In search of history and legend

A row of wooden shophouses in Engkilili.

AFTER attending a seminar in Kuching, a group of historians and photographers from the Sarawak Chinese Cultural Association, based in Sibu, gave themselves an added bonus.

Detouring to some of the lesser known places on their overland trip back to Sibu, they came across some unexpected cultural, historical and legendary treasures.

The group reached Engkilili, about 160km from Kuching, around 4pm.

Their main purpose was to take photographs of the old Chinese wooden shops, the Chinese temple, the hanging bridge and the famous Batu Nabau, a boulder shaped like a snake head.

The Ibans call the boulder Batu Nabau, while to the Chinese the area is known as the Spirit Snake Valley.

Engkilili is the name of a fruit tree, scientifically known as Lepisanthes alata, which grows along the riverbanks of Engkilili and Lubok Antu.

In Peninsular Malaysia, it’s known as Terengganu Cherry. The edible fruits are rather small and red in colour.

According to local history, the older Chinese generation called the town ‘Up the Staircase’ or ‘Siong Di Tau’. This was when Chinese coalminers from Kalimantan travelled up river to work and settle in Engkilili.

The wharf back then was high above the river level (due to the big difference between high and low tides), so a big ladder had to be built for getting up to the riverbank as well as for loading and unloading purposes.

Another wharf was later built and called ‘Lower Staircase’ or ‘Lok Di Tau’.


The Chinese Temple of Engkilili.

Temple and population

The group paid a short visit to the fairly new Chinese Temple. Its silhouette against the setting sun highlighted the strong architectural influence of the Fujian people.

Originally, there was a simple wooden temple on the bank of the Batang Ai, built by the Chinese settlers to establish themselves in a new land and practise their religious beliefs.

Like all Chinese migrants, they set up a temple to safeguard their social welfare, physical and spiritual health, as well as beliefs and businesses.

In later years, the temple became a place for newer settlers to meet and support each other.

The Chinese temple, according to the locals, had shifted location three times. The new temple the group visited is the third and latest one.

A local elder said, “We’re happy we can continue burning joss sticks and praying to the deities at this new temple. We will continue to pray for peace and prosperity, good health and harmony for all the races.

“The land for the temple was granted by the government and the building funds came from all the associations and local businesses. Engkilili is a peaceful town.”

Dominated by Hakkas

Engkilili bazaar is dominated by the Hakkas, who came to trade more than 100 years ago. Some of them could even be related to the goldminers of Sambas.

There are two kinds of shophouses in Engkilili — old wooden bazaar type facing the river and new concrete type facing the road.

Engkilili is prospering because of the development of new roads, implementation of economic projects, and provision of modern utilities.

There is a secondary school and several primary schools in the area.

Since it was nearly 5pm, most of the shops were closed. However, the group managed to find one coffeeshop still open where they had ‘kolo mee’ topped with a fried egg.

This coffeeshop is a meeting place for the locals to socialise and pass the time. Many Ibans were seen happily carrying on a conversation with the Chinese, including the towkay. They seemed to be such good friends, all speaking Iban.

Just as the group were finishing their meals, the towkay came in for a chat.

“Here, it’s natural for us to speak Iban. Some of our elders came to start a new life in this place. There have been inter-racial marriages as well. This has been a peaceful town,” he said.


Group member Le Yashen points at the Batu Nabau.

Visiting Batu Nabau

After that, the group drove on to Bukong where Batu Nabau — a boulder shaped like a snake head — is located.

The legend resurfaced after a Thai man from Kuala Lumpur came to Engkilili several years ago, looking for a giant snake that had turned into stone.

The man claimed he had a dream about such an occurrence, prompting him to double his efforts to look for the boulder.

With assistance from the locals in Sri Aman District, he located Batu Nabau. He then painted the boulder, and with the help of the villagers, cleared the area around it.

The man’s story was published in the local newspapers. But it did not end there as soon another discovery was made.

