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Sibu

sunny

It was a pity I hadnt managed to square away at least some of the city the day before, and an early start had me racing the clock to make up for it this morning after a standard Martabak brekkie. The town square proved to be a stark sterile space of polished stone not inviting any reason to linger, and in what was obviously recently cleared parkland a nearby incongruous memorial lay sheltering under 2 massive isolated trees which looked naked now, as if the jungle had only been cleared away yesterday from around them. Written only in Bahasa, I was still able to discern a short local history mentioning one of the Brookes, centred upon a memorial to locals who had been lost opposing the Japanese. The adjacent King Howe Memorial Museum appeared empty and deserted but was not much of a drawcard in any case, simply a testimony to a local who had transformed early healthcare provision in the region. This early in the day, it was notably exceptionally humid here, the moisture laden air proving even too thick for good photography. The local methodist church proved to be very grand, new and shiny, and then the nearby Chinese temple which is one of the city's most defining sights markedly competed with its garish red 7 tiered pagoda. A poke around inside revealed predictable dragons and incense sticks burning but sadly the staircase leading to the roof was closed off. Past the jetties congregated with boats of all shapes and colours the local bus station proved conveniently located even if the services were an enigma even to most of the locals, but eventually I bagged a bus out to the Civic Centre 2Ks north, promising the attraction of a small local museum.

SIBU CULTURAL EXHIBITION HALL

After scanning models of many ambitious construction projects which showed Sibu to be a town and region on the move, the juxtaposition of many old photos relating indiginous culture in traditional dress and practice was an excellent departure. Chinese immigrants founded the town at least 180 years ago and in 1862 the Brooke government moved their Rejang River headquarters here downriver from Kanowit, establishing Fort Brooke. By the turn of the 20th century Sibu boasted 60 Chinese shops and government sponsorship brought in many more immigrants at this time to open up agriculture in the area. At last a short history of the Brooke dynasty was related here, revealing that Sibu came under the "Lands of the Cessation", meaning land granted by the Sultan of Brunei in reward for affording the area peace. The first of the 3 "White Rajahs", James Brooke concentrated on establishing Kuching initially from 1841, only building Fort Brooke in 1862 to quell insurgency from the Ibans of the Rejang. Unfortunately nothing remains of the fort today, the Wisma Sayan, Sibu's tallest building now stands on the spot. This could be claimed to be the birth of Sibu since it was only under the fort's protection that the Chinese were able to establish the first shops here. It was the same history of insurgency which had led the Sultan of Brunei to initially seek Brooke's help, ceding these "troubled lands" to him in payment of thanks in 1853. After Sir Charles Brooke and then Vyner Brooke, who returned to Sarawak upon the Japanese surrender in 1945, Sarawak became ceded in turn as a British Crown Colony in 1946 at his behest, since the dynasty could not unilaterally afford the expense of post war reconstruction.

The adjacent museum though small proved to be surprisingly well presented in reflection of Sibu's go getting spirit, with delicious air-con proving vital, sadly though no photos were allowed. A distribution map first revealed the ethnic distribution of Sarawak, with the Iban (also known as the Sea Dayaks) inhabiting the shores of the major inland waterways, especially the Rejang. In the central interior including Belaga where I was now headed the Kayan and Kenyah were predominant, and small pockets of the Murut and Kelabit were concentrated in the north, just south of Brunei. The Land Dayaks, Melanau and Kedayan were restricted to the banks of smaller coastal rivers and ethnic Malays were concentrated around Kuching. The nomadic Punans were nominally native to the most remote internal regions. In the absence of a translation I could only deduce that the Iban had been successively pushed north eastwards from one extremity of Sarawak around Kuching to finally settle around Brunei in the early 20th century. A neighbouring map again somewhat ambiguously related the periodic expansion of Sarawak as an entity under the Brooke dynasty, appropriating progressively further lands in 1873, 1882, 1885, 1928 and inexplicably even in 1973. Then a superb relief map showed the topography of the Rejang River valley, my intended trip up to Belaga would be rewarded with more mountainous views it seemed, and the whole area was riddled with watercourses.

