THE earliest ethnic group to populate the Limbang Valley before the Sultanate of Brunei was established were the Bisayas, according to oral history regarding the northern Division.
The popular legend of Bisaya origin – as described by Bewsher (1958), Sandin (1971) and Hussain & Newman (1987) tells of an immigrant family living in the north of Borneo Island.
In this family were seven children – six boys (Peti Barambai or Pati Barabai, Si Garamba, Peti Garamba, Peti Runa or Pati Begunak, Smaun or Si Maun and Alak Batata or Urak Betatar or Lok Batata or Awang Alah Bertabar and one girl (Siti Duyah or Duri or Bunga Sunting).
A boat race was used to determine who, among the siblings, was to become the Rajah of Brunei. The race was won by Alak Betatar, the youngest brother.
He became the first Rajah of Brunei, later converted to Islam and was known as Sultan Mohammed, the first Sultan of Brunei.
Peti Barambai, the eldest brother, became the Raja of Java. Si Garamba, second brother, settled in the Limbang area and became the ancestor of the Bisayas.
Peti Garamba, the third brother, settled in the Tutong (Brunei), Peti Runa, the fourth brother, along the Kinabatangan River (Sabah) and Smaun, the fifth brother, along the Birau River (south of Tutong).
Siti Duyah married a Chinese named Awang Sunting (or Ong Sum Ping) and settled near Mount Kinabalu (Sabah).
Today, the Bisayas are found in the Danau area on the Lower Limbang Valley, spreading along the major tarred road from Brunei to Tedungan and Menuang.
Their kampongs are uniquely named such as Limpasong and Ridang where lovely homesteads and orchards dot the verdant landscape.
The Bisayas cultivate bananas, coconuts, rambai, chikus, jambu, breadfruit, kapok and buah pinang – enough for subsistence and a bit of side income.
Besides planting rice, their staple crop, they also grow chilies, maize, cucumbers, pumpkins, eggplants and other vegetables which they sell at the Limbang tamu.
Fish is an important diet of the Bisaya who are skilled fishermen. But in recent years, the Limbang River has become infested with crocodiles.
Pukat has become a thing of the past as the reptiles have been terrorising the whole Limbang Valley.
A local man said there could be thousands of crocodiles in the river. A mother crocodile can lay up to a hundred eggs each time.
More than 2,000 baby crocodiles were also said to have been thrown into the Limbang River in the early 2000 when a container- lorry was not allowed to bring its cargo to Miri through Brunei. As a result, the baby crocodiles being transported were reportedly dumped into the river.
In recent years, higher education has created opportunities for the younger generation to leave home for greener pastures. Many are working overseas, in West Malaysia, Sabah and other parts of Sarawak. Since the setting up of primary schools in the Batu Danau area in the early 60’s and a large secondary school in Limbang in the late 60’s, many Bisaya children have had the opportunity to get an education.
According to Paul, a local resident, the community has a few outstanding role models, among whom is Dr Ricardo Baba (Teo), a professor of Xiamen University and author of four books. He is a fourth generation Chinese-Bisaya.
Batu Danau state assemblyman Paulus Gumbang and former Miri Resident Anthonio Kahti Galis are also from the community.
Many others are retired government servants and teachers.
“Education is the most important catalyst for change in our society. Life is changing fast. And we must not be left behind,” Paul said.
According to Indai Juat, a woman from the area, some 50 years ago, her parents and other Ibans would paddle their boats from Upper Limbang down to the ox bow lake before reaching Limbang.
In Danau, they made friends with the Bisayas and regarded each other as “biang” or brothers.
“We, from Upper Limbang, would ‘just float’ down to Limbang town and that’s how simple life was in those days,” she reminisced.
Paddling to Limbang town would take roughly a whole day. So it was normal for the Ibans to berth near a riverine Bisaya homestead to do some cooking.
Each Iban longboat would bring along cooking pots, some fire wood and provisions. Only on rare occasions would the Ibans ask to stay a night at some Bisaya homes. But overtime, their “biang” relationship or brotherhood would become stronger.
Today, everyone can drive to Limbang town. Paddling boat is a thing of the past for both the Ibans and Bisayas. The Batu Danau Limbang Road has greatly reduced the travelling time for them.
