An evening stroll along Red River alley

Shimmering reflections of the buildings on the water.

WHEN the Foochow pioneers landed on the banks of Sungai Merah (Red River) in Sibu in 1901, what they saw was a massive, humid, soggy and rather depressing jungle.

However, they were uplifted by the presence of a Methodist Bishop, who gave them spiritual support. Bishop Wayne felt it was his calling to accompany the Foochows to their adoptive country.

The day after their arrival was Easter Sunday and Bishop Wayne gave a motivational sermon. The Foochow pioneers and their descendants have been very motivated and enterprising since that very early beginning.

Box-shaped stalls

On the very spot where the pioneers landed at Sungai Merah now stands the Heritage Walk — all restored and landscaped — along the riverfront with new box-shaped stalls, selling a wide range of items to attract both tourists and locals alike.

On the other side of the main road is the Wong Nai Siong Memorial Garden, commemorating the efforts of the pioneers and their leader Wong Nai Siong.

It was on an evening just after a rainy spell that I took a stroll along River River alley. Many people had remained indoors due to the wet conditions.

Furthermore, it was a Monday evening and only about 10 of the box stalls had opened for business. Two of the food stalls were serving customers while the

‘bags and gifts’ stalls were in full swing.

Many people look forward to visiting the Heritage Walk food stalls, selling traditional food like kompia, braised pork leg, fried noodles of every imaginable type, Chinese fried bread sticks, siew mai and the like.

Newer cuisine and halal food such as roti canai, curry chicken, satay and rojak are also available on certain days.

The cool evening breeze caught me by surprise. It wasn’t humid at all and I thought it would be nice to sit by the river, enjoy some rojak and watch the sunset with a group of childhood friends from Sungai Merah. It was a really special gathering of bosom pals at a historical site.

After a pleasant saunter along the Heritage Walk, we stopped by a woman’s mee goreng stall. As her only table was taken, we asked if we could share it.

The local council has provided some tables and stools, while the operators are allowed to bring their own. Unfortunately, there aren’t enough to go round, deterring people from dining together with family and friends at the place despite the nice riverine setting and lovely sunset.

Braised pork stall owner

It was barely 8pm and a tired-looking woman braised meat stall operator told thesundaypost,

“I start cooking very early in the morning and sell from my van till the early evening when I will be operating here. It has been a long day — and the rain also kept more customers from coming.”

She looked like she was about to doze off, standing up but her son and a friend provided a lively atmosphere for conversation.

As my friends and I had already ordered our fried noodles, we only ordered drinks from the stall.

The woman’s cooking was very presentable and as her stall was at the entrance of the Heritage Walk, she has a lot of customers.

A performance stage at the Heritage Walk.

Gym and exercise studio

The old bazaar known as Sin Chu San is becoming busier with the gym on the second floor, close to the Heritage Walk, booming out Zumba (exercise fitness programme) music.

Children ran around in the cool air while their parents bought some pork and other snacks as they sampled the offerings from one corner to the other.

Health-conscious residents could raise quite a sweat with brisk walking or “at your own pace” jogging along the entire Heritage Walk on both banks of the Red River.

Angela Lim, a teacher, came with her Zumba friends. She said the gym at Sungai Merah was handy — with a good number of members.

If people like to walk on or even have a workout along the Red River Heritage Walk, they would find the walkway slightly narrow.

Lim opined that due to its size, “no one should expect 500 to 1,000 people to come every night.We would be rather ambitious to expect a lot of people to turn up here and watch people perform Zumba and other dances. It’s good of the organisers to hold singing competitions to draw crowds to the Heritage Walk but it’s not really the ideal place because the acoustics are not very satisfactory.”

Some opinions

The river, once red-hued, caused by decaying vegetable matter, now has a Teh C colour — a sort of milky brown in the dim light. Catching a bit of the blue, purple, pink and green LED lights, the river water seemed a little more attractive.

The rain had not raised the water level nor the intensity of the current. Perhaps, a rowing boat company could start some business, taking families and tourists up and down the river — maybe at RM2 per head.

Boatmen could be dressed up and row with their exposed biceps like those in the Karst valleys of Guizhou or Yunnan. They could also sing some traditional Foochow or Hokkien songs to entertain passengers.

The Heritage Walk was part of Visit Sibu Year 2017. The community now seems a little more positive about welcoming yet another tourism money spinner.

At one of the stalls, a man, who identified himself as Wong, was more forthcoming in his opinion.

“Tourists would have loved some answers to questions like, ‘What is in the dumpling? How long have you been working here? Where can we get good drinks along this walk?’” he volunteered.

Wong said stall owners and some of the locals should try to answer questions like these if they were asked.

Many tourists just looked at the displayed food pictures and walked away without ordering anything. With the world economy slowing down in the past few years, individual stalls should try to promote their food, especially when introducing a new menu, he suggested.

“There should also be tour guides well-versed with the history of Sungai Merah. They can tell some good stories or even share a few jokes.

“I often see tourists walking by quietly — just looking. Even if the Tourism Ministry posts advertisements all over the place, it’s not enough. I wonder if the hotels are briefing tourists properly before the latter set out to see the different places in Sibu.”

Wong lamented there were not enough flights as well to Sibu from Kuala Lumpur or Sabah.

“If you go to the airport, you don’t see many arrivals. The times most people come to Sibu are during Chinese New Year and Ching Ming (Tomb Festival).”

The beautiful arched bridge.

Academic centre

Wong’s friend, Peter Ting, suggested if a well-equipped academic centre could be set up in Sibu, international groups would be attracted to come and conduct seminars and workshops.

“For example, Langkawi and Kota Baru, Taipei, Hong Kong and Tokyo are good conference and workshop venues because they are already centres of learning and enterprise as well as historical development.

“Museums, parks, nature reserves, culinary specialties and special technological centres add further attractions to event organisers.

“With such facilities, we can have conferences of World Hokkien Association, World Hin Hua Association and other clan associations here in Sibu once every two years, if I may suggest. All these are linked to tourism,” Ting noted.

Wong also pointed out that everyone must chip in to make the Heritage Walk a viable tourism product.

He said it’s only a small beginning, hoping it would not be a flash in the pan and that all the 52 box stalls would be slowly phased out.

“There’s a lot that can be done to make Sungai Merah the biggest multiracial pasar malam in Borneo — with perhaps even floating food stalls in the river. This may put Sungai Merah on the Malaysian tourism map.”

The lights at the Heritage Walk are fetching and welcoming and hopefully, they will continue to glow and glisten to make the venue a viable tourism product.

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