A movie set evening at Siniawan

The Siniawan Night Market draws huge crowds of visitors and diners from the city and the suburbs.

IT was a wet evening when we drove from Kuching to Siniawan — foolhardy or otherwise.

We almost missed the rather vague and small junction on the road leading to the bazaar but luckily, the traffic was not heavy and we managed to make a few turns to reach the intersection. How we wished there were better signs!

When we arrived at the one-street bazaar, it was like walking onto a movie set — with scenes of a 1950s story of Sarawak or Malaya.

Fairy lights were twinkling all over and smoke was already billowing as vendors prepared to sell their satay and other barbecue offerings.

Charcoal smoke, mixed with appetite-whetting whiffs of grilling meat, filled the air. Some might even be wondering if the pervading aroma would tickle the nostrils of the gods believed to have been looking after Siniawan since Brooke times.

And hopefully too — for the superstitious at least — the ‘sweet’ smoke emanating from the satay and barbecue pits would appease the ghosts of former rebels said to be hanging around.

 

The ferryboat of Siniawan.

Ferry point

Out of curiosity, we decided to take a look behind the bazaar.

A stone’s throw away is a small river and on this cool tropical evening, twilight rays rippled across its waters in a play of shimmering wavelets.

We spent some time watching the traditionally-built ferryboats slowly crossing the river as the pinkish blue hues of the sky faded behind the curtain of dusk. The sun had set over the hills yonder — and some rain clouds were starting to gather on the horizon.

The Malay kampungs continue to thrive on the opposite bank of the river and men on motorbikes still have to cross the water way in ferryboats to reach Siniawan en route to Kuching.

A bit of history

Siniawan was once a bustling Chinese village. When James Brooke first arrived, he was told some groups near Siniawan were giving the Brunei Viceroy of Sarawak a lot of trouble.

One year later, Brooke returned with a flotilla (I wonder how many longboats and vessels were involved). Several skirmishes followed.

After doing some fact finding, Brooke found out from the rebel leader that they wanted peace but would have nothing to do with those that raided their homes, sacked their villages, and took away their womenfolk and children.

Soon after, a compromise was reached. Brooke then built his first fort — Fort Berlidah — near Siniawan to protect the villagers from raids by pirates.

He also built a bungalow atop Bukit Serembu, naming it Peninjau (Lookout).

This bungalow was occupied by Brooke’s guest Alfred Russel Wallace, a famous naturalist, biologist, and anthropologist in 1854.

Wallace was well known especially for his studies of the orangutan. His book about nature in Sarawak continued to be a classic reference book throughout the last two centuries.

Interestingly, Spenser St John had visited Siniawan too. He was impressed by the peace and harmony among the different ethnic groups living there and he also found 300 Chinese shopkeepers at Siniawan bazaar.

They were mineworkers who had moved down from the gold-rich town of Bau.

St John gave an account of these people in his book — ‘Life in the Forests of the Far East’ — making references to the Siniawan Malays and the Bau goldminers.

New lease on life

A local community leader told thesundaypost that in 2009, some members of the Siniawan community formed the

Siniawan Heritage Conservation Committee with the aim to give the sleepy hollow bazaar a new lease on life.

Consequently, a night market was set up and various social activities organised to attract business and remind the inhabitants and visitors of the town’s interesting history.

Soon, Siniawan was in the news and more people came to visit. To get away from the hubbub of urban life, Kuching folk — and tourists — started flocking to the bazaar for a taste of something historical, cultural, light-veined and relaxing.

Good food is available and displayed in front of the shops — from salted fish pies, satay to tasty soups and scrumptious barbecue pork dishes.

Assortments of kuihs and baos, char kueh tiau, and even Sarawak indigenous dishes are available to titillate the taste buds.

Packed eatery

One shop — a Hakka restaurant — was packed with diners on the evening of our visit even though it was drizzling.

Hakka dishes were advertised and diners enjoyed themselves, sitting on stools and eating at wooden tables from a bygone period. It was all very fiftyish and traditional.

In the shops on both sides of the road, old wooden beams hold up the ceilings and wooden staircases lead to the upper floors.

We wondered if the ghosts from yesteryear were peering down at us while we were eating all the nice food.

Another shop was displaying gaharu (Aaquilaria) or agarwood, also known as wood of the gods, and other wood exhibits and items of antiquity.

Siniawan, at one time, must have been a source of good jungle products, attracting merchants from China, Java and Melaka to drop by and do business with the bazaar folk.

The jars and Chinese antiques, sold at one of the shops, are a testament to the trade in such exquisite items from a bygone era. There is so much local history to learn from the shop.

A karaoke singer belts out a song at the Siniawan Night Market.

Karaoke craze

The open-style karaoke outlet further down the road was already attracting some enthusiastic singers to the makeshift stage. The PA system was loud enough to fill the whole street.

A few jovial old timers, sitting at a table on the five-footway, had paid for their song requests, eagerly awaiting the start of the show amidst the pitter-patter of light rain.

It seemed most of the karaoke fans knew each other very well. They seemed taken with hip entertaining styles, and hollered for an encore after each performance. Who knows, one day a singing star might be born right here at Siniawan’s karaoke club!

Stately building

A well preserved early-day bungalow stands far inland from the roadside opposite the Siniawan police station.

The huge lawn in front of this beautiful wooden building looks rather lonesome but its rustic setting offers glimpses of life at the bungalow during its heyday — idyllic, familial, busy and chaotic perhaps at times because of flooding but serene and peaceful on the whole.

In the rain, the stately building seemed to beckon travellers to come in and have a rest. We wondered if anyone is living there now.

An elderly person, who has lived in Siniawan all his life, commented, “This building is a two-storey. It’s probably 100 years old or more. It was built before I was born — and probably even before the Second World War.”

He further explained, “We all know it as Tai Guan. Today, as a heritage building, it attracts a lot of visitors.

“The reception or living room is upstairs. A big family used to live in this house. The grand old man had many wives and many children and they all lived together in the old traditional way.

“Sometimes, the floods came into the lower floor. The lower parts of Siniawan still get flooded but not the shops in the bazaar.”

According to the old-timer, there were two major floods in Siniawan — one in 1963 and the other in 2009. After the two deluges, people started moving away, leaving behind two near empty rows of pre-war shops and a handful occupants.

He is happy the bazaar is coming back to life with the opening of the night market and a new highway.

However, he said the bazaar is quiet during day time, quipping, “Anyone can cycle any way and anyhow and the police won’t catch them.

Tian Xia Homestay

The Tian Xia Inn is something else. Translated into English, the name means ‘Under Heaven’.

This wooden heritage inn or homestay has a nostalgic ambiance of the early 1930s with Chinese couplets pasted on the doorways, Chinese lanterns hanging on the frontage and Chinese tables laid out inside.

The alleyway between the inn and the next block of shops offers shutterbugs plenty of opportunities to snap the relics of a bygone period.

At the back of the inn is a covered dining area. Bamboo scrubs planted around the premises provide a distinct cultural feel.

As we lingered at the bazaar, the rain stopped and it got a little warmer. A walk took us from the police station to the other end of the road, then back again to the shophouses.

We visited each shop and looked carefully at each business. Notwithstanding the intermittent drizzle, we were very impressed and agreed to make return visit soon. Hopefully, the weather will be fine the next time around.

On reflection, an evening at Siniawan could be an opportunity for you to contemplate writing your own play and star in it. Let your imagination run free — and who knows you may come up with a script that will find its way to a movie studio.

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