LAST month, some friends and I decided to play tourist in our own backyard and visit the night market at Siniawan.
Siniawan is a historic Chinese settlement on the old road to Bau whose transformation into a successful heritage conservation has been well documented.
What makes Siniawan’s restoration all the more notable is that it was led by the local community, spurred by a Kuching architect and the Sarawak Heritage Society.
Today, the two rows of wooden shophouses in the town have been renovated and preserved, maintaining their olden-day charm while serving a new purpose.
Every weekend, Siniawan plays host to a night market along the restored shophouses, with hawkers and stall operators selling all kinds of food while tables and chairs are set up in the street.
Colourful lanterns strung between the shops add to the festive air, while an open-air karaoke stage invites patrons to try out their singing abilities.
The night market has become a well-known attraction over the years.
My friends and I had read about it and seen plenty of photographs on Facebook and social media.
But we had never been there.
So one fine Saturday evening, we went to Siniawan to check it out for ourselves.
Our first surprise was that the drive took less than half an hour despite some heavy traffic along the way.
Shortly after 6.30pm we reached the town, where we were again surprised to find that the car park was already full and more vehicles were arriving.
Clearly the Siniawan night market is very popular among Kuching folk.
As it was still quite early, we decided to walk down the length of the street, taking photographs and admiring the restored facades of the shophouses and the pretty lanterns.
We were struck by how quaint and charming the place looked, including its spruced up riverbank as well as the crowds of people thronging the street.
We were definitely spoilt for choice when it came to dinner options.
There were stalls selling the usual array of street food like satay, noodles and oyster pancakes known locally as “o chien”, while others offered traditional delicacies, local kuih and fusion dishes.
It was eye-opening and fun at the same time to be a tourist at home, visiting a heritage site and enjoying good food.
Now there are plans to gazette Siniawan as a heritage area. Deputy Chief Minister Datuk Amar Abang Johari Tun Openg, when launching the Siniawan Festival a few weeks ago, said the town had met the criteria for a heritage site as it was over 100 years old.
He said it would be linked to the Brooke heritage site nearby — a hill opposite the town where Sarawak’s first White Rajah James Brooke built a cottage.
In addition, he said Siniawan would be upgraded to turn it into a new tourist destination.
“The government is willing to put in extra money for the development of the area to facilitate what the locals have done,” he was reported as saying.
This should come as good news, not just for Siniawan folk but those concerned about heritage conservation.
With the gazetting of the town as a heritage site, there should be greater emphasis and awareness on preserving its old buildings, along with more funds for maintenance.
Attracting more tourists would also help to boost its standing.
However, it’s interesting to note that, just like the locally-driven restoration initiative, visitors to the night market appear to be mostly locals too.
This illustrates what someone once told me about heritage preservation, that it should be done first and foremost for the local community and not for the sake of tourism only.
Yes, we want tourists to enjoy and appreciate our heritage.
But before that we must appreciate and enjoy it ourselves, whether by getting involved in a restoration project or just visiting a night market.
This is how we can sustain our conservation efforts, from preserving old buildings to ensuring that local communities continue to live and thrive within heritage areas.
So the next time you have a free weekend, consider driving to Siniawan to see what has been done to keep it looking the way it does and how it has been turned into a bustling night market.
Then dive in and enjoy the food.