Why after having spend half your life around the globe, being privileged to witness some of the grandest show left on our planet, do you get so enthusiastic about some little fragile miniature sailing boats, the Jongs?
Because they are true masterpieces. Each single Jong carries it’s own individuality.
It is true that I have search around the globe cultural manifestations from various tribal and “modern” societies to learn about what it means to be human.
Although I do take my body for granted, I do not take neither my mind nor my heart as such. Both require work, a lot of work.
The world of Jongs, is a school and I am one of its student.
Can you explain what you mean by it is a school? A sailing school?
There is so much more than meets the eyes. Buckminster Fuller had a great say: 99% of who you are is invisible and untouchable.
But that is true for everything really. So why specifically the Jongs?
The work that goes into the “game”. The design is of the highest sophistication, the ultimate simplicity. At the same time it relies on ancient knowledge passed on through the generation.
No one knows how far back and you can really get deeper into it.
The dimensions are based on the human body, and rooted in animist beliefs where spirits are everywhere, including in your Jong and every player has a few secrets of his own.
It really is a detective story, and as such you try to collect as many view point to create the sharpest images. And the difficulty arises in the fact that everyone wants it blurred. By cultural design.
Can you elaborate on that point?
Well there is the physical object, and this can be traced back to the local sail boat known as the Kolek sauh. Identical shape and form of the hull, the racing rig that is found around The northern part of the Riau archipelago, from Johor, Singapore, Sumatra, and the islands near Batam and Bintan.
I was told that it used to be the vessel that transported food to the spirit of the sea, in forms of beetle nut, betel leaves, grain of rice and so forth.
Those rituals can still be seen, not performed in public but definitely part of the tradition before the races.
In the Malay tradition there are two type of information, the one that can be readily shared and the one that need to stay secret. Like in many tribal societies, you real name is actually never spoken. Many players really believe that they are playing with the help of their ancestors, called in with special mantras and so on.
It is also highly competitive. Since it has taken the model of a race, there is a winner. And the players come to test out the work against others.
There are metaphysical dimension to the game and this is not just theory, but the Jong as extension of yourself provides feedback to the effect of your focused attention. You can trace some of these exercises to the Sufi tradition that was, and still is strong in various communities in the Riau Archipelago. Especially the
Naqshbandiyya order that came early to the east coast of Sumatra.
The tradition of “seamanship” in Asian cultures has shifted drastically through the years. Especially in Riau. This is a big subject that could occupy a few researchers for a lifetime.
To take a basic example of a tribal group named the orang suku laut “people of the sea”, they used to control the ocean around Riau, advisers to the Malay sultanate, are now relegated to sedentary life styles in portion of land that no investors wanted.
The aristocracy of the Malays looks down on the people making a living from the sea, as “lesser” Malays.
The provincial government rarely features the sea, usually a source of exploitation especially among the Chinese community amassing fortunes from sea products.
You also have to remember that less than a hundred years ago, the sea and ocean around the world was full of sails. And the Riau Archipelago was one of the world pivot for trade between the east and the west. Essentially everyone passed by here.
So effectively apart form a few traditional sailing boat used during a couple of races funded by the provincial government and a couple of small fishing canoes or small sampan, the art of traditional sailing has pretty much disappeared.
Somehow the Jongs survived all this. Partly due that you do not have to have a lot of resources. The essence is time and skills. And without time they is not possibility of furthering one skills.
What does it take to make and sail a Jong?
A lot. Time, time to select the tree, the right time to cut it, the time to dry the wood before you can even begin to shape it.
It takes passion, and patience, and dexterity, precision, geometrical knowledge, and so forth.
You had to learn, either from watching and playing but especially by being taught.
The measurement is based on the human body. And geometry where dimensions are half, a third and so forth, without the need of any tape measurer for example.
My friend Zakir was showing me the dimension by holding the Jong he chose for me between my arms, listening to the jong to the hole that step the mast fitting perfectly.
Everything needs to be balanced, and trials are necessary to cut the sails properly.
Lightness of the hull is key, but the most underrated element is the outrigger and it’s float, called the Anak, “the child”.
Are woman playing as well?
I haven’t seen any but there is no taboo against it. I think it is the part of the culture to have different activities for the different gender, and like in the west boys play with car while girls play with dolls. I have seen Zakir daughter try, but when it comes to racing they do shy away.
She probably will race on the new addition to our yearly races, a children race.
Usually it is older men and young adult participating in the races. The family comes to support and in the case of serious players bringing a dozen jongs, you need help in the organization, transport and actual launching of the jongs.
The prices for the races can be quite substantial for a whole province race, at least by local standards. Up to three salaries for the 1st price. The last provincial race had the winner of the big jong class take 6 million rupiah(600US$).
How did you get involved?
One afternoon on New Year day I saw a group of people playing close to my house. The sails attracted me like a magnet. I met Zakir that day and it started the whole thing.
We decided to organize a race in Teluk Bakau. I got funding from Nikoi Island and the island foundation to kick start it.
