Sarawak- Some Reminiscences

 For reasons that will become clear later on, I have never considered myself to be a tourist when visiting Sarawak, and the following notes are not intended as a guide to the place- there are a number of these already in print- but they are rather a mixture of personal   observations, memories and idealisations of the place and of my times there…

 During an earlier stage of my life I thought of Sarawak as a second home, or rather as a home from home. This was  because my wife originated from Simunjan– a small town in the western part of what was, at the time of her birth, a British Crown Colony occupying most of the north coast of the island of Borneo.

 My first visit to the Far East was made in 1988, one year after our marriage. And the first country seen was Singapore, which impressed by its compactness, tidiness and modernity and, most of all, by its marvellously warm and humid climate, that I fell in love with immediately.

 Sarawak presented a very different experience-being  less tidy, less modern in its architecture and offering huge seemingly unused spaces of forest punctuated by sprawling towns and villages, the latter being a mix of Chinese style villas, Malay houses on stilts and the occasional longhouse of the Dayaks, Sarawak’s indigenous people. The one thing in common with Singapore was the very noticeable prevalence of the English language.

 Kuching

Although my wife was born in Simunjan, she lived from an early age in the state capital of Kuching, now a large city on the Sarawak River that coils its way through the central districts. During all my visits to Kuching I have stayed at the old house in Rubber Road where my wife spent her late childhood and early teens.  

 I wrote in my Diary for 1997 [my 3rd visit to Sarawak]

Back again in Kuching. I love all that is old and much that is new in this city- the colonial district around the Padang with its old streets of shop-houses dating back a century and more, the old Malay districts with their wooden houses on stilts, even the many newer buildings, in an anonymous modern style, which soon become adorned with signs in Malay, English and Chinese and get surrounded by that peculiarly Oriental clutter that develops rapidly when enterprises flourish.

 I knew, when I was approaching Kuching that I did not want to work there. Work in a place, and it becomes just another place associated with all the stress and anxiety of earning a living, and this city is too precious to me for it to become that. I believe that we all need a refuge in which we can put life’s mundane worries aside and regard as a haven of rest. This is what I want Kuching to remain in the future.

And, in 2003

 In Kuching again after three and a half years. If I do not still feel the same exhilaration maybe it's because this city is now more of a second home than before. It is all much more familiar now. This is my fifth visit to Kuching so in all I must have spent about six months of my life here so far.  It is now no longer love at first or second sight, but now love of the familiar tree lined avenues, shabby anonymous-modern blocks of shops and offices, all decorated with signs and clutter, and the eternal tropical warmth day and night.

 I look forward each day to being driven around Kuching. Whether in sun or rain the city always holds my attention. It is also enjoyable to step out into the humid warmth from the air conditioned car (the opposite of London at most times of the year!) The city is now less exotic (to me) and more familiar. The new developments lack visual interest and architectural quality. But there are still many pleasing sights: colourful clutters of chairs, tables, stalls and signs marking a restaurant, a new villa with yellow or orange walls surrounded by palms and great urns full of fiery-blossomed plants, or, half buried in dense foliage, an old wooden house dating back to colonial times.

  How divided my life has become between East & West!  One part of me has become so involved with things oriental and especially Chinese/Malaysian- food, scenery, climate, and of how these have become so familiar to me over the past 15 years of my married life. But there is of course another part which is essentially English. How can one escape the cultural roots of one’s formative years? It cannot be done. I cannotnot love English literature and music, and the landscapes of Britain, so varied compared to Sarawak! This duality of mind has to find expression in my work- music inspired by the East alongside works depicting English landscapes and inspired by English literature.

 From many of Kuching’s main streets one can see Gunung Matang, a cone- shaped mountain about 2,000 feet high on the western horizon. I always looked forward to catching a glimpse of it when being driven about the city and it was in fact visible from Rubber Road when not obscured by cloud or rain.

 4th August 2003

Spectacular sunset!  At dusk (6.30p.m.) the whole western sky over Matang was aglow- clouds had taken on red, orange and purple hues. The mountain changes colour, and seems to change size, according to the weather and time of day, sometimes appearing grey and distant and at other times dark and massive. This time it was an indescribable translucent mixture of grey, blue and violet. In a break in the clouds just over the peak of Matang the sun appeared for a moment like an ingot of molten gold. It was worth coming again just for this sight.

 Bau 

I have visited this town- birthplace of my wife’s father -unfortunately deceased just before we first got to know each other - once only in 1995.

 I wrote this diary entry for 1996:

 Bau is a small, untidy town about 25 km South West of Kuching. Until recently one of the few interesting features of this town was a lake surrounded by gardens with little oriental pagodas, temples and bridges. Now this lake has gone. In its place is a large, muddy hole out of which gold is being extracted.  By way of compensation for this loss, the visitor can explore some nearby caves which have been made easily accessible by means of wooden walkways. On these one can penetrate quite deeply into the dark and humid interiors. I have vivid memories of these caves. Here are all the eternal elements of the physical world perceived more strongly in the tropical setting:  the hot sun, cool rock, soil, water and vegetation. Here also are darkness and mystery. I can, if I close my eyes, feel again that apprehension as I leave the light and inch my way into a deeper and deeper darkness.  Sudden sprays of water falling from above are like needle pricks to the skin.  Far below the platform along which I grope my way are rushing torrents. Then come a few moments of utter blackness. Then the relief of a glimpse of daylight ahead and increasing light and warmth as the cave entrance is regained. That disconcerting sensation of walking on nothingness vanishes and soon I am out into the heat and brilliance of the tropical day. 

