"Bungai Terong" by Steven G. Alpert


© Steven G. Alpert


Via the encouragement of others, this is the first in a series of short stories set during a pivotal era of change in Indonesia and East Malaysia in the 1970s. That was a time when one could still meet and discourse in Malay or Bahasa Indonesia with the last former headhunters and their counterparts, the great weavers, many of whom had come of age in a period before thorough colonial domination, national independence, and modernity. 

Though in a sense autobiographical, these stories are not about the author per se, but about the recounting of personally witnessed events and experiences that made a deep impression on a young mind. Setting a story free and letting it fly, like a floating butterfly alighting on new flowers, demands that the nectar of these events be rendered as accurately as possible. These stories, and indeed the genesis of this website, are intended as pleasing testimonials or alleluias to the fragility of memory and the genius of elders now passed.  

— Steven G. Alpert, founder of Art of the Ancestors


Bungai Terong


by Steven G. Alpert

Rumah Nana Jela, Sungai Enkari, Batang Ai: 1975

There was a palpable tension, a buzz of excitement in the house the day of the tattooing ceremony. Kilat, calm as always, kept to himself. A physically powerful man; his taut muscles, chiseled jaw, and facial features eerily resembled in Asian form an old American movie actor, Charles Bronson. As a loner, Kilat spoke little, but he excelled in hunting, fishing, forest craft, or making anything. He was my closest companion and instructor in many aspects of Iban life.

My home base in the Batang Ai region of Sarawak was Nana Jela, a village or longhouse that no longer exists.  One day, the house's leader or tuai rumah, Mujeng anak Gedau, said to all assembled that as a "son" of Nana Jela, and as someone who had made a “bejalai,” a long journey from afar, that I should have my shoulders tattooed.  He turned to me and said, “Your friend Kilat will do it.”

This tradition was already on the wane, and no longer practiced even though many men still sported fine tattoos. The old tuai rumah decided that I would be tattooed in the longhouse's other dwelling, the one nearer to their farms. It was planting season and most of the village would be there. The color was made from lampblack soot and sugar. Along with an efficacious charm, this bluish-black mixture had to be kept in a small bag until the color ripened and an auspicious day was settled upon.

© Steven G. Alpert

As we began, I said to him, "Please make my tattoos small". He shrugged this off and replied, "Stebin, with these (tattoos) you will be recognized as an Iban. As one who travels far, your bungai terong (eggplant flower blossoms) must be large and exceptionally beautiful."  Two separate tools were used. The first consisted of three sharp metal needles bound to a wooden shaft to create the fine lines, followed by a second one using six needles to fill in the motif’s larger spaces. The design was done freehand without stamping or tracing, and using a tapper was hammered — with a soft tok-tok-tok sound — into the skin above and below the collarbones. It took Kilat twelve continuous hours to do two bungai terong. He started at sunrise and finished after sunset. Kilat's concentration and stamina was remarkable. He stopped only twice to quickly down cups of strong thick black coffee.

This operation was performed in a structure that was not as solidly built as the great longhouse by the river. Kilat had me lie on my side or back depending on the position required.  After so many years, something I remember in great detail about my surroundings was the skylight above our heads. The opening in the roof for sunlight was not sealed by glass, but covered by an immense amber colored leaf. It was quite wide and must have been about forty inches in length. Dry as parchment, the frond's veins and rich hue were nature's version of a stained glass window.

This skylight emitted a large swath of soft light in the dwelling's otherwise dark interior. Adding to the ambiance, brilliant platinum-yellow shafts of light passed through several small pin holes and tears in the leaf. Within those beams floated countless particles of dust. To relieve the pain, and the stiffness from being pinned so long in one position, I focused on watching individual dots of dust rise, fall, and randomly circulate. In this setting, tracking shifting particles and their random patterns was an invitation into a weightless galaxy of dreams and possibilities.

