SARIKEI: As frequent travellers of Betong-Saratok Road, BAT 6 has passed the signboards of Spaoh and Debak many times.
Despite so, there has been no reason for us to travel there as the two places have not been known to be problematic or lacking in anyway.
Yesterday morning, however, when we left Betong, we had planned to go to Meludam National Park. However, at the last minute, we decided to check out Spaoh and Debak as nothing much is known about these two little towns along the Betong-Saratok Road.
Spaoh is about 10km from Betong-Saratok Road. It has a small population, perhaps less than 1,000, including the Chinese and Malays who live there side by side.
There are also some Ibans living in the longhouses not far from town.
Hardware shopkeeper Ng Teck Chern, 44, said the rapid decline in business in this small, sleepy town was largely due to the newly completed Spaoh-Betong Road several years ago. Many Spaoh folk preferred to go to Betong as it was only a 15-minute drive away.
“There is really nothing here. You can see it for yourself. In the morning, business is very slow. In the afternoon, there would be people coming. That’s the reason many shops have closed down, and the owners have moved out. For those of us who stayed back, our income from our business is just enough to survive,” Ng told BAT 6 team yesterday.
“For us who stayed back, we will stay as long as we can. We have no place to go.”
Painting a bleak future for the town, Ng opined it was very difficult to revive the town, unless the government comes out with a master plan to develop it.
“We don’t even have a petrol station. To buy petrol, we have to drive to either Betong or to the Layar Rest Centre.”
Spaoh was established by the Hakka Chinese in 1946. Back then, there were four blocks of shops, with eight shops in each block.
These four blocks of shops encircled Spaoh Wharf.
Today, there are still the same four rows of shophouses. Perhaps, the only difference between now and then was that in the old days, business was vibrant.
“Look at the shops in this row. Only three out of the eight are operating. It is the same in other blocks.
“Businesses are poor because of the road connectivity,” said shopkeeper Teo Meng Tak, 77.
Road connectivity is both a blessing and a curse. It can prosper a town, give rise to a new vibrant one, or can kill an existing one. Spaoh is a good example of the latter.
According to Teo, before these towns were linked by roads, Spaoh had a good riverine link to all nearby settlements.
The town thrived in the 60’s following the boom in rubber prices.
Rubber was shipped out from Spaoh Wharf to Pusa and later to bigger towns, such as Kuching. It was then an important trading centre for the people living in the coastal areas of Kabong and Meludam.
By the 70’s, Spaoh’s fortunes started to decline, with other towns and settlements posing stiff competition.
A new wharf replaced the old one, but it failed to resuscitate the town. The new wharf now looks unused and lonely by Spaoh River.
“We have nothing here to compete with others. After rubber plantations here folded, no other economic activities took their place. We, the shopkeepers, in turn suffer,” said Teo.
With their Malay counterparts slowly picking up entrepreneurship skills, Teo said more and more shops were being given to the Malays to operate.
“Presently, out of the 32 shops, the Chinese are operating 20 of them. Malay entrepreneurs run the remaining 12.”
He said like other places, Spaoh was losing its young people to bigger towns and cities, too.
“What remains here, as you can see, are elderly people, like me. The young are moving out to start their lives in other parts of Sarawak. Some even moved to Peninsular Malaysia.”
With nothing new coming its way, some old buildings are fading away. About the only new building is SJK Chung Hua Spaoh, which transformed from a wooden school into a concrete one.
It has more non-Chinese than Chinese pupils.
About 15km away from Spaoh, there is another bazaar—Debak, which is of a bigger size.
Very seldom has BAT 6 found two bazaars within a short distance of each other.
We could not help but make comparisons between the two.
Compared with Spaoh, Debak is thriving.
The town itself is nicely perched near a river, with nice rows of planted palms and flowers dotting both sides of its roads.
In all, there are about 70 shophouses in Debak town, which is largely populated by the Teochews. There are also some Hakka and Hokkien Chinese traders.
Lau Hong Chang, 42, is a Teochew and has been operating a coffeeshop there since soon after he completed his secondary schooling.
According to him, the Chinese made up about 10 per cent of the population in Debak town. About 30 per cent are Ibans and the rest Malays.
Lau could not recall when the town was built, but he remembered in the early 80’s, two rows of shophouses were burnt down.
The present concrete shops in the town were built in 1989, after the fire.
“Business here is still okay, but it would be quieter in the afternoon. But we have no qualms about it as it has been part of our daily lives.”
Lau, however, did not think that Spaoh was less vibrant than Debak.
“Yes, in the morning, it is more vibrant here than in Spaoh. But later in the afternoon, you will see businesses in Spaoh picking up. That has been how things are like between Spaoh and Debak.
“We make business in the morning, Spaoh in the afternoon,” said Lau.
The population of Debak is large enough to warrant the setting up of a secondary school and a district office.
It has all the basic amenities, including a very good internet connection.
After having our lunch, we left for Saratok to meet up with two individuals who had volunteered to tell us some interesting stories.
The current trunk road from Betong, Saratok and Sarikei will be upgraded soon with the implementation of the Pan Borneo Highway.
However, with road connectivity, many small towns such as Spaoh, and even Debak, will lose their vibrancy.