It Doesn't Matter If You're Black Or White
To brace himself for Hollywood, Henry Golding took a hike, deep into the Borneo of his childhood.
Hollywood is having another black and white moment. As the global factory of dreams, it likes its identities fixed and much prefers it if the good guys always stayed good, and the bad guys, blown to bits (because, hell yeah, they deserve it). Then, The Donald gets elected president, his hot video and saucy spy dossier be damned. And Harvey Weinstein, one of Tinseltown's most powerful dream merchants, is unmasked as a serial predator. Who’s bad? It doesn’t matter if you’re black or white. In life, unlike in dreams, people are mixed-up silly putty. Heroes have feet of clay and demons fly the commanding heights.
We haven't even begun to talk about whitewashing, the phenomenon of intense, guilt-ridden, group navel-gazing induced by reactionary political correctness (“we are not like them!”); Ed Skrein's apology for accepting the role of a mixed-parentage character in the sequel to Deadpool; Scarlett Johansson copping flak for playing an ostensibly Japanese inhumanoid in Ghost in the Shell; Tilda Swinton in Dr Strange. Oh, Matt Damon in the Great Wall. And, hey, Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany?
Malaysia, on the other hand, had its black, brown and yellow-washing episode in the late-80s and early-90s, when 'Pan-Asian' actors were banned from being cast in ads by the information minister popularly known as Tok Mat (Tan Sri Datuk Seri Mohamed bin Haji Rahmat, 1938-2010; father of Nur Jazlan Mohamed, current deputy minister for home affairs). 'Pan-Asian' referred to mixed-parentage, but not to mixed Asian parentage, just the ones between locals and Caucasians. So long as you shared the flat facial features of the rotund Tok Mat, you qualified to be on air, joked the beloved Malaysian cartoonist, Lat (himself a cherub) in a warmly humorous sketch.
The thing is, you'd be hard-pressed to find a Malaysian resident whose ancestry is purely what it says on the tin/ MyKad. Malaysias East and West, unlike Hollywood, have always been made complex by the crossings of people. Southeast Asia, meeting point of two of the world's ancient civilisations and with not a few kingdoms of its own is, even more so, the flame-licked cauldron of primordial soup – with a dash of something or another from Pandora’s box.
HOORAY FOR HENRY
But this milieu, sometimes, for some people, is like a magically whirring gluten-free cake mix with real butter and cream, kicked up a notch with toddy and gula melaka. For Henry Golding, this year’s Hollywood leading actor debutant, this time, now, is like a dessert degustation menu spontaneously combusted by Darren Teoh and Andrés Lara (google it) and doused by Omakase + Appreciate; there’s surprise, delight and serendipity.
For those who came in late, Golding, 30, is this generation’s post-global poster boy of the kacukan, or people of hybrid origin (also known colloquially as celup and the aforementioned 'Pan Asian'). He is part-Iban, part-English; his partner Liv Lo, whom he married last August, is part-Taiwanese and Italian. He grew up in Surrey and London, and they make their base in Singapore. Golding is a qualified hair stylist who had the good fortune to avoid a tertiary education in today’s for-profit universities run by CEOs. “That format of education and learning [isn’t] the sort of way that my brain works. I’m more hands on,” he reportedly told the (now-dormant) website, The Blisscipline.
This year, after travel hosting for the likes of the BBC, ESPN, National Geographic and more recently, Discovery, he was cast as lead in Crazy Rich Asians, the Warner Bros adaptation of the Kevin Kwan bestseller. He plays Nick Young, an NYU history prof who turns out to be swimming in Gatsby-like wealth, and who falls for hot fellow egghead Rachel Chu (Constance Wu). Michelle Yeoh plays Nick’s mother, Eleanor. There are other women, a wedding of the year and, presumably, flying cat fur. Then came the call to star opposite Blake Lively in the Paul Feig-directed thriller, A Simple Favor (Lionsgate), which wrapped shooting in Toronto in October.
