Tuesday, June 25

Five-star glitter for a traditional festival

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Could a longhouse host a five-star function for the 8th Gawai-Kaamatan Celebration? Chang Yi recently went on a site visit a day ahead of the event to find out.

Rumah Miekle Ding – 5-star longhouse at Sekutan.

SINCE its inception, the Gawai-Kaamatan Celebration has been held at a grand hotel and attended by more than 1,000 guests from Sarawak and Sabah.

Both the Dayak Chamber of Commerce and Industry (DCCI) and its counterpart, the Kadazandusun Chamber of Commerce and Industry (Sabah) (KCCI), have been taking turns to organise the event, starting in Sabah in 2007, as a way for members to network and foster national integration.

This year was again Sarawak’s (DCCI) turn to play host – on June 28.  And it was suggested a longhouse be chosen as the venue this time around. But could a longhouse provide a five-star ambiance for the joint celebration – the 8th in the series?

The answer was found after much soul searching when DCCI leaders decided on a longhouse at Nanga Sekutan, Sabuah (Bintulu) — and the honour went to Rumah Miekle (pronounced Michael) Ding.

The recently completed Rumah Miekle Ding is touted as a five-star 24-door longhouse – not without good reasons.

Situated on a hill facing the towns of Kemena and Sebauh diagonally across the river, it is modernly equipped and also built of concrete – possibly the first of its kind in the state in terms of structure and design.

In fact, to many who visited Nanga Sekutan in the first half of the year, Rumah Meikle Ding is already a five-star longhouse with all the trappings of a modern dwelling place — water supply, electricity, air-conditioning, modern fixtures and utilities and such like.

Besides, a belian jetty by the river where many longboats are berthed, gives the longhouse an elevated status.

Rumah Miekle whose achitecture is impressive – and cars can be driven right up to the entrance — is also the home of Kemena assemblyman and Assistant Minister of Public Utilities Dr Stephen Rundi.

The people of Bintulu are very proud of this special longhouse which has produced 71 graduates, eight of whom are medical doctors, including the assemblyman himself.

The poster for the Gawai-Kaamatan Celebration in Sekutan and at the Rumah Miekle Ding.

Guest of honour

For the 2014 Gawai-Kaamatan Celebration, Chief Minister Tan Sri Datuk Amar Adenan Satem was the tuai pengabang (guest of honour). The idea was well received not only by DCCI members but also the Ibans of Bintulu.

Adenan had earlier also launched the new Sebauh ferry crossing the Kemena River from Sebauh town to Sekuan.

The celebration theme this year was Rural transformation through cultural integration. The setting in a real longhouse was most meaningful to the 1,000 guests — and perhaps another 1,000 local well-wishers.

The programme included a parade of six Kumang Gawais from the state and 10 Unduk Ngadau (Kadazandusun beauty queens) from Sabah. Iban delicacies such as pantu shoots and local veges were served.

Sebuah is a sub-district of Sarawak, about an hour’s drive from Bintulu town. Part of it was settled in 1886 by the Skrang Ibans with the permission of the White Rajah not long after the Krakatua volcano erupted in Java, Indonesia.

Policy of Rajah

The Rajah’s policy was to populate all parts of Sarawak with people keen in agriculture, particularly rice cultivation.

Sebuah is made up of a few Chinese shops (some are still the old wooden shops) and government offices, and is home to the Iban, Chinese, Melanau, Malay and Orang Ulu.

There is a secondary school — SMK Sebauh — a Chinese primary school and a local government-run primary school in the town.

Sebauh produces good lumber — and a sawmill is still operating across the river just before Sungei Sebauh branches out from the Kemena River. Sungei Sera, in turn, branches out from Sungei Sebauh, further up in the ulu.

Rubber, pepper, timber and now oil palm have helped this sub-district prosper. Today, especially with oil palm cultivation, Sebauh is getting a second wind of prosperity.

According to a local resident, when a Sekutan Iban man owns a 4-wheel-drive vehicle, pepper and oil palm gardens as well as a good longboat engine, he is well established.

The people of Rumah Meikle not only have all of these, they could also have children working in Kuala Lumpur or overseas. Many own a second home in Bintulu town and have long served the state government as civil servants.

Longhouse folk preparing home-cooking to celebrate the event.

Preparing for visit

People around especially Pekan Sebauh and the sub-district in general had been busy preparing for the visit of the Chief Minister to the longhouse.

A few of the older folks said it was not unlike the days when people got excited over the arrival of a Tuan Resident or Tuan DO — (in those days, Tuan was salutation reserved for white officials).

On the day of the celebration, the helicopter cycling above added to the heightened excitement. Music from the PA system streamed out of the longhouse. Did I catch sight of an Elvis Presley Impersonator in the ruai testing the mike?

