Man at His Best

Interview With Henry Golding On His Series, Surviving Borneo

Visiting the tribe of his ancestors, the once-feared Iban tribe of Sarawak.

BY Editors | Oct 12, 2017 | Film & TV

Image by Discovery Channel

It’s a scenario as old as time—a fish out of water story, a stranger in a stranger land; such ingredients make for great drama. You might know Henry Golding, 30, from being casted in Crazy Rich Asians and his marriage to Liv Lo but before all these, Golding took on a slightly different undertaking—returning to his roots.

In a six-episode series called, Surviving Borneo, Golding goes to the tribe of his ancestors, the once-feared Iban tribe of Sarawak, Borneo, to attain his bejalai, an Iban rite of passage. Expect this city boy to live in the jungles of Borneo, hunt for his food, empathise with his adopted family facing modernisation and finally get tattooed; the final leg of his bejalai.


How much did you know about your lineage?

Quite alot. I was born in Australia, spent a lot of my childhood growing up in and around that lifestyle and culture. In my teens, we spent summers back in Betong, Sarawak so I understood my culture but I've never truly experienced being out surviving in the jungles and such.

Do you still have relatives living there?

Yeah. We have traditional villages, essentially longhouses, where under one roof there would be 30 families or something like that. We still have those communities. We still have family living in these communities but no one really, apart from some of the tribes like the Penan, are still very nomadic. They are the last few nomadic tribes in the world.

How much of the tribe did you know about from your mom?

They were always this “mystical” tribe that was still rooted in traditional living. They were living off the jungle and land; everyone knew about them.

How did this idea for the series take fruit?

Every young man, in a traditional sense, would go through a journey into manhood. So for the bejalai (Iban for "a journey" or "to walk"), that has been on-going for generations. Usually the initiations are undertaken between 18 to early-20 and it's something that I've never really experienced. This is me, wanting to check in on a culture before heading off to another chapter in my life, which was my impending marriage [with Liv Lo] at the end of the series. 

I worked with our DP, Emile Guertin on a show Sabah Earthquake Decoded. We became good friends and throwing around ideas for new shows and stuff. He always wanted to do something about triumphs and I mentioned about reading some article somewhere about the bejalai, the journey, can we do something in the sense of this? And he created this entire world from it.

You didn't undergo the bejalai when you were younger. Did you feel there was something missing growing up?

As you're older, there are self-searching and self-reflection. You tend to reflect more on who you are as a human being. When you're young, you want to be so many things but you're proud of your heritage when you get to a maturity and that [bejalai] was something that I came across and I wanted to be part of or experience. One-half of my heritage is something that's spiritual and very different.

When you were embedded with the tribe, how did they take to you?

I think this is the perception that a lot of people have. This is the modern representation of the tribes and they are normal people with a fantastic culture and heritage. They have a culture that predates anything that's found on the mainland. It's that sense of culture that we've explored.

Did you feel any sense of alienation within the tribe?

Well, no. Because they are not racist. Maybe a sense of curiosity. 

What was this journey with the Iban tribe for you?

It's more satiating a curiosity of my heritage. There were so much to explore but it was a significant journey that I undertook and I'm very proud of that.

What was filming like when you were with the Iban? 

The whole of the journey was filmed by myself so it POV-style and it's actuality so we never preplanned anything so it was all rolled out. I didn't have a producer with me. It was just myself and the contributor so it's whatever circumstance reared its head is whatever we filmed.

What's the hardest part about filming this?

It would be filming in the jungle. It's an environment that we're not used to at all. We live such posh lives in the cities that the discomfort levels are not something that one would experience. That was one of the challenges.

The final episode of Surviving Borneo airs this Sunday at 9pm, on Discovery Channel.