 If my earlier visits to Sarawak were holidays, from 2005 they involved work as well, because it was in this year that I was first sent to the Far East as an examiner for London College of Music Examinations. In addition to examining in Kuching I was sent to some of Sarawak’s other towns:  Sibu, Sarikei, Bintulu, Miri and Kapit.

 It would not benefit the reader to describe each one of these places separately, suffice to say that their similarities outweigh their differences. Grid patterns of streets predominate and the most usual form of architecture is that mid- to late- 20th century iron frame and concrete slab, anonymous type that you see all over the East- Hong Kong, Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia. The structures, when new, may present to the observer a dazzling whiteness, but after a time this turns to a faded grey. The outer structural fabric does not weather well in the tropical climate, but the resulting drabness is mitigated by the profusion of ever-verdant trees, shrubs and other lesser plant-life, together with the colour from shop signs, vehicles, and often brightly dressed pedestrians.

 I have always regarded Sarawak as a potential earthly paradise and seen from the air, the rural areas do indeed have the appearance of some huge Garden of Eden.

 Predominant qualities are warmth, dampness and a ubiquitous verdure- either flat and green or mountainous and green except on the very highest peaks which are rocky.  It is the warmth not of European summers in which any heat is temporary and dies away in Autumn, but the warmth of millennia, a warmth that has permeated the soil and the very rock itself. Time seems to stand still here –no seasons except that some days are wetter than others, and it gets light and dark at very nearly the same time every day.

 Considering that Sarawak was founded and shaped by the British from the early 19th century, they and other Europeans seem few and far between outside of the hotel area in Kuching and the national parks of Mulu, Bako etc.  During all my journeys through the state I have often been regarded with curiosity, amusement and interest, but never with hostility.

 It might seem, looking at modern Sarawak that it has not got much of a history. But, to simplify, we may note the interaction, sometimes hostile and sometimes collaborative, of four ethnic groups: Malay, Chinese, Dayak [native] and British in the formation of what became the state of Sarawak in East Malaysia.

 The casual visitor is hardly aware of any of this history – one has to dig a little below the surface to uncover it. But around the old city of Kuching 19th century colonial buildings still survive and there is a padang- a large open space set out by the British possibly as a vague memory of that good old village green so common back home. A visit to the Sarawak museum will also reveal the murky past of the Dayak tribes when tribal warfare and headhunting were rife before being eradicated in the 19th century.

 In all my visits it was the Chinese community that I came into contact with most often.  Encounters with Malays were usually limited to taxi drivers, shop assistants and the occasional helper at examination centres. I have the impression that each ethnic group, for obvious cultural reasons, does not socialise easily with the others, although they may mix in the workplace…

 Culture

 Miri, August 2005.  I wrote:

  Late evening, and after returning from the airport to see Sonia and kids off (they flew to Kuching) I listened to Henze’s 1st Symphony (I brought a CD player and a few discs along this time). I was struck by how irrelevant the work sounded here and how exotic, and most likely, incomprehensible, it would sound to the majority of Malaysians. The local music- mainly popular- is doggedly pentatonic and euphonious- not a dissonance anywhere!

 In the tropics the emphasis is mainly on the visual & the sensuous: the brilliant greens of vegetation, sharp outlines of white walls and red-tiled roofs, the multicoloured dresses of the women and blue clad schoolgirls, and cars, taxis and buses of all colours. I guess that with so much to satisfy the eye, the ear will make do with the most insipid nourishment.

 Maybe only in the grey cities of Europe and North America can a serious and aurally engaging music develop and take root, and reach an attentive audience.

 Sibu

I like this busy town on the great Rajang River. In all my stays there I do not recall seeing another European because it is well off the tourist trails. Sibu is a very Chinese place- mostly Hokkien, Foochow and Hakka whose ancestors arrived in the late 19th and early 20th centuries seeking a better living than they were getting in China at that period.

 26th August 2005

To Sibu (pop. 200,000) situated on a flat plain- a pleasant but untidy city with Sarawak’s longest river, the Rejang,  running through it, reminding me of Kuching.

 Lunch by the river in a half outdoor style restaurant- one of those places that seems to be almost on the pavement. I walked along the waterfront afterwards to see the boats, parks, pagoda and statue of a swan- Sibu’s emblem-(Miri’s is the seahorse and Kuching’s is the cat).

 Evening:

A visit to the office of a nephew of Miss Chua, the LCM representative.

 His business is birds’ nest processing which I found only mildly interesting- but I was presented with a book “The Swiftlets of Borneo” so at least I have something fresh to read!

 Sarikei

30th August 2005

 By car to Sarikei, a small but busy town on the Rajang River. A 1 ½ hour journey including a ferry crossing over the Rajang ( near where my driver was stopped by the police for not wearing a seat belt- she managed to charm them into letting her go on). Then through a big country of dense forest, plantations and occasional villages of wooden, tin-roofed houses on stilts each with its church or mosque.

 My memories of Sarawak are too numerous and all too often too vague in detail to include them all in these notes.  Here are a few:

 Outdoor restaurants on jetties over the South China Sea and dining in the warm tropical night on freshly caught fish, prawns and crab.

 Curious houses without windows on the road from Sibu to Sarikei. They are bird houses for the famous swiftlets of South East Asia whose nests are considered to be a delicacy- but I do not think they have any flavour at all!

 The panoramic view of Kuching from the tower of City Hall. The city sprawls over a flat land punctuated by occasional groups of sharply defined mountains.

 Kapit, a small town on the great Rejang River and only accessible by boat from Sibu. It was amazing to find a well-equipped music studio with a fine concert grand piano that must have made its way somehow up river from the coast.

 These notes were written in December in London at a time of year when I miss the tropical warmth and colour of Sarawak most strongly.

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