From there we decided to organize two races a year, to keep with the natural monsoonal circle, and named the two races: Utara for the Northeast season, and Selatan for the Southwest season.
How does the race work?
It is divided in classes according to sizes. Usually ten jong will race at one time and three of them will enter the following round, and so forth until the last ten or twelve to have the grand final for the given class.
There are rules but basically you Buka “open” your jong on a starting line, and there is a finishing line between two posts, the goal. The fastest win, but it needs to cross the line between the posts. I have seen fast boat missing by a couple of millimeters.
The players are tuning their jong according to the wind strength and direction.
I personally carry led weights to lest my Anak (the outrigger float) if the wind increases for example.
Everyone looks at everyone and will pick up tricks and learn.
During a very low wind situation I rigged and tune my jong differently than anyone else. It wasn’t fast but entered the “goal” and took first place of that preliminary race. On the next one some players paid attention and adjusted their tuning.
It was a one of unusual situation, and I was lucky from my past experience in trying to move a boat with a puff of wind being often stuck in the middle of the ocean.
I am learning from these masters every time I participate. You have to remember that I am only a “child” in this scene.
Who makes jongs in your area?
There are really two makers, and two different styles as well. Both are in a bit of a competition and we are ending up right now with two groups.
Wood is not easy to find anymore, so much land has been cleared up. So the builders are always on the look out, and keep their ears and eyes open.
Zakir for example probably knows every tree suitable in the entire coast. So when he heard that some land was getting cleared, he negotiated with the contractor to secure the wood that would otherwise end up as firewood.
What do you see as the future for Jongs?
There are regaining a strong popularity. A few years back, Zakir was the only one holding the fort in the Teluk Bakau area.
After we gather troops for our first race, a lot of younger guys, including some of the government office worker thought that it was “cool” to own a jong.
I kept mentioning the fact that everyone wants a nice bike, but no one wants to take care of a Jong.
It probably helped that I took 2nd and 3rd price, and although I put the money back into the Kelompok (group), it started to ignite a fire. A bit of pride as well I am sure. Healthy competition.
We also took 30 jongs to compete regionally into the mystical island of Penyengat.
The provincial government is taking notice, and more races are been held.
Another group formed in Malan Rapat, Berakit is getting ready as well.
The orang laut made the trip and raced during the selatan race.
The future is in making smaller races, on the fringe of the government sponsored one. You keep control of the quality and choose times and location that are optimal for the art. And for the people who don’t have much cash resources, they can still be involved closer by.
There is a market potential that could allow a few people to earn a living and partially finances a few races.
The races are very important. It keeps the jong and player true to their essences, being sailing “machines”
There is some contest that will reward the most beautifully decorated jong, and although this serves the purpose of putting a few jong into offices and so forth, the real soul of the Jongs are on the ocean.
It also promotes the right values by playing with the wind, tides and the sea. The carbon footprint is negligible, (you still need to transport your jong from A to B) everything else is as green as it gets.
And this is why the passing on to the children becomes important.
Tell us more about the children side?
We have now smaller jongs being made for the children of Teluk Bakau. This is new and exiting. So exiting that we will bring a children race on. The prices will be school material, t-shirts and so forth, and no substantial difference between the players.
But what is really exiting is the platform created. Many information passes on informally, and many sand drawing on the beach that the tide will erase.
The kids are so receptive that they are showing off to their friends what they have learned, and pass on the information. So besides the actual Jong there is the world of the ocean that can captivate them.
This is in its infancy, but the potential is huge.
I am building a rumah jong, “house for jong”, but around it there are the infrastructure necessary to host. We are planning to host movies for example.
I just brought back a small camera from Singapore that I am lending to two aspiring filmmakers in my community.
One of their assignment is eventually to collect interview on various subject, one being jong of course but also the changes that happens in the ocean.
So when I am speaking of jong as a school, I mean it. The jong although important are only scratching the surface. Now how deep we want to go into it is up to you.
How are you funding all this?
It started with Nikoi, and under the wise advise of one of the owner he pushed me a bit to seek other sources. So I started with a few friends that are either sailors or players, and we just made it. I personally invested quite a bit (proportional of my earnings) but passion drives it all really.
I am waiting for the second year to complete to seek further sponsorships. Especially the surfing windsurfing community who I think will be receptive to a grass root movement like this.
We are really trying to be the laboratory of the new, in a creative way and we are doing things that have never been done before. (At least from my knowledge and the jong players around me).
We tried a long distance sail, and this hold serious potential. But you always have to risk your jong. We broke one on our last test, I was to eager to get some footage and created an unnatural waves with the prop. The jong got of balance. But it sailed majestically, even in descent swells, proving the seaworthiness of the design.
The kid’s race is exiting. And I can see in the future the possibility to do an international event.
Singapore was originally Malay, Borneo, and Malaysia. Different designs exist in Micronesia, Philippines. I heard recently that bail until a few years back had their own races with their traditional design. So possibilities for expansion are endless.
As for me I dream of filling the coast of Bintan with sails again. We went backwards with reliance on motors and engines, all in a game of time. But people here still have some time. A little help can go a long way.