A fauna display matched the museum's general vibe in being much better presented than normal, with 3 species of Hornbill, Sarawak's state symbol, though now protected its feathers are prized for ceremonial performances. The Tarsier was a favourite, a very slow moving nocturnal insect feeder with big bulging round eyes and the rare Hawksbill Turtle was a beautiful dark mottled breed, reputedly a species unchanged for 100 million years, a living dinosaur. I came across a hitherto unencountered beastie here again, the Moonrat, which resembles a pointy nosed conventional rat but is the size of a cat, it allegedly shares little ancestry with the rat family however and is a nocturnal ground dwelling invertebrate forager sporting a white coat and unusual musky smell. 3 impressive aquatic mammals found in these parts are the Indo-Pacific Humpbacked Dolphin which has a pointy beak, the very contrasting round headed Irrawaddy Dolphin which has large broad flippers but a tiny dorsal fin, and the rare Dugong which has no dorsal fin at all. Dubbed the Sea Cow, it mimics one in grazing on sea grass with its wide bristly mouth, and retains 2 nostrils unlike the single spiracles of the others. Finally I learned that the Estuarine Crocodile indiginous to the Rejang can reach 7 metres in length.

A single floral species was represented in the Rafflesia, the worlds largest flower which I had seen in the Cameron Highlands. I learned here that its scientific name is Rafflesia Arnoldi, since it was actually first recorded by Raffles and his sidekick Dr. Joseph Arnold whilst jungle bashing. All 9 Rafflesia species are total parasites, with no roots, leaves or ability to produce food for themselves, they simply live off their Liana Vine hosts.

I then moved on to learn about the Melanau people of Sarawak's coastal rivers, who from pagan origins are now divided into pagan, Christian and Moslem groups. Naturally they are proficient boat builders and the men also practice excellent woodcarving of mainly "Blum" (sickness images) and "Suk" (fishing fetishes). The examples on display amounted to scary looking totems meant to resemble the evil spirits responsible for illnesses, used in ceremonies by the "Dukun" (Spirit Doctor) to extract the illness out. The totems are then cast adrift or hidden in the jungle. The womenfolk are similarly renowned for their basketware, and as well as fishing the processing of Sago is very important in Melanau culture.

I glazed over an uninspiring Malay section before reaching a sizeable and important relation of the Chinese community in Sibu. A painting of Sibu in 1880 revealed it to have been just a tiny settlement of a few longhouses and a dozen or so smaller shacks at that time, but that was soon to change with the arrival of immigrants contracted to transform its virgin soil into pepper and rubber plantations. A notification printed in the Sarawak Gazette that year related a formal invitation from Rajah Charles Brooke to attract "Chinese settlers with wives and families numbering not less than 300 souls", setting favourable terms in the expectancy that "the said Chinese will permanently settle in the territory of Sarawak". Word got around. After reconnaissance by influential Chinese wishing to escape instability at home, deals were done to subsequently establish "New Foochow", as Sibu is still often referred as to this day. Many further Chinese ethnic groups followed, and clan associations sprang up to co-ordinate these communities. An important development in creating unity was the adoption of Mandarin in the 1930s as the language of education. A surprising revelation in this regard was the importance of Christianity too, since besides the sponsoring of missionaries by Rajah Charles Brooke, the majority of Chinese immigrants were Christian. Further displays of Chinese culture showed traditional costumes and explained their many festivals, which though interesting I considered to be too much work to record ad infinitum. One example was the Moon Festival however, a mid-autumnal celebration which honours the moon goddess and features the eating of "Moon Cakes". They also mark the Wandering Soul festival (one for me perhaps), the Dragon Boat festival, the Jade Emperor festival, the Tomb Visiting festival and most importantly, the Chinese New Year.

