Overlooked Indigenous Representation in Crazy Rich Asians

By Sarah Ngu, Contributor

Photo credit: Malaysian Tatler

This story was originally published in the August 31, 2018 issue of The Slant, a weekly Asian American newsletter. Want more stories like this one? Subscribe for free.

Although Crazy Rich Asians has been praised for its all-Asian cast, a rarity in Hollywood, its real representation breakthrough may be its leading man: an indigenous Asian actor, Henry Golding.

Yes, Golding, the male lead, who speaks with a British accent and has an extremely white surname. Golding’s father is English, but his mother is Iban (pronounced eee-ban), hailing from one of the largest indigenous communities in Sarawak, a state in East Malaysia.

Image source: Speedacademy

Understanding Malaysian history requires understanding Malaysian geography. Split into two regions, the Peninsula (West), and Borneo (East), the two parts are quite different and disconnected from one another, due to different histories and ethnic demographics.

For one, they were ruled by different British colonial authorities. Peninsula Malaysia, then known as “Malaya,” first obtained independence from the British in 1957. Five years later, Singapore, along with the Borneo states of Sarawak and Sabah, came together with Malaya to form a fully independent “Malaysia” in 1963. Singapore would later leave Malaysia two years later.

Demographically, indigenous folks form a plurality in Sarawak and Sabah, two states in the East, whereas they are a tiny minority in the West. And although many outsiders believe that Malays are native to Malaysia, indigenous tribes — including Ibans — actually predate the Malays.

Golding’s heritage

Golding’s connection with his Iban heritage clearly runs deep. Last year, he embarked on a bejalai journey: a rite of passage where Iban men leave their home and begin a transformative journey into adulthood. Historically, getting “bungai terung” tattoos is part of the bejalai experience, which Golding did at the end of his journey: a process that lasted seven hours.

When Ellen DeGeneres asked Henry Golding where he was from, he said, “I’m Iban,” sparking a flurry of tweets from proud Ibans.

Guztyne Balang Juan, who is half-Iban and half-Chinese, says, “We are proud and grateful for Henry for putting the Iban on the world map.” He grew up in Sarawak and now lives in Hanoi.

Guztyne Balang Juan. Photo credit: Guztyne Balang Juan

Some Iban, however, express reservations about Golding’s representation. Terence Anthony, who has mixed Iban heritage, says that because many Iban live in poor, rural areas, the story of “Crazy Rich Asians” wouldn’t resonate with most Ibans. But he hopes that the ceiling that Golding has broken will create an opportunity to tell other Iban stories on the global stage.

Terence Anthony. Photo credit: Terence Anthony

Indigenous communities in East Malaysia

The Iban make up 30 percent of Sarawak’s population, its largest demographic. Together, the indigenous tribes make up 48 percent of Sarawak’s population and 53 percent of Sabah’s. The rest are Malays, Chinese, Indians, and more. Yet the indigenous are among the poorest people in East Malaysia and possess the lowest levels of education.

As the Ibans comprise the most dominant group, their language was, for a period of time, the lingua franca in Sarawak. Things changed when Sarawak and Sabah joined to form Malaysia in 1963. The two Borneo states had agreed to join on the condition that they would be given autonomy in various areas, from religion to immigration and education.

Since 1963, however, the Malaysian government has not held up its end of the bargain. Malay has become the dominant language taught in schools, as Malays have ascended to the top of the political pyramid, virtually erasing indigenous languages. Sarawak and Sabah retains only 5 percent of oil royalties generated from their land, contributing to an under-funding of public infrastructure. Many indigenous communities live in rural areas that lack consistent access to electricity and clean water.

Wesley Luke, an Iban teacher in a rural region of Sarawak, explained the impact this has on schools.

“We don’t have roads connecting schools to the outside world. We have to rely on water wooden boat rides in dangerous, infested rivers. Some schools are more than an eight-hour boat ride from the nearest town,” he said. “It’s pretty weird for a state so rich in natural resources such as timber and petroleum.”

Longboat ride. Photo credit: Guztyne Balang Juan

The indigenous communities in Sarawak have born the brunt of the changes to Borneo in the past fifty years. Tens of thousands have been displaced from their lands in favor of government projects and logging operations. Native communities, particularly the Iban, have been engaged in protracted court battles with the government due to conflicts between native definitions of land ownership and the government’s. An amendment to the Sarawak land code, passed just last month, has legally recognized Native Customary Rights to land, but many native groups have protested it, pointing out its various shortcomings.

To top it off, although indigenous communities are the original inhabitants of Malaysia, 20 percent of Sabah’s residents are stateless. In Sarawak, 290,437 children, who alone comprise 11 percent of the population, are stateless. Obtaining Malaysian citizenship requires documented evidence that you are born in Malaysia to legally married parents, one of whom must be a Malaysian citizen. But the government does not recognize marriage certifications based on indigenous custom, and most indigenous communities reside far from the citizenship registration sites. To be undocumented is to be cut out from most public services and jobs.

Of course, the stories of the Iban and other indigenous communities cannot be reduced to mere struggle. Several Iban folks whom I interviewed told me they were proud of their heritage, citing their rich traditions, warrior heritage, longhouses, food, language and even traditional musical celebrities such as Jerry Kamit.

View from inside Juan’s longhouse. Photo credit: Guztyne Balang Juan

Many Iban men also cited the bejalai as something which they were proud of. Anthony explained that the bejalai is fundamentally about change — it’s about young people emerging to learn something new about the world and return a different person, with a story to tell.

“The reason why Iban people are proud of their heritage is because they are part of the narrative. Stories are not meant just to be stories, but we are part of it. We add ourselves into pre-existing ideas,” he says.

Despite the stereotypes of indigenous folks in Borneo as people who “wear loincloths” and “live on trees,” more Iban and other indigenous folks are graduating from universities and entering the professional marketplace.

Juan sees this as an evolution, not a departure, from Iban traditions. “The Ibans are naturally a proud tribe who hold onto their heritage clearly, but I think we as a race must move forward with the rest of the world and make ourselves marketable on a global front. Collectively, this is a form of ‘bejalai’ for us Ibans to stand shoulders to shoulders with the world.”

With Golding’s representation in Crazy Rich Asians, let’s hope the world will listen.