthright. It’s the culture that you’re born into. The whole power behind the bejalai is that it differs from person to person. So although I’ve been exposed to being a part of the Iban culture for since I can remember, I can say that now I feel closer and proud of my heritage than ever before.
Can you tell us something unique about the Iban tribe that people may not be aware of?
Despite a lot of anthropological studies on the Iban tribe, what most people don’t realise is how strong the community and family aspect of the tribe really is. They grew up in these very strong-knit communities and have always leaned on each other for support. They hunt together, share their food with each other and it’s the proximity that gives the Ibans their strength.
Surviving out in the forest, when we are used to our gadget overpowered life is no easy feat. What gave you the strength to do so?
The first few days of being out in the wild was the greatest challenge for me. I wasn't able to confide in anyone else apart from myself and the tribal contributor who spoke limited English. Also being in that claustrophobic environment of the jungle with everything around you trying to eat you, puts you at a high level of unease. But at the same time, being in a space where you are not distracted by modern day extravagances, is when you start to become more aware of the beauty that surrounds you. Your mind begins to wander and you start to relive these small moments that create a life-changing experience.
Did you carry any supplies with you, besides of course camera and hiking equipment, that would make survival in the wilderness easier?
We were going to make no fallacies of going into the jungle without anything that they wouldn’t usually bring. So, we limited our supplies to just rice and water. Everything else we had to hunt or forage for.
In Bario, we would hike for seven to nine hours to set up camp, fish in streams, process sago from trees to use as a carbohydrate in meals and hunt for our meat. In fact, my adventures in the forest were well celebrated by the Kelabit tribal community with dance, music and a huge community feast.
Were there any oh my god! moments in your journey which made you want to rethink your coming out in the forest?
There were several incidences when I would be stuck in a random situation and curse myself for it. Especially coming to terms with eating only smoked wild boar meat for nearly four to five days and sampling raw wild boar liver, which apparently is a delicacy out there! But at the same time, these moments were so out of the ordinary and out of my comfort zone and being able to capture them all, is an experience I would not let go.
Do you think that bringing in technology for the tribes living in Sarawak is the next level of development or would you have to say otherwise?
I think they’re already open to technology. A lot of men at Bario use mobile phones. The only tribe that continues to live with really limited resources are the Penans, who still adhere to a nomadic lifestyle.
That being said, most of the tribes are self-sufficient. What I do hope for them, however, is better access to clean water, affordable electricity and more opportunities to earn a decent living.
From growing up as a city boy to going to a back-to-the-basics forest life. How are these experiences shaping the way you perceive things now?
For one I believe, living with the tribes has humbled me. I was always aware of how life in these communities goes like. But having experienced it first-hand, I would say, is a good reality check on things that matter and those that don’t. So irrespective of where I am, be it in Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Los Angeles or Toronto, I always find myself reliving those moments in my head and they have definitely etched their way into the kind of person I am now.
There is a lot of speculation and excitement surrounding your new tattoo. What was the whole experience of getting a traditional tattoo like?
Traditionally, tattoos were to signify new chapters or experiences in someone’s life and in the tribes they are done by hand tapping. My tattoo, which is a mix of dragon heads, took ten hours to complete with about four 15 minute breaks. I was in crazy pain throughout and my mind wandered to all sorts of plane, but the tattoo did come out well. Loads of swearing in that scene though!
Would advise others to go on a similar journey?
Absolutely. I think people yearn for change in life and just a step away from reality to be embraced by nature, to get out there and use your own intuition to survive, and going back to your roots, away from all distractions, helps a great deal in observing situations differently.
How do you think Surviving Borneo will be perceived by the audiences?
I’m very excited about Surviving Borneo because it has been such an incredible journey of self-discovery for me. The viewers will not only get an insight into my life but the lives of the tribes we spent time with and the hidden wonders of east Malaysia, that we often tend to overlook. It’s never been seen on television like this before.
Surviving Borneo premieres on Discovery Channel on September 10, 2017 at 9pm, Malaysian time.