DRIVING across Sarawak, hopping from town to town, most people would have passed by Sarikei — the Town of Swallows — without having much impression of the place.
But if one cared to look deeper by learning more about the town from the locals, one would know that Sarikei, though classified as a second-tier town, is enchanting with a lot to offer.
For starters, the place produces excellent pineapples and one is reminded of the fact when passing by the two big icons of the fruit, situated strategically at two different parts of the town.
Sarikei pineapples are, indeed, something the Division should be proud of. They are well-known for their sweetness and crunchiness which cannot be found in other pineapple species or the same species planted elsewhere.
“Our pineapples are of the Maruritious variety which thrive on Sarikei peat soil which is inundated by saline water during high tide once or twice annually. Due to the soil type, the pineapples grown here are crispy and tasty.
“There was an attempt to plant the same species elsewhere. But Sarikei pineapples grown elsewhere cannot match those (of the same species) grown here,” Sarikei Chinese community leader Pemanca Frederick Wong told thesundaypost.
Apart from pineapples, Sarikei is also known for its green oranges which are sweet-sour juicy.
“The green oranges here are unique. When farmers in Bintangor first moved the green orange trees into their gardens, they failed to produce fruits as good as those of Sarikei.
“Later, they discovered if they were to put some salt on the tree mounts, they were able to do so. The practice has been in use since,” Frederick explained.
Pineapples and green oranges aside, if one were to stay longer and get to know the place, one would find Sarikei far from being just a simple town with no character or personality.
In fact, even its very nature of being a simple town has been something that makes it stand out among others, especially in time of economic downturn.
“The people here are very thrifty. They don’t live a lavish life. They save during boom and bad times – and they are able to sail through,” he added.
The fruit basket
Sarikei has been known as The Fruit Basket of Sarawak where there is a long history of agricultural activities such as the planting of rubber, pepper, pineapples, green oranges and other seasonal crops.
Even until now, the Division is still the biggest pepper exporter.
As early as the 1950’s, engkabang (illipe nuts) was also one of export items to Holland. Due to intense logging, the production of engkabang has greatly decreased and now, export of this jungle produce is almost nil.
Between the 1950’s and 80’s, Sarikei was the trading centre, serving the surrounding towns of Pakan, Pantu and Bintangor from where various agricultural produce would be sent to Sarikei to be traded.
Agricultural activities among the Chinese there have been on the decline as the younger generation is moving away from the town to work abroad, leaving behind elderly farmers and farm hands.
“There are now very few young farm hands around. Most prefer earning big salaries in other parts of the world such as Singapore, Papua New Guinea, South American, Solomon Islands and Africa,” Frederick noted.
However, Sarikei’s long history in agriculture still makes it strong economically although sole dependence on agricultural activities has ceased to be the main income-earner for the Division.
While other traditional agricultural activities have been slowing down, small-scale oil palm planting and swiftlet farming are gaining significance in Sarikei.
The former has been taken up by the Iban community while the latter mainly by Chinese businessmen and also some of their Iban counterparts.
Colourful swiftlet farmhouses
Driving around Sarikei, it’s difficult to miss colourfully-painted swiftlet farmhouses that stand out from their surroundings.
“The swiftlet farmhouses here are characterised by their bright colours. There are so many of them and their colours so distinctive that they have become part of Sarikei’s characteristics,” Sarikei Resident Michael Dawi Alli said.
Within the administrative Division of Sarikei, the Chinese constitute 70 per cent of the 60,000 population while the Iban and the rest 30 per cent.
Basically, a Chinese area, the town recently regained its former reputation as the state’s trade centre through competitively priced goods, quality services and products.
“Small in population as we are, there are about eight to 10 supermarkets of various scale in Sarikei town.
“These supermarkets offer very competitive prices, attracting people from Pakan, Spaoh, Saratok, Loban, Sessang, Julau, Pusa and even as far as Beladin to do their shopping in Sarikei,” the Pemanca said.
Cheaper herbs and gold
Two very obvious examples of cheaper merchandise compared to other parts of Sarawak are Chinese herbs and gold.
Sarikei has been offering very reasonably priced Chinese herbs — and its Eight Precious Herbs are famous for their modified combination which Sibu customers find more acceptable and tastier.
The Chinese, especially the Foochows, will make a special trip from Sibu to buy the herbs while those from Bintulu or Kuching will acquire some before continuing with their journey.
Chinese herb business owner Ling Soo Ming, 40, believed outstation customers made the effort to come due to the better deals her shop offered.
“To have a competitive edge, we offer cheaper prices. That way, though we have a lower profit margin, we can make it up by making more sales,” said Ling who set up the business with her husband, Ling Sien Chung, 45.
Gold accessory shopowner Wong Hua Ting, 53, said Sarikei has been selling the preciouis metal at a cheaper price than Sibu and other parts of Sarawak for many years.
According to Hua Ting, the gold sold in Sarikei is RM2 or RM3 per gram cheaper than in Sibu and RM5 per gram cheaper than in Kuching and Bintulu.
Wong and the Pemanca both claimed cheaper price of goods had been possible in Sarikei by cheaper rentals and lower living costs.
Frederick noted: “It has been a conscious strategy businessmen came to realise after many years of trial and error.”
It is the result of more than a decade of persistence and consistency, hard work and sincerity of the Sarikei business community that has finally established the town as one that offers “cheaper but good quality” goods.
Apart from the good business acumen of the residents, thriving economic activities in Sarikei have also been due to the good road connectivity, especially after the construction of two bridges.
Sarikei town is surrounded on three sides by Batang Rajang, Sungei Sarikei and Sungei Nyelong. With the completion of Sarikei Bridge and Nyelong Bridge, the town is very well linked.
What is now lacking is a few bridges to link the town to Tanjung Manis, now reachable in 30 minutes by expressboat.
Meanwhile, Michael Dawi said all facilities were in place for the town to be further developed into a high-income economy.
Sarikei, now the fifth largest town in Sarawak after Kuching, Miri, Sibu and Bintulu, is looking forward to the construction of the 15km-road linking it to Tanjung Manis.
“When this proposed road is completed, Sarikei too will benefit from Sarawak Corridor of Renewable Energy (Score) and its Halal Hub where our strength lies in our food and agro-based products,” Michael said.
Proud of its tagline Sarikei Towards an Agro-polis, the Resident believes the Division has been moving in the right direction and will achieve its dream of becoming one of the most popular towns in Sarawak.
“The next step is to modernise the farming sector,” he said.
Sarikei is not far from its dream. It has been producing fresh fruits and vegetables to serve other towns such as Sibu, Bintulu and Miri.
With continuous efforts to carve a distinctive identity for itself, coupled with a progressive local business community, Sarikei will emerge as one of the most popular and productive Divisions in the state.