Last of the Saban tattooed ladies


Long Banga Bamboo Band in the 1960s.

IT was a lovely Sunday in Long Banga, a rural village in Marudi.

Although the sky was a little grey and the ground still wet from overnight rain, many people had started going to church – some on motorbikes, some in their pick-up trucks, but most on foot.

Everything seems full of reverence on Sunday because it is a day of worship for the Saban people, an Orang Ulu group in Long Banga, who are deeply religious.

An elderly Saban woman.

All work stops and those who are Christians dress in their Sunday best. The population of Long Banga – around 400 – is made up mostly of Saban and Kenyah ethnic groups, who worship together in a big combined congregation at the Long Banga SIB Church B.

The church sits atop a lovely hill, overlooking a lush green valley where homes are nestled in pristine landscape. On this Sunday, the whole of Long Banga, named after the small river near the site of the village, looked like a halcyon sanctuary.

While most of the Saban and Kenyah women came with their traditional beaded headbands, a few were dressed in city fashion – high heels, branded bags, and all.

Before the church service started, many were reading their Bible from their handphones, while some children were playing games quietly on their tablets. Others used the Bibles and hymnals they brought in their lovely woven baskets.

At one corner sat a few tattooed ladies, looking rather pensive. Although they were wearing sarongs or long skirts and medium-length sleeved blouses, I could still see their tattoo markings.

The congregation sat through more than two hours of liturgy while the Sunday School children sang at the top of their voices, filling the air with melodious sound.

After the service, the congregation filed out of the church, everyone getting ready to go home to cook, pay their electricity bills, or do some chores.

Sunday afternoon is really a rest afternoon for family gatherings and downtime for the men, who will not go fishing on this day.


Tattoos on the arms of Tom’s grandmother. — Photos by Lim Yu Seng and Alasidare Clayre

Lunch with tattooed ladies

As arranged by Ludia Apoi and Felicia Muller, the tattooed grandmothers and their grandchildren moved slowly towards Ludia’s homestead just opposite the Long Banga Airport (Stolport to be more precise).

They were to meet for a traditional meal and talk about old times, aside from showing me their tattoos.

Ludia, the effervescent homestay owner, told me the grandmothers were even prepared to do a culinary demonstration to my delight!

Before this special lunch, the ladies related their stories, at the same time, showing me how to wrap the fish for steaming Saban-style and put the rice in the bamboo stems, praising one another for continuing the tradition.

A friend said, “Most of us know Ludia never fails to make the finest bamboo rice. She has the best natural way of adding the rice and water. Her timing is very good and none of her bamboo rice ever gets burnt. Just perfect.”

For those who don’t have the hang of making pulut pansuh (bamboo rice), watching one of the elderly ladies let out a whole roll of beautifully cooked rice from a bamboo stem is really amazing.

The aromatic whiffs of cooked rice, steaming hot from the bamboo stem, can whet anyone’s appetite. It is bamboo rice at its best.


Tom’s mother has the ‘fullest’ tattoo for a woman in Long Banga.

Sisterly gathering

While waiting for the dishes to be put on the table, one aunty showed me her tattoos and told me where she had them done. The conversation was very interesting, involving a lot of switching between Saban, English and Bahasa Malaysia, with Felicia acting as interpreter.

It was all very sisterly – a great session of fun, alert learning, kind gestures and compassionate exchanges.

Lunch was served and an uncle appointed by Lydia, the hostess, said grace. Some teachers and students had also turned up for dance practice. The tattooed aunties all enjoyed the feast around the table, which was hand-hewn by Ludia’s husband. Eighteen people can sit around the table comfortably.


Five Saban grannies attend a church service.

Sharing with tattooed ladies

Tom Balan’s mother was most lively when the group of ladies started to talk about lullabies in Saban. She led them in the singing, and later got up to sing and dance. Her friends joined in and it seemed like a party was going on. A video was made of these happy ladies singing and dancing in a line.

We had so much to share and so many questions to ask – and answer.

Tom’s mother led the discussions about the tattoos. She showed how the lines were made with a wooden ruler.

“These lines have to be drawn straight with the help of a ruler. See, all their patterns are similar? This is only possible with a special ruler. The lines symbolise the light, which shines in the dark.

“In the after world, tattoos are believed to be our light to help us find the path to heaven,” she explained.

She remembers how painful it was having intricate tattoos crafted on her arms and legs but she did it out of love for her husband and unborn child.

To her, it was a tradition she had to follow and was glad her husband gave consent for her to do it.

We laughed and asked her about her love for her husband and she replied, “Of course, I love my husband. In the old days, we helped each other do everything.

“I was his partner and he was my partner. We shared our work. We laughed together and raised our children together. If people ask me whether I love him, I will show them my tattoos. There, this is love.”

The group of tattooed ladies get along very well as they have been friends all their lives. Even if they disagree, they do so most courteously.

Felicia was there to translate and elaborate. She helped with some questioning to get the conversation going. A teacher called Muriel also helped with some of the translation.

Best tattoos

Tom’s mother has one of the best and complete tattoos in Long Banga. She has this story to share, “During my first pregnancy, I was tattooed as an act of loving kindness, according to Sabah tradition. A Saban husband who loves his wife will order the tattooing to be done during this significant time so that should any marital conflict occur later, the wife could say she endured all the pain for him through the tattooing.

“The wife could also say her husband loved her so much that he wanted the tattoos on her body to show it.”

Tom’s mother’s tattoos are different because she had them done by a renowned tattoo artist in Kalimantan.

Based on Felicia’s translation, the tattooed ladies who talked to us also had their tattoos done when they were pregnant with their first child. The tattooing must be done in the first three months of pregnancy.

Key to heaven

According to their traditional beliefs, the tattoos on their arms and legs are the bridge to another world and symbolise the key to heaven after death.

Furthermore, the tattoos in the other world also act as light to help them find the way to heaven.

The Saban tattoo artist in Long Banga is still alive and living in the village. She is elderly now and no longer does any tattooing. As keeper of tattooing art for the Saban people, she is well-respected.

In all probability, she will also the person to see the last generation of Saban tattooed ladies in Sarawak.

How old are these tattooed ladies?

When the Japanese occupied Indonesia in World War II, many Saban women like them were forced to cross the border with their families and settle in Long Banga to be away from the foreign invaders.

A local teacher said even though these women were actually older than the age stated in their official documents, they could not provide any evidence or birth certificate to prove their real age. For many years and perhaps even till today, many Saban women do not have identity cards.

While some of the best tattoos for women can still be made across the border in Indonesia, not many modern Saban women have them.

According to a young man in Long Banga, many young husbands do not need their wives to prove how much they love them with tattoos on their bodies.

Traditional tattoos

The traditional tattoos were made differently. The tools used were three needles fixed in bamboo canes, ink made from sugar cane and carbon candles.

It was an extremely painful process since everything was done by hand. It usually took one week to finish all the tattoos.

Many of the ladies interviewed testified they had their tattoos made on their bodies over a period of time.

At Long Banga, the Saban grandmothers gave me a unique experience. The storytelling and the reminiscing during the gathering for the afternoon meal brought together two or three generations.

They showed how important oral history, prayers, beliefs and good relationship are to the survival of their people.