Who are the ‘ring ladies’?
These sub-tribe Bidayuh ladies wear copper coiled rings on their forearms and calves; these rings are called ruyang and rasung. This practice is not dissimilar to the long-neck Karen ladies in northern Thailand and Myanmar.
Strangely, this age-old tradition is unique and distinct to Semban; no other villagers in the whole of Sarawak (Borneo) have this tradition. However, this tradition is dying. In 2010, there were 8 ring ladies in Semban, but today (2014) there are only 3-4 of them left. On my last visit to Semban, I met one of them on the trail as she was in the process of moving away. She was resting after trekking for over 3 hours barefooted, her heavy load of possessions taken off her shoulders and rested on the bench.
The two ladies, dressed up in their traditional costumes, sat on the bamboo mats with their feet outstretched. The copper coiled rings demanded our attention. When my eyes got used to seeing them, these foreign objects suddenly became nothing but accessories, like earrings or necklaces.
These two ladies, who are farmers when not forced to pose for cameras, told me that they started putting on their rings at a very young age, around 10 years old. According to them it was a tradition that passed down from older to younger generation. It was believed that their ancestors traded with the Chinese people who came from China. And these copper rings were payment for goods procured from the villagers.
Since not everyone had goods to trade with the Chinese, these copper rings came to become a symbol of status. So parents started to put these rings on their daughters to set them apart from the rest; the more coiled rings a girl had, the richer her family was. These coiled rings were not cheap, especially in the old days when demand was high and the rings were only available when travelling vendors brought them into the village after trekking for hours through a jungle. At a time when batter trade was still in practice, a big and fat pig was equivalent to a set of rings.
Mr. Sagen interjected that besides being a status symbol these rings were also seen as a symbol of beauty. Girls without rings would have difficulty in finding a husband. So even without parents forcing these rings on their daughters, young girls would succumb under social and peer pressures, and eventually took to wearing the rings.
Recalling childhood memories, both ladies told me that it was painful to put the rings on in the beginning. And they had to change for bigger rings as they grew. They never take them off; they wear them while working under the scorching sun in the pepper farm, or when they trek for hours in the unforgiving jungle terrain and humid rainforest, etc. For them, the rings are more than pieces of jewelry or accessories, they have become a part of who they are, their identity; not unlike what tattoos are for some people.
A dying tradition
But this tradition encountered a huge opposition when education came to this area in 1969. The teachers in the primary school forbade students from wearing these rings in school. So parents had to decide whether they want their daughters to have an education or to preserve a tradition. Eventually, many girls decided to give up the rings; only a small number of girls continued wearing theirs.
Mr. Sagen commented that even though education has brought knowledge and opportunity to many of the villagers, it has also killed off traditional practices.
Religion is another culprit for the demise of the tradition of the rings. Some of the ring ladies had decided to take the rings off after wearing them for half their lives because they had converted to religion such as Christianity that forbade them from wearing their rings and forcing them to abandon many of their traditional practices.
Accelerating its death is the relocation of the villagers. Due to the Bengoh dam, many most of the people in the surrounding villages have moved to the resettlement area. Even though Semban will not be affected, but the temptation of free house, modern conveniences have tempted many villagers to move to the resettlement area as well. Not wanting to invite unwanted stares, some of the ring ladies had taken off their rings after moving to their new home.
The end is nigh?
With the onslaught of modernization, the aging of the current ‘ring ladies’, and the unwillingness of the younger generation to carry on this traditional practice, the culture of the ‘ring lady’ in Sarawak will disappear within our lifetime.
However all is not lost, as this ‘ring ladies’ culture can still be found in some villages, deep in the jungle of Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo).
When I left Semban, I could help but wondered if these ladies, who carry the survival of a tradition on their shoulders, would still be around when I return in my next visit.
If you want to visit Semban and meet these ‘ring ladies’ before this tradition disappear, please contact me