WHAT is the best place to be in Bintulu at seven in the morning? Where to get an insight into the life of the local people without spending any money?
Pasar Tamu or Pasar Utama should fit the bill.
The two markets are near each other along the riverfront, selling a wide range of local produce. Each is a must-visit especially for foreign tourists interested in the local history, traditions, food, and sights.
The access road to the markets is used by food producers and street food hawkers to sell their goods in the morning and consumers can buy a variety of food within a common market centre. It’s a convenient open-air hypermarket that’s no stranger to Sarawakians.
One can spend at least half a day at the tamu as a foreign tourist or a local visitor from outside Bintulu.
End the visit with lunch on the first floor of Pasar Utama, where stalls sell local favourite foods or the floor above the fish market.
The tamu’s cone-shaped roof symbolises the terendak, the traditional Melanau headgear. The building was designed by the late Langki Simbas, a local architect.
His Melanau headgear design for the roof is a world’s first. Many other buildings have now used the same design.
A Melanau quipped, “If it rains, don’t worry, you can take the hat over there to cover your head.”
I went looking for such a hat after that but once I realised he was talking about the roof, I had a good laugh.
The wholesalers or food producers lining both sides of the road to the two tamu have been serving the communities in Bintulu for over 20 years.
One beancurd-making grandmother told thesundaypost, “Now that my old man has passed on, I’m leaving everything to my daughter-in-law. Let the young people carry on the business.”
Her husband was one of the first beancurd or tofu makers in Bintulu, using the Cantonese traditional method. He woke up at 2am to process the softened soybeans.
According to the elderly woman, 30 years ago, soybeans were sold in katis and cents and, back then, it was cheap to make and sell beancurd.
Those who practised ancestral worship would spend some days meditating and keeping to a vegetarian diet. Hence, beancurd is a very important food for them.
Filial children would burn joss sticks on the first and 15th days of the lunar month to remember their ancestors. On those days, they also abstained from meat and had beancurd as a substitute.
Most of the smalltime food producers were selling their wares from tables behind their vans. By 11am, most of them called it a day, packing their portable tables, trays, and other equipment.
Four tofu producers appeared to be from different dialectic groups. Although the tofu produced by each group may be different, consumers could still go for the traditional beancurd.
Some who may think there is no difference would usually look for a bargain from ‘the friendliest’ stall.
A young Foochow woman, known as Ting, said, “I’ve been selling tofu for my parents for some time now. I know people from different racial backgrounds here.
“Some of the old customers have become my good friends. I welcome all customers – regulars, returning ones, and new ones who just come to have a look.”
Most of the vendors did not call out to their customers but served them quietly while some did make friendly conversation.
A good word here, a hello there, and some questions about the health of parents from the stallholders would make customers happy. Kindness and generosity could bring more customers.
A truck filled with imported vegetables was parked near the area for small-scale food producer-sellers. The low prices of cabbage, big leeks, and broccoli attracted a lot of business. Customers from all races stopped by to have a look and some bought a large quantity of greens.
Many of the chickens and ducks sold by the van hawkers were self-reared and free range. Most customers preferred the quality of this poultry to those of ‘factory chickens’ or chickens raised in large commercial farms.
Chickens and ducks, fed with rice, rice husks, and corn, were in great demand. It is said their meat is better.
A few Iban women put jungle vegetables and greens from their gardens on a mat on the roadside – fresh ensabi, bunga kechala, stems of tepus and lengkuas, and native cucumbers. These were quickly snapped up.
Shirley Lau, a young businesswoman, said that since moving to Bintulu over 10 years ago, she found shopping at the tamu very convenient.
“The earlier you come, the better. One can get the best tofu and the best chicken — and also a variety of vegetables, fish, pork, and even flour and rice within a single area.
“I don’t have to park in different places to do my shopping. It’s good for everyone.”
Helen Chow, a Mirian working in Brunei, said living in Bintulu would be very different from living in Miri or Brunei.
She said she wouldn’t mind buying from the fish market and having the fish frozen before bringing them back to Brunei, adding, I’ll just do that. The fish will still be fresh after a day.”
An enterprising young Foochow was selling Foochow herbal soups and ginseng. He set up his portable display table near the staircase to the first floor.
The wedding biscuits or Leh Bian, made in Bintulu, were a hit with customers.
Kompia and Dieh Bian also sold out quickly — before 11am, according to two Iban women selling jungle vegetables next to him. They said the egg muffins or Long Gor from his stall were very nice.
While tamu means “traders meeting up to exchange goods” in the local parlance, today it’s a place where people from diverse backgrounds come to buy and sell.
The tamu has a special place in the heart of the people in Bintulu.
They do their shopping there, enjoy the good food on offer, and get to experience life at a bustling open-air market in the booming town.