TUTONG – Imbun plans to leave his village in Tasek Merimbun in search of a better life in an urban area, but his Dusun community is dying.

Clad in a plain white t-shirt and sarong, Imbun is torn over his decision to leave as he needed to feed his family.

A spirit from the moon then appears and offers him paddy seeds to grow in Tasek Merimbun, a blackwater lake that was home to some of the earliest settlements in Tutong.

“I have with me these grains of rice, paddy for you to sow and harvest in the years to come… Should you choose to plant it, all we ask of you is this: trust us once more and stay,” the moon spirit says in Malay to Imbun.

This a scene that reimagines the traditional folklore passed down by the ethnic Dusun tribe of Tasek Merimbun, who were said to have been gifted with paddy grains by a spirit from the moon. This ‘celestial’ event provided the community — who in folklore are said to have eaten coal for sustenance — a new way of life.

Titled Alai Imbun, the tale and character of Imbun pays homage to the lake’s namesake, a legendary character believed to be one of the first settlers in Tasek Merimbun who stumbled upon the lake while hunting.

This story has been passed down through the generations of Dusun people who inhabit the lake; but a group of young actors are determined to breathe new life into this folklore by turning into a theatre production.

A scene from a production of “Alai Imbun”, a reimagining of Dusun folklore for the stage. Photo: Courtesy of Play Naturally

Dusun culture through performing arts

The play is the first production from Play Naturally, a theatre project that aims to connect audiences with local heritage sites through the dramatic arts.

Their first subject, Tasek Merimbun, is the country’s sole ASEAN Heritage Park – which over the years has fallen into a state of disrepair due to funding and maintenance problems.

In an age where young urbanites are going through a green awakening, co-founder of Play Naturally Jazie Zaini wants to bring young Bruneians back to pristine natural landscapes and bridge the gap between modern and traditional cultures.

“For some, it might even be their first time coming to Tasek Merimbun.

“Even though Bruneians are aware of the Dusun culture, most are not familiar with the stories from their folklore, especially the ones related to Tasek Merimbun, so this is an eye-opening experience for many, including us,” she says.

A view of the black water lake that lies at the centre of Tasek Merimbun Heritage Park. Photo: Wardi Wasil/The Scoop

As one of the country’s ecological gems, Jazie laments how the lake has been largely ignored in recent years, even by the local community.

With fewer than 20 people living around the lake – most of whom are senior citizens – the Dusun culture of Tasek Merimbun is threatened with extinction, as their traditional practices, including myths and legends, are steadily blotted out over time.

This is in part due to a large number of Dusun people converting to Islam and abandoning animist beliefs. However, rural-urban migration has also meant the traditional cultures of many indigenous communities in Brunei are being forgotten as more young people from ethnic minorities move to urban settlements in search of work and education.

Merging folklore and conservation

For most of the cast and crew, the stage production of Alai Imbun provided an opportunity to combine their passion for performing arts with a chance to shine a light on Tasek Merimbun and its community.

Terry Wong Min Chen, an actor from local production company Origin Artistic Management, says projects such as Alai Imbun give local artists an opportunity to become involved in meaningful projects.

“When we joined this project, we opened ourselves to learning; of the stories that surround the lake and its people, and it’s amazing how these tales exist without us knowing.”

The cast and crew of theatre group Play Naturally during a rehearsal at Tasek Merimbun. Photo: Courtesy of Play Naturally

Nani Yahya, a budding conservationist with no previous experience in theater, took part in the project because she wanted to explore an aspect of conservation she believed was often disregarded or overlooked – the native community.

“Play Naturally is using theatre as a tool to highlight conservation, and they’re doing it by engaging the native community.

“It’s very unorthodox especially here in Brunei, and it opens up the idea of conservation to a whole different audience, not just conservationists, but also theatre lovers and those curious about the culture and history of Tasek Merimbun.”

Throughout the project’s three-month development process, the group of youths consulted with the Dusun community living near the lake, notably Tanggi Kawang, an elder considered the custodian of the lake and one of the descendants of a Dusun family who have lived around Tasek Merimbun for generations.

“The lake has been very quiet lately,” says Tanggi, who attended one of the previews for Alai Imbun, which was performed especially for the Dusun community.

“This project helps us so much. It brings in more people to the lake and it gives us [elders] something to do, since we’ll be here to perform our traditional songs and also provide some guidance for those who wish to know more about the lake.”

The next step

Alai Imbun had a limited theatrical run from July 20-21 at Balai Purun, Tasek Merimbun.

Ultimately, for Jazie and co-founder Gan Sylvia, seeing an increase in visitors to Tasek Merimbun is a win for the young actors hoping to contribute in some way to the lake’s revival.

“We’d like to think that we’re not just helping them [the Dusun community], but that we are actually with them in this fight. Of course the project doesn’t have to stop here, this is just the first seed being planted.”

Actors in traditional Dusun costume perform a scene from “Alai Imbun”. Photo: Courtesy of Play Naturally

Jazie says Alai Imbun is the first production of its kind, and it’s still a work in progress. Inspired by the idea of connecting young urbanites with rural landscapes that hold cultural and historical significance, she wants to expand the project in the future, which may include other natural heritage sites in Brunei.

“Our main aim is conservation, to raise awareness of our relationship with nature. We want to highlight how as humans, our coexistence with nature is vital, so we want to feature other stories that can exhibit this.”

Gan Sylvia adds, “Tasek Merimbun is not only beautiful, it is also very important to Brunei’s biodiversity and holds many of Brunei’s endemic species.

“We hope that the stories we tell through our play will reflect the importance of Tasek Merimbun to Bruneian history and culture.”