Onto Iban culture, Sarawak's largest ethnic group mainly live in longhouses along lowland riverbanks and are responsible for much of the rice, pepper and rubber cultivation in the state. Still retaining strong traditional ties, they were once warriors and headhunters, building their longhouses elevated on stilts for defence. Their renowned crafts are the weaving of blankets and skirts, the carving of Hornbill images and the building of burial huts. The men would sport prolific body tattoos and communal life centred on the longhouses' external verandah. The fireplace here was used to smoke the skulls of dead enemies. These were often the Orang Ulu (the Kayan and Kenyah people) who had migrated from north east Kalimantan. Persistent conflict with the Iban has split them into many separate groups, with many having returned to Kalimantan. For those who stayed a peace treaty was finally settled with the Iban under the tutelage of the Rajah in 1924, and so they remain on the upper Rejang and Baram Rivers. The Kajang, Kelabit, Lun Bawang, Punan and nomadic Penan also belong to this group. Much of their supernatural folklore revolves around the cycle of rice cultivation and besides habitual whickerwork and woodcarving, elaborate beadwork is an important craft, they also produce knives and blowpipes.

From here a short history of the local timber industry related that in 1986 it was Sarawak's greatest foreign exchange earner after oil and gas, reaching 1.4 billion Ringgit. That says it all. Cardboard passports of the once independent state of Sarawak were fantastic colonial vestiges, francked with postage stamps portraying either Rajah Vyner Brooke or George VI. It was also notable that the currency was referred to as the Dollar on these, and that perhaps explained why locals sometimes still referred to it as that.

After a great fire destroyed much of Sibu in 1928 it was soon rebuilt, the people curiously further polarised in the creation of many anti-Japanese organisations, indicative of the political climate back in China and the local peoples' continuing attachment. The Japanese subsequently invaded mainland China in 1937 (again) and were in Sibu by 1942. Political development in opposition to British colonial rule matured from street protests into the foundation of the Sarawak United Peoples Party in 1959, which was overwhelmingly supported in Sarawak's first general election in 1963. Amongst many photos of dignitaries and political rallies, one inexplicably showed "security forces" patrolling during an unexplained curfew in 1971.

The museum had been unexpectedly excellent and it was a lot like hard work trying to do it justice. The final fling was a walk around an excellent ceramics collection boasting dozens of enormous glazed jars, I resisted their history though since fatigue already had me begging for no more by 2.30pm. That still rather precluded my onward progress all the same though. Not expecting such a fine in depth documentary I had hoped to head back to my hotel in time for the noon check out and hop aboard a boat upriver. A second night was a delay I could stomach however, my air-con room and the assurance of curry and beer would probably be unobtainable indulgences for the next while, and Sibu had merited it. Initially planning to hit the tourist office in search of more distractions, a handy net cafe adjacent to the museum proved too good to turn down instead. I assured interested parties back home that I still breathed, checked the airline website in view of some important time-sensitive planning and then re-affirmed my poor typing in more diary dabblings. It was another chance bonus in that in a town full of Chinese eateries and little else, my overtly Moslem hotel just happened to neighbour a unique "Islamic Cafe" tabling excellent curry and Roti Canai, it was a saviour from greasy MSG and gelatine poisoned concoctions even if you couldnt get a beer there. The favoured dish around here besides the indiginous Foochow noodles (steamed in soya and oyster sauce, with spring onions and dried fish) was caramelised frogs legs. It aint Kelty.

An afternoon storm meant that the net cafe had actually proved a blessed distraction and though thankfully fresher, the stubborn cloud served to rob me of the gorgeous crimson sunset I had witnessed the night previous. I checked out the Wisma Sayan that night, an incredible polished marble palace of a shopping mall featuring designer fashions and KFC in the jungle, and then it was an easy choice between Tsingtao beer and prayers on TV. As I supped away, the squeaks of the giant Flying Foxes dangling from the aives overhead kept me company and it was here that I became aware of the renewed convention of proferring items to be passed (mainly money!) respectfully with both hands, a throwback to Thailand almost. A couple of further realisations came to the fore here in that the predominant Chinese probably found English as preferable to Malay as I did, certainly they were more inclined to speak it, also that in spite of the Islamic weekend which had presented many businesses closed today, the pubs had contrastingly kicked off bigtime. It was just a pity that presumably in line with local sensitivities, every single one was located up a stark foreboding staircase out of the limelight and so I thought better of frequenting any of them. Though doubtless I didnt know what I was missing I didnt so much fear the potential for clip joints as excruciating oriental karaoke!

Posted by andyhay 00:00 Archived in Malaysia

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