The sharper edge to traveling in Asia

WoWasis book review: ‘Sarawak’ photos by Hedda Morrison

Written By: herbrunbridge - May• 08•11

Hedda Morrison, who died in 1991, was the wife of Sarawak district officer Alastair Morrison. During her 20-year stay in Sarawak, she was able to accompany her husband on official journeys through the country, detailing, through writing and photographs, the lives of tribespeople. Her book Sarawak (1957) is an indispensible record of northern Borneo before it became part of the nation of Malaysia. It appeared in several editions. The first edition of 1957 has superior photo reproductions than those following, although we at WoWasis like the third edition of 1976, as it contains an updated bibliography of book related to Sarawak, Malaysia, and Borneo in general. Although long out of print, it’s worth canvassing used book dealers for this important book. 

Morrison was a keen observer and was able to gain the trust of her subjects, who gave her carte blanche to photograph rituals that today are rarely seen in their pristine element. Her ethnographic subjects included the Sea Dayak headhunting Ibans, Malays, Land Dayak Bedayuk, Chinese, Melanaus, Kayans, Kenyahs, Muruts, Kelabits and Oenans. 

She clearly loved the people she photographed, and enjoyed having a good time with them: 

An Iban woman spins thread

“The borak, the rather bitter rice beer which the Kayans and all the other people of the upper Rejang and Baram make, flows freely. Visitors have to withstand innumerable songs of welcome from pretty girls, each song ending up with a glass of borak which no guest can resist for the simple reason that if he refuses the girls seize him and pour the borak down his throat by main force. The only safe defence is for the visitor to burst into song himself—the house will happily join in the chorus whether he sings Onward Christian Soldiers or Waltzing Matilda or the Wearing of the Green — and address his song to one of the girls who in turn must drink the borak like a man. Kayan parties are fun. And just to round things off when the visitor leaves the next morning the girls come and smear his face with soot (most difficult to remove) and then throw him in the river, as a sign of friendship for, they say, ‘We are now such good friends that we can even play practical jokes on our guests.’ They take these liberties with even the most exalted visitors. Kayan-Kenyah life is not, of course, just one unending round of parties but they are certainly some of the happiest memories which the visitor will take away with him from Sarawak.” 

She also answers questions about longhouse life that every visitor to tribal areas asks: 

Painful process of tattooing in the upper Rejang

“Some Penans have settled down in longhouses. Those who have done so for many years follow a way of life that is very similar to that of Kayans and Kenyahs but the change is not too easy and a newly established Penan longhouse is far from pleasant. This is largely due to the fact that newly settled Penans have no pigs. There are no sanitary conveniences in any Bornean longhouses. Refuse is just thrown out of the door and the people relieve themselves in the bushes a little distance from the longhouse. It appears a most unhealthy and insanitary system but in fact the longhouses of the settled peoples are clean and free from flies. This is largely due to the keeping of pigs and it is these unpleasant but useful scavengers living under and around the longhouses which ensure that the neighbourhood is kept clean. But where a house without pigs is to be found there are innumerable flies and other insects and a general atmosphere of filth and squalor.” 

This method of human refuse disposal today remains the standard way of business in much of Asia (that’s why we here at WoWasis prefer to eat our ham sandwiches in the West). If you have any interest in the beautiful land of Sarawak, try it to find this book. It’s a treasure.

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