THERE are few towns in this part of the world that have undergone a more successful turnaround. Exactly a decade ago, Siniawan in Sarawak was hit by one of the worst floods that its residents can remember.
It was so bad that the only way to get photos of the disaster was to capture the scene from a helicopter. Roads were totally cut off.
Yet, news of the devastation hardly made a splash. Siniawan was, after all, a dead town even before the flood.
It used to be a stopover on the way to Bau, itself a former gold mine. But the extension of the Pan Borneo Highway, along with a series of feeder roads, rendered Siniawan without a purpose.
The twisty old road through Siniawan gradually became better known to outsiders as the way leading to a cemetery nearby.
When another flood hit in 2009, the town reached rock bottom. The original two rows of 48 wooden shophouses began falling apart.
So cue the tumbleweeds and sad soundtrack, right?
Well, it was around this time that an architect by the name of Mike Boon visited.
Boon had traced his recent ancestry back to the gold mine, and across Bau into Kalimantan, Indonesia. The architect is an expert restorer of buildings that are about to fall apart.
In Kuching, Boon was responsible for the restoration of the Old Court House. About 180km away, Boon is presently overseeing the restoration of Fort Alice from the White Rajah era.
Siniawan became a side project of sorts for Boon. He organised townsfolk to conserve the external structures and renovate the interiors.
Locals like Bong Ngim Swee said Boon sold them the idea of reviving heritage rather than chase after modernity.
“He said make sure a committee is formed to approve things like the colour of paints so that the spirit of this town is not changed.
“We were so excited to hear this architect speak so passionately about our town. He also brought in the Sarawak Heritage Society. We really have to thank him and the heritage society,” Bong added.
Through Boon’s involvement, architecture students and artists frequented the town to sketch. The society also publicised efforts to generate interest in Siniawan’s restoration.
Most of the renovation works were simple, modest and carried out slowly. By 2011, shop owners decided they wanted to make a little money out of their properties, or at the very least, recoup costs.
A pasar malam committee was formed and one of the first things they did was hang lanterns everywhere. A karaoke stage was added too. Everyone could sing for free.
“To our surprise, people did come to our pasar malam right from the start. It was passed down from word of mouth and through social media. Very soon, even politicians started coming,” Bong said.
That led to Government funds. The town side of the riverbank was spruced up. The council improved rubbish collection. The alleyways between blocks were made usable again.
Bong credited state Assistant Public Health Minister Datuk Dr Jerip Susil, Federal Deputy Natural Resources and Environment Minister Datuk Dr James Dawos, and former Deputy Transport Minister Datuk Yong Khoon Seng as supporters.
Today, nearly all the wooden shophouses have been restored in some way. Every weekend, about 80 hawkers do business between and inside the old structures. “We worry about bad wiring and fires more than floods now,” Bong said, adding that all the wiring had been changed.
Asked if he was surprised at the turnaround, Bong, who operates a small 20-room hotel in the town, replied: “I could not have dreamt it.”
Speak to almost anyone involved with Siniawan’s revival, and it quickly becomes clear that the turnaround was very much grassroots led. Boon kickstarted the idea on behalf of locals like Bong, who steered their own initiatives.
No one can deny things worked at Siniawan because locals supported the plans which were after all for their own benefit.
It is interesting to note how, at no point, was there ever any large ‘Government’ studies. There were never any grand masterplan launching ceremonies with souvenir books, which no one ever keeps.
When I asked Dr Jerip, who is the state assemblyman for the area, what his take on Siniawan’s revival was, he said it could be summed up in one word — resilience.
Dr Jerip believed the success was because the efforts included many descendents of the original town’s founders, who were highly committed.
“The people there were some of the earliest Chinese settlers in Sarawak.
“Many of them remained there until a time when newer roads bypassed them. It was like time passing them by. A lot of youths left for Kuching.
“But there were resilient people around with a desire to maintain the township.
“Youths also started realising. ‘Hey! Siniawan isn’t that far from Kuching’.
“Some returned and many more came to visit because it is unique, it is very nostalgic. You can hear people playing traditional instruments at Siniawan like the erhu and guchen, nowadays. Young people playing!”
Angie Ng is a freelance writer and translator. She is also a former reporter. For months now, Ng and her partner have been selling five spice meat rolls and crackling pork belly, every weekend at Siniawan.
Two Sundays ago all of Ng’s food was sold out by 8pm. “There’s really a lot of visitors. Business is on the upswing, especially this year,” Ng said.
I asked what motivated her to start a food stall alongside a writing career. “First of all, profit from the food stall goes to my entire family because they all help out.
“Secondly, people say youth is the time to work hard. There are opportunities in Siniawan now, so that’s why we came back — to work hard.”