It all began with a love story: the Che Wong tribe of Pahang, Malaysia

10 August 2015

“In the wilderness is the preservation of the world” - Henry David Thoreau

At the moment, the Che Wong population is estimated to stand at around the 400 mark. That’s about the same number as there are Malayan tigers left in the wilderness. It doesn’t take much to figure out that the threat of extinction is as real for one as it is for the other. Nonetheless, this story of the tribe - genial, ingenious and fiercely authentic - will help us better understand that the preservation of the world may actually lie in the wilderness. This is a story of hope surmounting the odds.

The bond between a mother and her child is the same across any divide

The bond between a mother and her child is the same across any divide

The Tok Batin’s eyes glistened as he prepared to relate the story of how the tribe came to be. As the chieftain and healer of the Che Wong tribe, Tok Batin Bak Raja Tek, was about to carry on an oral tradition that has survived the test of time. “In the beginning – long before there was even a Che Wong tribe - there lived a dashing young prince of Siam named Wong…” the Tok Batin began. He continued, “Naturally, it was only a question of time before the prince would find his soulmate and fall madly in love. When he did, it was with Che, an enchanting village maiden roughly his own age.”

Though wrinkled by time, the wisdom within the breast of this Che Wong elder is worth her weight in gold

Though wrinkled by time, the wisdom within the breast of this Che Wong elder is worth her weight in gold

As in all love stories, conflict soon reared its ugly head. Siam being a nation steeped in tradition could not accept that their heir to the throne was in love someone not of royal blood; it was unthinkable that the future queen of Siam would be mere commoner. When the antagonist was an entire nation, trouble was certainly not of the garden variety.

But the love the star-crossed lovers shared was stronger than even the opposition of an entire nation. In the tradition of great lovers since time immemorial, Che and Wong decided they would sacrifice everything they had just to be together. Leaving behind the lives they had known, Che and Wong fled far south into the jungles to fulfil their romantic destiny. Eventually, they found a home for their love in the wilderness of what is now known as Pahang. And so was born the Che Wong tribe.

The ravages of time belie the timeless beauty inherent in this Che Wong elder

The ravages of time belie the timeless beauty inherent in this Che Wong elder

The Che Wong tribe (to a lesser degree also known as the Siwang) is one of the nineteen indigenous peoples (Orang Asal) of Malaysia. Belonging to the Senoi sub-group, the tribe speaks a language called Cheqwong – a language strongly rooted in the languages of Siam and Myanmar. Che Wong is a nation of hunter-gatherers but have taken to hill rice cultivation as their primary economic activity. Che Wong tribesmen can often be found trading jungle produce like petai, durian and jungle herbs to supplement their income.

Currently, 66% of Che Wongs practice animistic ethic religions, 33.5% are Muslims while the remaining 0.5% are Christians. The main Che Wong settlement is at Kuala Gandah, Pahang with four smaller settlement at Sungai Beranti, Lata Tujuh, Bayek and Sungai Enggang.

The Che Wong have fiercely preserved their time honoured way of life.

The Che Wong have fiercely preserved their time honoured way of life.

It is inspiring to see that while the Che Wongs have learnt to assimilate with the neighbouring populations, they have also fiercely preserved their time honoured way of life. A proud and resourceful people, the Che Wong innately understand that some things are just not worth changing long before Edward O Wilson wrote, “The great challenge of the twenty first century is to raise people everywhere to a decent standard of living while preserving as much of the rest of life as possible.

Given the spirit of the Che Wongs, it is almost a certainty that they, as a people, will continue to thrive. There is much to learn from them.

Sofian Abdul Rahman is a writer, photographer and fanatical bass player who works out of Melaka – at first by chance, but later by choice.