It is impossible to tell the story of The Bikalan without telling the story of Siniawan its self. The two are intrinsically linked,; heart, body, & soul
Born From the River
Siniawan was born along the meandering Sarawak River (“Sungai Sarawak Kanan”) which is about 25 kilometres from Kuching City and located within the Administrative Jurisdiction of the Bau District in Sarawak, Malaysia. In the early 1820’s, a small group of Hakka Chinese settlers made their home along the side of the river.
Strategically, positioned at the high point of the Sarawak River, few boats could travel much further up; a bustling trading settlement quickly grew. During the boom times of the 1920’s, the street contained a hotel, a Chinese theatre, a casino, as well as a brothel and an Opium den. Although the original settlement is now long gone, destroyed by battle, fire, & flood; the Siniawan of today follows the same layout. Just one street with two facing rows of twenty-four (24) unit shop houses constructed from timber materials.
Those timber made shop houses still stand today, with their original facade. The surrounding ambience and the uniqueness of all these shop houses gave rise to the local people to nickname the rustic town as ‘Cowboy Town’ based on its obvious resemblance to the frontier towns of the Old Wild Wild West.
But back in the 1820’s things were quiet, nothing significant would happen until the coming of the White Rajah in 1839.
The White Rajah
In 1839, James Brooke arrived in Sarawak. As part of brokering a peace deal between the Sultan of Brunei (who ruled Sarawak at that time) and the rebel Malay and Bidayuh tribes of the region, he agreed to provide protection for the local people from the Iban/Sea Dayak from Skrang & Saribas who often raided their homes, killed their people, who were supported by the hated Bruneian Prince Makhota.
In recognition of his help in quelling the trouble, in 1841, the Sultan finally agreed to make James Brooke the first White Rajah of Sarawak. And so the Brooke Dynasty came to govern Sarawak for three (3) generations. James Brooke built his first fort in Sarawak known as Fort Berlidah, located just few hundred metres downstream on the Sarawak River from where the presents Siniawan Town is located today.
Fuelled by the Gold Rush in nearby Bau and with the protection now afforded by White Rajah of Sarawak, the small settlement of Siniawan quickly grew. Populated by Hakka Chinese traders & miners who came across from the Sambas district in Dutch Borneo (now West Kalimantan), the community began to thrive.
After building Fort Berlidah, James Brooke built a bungalow on the summit of Mount Serembu, which overlooked Siniawan, naming it the “Peninjau” (meaning “lookout”).
In 1854, James Brooke invited Alfred Wallace, a prominent anthropologist, to stay at the bungalow. Wallace together with Charles Darwin developed the theory of evolution by natural selection, came to carry out researches on primates, especially the Orang Utan and other animal species. Wallace loved Sarawak so much that he stayed for fourteen (14) months, longer than he ever did in any other places in the Malay Archipelago.
James Brooke entertained many visitors at his bungalow. One of these was the Governor General of Brunei, Spenser St John. On visiting Siniawan, which already had about three hundred (300) Chinese shopkeepers and traders, St John noticed that there was great inter-action between the different ethnic groups.
Struck by the peaceful and harmonious atmosphere present there, he commented: “They (the Chinese) are evidently thriving as the Dayaks of the surrounding country (from the villages of Bumbok, Peninjau and Serembu as well as Gunung Singai) resort to this place and there is a constant influx of Chinese (from Bau) and Malay gold miners.”
Sadly, this peaceful time lasted only for 16 years.
Despite, or perhaps because of, the apparent prosperity of the area, the environment situation at that time somehow changed. Rajah James Brooke felt that the community should share some of its burgeoning wealth, so he introduced taxation on Gold and Opium trading, much to the displeasure of the Hakka Chinese of the Bau goldfields.
The leader of this community was Liu Shan Bang. He was a fearsome Hakka Chinese who came to Bau from Sambas to escape mistreatment from the Dutch. He organised the 'Twelve Kongsi' company which operated the Mau San gold mine and made the mining town of Mau San (or Bau Lama) effectively self-governing.
On 18th February 1857, Liu Shan Bang led a force of some six hundred (600) Chinese miners down the Sarawak River, through Siniawan, to attack the government of Rajah James Brooke in Kuching. Their target was Rajah James Brooke himself. They attacked The Astana (Rajah James Brooke’s bungalow) and burned down many buildings in Kuching. Believing they had killed the White Rajah, the corpse was beheaded and the head was carried through Kuching town on a stake. In the confusion of battle, the unfortunate victim was not the White Rajah but another European. Rajah James Brooke was in The Astana at the material time and narrowly escaped the onslaught and survived. Five (5) Europeans and many locals were killed in the uprising, properties burnt and the town was left in disarray. Most Europeans took shelter in the grounds of an Anglican Church.
The insurgents however did not want to assume the government that they offered it to the manager of the Borneo Company with the Datu Bandar administering the Malays; and withdrew upriver. Rajah James Brooke was able to get word to his nephew Charles Brooke and on the 23rd February 1857, Charles Brooke, adorned in full Iban Warrior garb; led a force of Ibans to join the local Bidayuh tribes in retaliation. They pursued the Chinese up the Sarawak River and a series of bloody battles ensued around the Siniawan area. Bodies lay scattered along 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”).
Liu Shan Bang finally fell at Jugan Hill, just outside Siniawan, on 24th of February 1857. In later years, local Chinese workers befell many accidents on the hill, eventually beseeching the local companies to erect a shrine in memory of Liu Shan Bang on Jugan hill. The accidents seemed to stop and the temple still stands today.
