Sarawak Longhouse Life: 1950s


Above: Ngemah people look at Hedda Morrison’s 1962 book.
Below: An elderly woman recognizes herself in the book.


The Photographic Heritage Foundation came to life through the success of the book Hedda Morrison’s Hong Kong. Following her sojourn in Hong Kong, in late 1947 Morrison and her husband Alastair moved to Sarawak. It was to be their home for the next twenty years. This book will publish some of Morrison’s finest, and ethnographically most important, images. All portray ‘pre-modernization’ Sarawak, as it was during the 1950s.

In the late 1940s and the 1950s, when Sarawak remained under British administration, it was clear that the old ways could not continue much longer. Modernization soon would lead to irrevocable change. It was against this context that Hedda Morrison, with her abiding interest in the lives of ‘ordinary’ folk, set out to record Sarawak’s varied cultures and peoples.

Roaming around Kuching, the tiny capital of Sarawak, along its coasts and up the rivers, Morrison photographed Sarawak with more depth – and veracity – than any other photographer. Based on her images she published two books: Sarawak (1957) and Life In A Longhouse (1962). The former presents an account of the diverse peoples of Sarawak. The latter records longhouse life, and in particular the Iban people living at Ngemah, far up the Rejang River. As Morrison wrote in her Foreword for Life In A Longhouse, ‘Whenever I visited longhouses I was conscious of the fact that the longhouse way of life was changing. I tried to record whatever was then typical of the people, and which might not be there to photograph very much longer.’

Ngemah was the longhouse that Morrison returned to most often. ‘Ngemah represented’, she wrote in Life In A Longhouse, ‘all that was best in Iban life. It was a longhouse where I always felt very much at home.’ There Morrison took compelling, intimate images of every aspect of longhouse life: men and women, children and the elderly, food gathering, river transport, practical and cultural materials, ceremonies, relationships – and much more.

The Foundation’s Ngemah book will have an entirely new photo edit, and will draw on unpublished images from the Hedda Morrison Sarawak collection. The book will be developed alongside experts on Sarawak longhouse life, and with Ngemah community involvement.

It is presently expected that the Foundation will co-publish the book with the Pustaka Negeri Sarawak (Sarawak State Library), and possibly other institutions in Sarawak and overseas.

The Foundation is now seeking a private donor or corporate sponsor for the project.

Publication – estimated 2019