Like the Ibans, the Bisayas hunt wild boars, deer and wild birds while the womenfolk forage for jungle produce like ferns and shoots for food and bemban and rattan for making mats and hats.
From time to time, the Bisaya women would go looking for river snails and take the surplus to the Limbang tamu.
Chinese home-cum shops
According to an Upper River Agent (such a position existed previously in Sarawak government service), in those days, there were a few small Chinese home-cum-shops along the Limbang River which sold provisions like salt, sugar, ikan bilis and biscuits to the Bisayas.
These shops serviced the Iban and Bisaya communities when there was no road to Limbang town. After the road was built in the 70’s, the shop owners also moved elsewhere.
Today, many Bisayas are setting up such shops, selling sundry and hardware goods to help their community. Times have changed and the community has become more interested in doing business.
Most of the older Bisaya houses were built along the river. Back then, every house would have a “peeping hole” acting as a sort of CCTV for the security of the owners. By looking through the small opening, they could see who were approaching – friends or enemies.
“Near the house would be a kapok tree providing kapok (cotton fluffs) for pillows and mattresses. A kapok tree was, therefore, a standard marking for a Bisaya house along the Limbang River,” a retired government officer told thesundaypost.
According to Joseph Bunsuam, the first Bisaya from Limbang to be educated in the US, the earliest recollections of inter-marriage in the community tell of the legendary Tay brothers who sailed to Limbang from Xiamen in their junk.
Three of the brothers went island-hopping in their ancient sailboat – from China to the Philippines and Sandakan, along the North Borneo coast until they reached Labuan, then to Brunei where they discovered new things. They then decided to sail further up to the Brunei Bay and finally landed in Limbang.
One of the brothers married a Bisaya woman. Another brother from China also came, bringing along his children.
Today, there are many Bisayas who can claim these Chinese brothers as their ancestors.
Alex Ling, a Limbang government servant, is the son of a Foochow father from Sibu and a Bisaya mother. He grew up in Limbang.
Ling who speaks Bahasa Malaysia and Bisaya, told thesundaypost he is comfortable with both the Chinese and Bisaya communities. The Bisayas are very open-minded when it comes to marriage between their people and the other races.
While most of Bisayas are Christians, some hold other religious beliefs. Some have converted to Islam via inter-marriage. Along the Batu Danau-Limbang Road are two churches, of which the larger one is a Roman Catholic Church.
Buffaloes and festivals
The Bisayas rear buffaloes. The animals are slaughtered when the community hold a big celebration.
Buffalo races are held during the Annual Bisaya Pesta Babulang, organised by the Sarawak Bisaya Association, drawing a lot of visitors from all over Sarawak and Sabah.
According to Joseph Bunsuam, the buffalo is a very significant animal to the Bisayas.
For instance, a bereaved family believe if they slaughtered
a buffalo, the sacrificial ritual would ensure their beloved departed a smooth passage to the other world. Also, in the past, a bride’s family would sometimes ask a Bisaya man for three buffaloes as a form of dowry.
Interestingly, if anything went wrong with the marriage, the in-laws would just pull the three buffaloes away. It was like some kind of good behaviour bond on the groom’s part.
However, in modern times, lifestyle has changed so much that cash is the preferred exchange.
Most Bisaya families grow sago palms as the Batu Danau area is naturally suited to this crop.
Whenever a festival is to be held, palms will be felled and the sago processed for the merriment.
Linut, made from sago flour, is served as the most important food item with side dishes of sambal, ulam, chillies, dried and salted fish, fresh fish and meat.
Linut is also a delicacy among many of the ethnic groups such as the Penans, Melanaus,
Linut or umbayat is the national dish of Brunei.
Another Bisaya delicacy is pulut wajik which can be made from rice or glutinous rice and locally grown millet. It’s very tasty when made with palm sugar. Wrapped in banana leaves, the wajik has a special aroma that makes for a fine snack!
Times have changed and life in the Danau Valley is changing as well. With new technology, better education, good roads and other public utilities, the Bisayas can enjoy a better quality of life and see their land and people prosper.
Joseph Bunsuam summed it all up: “We are a peaceful people who look forward to harmonious and honest living among all the races in Limbang. Together we can create a prosperous future.”