Cowboy Bau – Going Country and Asian!

| Estimated reading time: 12 minutes

Bau District was born from a Chinese gold rush, to a backdrop of Bidayuh style! A brief ride to the west of Kuching, it is wild indeed. A country town surrounded by towering limestone cliffs worthy of the Lone Ranger, this is truly pioneer territory where people live off the land, love their surroundings and enjoy a lively hoedown. It is the heartland of the Land Dayak, also known as the Bidayuh – highly spiritual, historically peaceful and hill dwelling. As the name suggests, the Bidayuh of Bau area love the land and, in true rural style, also seem to covet their pickup trucks, travelling in convoy, their country music and their cowboy hats. Meanwhile, the Chinese in the area, among the earliest sino-settlers in Sarawak, speak Bidayuh better than Mandarin – a model of long-term integration. Like many places in Sarawak, the secret in Bau is in the blend of spices, a story of indigenous groups greeting early Chinese migrants, of uprisings against incomers and of everyone eventually settling down together to have a foot-stomping, roof-raising time.


Bau Town and Tasik Biru

Perhaps the story starts best at the lake, an eye-opening aquamarine expanse of water so clear that you believe you can see the bottom but so profound that you realize that it is not really there, your eye sinking away into the mesmerizing depths. But the Tasik Biru (Blue Lake) is not a natural feature nor is it for human consumption. It is, instead, man-made, a product of an open cast mine that characterized the town and the area and has left the turquoise waters toxic with arsenic from the process. But the poisons in the water that poured into the pit to create the lake can do nothing to mar its unnatural beauty and it has become a popular place for walks and even watersports – canoeing, rafting, even an annual festival – all on the surface, of course.

But the lake sets up the story of the area, a tale of a Rajah and his rebels, of claims staked and lost, of early commerce in a place of outstanding natural beauty and of a cultural exchange that has continued over ages. It starts in another country with the Hakka Chinese gold miners, settled in Kalimantan since the mid-18th Century. With the arrival of the Dutch there and an increasingly hostile reaction to their systems of self-government through their cooperatives or kongsi, several settlers struck out over the hills around the 1820s into what is now Sarawak where they set themselves up in agriculture and, most importantly, in mining the gold (and antimony) that was in them thar’ hills. The twin towns of Bau and Siniawan began to flourish with trade.

But the dispersal in Dutch Borneo of the San Tiou Kow kongsi in the 1850s prompted a massive influx of up to 5,000 refugees and these swelled the numbers of the Siniawan-Bau Chinese into a significant stronghold. Right in the centre of this was the relatively new Rajah who welcomed the Chinese and their creation of a new economy but equally feared the impossibility of their control. To cut a very long story very short, he attempted to raise taxes, both on their industry and their opium, they resisted. He set up the Borneo Company in 1856, they perceived a threat to their mining operations. One early morning in 1857, a huge party of armed Chinese, 600-strong, entered Kuching from upriver and attacked the Rajah’s house. Taken entirely by surprise, he fled into the kampung, leaving the capital to the insurgents, resisted only by the Sarawak Malays. After a few days of Chinese supremacy, the Sarawak Malay forces, backed up by local Bidayuh and supported by the Europeans on the Borneo Company steamer, drove the Chinese back up to Siniawan where they were effectively defeated.

What followed was a massacre. Charles Johnson, the Rajah’s nephew and eventual successor, returned from Skrang with his Iban war party of 10,000 warriors on the hunt for heads, and the retreating Chinese were pursued relentlessly. The Rajah, reinstated, estimated that 2,000 Chinese were killed in their flight and many reports recalled that the Sarawak River was awash with bodies and their blood. Sarawakian Chinese still tell of hundreds of women and children suffocating to death in a cave as the war party set fire to its mouth. The apocryphal addition to the tale is that the stench of their bodies cast a pall over the whole area, leading to the naming of the towns of Bau and nearby Buso, unfortunately translating to ‘smelly’ and ‘rotten’ in Malay. (On a point of fact, the original name, which English surveyors apparently corrupted to Bau, was Mau San or Bukit Mau.)