Nearby, four or five men sat cross-legged on mats. Having come of age in a more traditional time, their purpose was to exhort the one being tattooed to be brave, and to comport himself as a warrior.  Each adviser wore a cawat, a simple red loincloth, and was himself fully tattooed.  Several still wore their hair in the traditional style with square cut bangs across the forehead and long tresses down to their waists. The leader of this group of elders sported one-half of a discarded soccer ball with its alternating black and white hexagonal designs as a makeshift hat. The contrast between age-old tradition and a modified slice of modernity was blissfully absurd. If I wasn't being held down and hammered, I would have been broadly smiling or rolling in laughter.

As outlandish as the soccer ball hat was — it was complemented, or even outdone, by a pair of ill-fitting false teeth. When the elders broke into rhythmic chants, the leader's teeth repeatedly separated from his gums just as his soaring voice reached its crescendo. I watched them in wonder like a boy intently staring at a favorite wind-up toy. Instead of spinning round and round, this old warrior's false teeth freely moved up and down, in and out, with a clapping sucking sound and a biting life of their own.

Even with these diversions, the elder’s moral support really did help. Their efforts intensified particularly when the needle’s were landing on my collarbone. There is not enough flesh or muscle there to absorb the blows. That part was painful. In the hands of a tattooing expert needles, handle, and tapper move so quickly that their individual outlines just become a blur.


© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen

At one point, a very old lady inspecting Kilat's work, exclaimed to the assembly of onlookers that my pantang were going to be perfect, and that I would be all the more handsome once inked. She boasted to all the young women, who were shyly watching while hiding in the shadows of the house: "This man is mine!" With that she touched my ankle, and then my calf, circled my knee with her thumb and index finger, and finally proceeded to run her well-weathered fingers ever so lightly along my thigh. I was only wearing a shear sarong. How close would she go and would my youth respond? Along with her provocative gestures, she cooed with pleasure while staking her claim to a young warrior before a giggling audience. Kilat and the old men solemnly said in unison: "Don't move, be brave, she is trying to ruin the design. Stay still!"  It was all in good fun and helped to make the long hours quickly pass.

The Iban often told me that there are two types of people; those who cry and bleed a lot, and those who are brave and bleed little.  Thankfully, during this ordeal I managed to be the latter.  When the tattoos were finished, another old woman carefully inspected them. Stamping her feet and slapping her thighs she theatrically said: "Ah, Stebin, you are now really handsome! You are no longer invisible. You're ready to grope in the dark, court, and stalk (ngayap) the young ladies of this house.” With that she applied sirih kerakap, the coarse older leaves of the betel-vine (Piper betle) and patted the clear fluid and some of the blood still weeping from the wound. The betel leaves possess antiseptic properties. She told me that I would have a fever that night (which I did), but that afterward everything would be just fine. An even scab formed and about a week later I was gifted with a glistening pair of shoulder tattoos — the bungai terong.


© Steven G. Alpert

© Steven G. Alpert

© Steven G. Alpert

© Steven G. Alpert


This design represents the "blossom or flower of an eggplant". Traditionally, it was important that a pair of bungai terong be perfectly placed on one's shoulders. It was generally given to young men before their first "bejalai" or journey to acquire fame, fortune, and in the old days capture human heads. The outer design is the blossom of the eggplant which has a female association. It's male counterpart, the inner double spiral is variously described as either a nyawa, the “rope of life”, or the perut pusat, the “navel of life”. Together, they symbolize connectivity, metamorphosis, regeneration, and the start of new endeavors.

Bungai Terong were once seen too as talismans that assisted in protecting one from physical disaster or malevolent spirits. It is said that the essence of this design is that of the inner to the outer, the outer to the inner; the balance between man and nature, male and female principles, this world and the supernatural. I was instructed that pantang bungai terong are like “an additional pair of eyes”. With them one is both recognized by their Iban ancestors and considered safe in the forest.