Marquee tents filled up most of the open space where the food committee were working — literally sweating away. Some of the men had taken off their shirts, revealing some magnificent Iban tattoos. Women of all ages sat on low stools preparing meat with sharp home-made knives.

Rumah Meikle even had its own flags flying alongside the Sarawak and Malaysian flags. Four wheel drives, trucks with houseplants and the Park City Hotel van lined the car park. A few longboats were moored by the riverbank.

Special ceremony

Cikgu Gasan, former Tanjong Lobang College student, and 2008 Sarawak Tokoh Guru, from the longhouse, was one of the organisers. He introduced his longhouse to early visitors who arrived one day before the event (Friday – June 27).

“A very interesting beating of gongs will be presented after the Chief Minister strikes the biggest gong to launch the celebration. Very few people have seen this special simultaneous beating of seven gongs and gendang papat by seven “Iban warriors,” he enthused.

Married to the sister of Dr Rundi, cikgu Gasan has retired for many years and has also helped with the construction of the longhouse.

“Every bilik is 16 feet by 60 feet because our land is not really wide enough to accommodate 24 families. We have tiled up most of the walls and the whole longhouse has the same floor tiles — from one end to the other.

“Uniformity is important. It gives the residents a great sense of unity. The windows are identical and we were presented with a whole set of curtains by our YB Datuk Seri Tiong King Sing.

“So all the curtains in the ruai are the same — very well made and posh! It makes our longhouse look really like a five-star hotel. All the doors to the individual bilik are the same. Dr Rundi has two units — No. 13 and 14. You will see the Park City dining tables already set up and ready to welcome our VIPs on the day of the celebration (June 28),” he explained.

Cikgu Gasan said the residents were, at first, reluctant to use concrete (for the longhouse) as they were worried about the high costs involved but eventually, they were happy their income from palm oil had helped them build a wonderful cement longhouse.

New ferry crossing the Kemena from Sebauh to Sekutan.

Convenience of roads

According to a relative, Inggol Ranggong who now lives in Miri, boats have been plying the Kemena since the 1800’s. But today, new roads have made life much easier. Private vans, a small bus service (by Jepak Holding) and private four wheel drives have turned the sub-district into a very lively place.

“I am amazed in the olden days, my relatives from Sera and Sekutan would travel all the way to visit us in Rumah Ranggong in Niah, and even as far as Rumah Aling in Limbang by boat from River Kemena, out to the South China Sea and then to Sungei Niah. We are all descendants of the Skrang Ibans who moved here (Sebauh, Niah and Limbang) during the days of the Rajah,” Inggol said.

Park City caterers drove the 40-minute journey to the longhouse from Bintulu in their hotel van and stayed on for two days.

“It’s really a great experience to cater for this longhouse. The people are very friendly and enthusiastic. The water supply is very good and the electricians have been working hard to ready the electricity supply for us. Furthermore, this longhouse has a clean environment. There is even a helicopter landing pad,” said a member of the catering team.

Round the clock

The longhouse residents formed their own committee to cook for 1,000 people or more. The kitchen team of 20 men and women prepared 300kg of meat, chickens, a truckload of local delicacies such as umbut pantu, umbut sawit, pumpkins and jungle veges men with their knives and parangs for the celebration.

According to the leader of the cooking committee, who is another brother-in-law of Dr Rundi, they would be working round the clock to prepare for the festive feasting.

Serakup Indu (women’s group) members provided Iban delicacies such as kuih rose, penganang and other goodies. They arrived by boat and were met by cikgu Gasan.

A halal kitchen was also set up to cater for Muslim friends and relatives.

Puan Gasan said every family would be preparing some kelupis or leaf-wrapped glutinous rice for the guests. Each family would also be cooking some food just in case friends dropped by.

She was confident the womenfolk would rise to the occasion and no one would be disappointed and left hungry.

She and her husband live in another house in Bintulu and like all the members of the longhouse, are happy to be back for the function.

“We just want everyone to be happy to be here, and we will help make the occasion memorable,” she said.

Puan Gasan is cheerful and accommodating. On our arrival at her bilik, lunch was ready within minutes — another first-class hospitality from her endearing family.

The longhouse was opened to Gawai-Kaamatan revellers. And to Puan Gasan, it was a great honour to show her Sabahan visitors and non-Iban friends their longhouse.

The event not only showcased the gotong royong spirit of the Ibans of Nanga Sekutan but also the collaborative efforts of DCCI, KCCI and other agencies involved.

Puan Gasan was happy the programme prepared by DCCI was meaningful to the visitors and guests.

After the celebration, Nanga Sekutan will be on the lips of more than 2,000 people — from Sebauh to Sandakan and Kuching to Kudat.

And the theme — Rural Transformation through Cultural Integration — was truly meaningful to those who had experienced the splendor of a modern longhouse.

The White Long House on the banks of the Kemena had been able to rise to the occasion.