The outcome, of course, was entirely predictable. The power of the Bau kongsis was effectively broken and their mining claims were steadily handed over to the Borneo Company – a self-fulfilling prophecy, perhaps. In recent decades, a tiny temple was raised in Jugan, just outside Siniawan, in honour of Liu Shan Bang, the man many now believe to have been the leader of the kongsi, worshipped at the Shan Teck temple as a ‘Shen’. He also appears on the Heroes’ Monument, erected post-Malaysia in the centre of Kuching, and features large in most modern accounts of the uprising. It is a strange turn of history that this character, who never appears in any accounts written at the time, neither Brooke nor Chinese, should have such substance but the Hakka have their hero, a symbol of their stand, and rightly so.

The long-standing influence and the subsequent integration of the surviving Chinese is clear to see in Bau’s main street. It is a long straight stretch of two storey shophouses filled with a mix of traders – tiny corner stores selling all the strange necessities for a rural life, handicraft shops packed to the ceiling with rattan baskets and mats, hardware shops and a sprawling market with the freshest vegetables grown by Chinese market gardeners and Bidayuh farmers alike. This is the best place to buy your ‘Sarawak Adidas’ – rubber shoes retailing around ten ringgit, sometimes with studs, ideal for swamps, hills, rivers, ditches, bridges and drains – genuinely all terrain. These are simply the best shoes for any jungle hike; look around in the kampungs, everyone is wearing them! Also, visit the Chinese parang maker on Jalan Blacksmith for a trip back in time as he handcrafts tools and blades for every rural eventuality from his traditional forge.

Old Siniawan Bazaar reborn

The Chinese influence, however, is most evident in Siniawan – a small town of old wooden shophouses, still very much in the old style. Siniawan’s fortunes have come and gone in cycles, falling into a final phase of decline as the roads replaced river travel. But these cycles have equally ensured its preservation. Visit on an early morning and it is like time travel: a single street of clapboard coffeeshops, much like in any celluloid cowboy town, feeding small groups of friends with hearty bowls of noodles. Take a stroll down to the riverbank where, in true Sarawak style, the road disappears into the water and reappears like magic on the opposite side. Across this short span of the Sarawak River runs a boat which loads up with goods and passengers, sometimes with their mopeds on board, to bridge the gap between the Chinese and Malay communities on either side. It is no surprise that Siniawan was chosen as the location for the recent film adaptation of the James Brooke story, Rajah, due for release in 2020.

At the end of the main street stands the Swee Guk Kung (aka Sui Yue Gong) temple to the Buddhist Bodhisattva Kuan Yin. At 144 years old, the deity here has earned some real reverence and the atmosphere inside is electric. Don’t miss the circle of the twelve animals of the Chinese Zodiac outside, meditative and also mildly amusing. But for a real taste of the Chinese love of longevity, make sure you are there on Chap Goh Meh, the fifteenth and final day of Chinese New Year. The temple procession is pure tradition as the deity is taken out for a tour round town. Truly old school, it feels much like the more celebrated celebration in Singkawang, in neighbouring Kalimantan, from where the town’s forbears once trekked, though with significantly fewer Tatung and their practice of flesh piercing!

But, tradition aside, this apparent one horse town is proving itself to be no one trick pony. Its fortunes are on the way up again as the old bazaar is reborn. Every weekend, the city folk of Kuching are hopping into their cars en masse and roaring up the road to Siniawan for the community-driven night market. Running since 2010, this has become a hopping hoedown for the weekend crowd. It is Sarawak street food at its best, offering the full range from Bidayuh classics like rice cooked in a monkey cup to halal options to the best of quick Chinese cuisine. This renaissance has inspired a trendy new lodging house in town as well as a rush of new bars and other outlets offering the best of a wild east time, often to western country rhythms or Asian karaoke stylings. It has even given birth to a capacity annual country music festival, now entering its fifth year and, yes, last year there were horses on show!

