Sampans float gently in an inky Sarawak river, the reflected lights of the city twinkling with the languid move men to the waves as the Astanadozes illuminated in the moonlight. If you google Kuching, this is certain to be one of the images that personifies it – the long, lazy stretches of water that draw life to their banks. Sarawak is often seen as a leisurely and serene place, keeping pace with river life, rarely rushed with time to watch the world as it drifts by. But the world is spinning faster and faster as information, people and products need to move at ever increasing speeds. Roads are replacing rivers as the main means of travel and bridges are leaping across them successively as connectivity trumps community and cosmology. But as the rivers become less travelled, will the life that relies on them become redundant and pass into posterity?
Sarawak is a network of rivers from the mighty Rajang – itself alone 563km in length – down to every river, tributary, stream and inlet. The rivers, arguably more than any other feature, have defined the very nature of Sarawak – our communities have survived on them, travelled along them, gravitated towards them and even been identified by them for generations. For the Iban, rivers are the centre of their cosmological imagination. They are channels that connect the land of the living with the other realm as souls travel upstream into the spirit world. So the living have built their world around them, using them for war, migration and transportation. In the past, the Iban would pindah (migrate) upstream, always by boat, sometimes taking years to push their perau against the current, over shallows, to a suitable site, always next to a stream. The Malays, by contrast, are coastal people, hugging the river mouth and braving even the open sea for its bounty, but the waterways for many remain their community and their economy.
Anyone who has travelled Sarawak by road might be forgiven for wondering where all the people are. The heart of each kampung is rarely roadside and often approached as if from behind (that is assuming the kampung in question has road access at all!). It is only when you travel by river that the layout makes sense. Now roads are on the development agenda, bringing rural Sarawak into the modern world. But it is the bridges that are determining the rate of progress. Even in Kuching, only two bridges span the Sarawak river and outside of the city, it is not uncommon to find roads disappearing into rivers and then reappearing on the other side. What lies between is the perahu tambang or perhaps even the occasional ferry, providing safe passage across for a small sum – 50 sen for a pedestrian and 2 ringgit for a motorbike is the standard price.
The standard price for a passage across cost only 50 sen for a pedestrian and 2 ringgit for a motorbike.
The rivers, arguably more than any other feature, have defined the very nature of Sarawak – our communities have survived on them, travelled along them, gravitated towards them and even been identified by them for generations.
These are well used and the boatmen wait their turn patiently for their time to take passengers. Ali Bujang has been plying the short step from Pangkalan Encik Omar to Kampung Gersik in the heart of Kuching for over 30 years, taking over from his father and his grandfather before him. He is not local, travelling down from Kampung Empila in Samarahan for his one-week slot each month to supplement his income. While up in Samarahan, at the Muara Tuang ferry, Stat bin Amir tells a similar story. He has been working his route, connecting Muara Tuang and the road to Asajaya on the other side for forty years, following his father before him. He travels down from Tanjung Bundong for two days a week where the various boatmen have shifts to travel the five-minute journey across river for a few ringgit a time, taking home up to 100 ringgit on a good day. Both men share a long, slow stare and a measured delivery, born of countless hours spent in the rhythm of the river.
The standard price for a passage across cost only 50 sen for a pedestrian and 2 ringgit for a motorbike
The boatmen wait their turn patiently for their time to take passengers
Stat bin Amir has been working his route for forty years, following his father before him.
Ali Bujang has been plying from Pangkalan Encik Omar to Kampung Gersik for over 30 years.
Richard Yeo a veteran of the tourist trade has three traditional boats for tourists river cruises.
Muara Tuang is a busy crossing, so much so that it has its own ferry service. Two ferries ply this 100 metre span, pushing away from opposite banks, circling elegantly around each other and ending where the other began. These are sturdy swimmers, designed for taking cars and bikes across. Each is painted in jaunty red and white livery, and each is incongruously named Primrose, that delicate English flower, with successive numerals all the way up into the twenties. The various Primroses service various crossings up and down the Samarahan river. In service since sometime during the 1980s, this first move into modern life is, however, still at the mercy of the pace of the river. Only able to make the crossing at high tide, this corridor leading across the river, from road to boat to road again, springs to life once or twice a day as the tides dictate. Cars stream down to the river’s edge, forming orderly (mostly) queues until the ferry chunters to their side. In between times, the sampans roar back into life.