What Hollywood will come to make of its new, cosmopolitan, leading man, will be interesting to see, especially when it finds out about his ancestors being headhunters. More fascinating perhaps, to consider it as another stop in Golding’s larger bejalai as an Iban man. In a coming together of his professional and personal lives this year, the now-former travel host made his pilgrimage to Betong, his birthplace, for Surviving Borneo.
“I worked with my executive producer, Emile Guertin, on Sabah Earthquake Decoded on Discovery Channel, and we became very close,” Golding tells Esquire. “He was extremely interested to come up with an idea for a show [about Sarawak] but we didn’t have that hook for it. I think I was reading an article on a flight about the Bejalai that the Iban undertakes. And I was like, this is the perfect catalyst for a journey; a very personal journey for myself.”
To put this into context, anthropologist Dave Lumenta and curator (now Art Basel Asia director) Adeline Ooi, writing in Off The Edge magazine, explain that the Iban bejalai has its equivalents in the cultures of other communities that inhabit the land. For example, the Kenyah peselai is the same. Both are “a rite of passage with deep roots to the land ... by men discovering new territories and cultures. Bejalai and peselai were once largely associated with long-distance raids, scouting for new arable lands, hunting or trading expeditions. The wide array of ancient Chinese jars, Javanese bronze gongs, Venetian and Mesopotamian beads, batik textiles and even Papuan penis gourds that can be found in possession among upriver Kenyah and Kayan communities are ample evidence that central Borneo had been part of an extensive trade network.”
Knowledge-sharing and cultural exchange (and, until the 1900s, headhunting) took place during these journeys across different lands, now made difficult by borders and passports. Languages like Malay, Kayan, Iban, Penan and even some Foochow came to be spread in this way. But as rites of passage such as bejalai fall to consumer imperatives, the lingua franca of the heart of Borneo has devolved to Malay or Bahasa Indonesia. Bejalai and pesalai have become migrant labour journeys by men seeking work in logging camps in Sabah and Sarawak. “Families have been sundered across distances that used to be a mere journey into a neighbour or relative’s land,” add Lumenta and Ooi.
Here, Golding shares with Esquire his personal journey of a more contemporary bejalai, into the interiors of Sarawak and his inner self.
ESQUIRE: How would you describe your personal experience of bejalai?
HENRY GOLDING: Bejalai, for the Iban, is really a sense of self-discovery. It’s usually a journey undertaken before venturing into manhood, turning from a boy into the man you’re going to be for the rest of your life. There’s no defined journey, in so much as it is about self-discovery. It’s a mental challenge; it’s a physical challenge; whatever you need, to get the most out of it.
ESQ: Is it an experience only for men?
HG: Bejalai can be translated into anybody’s journery, it doesn’t technically have to be just for men, but in Iban culture it used to be just for the males as a conduit for becoming a man through exploration and survival in harsh environments.
ESQ: Was this your first time in the interiors of Borneo?
HG: I’ve done a few adventure-related shows there but nothing to this extent. I actually do a good 70% of all the filming. When I’m out in the jungles with the representative of the Iban tribe or the Penan, it’s just me and them; I’m the one who films the majority of it. This film is a very stripped down version of a show.
ESQ: So, no creature comforts then?
HG: I had very minimal creature comforts. We wanted it to be as true to life as possible, so we didn’t set anything up, it was actually as much as we could get (most of the time). Whatever would unravel was something I had to handle and deal with.
ESQ: Is bejalai something you only do once in your lifetime?
HG: In traditional senses, it was once in a lifetime. But for modern use, bejalai is when you really need to look into yourself and challenge yourself mentally, [such as] if you’re having a midlife crisis. People go away to Bali to find themselves. Or they go test themselves. Those are forms of bejalai. But again, in the traditional sense, this was something you did before you entered manhood.
ESQ: This wasn’t quite Eat, Pray, and Love, was it?
HG: No! It was far from that.
