Culture & Heritage

Magic Fingers: Dusun Massage

Sabah, on the magical island of Borneo east of Malaysia’s peninsular is clouded with magnificent experiences such as rainforest escapades, underwater marvels and rich biodiversity. Still, the most intriguing are the 39 ethnic indigenous groups that are still thriving and of these, some minority groups are still unknown to the outside world.

The Dusun tribe is largely spread across Sabah, once a hunter gatherer group and many were farmers. The Lotud Dusun group is especially distinct as they were mostly rice farmers from Tuaran, a district blessed with plenty of rain flow for paddy planting. The women from this tribe learned very early on massage techniques to ease back and shoulder pains from hours of strenuous work in the field. These strong, resilient women passed down the unspoken techniques from generation to generation. Today, these hidden secrets make ethnic massages not only magical, but exotic and distinctive from the otherwise run-of-the-mill spas.

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At Jari Jari Spa, I was ushered in through thick wooden carved doors and into a cozy lounge with comfy arm chairs lined on both sides. The soothing sounds of running water formed the centrepiece as gentle flute music played in the background. I had just returned from a trip to Danum Valley and was in need of a massage from hours of travel and trekking. I dozed off as my feet soaked in floral infused water but was gently awakened shortly after by the aroma of decadent coffee. Ocie, my masseur lathered on a thick, almost scrumptious coffee foot scrub and gave me one of the best reflexology experiences focusing on pressure points laced with firm strokes.

The award winning Borneo Dusun Lotud Inan Massage is followed by a 75 minute full body massage as Ocie worked on body, magically releasing the tension on my back and eliminating the knots on my shoulders. You know a good masseur when you experience one because all her movements were intentional, bringing relieve to my tired body. From the distinctive thumb movements to the consistent pressure, from the calming “Inan” oil to the luxurious drapings that kept me warm, the entire experience was seamless.

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What Makes It So Special?

It must be the people I thought. As a spa goer, I have tried numerous spa treatments ranging from mid-range middling centers to world class luxury havens in Kuala Lumpur, Bali, Maldives, Thailand, Australia, Greece and Budapest. Still, the ones that remain a great memory even though the knots have long returned on my shoulders are those that have left an indelible experience in body, mind and soul. And I conclude that it is probably authenticity that makes all the difference.

I later found out that Ocie (pronounced as O-Chee) is a local Dusun lady. She was introduced to the Jari Jari Spa Academy in 2012 by her neighbour and at that time, she was unemployed and was busy mothering seven children on her own. She lived on whatever little savings she had and was pining for a stable job. After her training, she got her first job at Jari Jari Spa but had to move to Kota Kinabalu to earn a living. She tells me that she doesn’t mind as she sees this job as part of her personal development and she now feels secure that her children’s living expenses and school fees are taken care of.

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Stories like Ocie’s are a great testament of empowerment, where women are often left to fend for their families not just to cook, clean and care but to earn a living enough to support the family. Ocie is fortunate to have stumbled on the spa academy, a school started by Datin Jeanette and Jennifer Chan.

The Borneo Massage Rediscovered

As modern day distractions continue to chip away rich traditions and cultures, the challenge of reviving the art of ethnic massage is a real feat. Not only did the dynamic duo, Datin Jeanette Tambakau and Jennifer Chan successfully reintroduced this dying tradition, they through Jari Jari Spa have breathed new life and is retelling the story to the world around at international trade shows and workshops.

Jennifer is from a Dusun descent and Datin Jeanette married a Murud-Dusun man before settling down in Sabah. In mid-2000, they both realized the rising trend in health and wellness but massage centers were unheard of. It was the weary of society where hanky panky activities took place behind closed doors. Venturing into this industry meant having to pioneer the route while clearing the image that have long tarnished it.

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They took the plunge learning from massage therapists in Bali and attending workshops. What was to become the start of a Balinese themed spa center soon took a turn. Datin Jeanette had an ‘aha! moment’ while listening to wellness leaders speak at a conference and realized that authenticity is prime for this business.

After returning from the conference, they both set out to trace the roots of their own tribe, the Dusun people. They visited rural indigenous families, spoke to grandmothers and home makers and watched how they massaged with care and precision. The journey in itself was a discovery of pride, joy and belonging.

They hired four local Dusun ladies to join them and there on Jari Jari Spa was birthed. Today, the signature Borneo massage is on the world chart as Jennifer is a certified, accredited trainer from the Federation of Holistic Therapists Association (FHT) in the United Kingdom. The organization is not only profit making, but is also empowering local Dusun ladies with a specialized skill to gain employment. The Jari Jari Academy has trained masseurs that have gone on to work at internationally acclaimed spas such as YTL’s Spa Village and is continuing to grow within Sabah.

Still the best treasure that Jari Jari Spa has given to the Dusun ladies and community is the value and uniqueness of one’s trade. Each masseuse has her own special way of working on the body and so, in that sense, every massage is unique and every masseur is unique. It is this uniqueness that perpetuates the tradition.

Sabah has many stories to uncover, and it’s not just about her verdant landscapes, azure blue seas or teeming wildlife – but her people, their traditions and culture.

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