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The Rungus Gongs of Sabah: Keeping a Tradition Alive

When Rohanah Kudat got married more than a dozen years ago, the last thing she expected was to become a custodian of an ancient craft. Her husband, a gong-maker, taught her the skills and today, Rohanah is one of ten women who make their living hammering zinc sheets into round, vibrant shapes 11 hours a day.

Rohanah and her colleagues – all of the Rungus ethnic group in Sabah – work in Kampung Sumangkap, a quiet village-turned-gong-manufacture near Kudat, close to the Tip of Borneo.

Quiet when they’re not at work, I should say, because the rhythmic clanging of mallets on metal echoes up and down the dusty streets. Sleeping dogs, and they are plentiful in the villages around Kudat, lie in the sun, barely flicking an ear when the hammering picks up. They’ve grown used to it.

Gong-making in Sabah

Cutting a zinc sheet into the first circle that will eventually make up a
beautiful burnished gong

Each morning at 7 Rohanah pulls out a sheet of zinc and marks a circle around it. She cuts it and hammers the edges straight, and then turns it over and does the same on the other side. She then bangs a little bump into the center and traces a second circle around the middle, all of it with great precision, because the size of the circles and the distance between the two determine the sound.

“I love the work,” Rohanah told me. “Without the gongs I would just be a housewife. Our gongs are famous and each year we have an exhibition.” Every October the region hosts the Gong Festival, with singing and dancing competitions.

As I visited in July I missed the festival, but I did get to hear the gongs for a moment.

The gong is the most important musical instrument in Rungus culture and is used for important events, like weddings. Each gong has a different sound, which is why measurements have to be perfect – or the sound will be off.

The village bubbles with activity, with the sound of laughter and of women – for some reason they are mostly women – who are hammering away. Yet not that long ago, gong-making, like many other Rungus traditions, was dying. Old people couldn’t pass on their knowledge because the younger generation, fed up with rural poverty, fled to the cities in search of jobs and money.

With the upswing of tourism in Sabah villagers are now able to supplement their income with traditional crafts, gong-making of course, but also bead-stringing, dancing, singing, nose flute-playing, and maintaining longhouses. While young people still migrate to cities, they can now choose to stay closer to home because jobs are available.

Families have even turned their homes into homestays, encouraging visitors to spend a night or two and sample local food and hospitality, as well as traditional arts and crafts.

As life improves, Rohanah’s glow of pride isn’t just about her gongs: it’s about her entire tribal heritage.

Rungus gong

A typical Rungus gong – they come in all sizes

Gongs come in all sizes and are used not only to play but also to mark a ceremony or an event

Gongs are used not only to play but also to mark a ceremony or an event

Things every Woman on the Road should know

  • The gong-making village is about three hours from Sabah’s capital, Kota Kinabalu. It makes an easy day trip and is often combined with a visit to a bee farm or a longhouse.
  • If you spend a night or two in a homestay in this part of Sabah (which I highly recommend), find out if a visit to these beautiful gongs of Sabah is something they offer. Often, it is, coupled with a visit to a bee farm.
  • Of course I had to buy a gong. I didn’t buy the smallest and certainly not the biggest, but it has a lovely mellow sound and cost me RM300 (about US$90 at the time I visited). It was easy to pack because zinc is surprisingly light. I just put it in the center of my bag and packed my socks and rolled-up T-shirts inside it. Do come prepared to spend a bit of money locally; crafts are attractive and authentic, and you’re also helping an indigenous community survive.

Thanks to the Sabah Tourist Board for organizing this visit and hosting Women on the Road. Opinions are my own: I’m opinionated and plan to stay that way.

{ 3 comments… add one }
  • Sheila Archer February 16, 2014, 11:28 pm

    Fascinating craft! So good to see a place and local industry regenerating.

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak February 17, 2014, 7:48 am

      Yes, a rare case of modernization contributing to saving a traditional culture!

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