Strive not to live with nature, but to be embrace our place within it.

A recent assignment brought me to Kampung Pinggan Jaya, Kuching to look at the community ran gula apong industry. For Pak Mahli, work is a daily ritual of slipping into his yellow gum boots and strapping a can of burning mosquito coil around his waist as he waded through mud and nipah grinds taller than his house. He collects air nipah which is then cooked and processed into gula apong of various grades, differing in viscosity. The natural sugar is then used in baking cakes, kuihs, and even popcorn.

Originally the sugar was cooked in a huge wok under a small wooden hut surrounded by nipah trees. It was hard work handling hot liquids in a such a challenging environment. With a bit of institutional support, they’ve been able to set up a gula apong hub fitted with larger woks, chillers and a small retail space.


“Young people don’t like to work this way. They think it’s too hard and prefer to sit in the office. But there the pay is the same no matter what you do. Here, the harder you work the more you earn. You feel motivated.” he lamented.

A few years ago I had photographed a similar story but in Kedah. I can’t remember his name but I distinctly recall the way he gripped a small curved blade tightly in one hand as he explained how he worked. He would speak softly to the nipah trees, and slowly massage the stem of the fruit. Only then the nipah would allow its nectar to be extracted.

I shared this story with Pak Mahli, who nodded in agreement. “Yes. When I’m alone here I talk to the plants. I also talk to the animals. I tell the rats to take what they want from dawn till 3pm, and leave the rest to me. That way we can share the food. It’s the same with all the animals here. I speak to them gently and tell them what I intend to do.” he explained. Speak softly and the ancient mother listens carefully, for though we have long flattened the forest and built a concrete one in its place, we remain her children.

As I’m struggling to reclaim my legs from the mud, Pak Mahli quickly zipped from one tree to another. The light was slowly fading and a light drizzle washed over the village. I could still catch glimpses of his bright blue shirt moving deeper into the nipah maze, until he was swallowed whole.

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