Siniawan then and now

JUST 25.6km out of Kuching along the old road to Bau is a little bazaar reminiscent of a typical American “Wild West” cowboy town, with a single street where the inhabitants laze about along the corridors, and gun-slingers turned up for a showdown every now and then.

This is Siniawan, a once bustling Chinese village. Even though there is only a one-way-street through the heart of the bazaar, travellers like to stop in it for a drink or even a meal.

Sininawan has a rich history. When the first White Rajah, James Brooke, arrived in Kuching in 1839, he was told that the Malays near Siniawan were giving the Brunei viceroy of Sarawak a lot of trouble.

When he returned a year later, Brooke led a small fleet up the Sarawak River to the place where he had several skirmishes with the so-called “rebels”, a mixture of local Malays and Peninjau Bidayuhs from the nearby Serembo mountain range.

Eventually a peace deal was made between Brooke and the local Malays after Brooke was told that the Brunei government which ruled Sarawak then (in those days Sarawak extended from Tanjung Dato to Kota Samarahan) had been victimising the locals for a long time.

Their leader said the local Malays wanted peace, but were not putting up any longer with the sultan’s nephew Pengiran Mahkota and his warriors who often raided their homes, killed their people, sacked their villages and took away their wives and children.

They asked for a compromise — firstly that the sultan arranged for the return of the women and children who were kidnapped by the “Sea Dayak” (now Iban) pirates.

Brooke, an English gentleman, promised to help, and the rebels agreed that the sultan should appoint him as the “Rajah of Sarawak” in place of the viceroy and crown prince of Brunei, Raja Muda Hashim.

Brooke followed up on his promise when he built his first fort in Sarawak, Fort Berlidah, 200 yards from Siniawan to protect the local inhabitants from the fearsome headhunting Sea Dayaks from Skrang and Saribas who were often used by Brunei to attack and plunder the people of Sarawak.

After building Fort Berlidah, Brooke (later made Sir by the Queen of England), built a bungalow on the summit of Serembu mountain (also spelt Serambo) naming it the Peninjau (meaning “lookout”).

From here he used his binoculars to occasionally keep an eye on the river to see if any attempt was being made by the enemy to pass through the checkpoint.

In 1854 Brooke invited Alfred Wallace, a prominent anthropo-logist, to stay at the bungalow. Wallace, who together with Charles Darwin came up with the theory of evolution by natural selection, came and carried out research on primates, especially the orang utan, and other animal species.

Wallace loved Sarawak so much that he stayed for 14 months, longer than he ever did in any other place in the Malay Archipelago.

Brooke’s bungalow was visited by many travellers. One of them was the governor general of Brunei, Spenser St John, who in Life in the Forests of the Far East spoke of being paddled up in 1851 in a long perahu (boat) fitted with a cabin past Lidah Tanah (also called Leda Tanah, which was the headquarters of the Sarawak Malays) just below Siniawan.

St John stopped at Siniawan which already had about 300 Chinese shopkeepers and farmers. He noticed that there was great inter-action between the different ethnic groups.

Later, he spoke highly about the inter-racial harmony.

He said: “They (the Chinese) are evidently thriving, as the Dayaks of the surrounding country (from the villages of Bumbok, Peninjau and Serembo as well as Gunung Singhai) resort to this place, and there is a constant influx of Chinese (from Bau) and Malay gold miners.”

However, the story did not end there because in 1857, six years after St John’s visit, about 600 Chinese gold miners from Bau rebelled against the White Rajah over opium taxes.

They attacked the Astana, burnt Kuching town, and killed several Europeans. Brooke barely escaped with his life.

A week later Brooke managed to get word to his nephew, Charles Brooke, who was a leader of his famous “Balau” Iban army that was on duty outstation.

Within a few days the Balau war perahus went down the coast and headed for Kuching.

On hearing this, the rebel leader, Liew Shan Phan, and his men fled up the Sarawak River and back to Bau.

As they paddled furiously upriver, they were waylaid by the Siniawan Malays and Bidayuh from the various villages.

Scores were killed.

Bodies littered the river and thus some of the places were given names such as Buso (a rendering of the Malay busuk for “stinking”) and Bau (for smelly).

On reaching Bau, the Balaus sacked the town and in one incident they blocked some nearby caves and burnt or smoked to death about 125 rebels and their families who took refuge inside.

It is said that close to 2,000 rebels including women and children from Bau and the surrounding areas joined the Chinese “exodus” to Sambas district in Dutch Borneo (now West Kalimantan).

They feared that Brooke might avenge the death of his officers and locals.

At the final border crossing at Bukit Gumbang (Gumbang Hill), the rebels were mowed down by Brooke’s forces.

Armed with swords and spears, the Chinese fought it out as their women sang patriotic Chinese songs and waved the kongsi (clan) flag.

Only a handful of rebels and their families survived.

On their arrival at Sambas, the Sambas kongsi kapitan ordered their execution for having failed to assassinate Brooke.

Then in the late 1800s the Chinese returned and established Siniawan bazaar just opposite the present Kampung Melayu Siniawan.

For many years Siniawan was a sleepy hollow until the Hakka farmers returned to the area. The Chinese also restarted gold mining in Bau.

Last year, Sarawak’s long-time friend, biologist Datuk Seri Lord Cranbrook and the Assistant Tourism Minister Datuk Talib Zulpilip, travelled up the Sarawak River, retracing the steps of the first White Rajah.

Both agreed that Siniawan should be developed into a heritage site. After the initial obstacles, Sinia-wan became a thriving township, that is, until the main Kuching-Bau road got straightened and bypassed it, reducing it to a semi-ghost town.

In August 2009, the inhabitants formed the Siniawan Heritage Conservation Committee with the hope of rekindling the local pride of its rich history.

Today Siniawan is not only a historical town, but a quaint “village” with a thriving bird’s nest business. The residents have also started weekend karaoke sessions where crooners from the surrounding places belt out Mandarin, Malay and English songs.

Siniawan is a short 30-minute drive from Kuching, but beware as you have to go past many Chinese cemeteries along a pitch-dark road at night because the area is still without any streetlight.

As some of the superstitious ones believe, the ghosts of the old Chinese rebels might be waiting for passers-by on the roadside, hoping to hitch a ride “home”.

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