In true Sarawak style, where there are people, there is always a food opportunity. A bustling market and food court has sprung up, turning this tiny backwater into a thriving community. Pisang Goreng, Apam Balik, jungle produce, giant Udang Gala are all laid out on display and the waiting drivers sit and sip and snack and shop as the time slips by. Sheila sells cucur of all descriptions, from pisang to cempedak, and she loves the bustle of her day with lots of people and therefore lots of business. 63-year- old Manyie ak Andan makes his way across river from Semawang everyday by sampan to shop and occasionally to sell his own produce. He declares: ‘There is no other place to go and I have lots of friends here.’ As the saying goes, time and tide wait for no man, but this community is dependent almost entirely on man being made to wait for both.
But modern man has become unaccustomed to waiting and three bridge projects may put an end to that. A new, swooping, circling pedestrian bridge is about to overleap the Sarawak river, connecting the DUN with the Waterfront to apparently bring harmony to the opposing sides of the city. While out in Samarahan, the Batang Samarahan bridge, first promised in the 8th Malaysia plan and in each successive one until now (that would be the 11th) may finally be going ahead, due for completion in January 2018. Further along the river, the Batang Sadong bridge is already under construction. Soon the pedestrians will be able to make their own way and traffic will whip across at 100 km per hour, with no need to stop and smell the sea air as the river reaches of Samarahan slide by their windows.
Manyie ak Andan a 63-year old farmer, crosses river to shop and sell his produce everyday.
Sheila sells cucur of all description by the riverbank in Muara Tuang.
The reception to these mega projects is surprisingly muted in Muara Tuang. Are they excited to get the bridge, to finally be connected at super speed to the outside world? For most of them the answer is a shrug and a wry smile. As Stat simply puts it: ‘I don’t have a car. ’ None of them really know what will happen when the bridge comes in, and in true riverside style, their answer is simply to wait and see. They all seem certain that the ferry service will end and this will reduce their income. Sheila is concerned but nonetheless will stay. Stat is sanguine. He will just have to go back to fishing; the idea of seeking work elsewhere is alien to him and to each of his 9 children who also work on the river. Where else can they work on their own with no boss, no 9-5 and no one to control them? As Manyie puts it, with infinite practicality: “The bridge will be very far away. It’s ok if it is there but we can still use the boat. It’s only 50 sen.” Besides, he adds: ‘Main air biasa’ . So, it seems that the river life may remain but the modern world will no longer flow in, except for the steady stream of rubbish that floats out towards the sea. Already the talk has turned to crocodiles, that most ‘unmodern’ of creatures, which are found in increasing numbers in the area.
Exceptionally, Ali Bujang in central Kuching predicts little difference, for his outside world comes from even further afield. For him, the tourists will tip the balance though there seems to be some confusion in what capacity. They will be the ones to use the bridge, says Ali with some certainty, since the kampung folk are not going to the DUN. But yet, contrarily, the tourists like the boats. Richard Yeo, a veteran of the tourist trade has been running Sarawak River Cruises for the last four years. He has three traditional boats, one Malay, one Iban and one Orang Ulu now designed for tourist river cruises and he has every confidence his business will continue unchanged. He says, without irony: ‘It seems like the government wants to promote the river’ . So, the question perhaps should be, if the tourists are using the boats and the kampung folk are using the boats, who will be using the bridge? Either way, change is on its way and faster than the pace of the river. But perhaps the river will just drift languidly by, undisturbed.
Karen Shepherd’s family have long owned a farm in Kampung Tambey, on the far side of the Muara Tuang ferry crossing. She remembers visiting the farm as a child, taking the long journey by longboat from Satok. Nowadays, it is connected by road but the Primroses will always have a place in her heart!