ESQ: Was this your first bejalai? How would you describe your personal experience of it?
HG: Yes, I think it was one of the most challenging experiences that I’ve ever had; not only physically but mentally as well. At the end of the journey, I have my wedding in Kuching, so that was kind of the spark for the journey in the first place. I knew that I had my impending marriage and I wanted to undertake this journey before I started a new chapter.
ESQ: So you wanted to make sure you were ready?
HG: Exactly, for another animal all together.
ESQ: What is it about marriage that made you want to make sure you were ready?
HG: I think it was just unfinished business really. I’ve always felt a connection with my heritage to a certain degree, and it was something that was an ancient process as such for young Ibans to undertake and something I was eager to explore.
ESQ: Tell us more about your provenance, Betong.
HG: I was born in Betong, which is about a five-hour drive from Kuching. It’s kind of a trader’s town. Recently, it’s been growing a lot. When I was growing up, there were hardly any concrete roads; it was all dirt roads, and we had to walk through the jungle to get to my house from the main road, which was a good one to two-hour walk. Now it’s like a 15-minute car ride. I had such strong, vivid memories of this as a child and through the years, seeing our culture change and become modernised. I’ve always wanted to explore [Betong], in as pure a form as possible.
ESQ: In what ways do you feel you carry your provenance with you? What’s the relationship between your UK land and your East Malaysian land?
HG: It’s something I’ve come to terms with. As a mixed-blooded young man you’re never at home anywhere because no one fully accepts you for being Asian or being white… you’re somewhere in between. So this was kind of a self-pride thing, for exploring your heritage. It kind of translates into everything [about my life]. People are very easy to judge and label, but it’s what comes from you personally that matters the most to you at the end of the day. And I think that comes with maturity as well – not having to try pleasing everyone later in life, you’re not self-conscious about what people think. And that was the stage that I got to.
ESQ: Did you start to realise that before you went on your bejalai?
HG: Yes, I think so. Definitely.
ESQ: How is Henry Golding connected to his world within, and to his world without?
HG: It’s what I bring inside me, everywhere I go, that sense of pride and where I’m from and the struggles that my people have had throughout their history. And I’m proud of it. When I was really young, when we moved back to England, I was almost embarrassed of being Malaysian because I was so different. I grew up in a suburban town (in Surrey) in the UK before mass immigration, so I was one of only two kids of different colour in my entire school. You start off hating your heritage, but when maturity hits and you start realising how special your heritage is and begin feeling proud of it, that’s when you start exploring it.
ESQ: How did your friends and peer relate to you then compared to now? How do you regard them now?
HG: Well, that’s the thing. Your friends will never judge you for how you look or who you are; it’s more of a self-judgement; a feeling of unease in society because you know that you’re different. But that was when I was a child. When I was going into my teens, there was never a question or self-doubt in the way I looked or anything like that. People didn’t treat you differently. Obviously, you’ve got your odd case racism here and now, but that’s something that everybody in a different country has to deal with. As every young man and person figures out, it’s a confusing place until you find your own feet and become proud of who you are as an individual, and not what society tells you to be.
ESQ: So which is the more unfamiliar land to you, the interiors of Borneo or the inner universe of Henry Golding?
HG: Luckily I’ve got a bit of a balance. I’ve spent more than half my life now back in Asia while still having links to majors cities [but] with future work venturing more to Stateside, I’ll be experiencing that as well. That’s a bit of a scary thought; I’ve never really experienced much of America and that culture is by far a stark reality from the UK culture. It’s exciting.
ESQ: How would you describe the differences between the US and the UK culture? What has struck you that is most different about them?
HG: I think America has such a strong sense of identity and a very proud outlook. It’s such a humongous country. Some states in America are way bigger than Great Britain in general. There are so many microcultures surrounding the States. Yeah, it fascinates me. It’s like traveling for the first time to, like, Thailand; it’s overwhelming to the senses. People don’t realise that even going to, Middle America is “oh my gosh,” just so different than here.
