From books to music, movies, a restaurant and back to film, Ike Ong is to drawn to diverse paths.
IKE Ong is quite a character. When you start chatting with the man, the conversation can go in so many different directions, all of them fascinating. In fact, I had a difficult task steering him back to the recent Accolade Film Competition merit award that he had won for his feature-length documentary on the Iban entitled Twilight of the Longhouse.
Ike Ong worries that the Ibans’ traditional way of life will disappear.
For starters, Ong, 57, is a man with a diverse background, having grown up variously in Penang, Australia, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur. Currently he juggles his time between KL and London, where he has settled with his wife and four daughters.
Having studied accounting, Ong found himself working in the music and movie industries and even venturing into the restaurant business (he once owned a Greek restaurant!). He is also best known among book lovers as the man who founded the first Skoob Bookstore in London back in 1979. (He also founded the KL branch in 1990, before selling it to current director Thor Kah Hoong.)
So just how does he feel about the many twists and turns his life has taken?
“ I look at it this way ... Robert De Niro may own restaurants and co-produce films but that doesn’t make him a restauranteur or film producer.
“I’ve had my share of different tangents. Skoob Books was very supplementary. I enjoyed popular culture and wanted to participate in and invest in it. I was also involved in forming Stiff Records in London in 1976, a label which carried Elvis Costello and Nick Lowe.”
Nonetheless, it is filmmaking that is the very core of Ong’s efforts and he is passionate about the need to improve standards in Malaysia.
“There have been some encouraging signs among independent filmmakers lately, but I think we need to have a very cohesive and well-funded effort.
The award-winning filmmaker of Twilight of the Longhouse dancing with the Iban.
“It’s a fast growing world and the Internet is a very important medium, and some leaders will refer to the information superhighway. Yet, our broadband speeds are still so slow. We need dedicated people who know what they are doing, in every field. Too often, the best people aren’t here anymore.”
So how does he feel about getting an award from the Accolade, a California-based independent film festival that itself has been gaining accolades since its establishment in 2002.
“It’s recognition of your professionalism and integrity,” he says, before adding, “I find the standard of writing and story-telling has declined. Nowadays young directors are so focused on visual tricks. To me story is king.”
Ong had been particularly busy making the much-talked about TV movieWirasiswi last year. It was, in fact, that movie that led him to make the Iban documentary.
He had long been interested in the Iban, says Ong, having first visited Sarawak in 1996.
“One of the student actors in Wirasiswi is Iban and his grandfather invited me to Sungai Passin. I decided to go after doing my research but even though I had certain ideas in mind, I didn’t really know what to expect when I got there.”
Twilight of the Longhouse highlights the possibility of the extinction of the Iban’s traditional way of life. Filmed in Sungai Passin, Sungai Sepinjai and Sungai Serban, it intersperses traditional Iban myths with footage of celebrations of the Gawai (harvest festival) and a wedding ceremony.
“I found the Iban’s ability to survive in the jungle fascinating. They are a very adaptable, resourceful, durable people with a different value system from ours. They are a very peaceful people, ready to put their shoulder to the wheel and work hard for each other,” Ong says.
Traditional occupations like farming and fishing are now less popular. Men go off to work in the oil or timber industries for very little pay and this affects the traditional family system.
“People are leaving some remote settlements. But some resist moving. It has been the only home they know. If they migrate to the cities, there’s no guarantee of a better life.”
While many feel that a sweeping political change is needed to better the Ibans’ lot, Ong believes access to education for young Ibans is crucial if the community is to flourish.
“How they see themselves and how we see them are very different. As outsiders we might think their community needs more vocal leaders who can press for political change, but that’s not a priority at all for most.
“They are Malaysians, one of many indigenous groups that aren’t Malay/Muslim and they have to adapt to the modern economy and rapid industrialisation. There are many such sectors of the population that have been excluded from our development because of their unusual circumstances.”
I asked Ong about the recent controversy surrounding the rape of the women of another Sarawakian tribe, the Penan.
“I didn’t encounter such cases, but the situation is such that the people can be isolated and defenceless. The girls are married off at a young age; men go off for better jobs. Women are left with young children, destitute and very vulnerable. It is very sad.”
Still, Ong has many fond memories of his two-month stay with the Iban.
“I remember waking up in the morning and going fishing with the grandfather. And we watched the sunrise. He asked why I wasn’t watching the sun, because I was looking at the trees and the river.
“I explained that I was looking for the shadows not the light. He understood and said the same principle was used in hunting.”
To watch early edit extracts of Twilight of the Longhouse go to the My Videos section of: