MUARA TEBAS, AKA 青山 (ché sua in Hokkien dialect) is frequented by seafood lovers for their mouth-watering “laksa crab”, “curry bamboo clams” and steamed prawns. However, with closer inspection you’ll soon uncover that the most astonishing treasure in the village isn’t the auspicious empurau fish in the restaurant tank, but rather the community of villagers that call Muara Tebas home.
I spent a scorching afternoon in the house of Seph Haini, as we chatted with his lovely animated grandmother, Dora Basri (86). Dora’s roots are embedded deeply in this village as it was her grandparents who founded Muara Tebas. Her grandfather, Mahammad, became the first Ketua Kampung “village leader” together with his wife, Baidah. Baidah was also the village’s makeup artist, providing “gelangs” (bangles) to adorn brides-to-be, as well as beautifying services and ritual bathing (believed to aid the prewedding skin glow).
Muara (meaning estuary) and Tebas (meaning to cut) has been given many affectionate and less affectionate names over the years. Some know it as “the sleepy village” or “Kampung hujung jalan” (the village at the end of the road). In the early days, the only form of access to the village was via the river and it would take about an hour by boat to get there through the Pending port.
“It’s a Malay fishing village with a hint of Chinese” as per Seph’s description of his home. With a population of 2000 and 320 households, Muara Tebas is only 20km from Kuching centre.
Seph’s grandmother Dora could recall the first Chinese occupant that moved to Muara Tebas shortly after her grandparents, “Alid”. The famous Muara Tebas temple now resides on his land.
When asked about her living conditions in early Muara Tebas, Dora answered gleefully. “We used to live in mini huts, and we were salaried by the Chinese business at the “sirih” plantation to bunch them and arrange them. We got 5 cents a bundle!”
The 200-year-old Chingsan Yan Buddhist Temple overlooks this coastal fishing village and the South China Sea. Its architecture is a wonder, with the bright unapologetic red walls and fine details in every corner.
“There often are sightings of Malays walking up this temple’s steps too. Some of them are employed to work in the temple, and some want to go to over the hill behind the temple to the Malay cemetery to pay their respects.” Seph explained.
The Malays and Chinese in this village display a level of harmony uncommon to our daily viewings. The Chinese here speak fluent Bahasa Sarawak and some of the Malays here work comfortably cleaning the Buddhist temple, which is located mere footsteps away from the local mosque. The burial ground of both races are literally side by side, it was almost a “live together, die together” innuendo being lived out. I asked if there was ever any resistance of unrest among the villagers to which Seph replied casually with a smile, “It’s always been this way, we’re used to it.”
With its beauties, the village also faces its fair share of challenges. Often known as “ulat ticket” (ticket worms), there are a handful of unwarranted carpark fee collectors that occasionally charge hefty prices for visitors to park their cars in the area. This act often deters visitors from dining at the seafood restaurants. Seph hopes to empower the locals to find other meaningful sources of income, and he intends to activate the community to find ways to add value into the lives of visitors.
A great example is the miniature boat maker. He crafts souvenir boats for visitors out of “kayu pelait” (a type of wood sourced from the hills within the local village area). His boats have been purchased by tourists hailing from France, Thailand, Phillipines and China, just to name a few. A man of many talents, he is also the village’s sous chef during occasions such as Ramadan, Buka Puasa (breaking of fast) and weddings (celebrated by the entire village at the local town hall).
By the end of the afternoon, we headed over to have a scrumptious seafood lunch as we brainstormed our hopes and dreams for Muara Tebas. The trip served as a reminder to me that behind every person, every place, are invaluable stories. Stories that have shaped the landscape and the environments of these communities. Unfortunately, not all stories are always highlighted and often some of them go untold. So the next time you head to Muara Tebas to dig into that crab, think of this story, and be grateful for the ancestors of the village that built this hidden gem.
Joyce Khoo grew up hearing the most wonderful stories, including visiting old places like Muara Tebas, from her mother. She realised that with the right storyteller, there’s no such thing as a mundane story.