ESQ: Which parts of the states have you been to?
HG: Not many. Hopefully, we’ll change that. I’ve been to the East coast, New York, LA, a bit of Miami; The geography of it, that’s what fascinates me actually. You know you’ve got everything from deserts to coastlines to canyons. It’s such a changing climate depending on where you are.
ESQ: You’re a traveller, a nomad in that sense. You travel for your career. And now your professional and personal lives have intersected, with your own bejalai being part of a TV series. You’ve met the Penan, and described them as the last nomads; one of the last nomadic tribes around, at least in Malaysia. What have you realised about the Iban, bearing in mind your own bejalai and your own sense of a nomadic existence, professionally? What have you realised about the Penan, about their world and their lifestyle, after meeting them?
HG: I think the – the biggest kind of perception that we, outside people, have of the Penan is that they’re extremely shy, which is partly true because they do take warming up. But once they open up to you, they’re very expressive; they’re extremely kind and very protective of you. And they live such a purist life where they’re more than happy to have their community; they don’t need outside influence. They’ll only go into town if they need to pick up supplies. They’re more than happy to head back into the jungles. So, I envy them in a sense, [because] they’re very secure and happy with who they are.
ESQ: And how did they regard you? How did they see you: as someone who is half-Caucasian and half-Asian?
HG: They didn’t act any different towards a bumbling idiot who stumbled into their jungles. I think anybody not from that way of life would have a hard time, so that’s the wonderful thing about going to a place like that is that pretty much 99% of the people in the universe would feel very out of place in. In that sense, they became more motherly; they knew that I was out of my depth. I definitely leaned on them to survive through and they provided, and that’s what they do best. They’re not selfish at all. They do everything for the greater good for their community.
ESQ: Perhaps they know that the universe provides and they don't regard scarcity in the same sense that we do economically, and they know that there is enough to go around for everyone.
HG: They don’t take too much, which is great. They only take what they need.
ESQ: So having done Surviving Borneo, do you survive Borneo, or does the land sustain you?
HG: I think, a bit of both, really. You’re only sustained with the knowledge that has been passed down. If you don’t have the knowledge of how to utilise what Borneo gives to you, then you’re in deep trouble. But with the history and the knowledge given to you via the conduit of living with the tribe, that’s when you start to thrive and survive.
ESQ: What is 21st century Borneo to you?
HG: I think, monumental shifts in their way of life. They have to get electricity. They have main roads built near them [so] they have to get a motorbike to get to the town. They’ve got to – for modern life, it’s adaptation, but also not forgetting your roots.
ESQ: Do you think they have a choice in this matter?
HG: No choice. Definitely no choice. I think it’s adapt or you don’t survive. I think it’s very close-minded to stay as you are. As human beings, we evolve. It’s only natural to be able to adapt.
ESQ: You did your bejalai as something to resolve/discover about yourself before marriage. Would you recommend bejalai as something to do before getting hitched?
HG: I think it’s definitely opened and closed a lot of thoughts in my head and answered a lot of personal questions. It was something I was so grateful for because not a lot of people get to spend the time self-reflecting ...
ESQ: Tell us a little bit about the things that it resolved for you. What have you learned about Henry Golding after his bejalai?
HG: It was a self sort of satiation of curiosity of where I’m from, what life was like back then, what I’m grateful for. Things like that. It’s hard to put a finger on it, but it was a general sense of ease and comfort with the person that I’ve become.
ESQ: So, how has bejalai changed the way you regard your marriage and the way you regard Liv Lo?
HG: Gratitude is definitely something that I’ve learned, for what we have in abundance. But also I think that after marriage, there was a sense of security and obviously the end of a chapter; it was the end of my bachelorhood. It was a new life that includes having to think of somebody else other than just yourself. I’m excited for this part of life.
Surviving Borneo is now on Discovery Channel (Astro Channel 551)
This article was first published in the print edition of Esquire Malaysia's November 2017 issue.