Anyone who experienced the forest prior to its destruction, before the government's hydroelectric project flooded the area, remembers its crystalline rivers, giant stag horn ferns, and darting kingfisher's with their electric blue plumage. The cycle of sound in the jungle ranged from the intermittent and cacophonous roar of millions of unseen cicadas and their insect cohorts, croaking frogs, and the occasional cries of whooping gibbons, barking deer, bearded pigs, to the calls or songs of hornbills, bulbuls, woodpeckers, babblers, flycatchers, fantails, spiderhunters, bristleheads and the rare Malaysian honeyguide – to utter silence.


If not engaged in some task, my Iban friends often insisted on accompanying me no matter if the journey was short or arduously long. However, one particular day, I decided to just enjoy the jungle on my own.  Clamoring over a tangle of gnarled roots while navigating a slippery earthen bank, and just about to cross a stream, I surprised a cobra (naia tedong belalang). It immediately reared its head and puffed its hood at my intrusion.

© Steven G. Alpert

Have you ever been eyeball to eyeball with a deadly poisonous snake?  It was less than five feet from me. The belalang was black with a spotted throat. The cobra's body rose as if standing upright, an elongated “s” with its shining yellow-ringed eyes continually fixed on mine.

There was no escape. I was cornered and immobilized by fear. Terrified, it was danger commingling with a dash of clarity in slow motion that seemed to last for an eternity. Everything surrounding the snake; the muddy bank, vines, roots, leaves, and the trickling sound of water all came into sharper focus.  The snake slowly turned its head to its left, and then repeated the same twisting motion to the right.  All the while, the belalang's eyes were staring directly into the spiraling heart of each tattoo.  This encounter lasted seconds, probably less than a minute.  In the end, the snake did not strike.  It bowed its head, lowered itself, and slithered away amid the crinkling sound of crushed leaves.

Breathlessly, I ran back to the longhouse. There a few men were sitting on mats smoking and chatting away on the ruai, the longhouse's open inner veranda.  When told what had just transpired they all started to laugh. One old fellow kindly said, “Ah, Stebin, we never harm that snake and it never harms us. He saw your pantang — your bungai terong, your other eyes — and he knew that you belonged to this house. The belalang will not attack you.  He's our friend.”

After that day, I walked with a different step in the jungle, forest, or fields — quieter, more confident, and with a new respect and appreciation for Kilat's handiwork.



The only other tattooed Westerner I ever met while in Borneo was Dr. Neville Haile. In those days, we were a small and adventuresome fraternity. Neville was a good twenty years older than me. He was a very talented, upper crust British geologist, who worked there in the 1950's-60's – and ironically, also developed the first comprehensive checklist and keys devoted to the snakes of Borneo.  This included sea snakes, all of which are venomous, and easily distinguished by their oar-shaped tails. Neville was a wonderful, lively companion, a lover of jungle vegetation – loca virgultis obsita – and an ice-cold beer.

© Steven G. Alpert

He had an aso, a mythical dragon-dog inked on his forearm. Little did we know in our devotion to Borneo, and her peoples, that our exotic markings preceded and perhaps lent seed to an evocative trend.  Today, the curvilinear creatures, spirals, and inventive asymmetrical designs of the Dayak, along with tattoo motifs from Micronesia and Polynesia, anchor the aestheticism of what has since the 1980's become known as “New Tribalism”.

The immense popularity and the creative explosion of “tribal tattoos” is now a global phenomenon.  Hardly a week goes by where I don't see someone bagging groceries, pumping gas, or crossing my line of vision without their arms, and one assumes other sundry body parts, tattooed with motifs derived or based on Iban or Dayak designs. 

One can even find images of the bungai terong on T-shirts, coasters, and as the ubiquitous symbol of the (now defunct) Amsterdam Tattoo Museum!  It just goes to show that if you wait long enough things change.  They have a way just like the double spiral of the bungai terong of coming around full circle in sometimes odd and amusing ways.


© Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen



Author | Steven G. Alpert
Date of Publication | July 22nd, 2019
Publication Website | www.artoftheancestors.com