A local man found Jawi scripts in the middle of the boulder. The supposed Jawi alphabets — alif, lam, nun, mim and sin — were reportedly arranged in a reverse order, separated from one another.

When more news about Batu Nabau made the headlines, people became very interested and curious and came to have a look at the boulder.

According to the beliefs of many indigenous groups in Sarawak, Nabau is the name given to a giant snake comparable to the size of a diesel drum and more than 100 feet long.

From time to time, the Nabau is said to have been sighted at different rivers but no actual evidence has ever been found.

Whenever a ‘sighting’ was reported, the media would carry the news, further reinforcing belief in the existence of such a giant snake.

Untouched-up rock

Batu Nabau is a unique rock that has never been touched-up by human hands. Over nine metres long with a diameter of two metres, it actually straddles Sungai Bukong at a place called Batu Lintang. Some Chinese worshippers have built a small hut nearby.

The local Ibans believe the rock is a deity with mystical powers to ward off evil spirits and protect the area.

Visitors are warned to be respectful of the jungle spirits and behave properly when they come to look at the rock lest they incur the wrath of the deity and be cursed by it.

A notice to this effect is displayed near the boulder.

It was fairly easy for the group to locate Batu Nabau. The signboards are quite clear and some local Malays directed them to a bridge where a small road, about 500 metres long, leads to the site of the boulder.

Fort Leonora

The group had wanted to locate the exact spot of Fort Leonora but since it was getting dark, they had to leave it to another time.

Fort Leonora was built in 1924 by Vyner Brooke as an administrative centre — not as a fort to defend Engkilili.

It was a simple house, named after his eldest daughter, Leonora Margaret.

During the Japanese Occupation, the house was used as a Kempeitai office while under British administration, it was used as a small district office.

The fort was used as the headquarters of the Commonwealth forces from 1961 to 1966 during the Confrontation. It has since been demolished to make way for the Engkilili District Office.

Eerie incident

Just as the group members were about to get into their car, they saw a sarong-clad woman crossing the bridge, spanning Sungai Lubok Antu. It was quite scary, seeing a whitish figure looming towards them!

At first, they spoke to the woman in Iban but she asked them back in perfect Mandarin, “Where are you from?”

Even though it was getting late and the group had a schedule to keep, they decided to stay and talk to her.

The wind was getting colder and the atmosphere increasingly eerie — probably due to their own imagination! Yes, very much so as they found out from a chat with the woman.

Far from being the scary figure they initially thought she was as she approached from a distance, her friendly nature reflected the harmonious co-existence among Engkililians and their hospitality towards visitors.

According to the woman, she had primary education in Chinese and though almost 70 years old, she could still remember her student days.

She described Engkilili as a good place where her family could run a business and grow vegetables on a piece of land opposite the riverbank.

Every evening, she would bathe in the river and collect some vegetables to bring home.

“We’re very comfortable with the Iban language. Although most of the people here are Ibans, we shopkeepers lead a very peaceful and harmonious life with our indigenous friends. We interact well. Our children go to the same school although we might not share the same religion. We have our temple and they go to their church,” she said.

After saying goodbye to the woman, the group drove off. There were few lights in the wooden shophouses and no one was about. Engkilili had gone to sleep.

From Engkilili, the group travelled to Sarikei, then to Sibu. Definitely, the memories of Engkilili and the historical, cultural and legendary bonuses they got from the road trip would enrich their lives forever.


The symbol of Engkilili town.


The Sarawak Chinese Cultural Association is a non-profit cultural group, set up in 1990 and has been devoting a lot of time to promoting Chinese culture in Sarawak through seminars, workshops, discussion groups, writing workshops and other social programmes.

It has purchased books for its library, organising and saving information related to Chinese history and culture the state.

Its library currently has nearly 10,000 books, as well as various newspaper clippings, special issues, photographs and archives, providing the public with a rich indoor reference centre.

It has also published nearly 60 kinds of books and periodicals. From time to time members

carry out field work in rural areas of Sarawak.

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