The path to nationhood and lean times for Siniawan
A period of stability and eventual decline then ensued. The war with the Japanese came and went, bringing trials that Siniawan and Sarawak again withstood. The Brooke dynasty finally ceded Sarawak to the British Empire, much to the disappointment of many of the locals. Sarawak joined the Union and Malaysia became complete under MA63. The gold fields were spent and the town of Siniawan settled to an ordinary and peaceful existence.
But trouble was never far away. The Sarawak River, having created Siniawan, almost becoming its downfall. The river level rises substantially during the monsoon season and two (2) serious incidents of floods took place. The last flood incident was in 2009, which almost laid Siniawan to rest. After the flooding, new communities were created on nearby higher ground and many of the residents moved for safer areas and other places to construct their houses. Added to this, the creation of a new road network & bridges at Batu Kitang & Batu Kawa improved transportation links in the area. These reduced reliance on the Sarawak river as a means of transportation & bypassed Siniawan altogether, leaving the little Town near forgotten.
A Rodeo renaissance
Sometime in August 2009, the inhabitants formed the Siniawan Heritage Conservation Committee with the hope of rekindling the local pride of its rich past history. The initiative received high level of support from the State Assistant Minister of Public Health Datuk Dr Jerip Susil and the Federal Deputy Minister of the Natural Resources and Environment Datuk Dr James Dawos as well as the former Deputy Transport Minister Datuk Yong Khoon Seng. This led to the opening of the Night Market (Pasar Malam) during weekend evenings serving various hawker foods, drinks and creating a lively atmosphere with street side karaoke and local musicians busking every now and then.
In 2016, the first Siniawan Fiesta was held. A large stage was erected and local Country Music bands were invited to perform. The response was overwhelming with crowds of locals and tourists descending upon the Cowboy Town. The 2017 Festival was scaled up substantially with a new bigger stage and more vendors. Again, the crowds surpassed expectation. The event featured cultural music from the ethnic tribes on Friday night with Country music taking centre stage on Saturday.
In 2018, the event became bigger. Under the guidance and inspiration of N18 Serembu YB Miro Simuh, 5th generation Siniawan resident and Chairman of the event Mr. Dylan Lai and our very own Sheriff, Mr. William Ding who is the Deputy Chairman of Bau District Council; organized a week long Siniawan Heritage Country Music Fest.
The main event scheduled on the 5th October (Friday) and 6th October (Saturday) featured Country music with bands coming from West Malaysia as well as local bands in Sarawak, attracted huge crowd. Other series of events such as karaoke competitions for English, Malay, Dayak and Chinese songs over three (3) consecutive nights also attracted many visitors. The following Friday night (12th October) featured a local Rock band with audience participation and Saturday (13th October) showcased indigenous musicians from local cultures, including guests from Taiwan. All on a new stage in the center of Siniawan Bazaar.
The Country Western Night event was a huge hit where thousands of visitors/participants came voluntarily in their cowboy outfit to enjoy the harmonious event. The event was an unparalleled success and the Siniawan Festival is now becoming known as one of the premier events in Sarawak and all Malaysia. Over the one (1) week of festivities, upwards of thirty thousand (30,000) people danced their way up and down Siniawan High Street.
Siniawan is no longer a sleepy town but with the help of community participation, it has now turned into a vibrant street. A place where tourists from near & afar must come to see the uniqueness of Siniawan.
The birth of The Bikalan
This was where and why The Bikalan was born, a name synonym to “jetty or waterhole”. Standing by the jetty was an old wooden shop house, ramshackle and empty for many years. Falling to pieces, filled with dust, debris and possibility! As we live just the other side of the Sarawak river, Grace and I visited Siniawan most Friday nights to enjoy the busking, the local food and to meet with friends.
From nearby Kampung Kandis Lama, Grace and all her family grew up entwined with Siniawan. Learning to swim in the Sarawak River. From Siniawan they would take the bus to school or help their Samak take vegetables to Kuching market for sale. The same is true of the majority of the surrounding Kampung folks. This old shop house was known as Kim Sen (meaning “Gold Full” in Hakka). It was a local general supply store operated for decades by a gentleman known as Ah Yong and given its central position in the street and proximity to the jetty was well known to all. Kim Sen closed its doors at the last major flood and never reopen.
My first visit to Siniawan was June 2010 and I will never forget my initial view of the old street. I remembered being amazed that such a place existed seemingly untouched by time and unspoiled by progress elsewhere.
Over the coming years my love for Sarawak grew. The friendly and welcoming approach of the locals; Dayak, Chinese and Malay alike affected me deeply. The words of Spenser St John still ring true today. This, combined with a feeling of times long gone in Europe, the values of family and community, spurred our decision to build a house here and eventually retire to Sarawak.
Once here, we needed a project to focus on. When the opportunity to purchase Kim Sen became available, in cooperation with the family, we pushed forward and our goal was now clear. We would try to create a bar/café for locals and visitors alike to gather, to relax and to enjoy the tranquil environment. Such a project is a sensitive matter, to create something new in an ancient street, to build something that would be both fresh but also utterly respect its surroundings. This is The Bikalan. Built with materials recycled from the renovation wherever possible, using local teams and traditional building techniques. How would they react to this upstart by the Mat Saleh and a Bidayuh building in their street? They embraced the project with enthusiasm that equaled our own. Every day of the renovation would see the old uncles visiting to inspect our progress.
The Bikalan was officially opened for business on the 5th of October 2018. It was indeed sad that the original shop owner the late Ah Yong passed away on the 6th October 2018 at 8am. May he rest in peace.
19th October 2018
With thanks to: The Borneo Post, The Star, Wikipedia, Mr Dylan Lai, and Counsellor William Ding