The last outpost

Siniawan is fast becoming the place where east meets west, where Kuching meets Bau and where town meets country. But it has always been a frontier of sorts, upriver from the traditional Sarawak Malay settlement at Leda Tanah and upriver from James Brooke’s Fort Berlidah, both gone. But beyond are the hills and these were the ancestral homes of the Bidayuh. Many Bidayuh dialect groups co-exist around Bau – Jagoi, Singai, Biro’ih – and most of these occupied one mountain or another at one time or another. Siniawan itself is looked over by Mount Serembu, where James Brooke built a cottage named Peninjau (Lookout). This once attracted naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace for 26 nights, netting him 1,386 moths with the simple scientific solution of a white sheet and a flickering oil lamp.

But, renowned naturalists notwithstanding, to get a true sense of Bau area, all that remains is to be like the Bidayuh and Mount Serembu is a good start. The mountain is lovingly described in Wallace’s great travel book ‘The Malay Archipelago’, but really, the experience is all indigenous – an invigorating climb up to the single belian stump that remains from the Rajah’s lookout, but passing by bamboo bridges, stepped trails, enormous curling roots, pendulous overhanging boulders and, if the season is right, the pervading scent of the King of Fruit, the durian. Wallace became ‘a confirmed durian eater’, thanks to his stay in Sarawak, memorably describing it as “a rich butter-like custard highly flavoured with almonds…, but intermingled with … wafts of flavour that call to mind cream-cheese, onion sauce, brown sherry, and other incongruities.” In the season, as you heft yourself up the hill, you can feast on the windfall though, in fact, these fruit are officially Bidayuh property.

This is a giant orchard, evidence of an occupation dating back over 300 years, and the fruit trees belong to the descendants of the people that planted them. It might look like rainforest, but this is the Bidayuh back yard. It is the site of the community’s bori bak jorak (former longhouse) from which they could watch for movement up the river and prepare to repel borders. It is their ancestral land and, even though they might have moved downhill in the peace brought during the Brooke era, they still revere and revisit it.

The same is true of almost every hilltop in the Bau area. Trek up Gunung Orad to see the site of the mountain fortress of Panglima Kulow who led his people to settle there after the massacre at Bung Bratak, another hike up another hill. The latter was the first legendary home of all the Bau Bidayuh following their migration from Sungkong in Kalimantan, apparently 1,000 years ago. After centuries of being unassailable, Bung Bratak was sacked in 1837 as the Skrang Iban overran the Jagoi-Bratak Bidayuh community there, killing over 2,000 men and taking 1,000 women captive. The descendants of the seven longhouses once found there make an annual pilgrimage back to their ancestral lands on 1 May every year, now an occasion for a festival of Bidayuh culture at the newly built Bung-Bratak Heritage Centre.

Meanwhile, most of the modern day Bidayuh now live in the much more accessible settlements sprinkled at the base of the mountains. The best way to get between them is, of course, to don your cowboy hat and ride in the obligatory pickup truck. Gawai is a great time of year to visit as many Bidayuh villages in the area are staging their traditional celebrations, despite their conversion to Christianity. Kampungs like Serasot, Staas, Stungkor Lama and Opar are reviving the old rituals which see the maidens, many now well into old age, seated on a swing for a long night of chanting for the spirits. This might be the last chance to see these ceremonies; sadly, as the maidens who remember the rituals pass, the rituals themselves are likely to pass into memory too.

But in between each kampung along the way, all throughout the year, is also the incredible landscape of the Land Dayak. The Wind and Fairy caves are astonishing for their formations and have each, along with Gua Bungoh and Gua Tupak, yielded a wealth of archaeological finds, tying both the Bidayuh and the Chinese traders to the pre-history of the place. The whole area is riddled with caves and climbs and the rivers that run through them, carving out a path through the limestone as the water runs clear between them. So pull up your pickup near any pebble beach and barbecue like the Bidayuh, in lengths of bamboo with a beer in hand, perhaps with a few tunes to accompany you for the full Country and Asian experience.