Wednesday, July 6

The tribe of Padungan


An Iban longhouse on the bank of this creek. — Photo by Chimon Upon

I HAVE been reading with great interest the various postings on social media about the historical landmarks and personalities in Kuching. Not much, though, about Padungan and its people.

Friends in the groups called ‘I Love Kuching’ and ‘Kuching – Then and Now’ are doing a good job in collecting and preserving information on Kuching for the benefit of posterity. I hope that these local history enthusiasts will use the normal camera, not just relying on the mobile phone for photographs, use real paper and a tape recorder for recording information, especially for verbal information from living informants. There may be some people who remember things and keep photographs. Get in touch with them. They are precious souls in our society providing valuable links with the past. In this connection, please remember my friend, the late Ho Ah Chon, a prolific photographer and chronicler of great importance.

Photos and write-ups about all those important landmarks and people are important to scholars and researchers.

Let’s take Padungan as an example.

Why Padungan? 

In the days of the Brookes, Padungan was a separate part of Sarawak (Kuching). It was an area outside the ‘urban’ bazaars – the Main Bazaar and Gambier Road, and the various streets – India Street, Gartak Street, Khoo Hun Yeang Street, Wayang Street, and the lanes of various names. Before Thompson Road was built, partly on filled-in land, the only way from Kuching to Padungan was over the steep hillock behind the Tua Pek Kong temple.

Nowadays, of course, the two parts of the town have been merged politically and economically.  Padungan is no longer a separate entity.

Kuching got its name from a brook by the same name (Sungai Mata Kuching). Padungan, too, was named after a creek that flows by the present Wet Market at Petanak. Kuching creek was canalised and covered over – the old Rex Theatre/Pelita building and the last block of the Main Bazaar now stand on where it used to flow into the Sarawak River – Padungan Creek still flows, partly as rainwater drainage, in the open.

The reservoir was the ulu of Kuching river, once upon a time the source of water that supplied the households in the vicinity. It must have flowed by Bukit Senarum (old HM Prison site). Padungan Creek has no high ground or hill as its source; it mainly drains what must have been the somewhat soggy plain of Sekama-Padungan.

Early Iban settlers in Padungan 

Did you know that there were Ibans in Padungan before the arrival of the first Brooke?

James Brooke must have passed the Padungan Creek in his yacht The Royalist each time he sailed up or down the river. So did Bishop McDougall, travelling in the Sarawak Cross – a schooner acquired by the Anglican Mission.

I didn’t know about all this until I read an account of the early missionaries. The Revd William Henry Gomes had been working in the Mission station in Lundu. On Dec 24, 1859, while resting in Kuching, he wrote to his boss in London talking about the Dayaks of Padungan. Beautiful handwriting the Revd Gomes had, I’ve seen copies of some of his correspondence. He was familiar with the longhouse at Padungan, and must have visited it at least a few times.

Brian Taylor mentions some of these comings and goings in his book ‘The Anglican Church in Borneo 1848-1962’ – New Horizon (Transeuros Limited) Bognor Regis, Sussex. The Anglican Mission had already established a school in Sarawak and the resident priest, Francis McDougall, had started a clinic. Among other townspeople, he treated ‘some Dayaks’, most likely from Padungan.

Gomes wrote that he and Chambers had visited the Dayaks of Padungan, a short distance downstream, “who live in one of the Creeks of the Sarawak River and have opened a kind of school amongst them, Mr Fox having kindly promised to keep it up in our absence.”

Taylor writes, “The shortage of staff prevented much being done, but they were Sebuyau Dayaks, speaking the same dialect of Iban [bakua]as the Sea Dayaks of Lingga and Lundu, and … if we can establish a regular school among them besides other advantages, it will afford ample opportunities for our Missionaries to get an insight into the Dayak character and prepare them, during their residence at Sarawak, for effectual working the several tribes to which they will be sent. The Committee will perceive that our plans can only be carried out by an addition to our number.”

Fox, according to Taylor’s research, reported that he had been going to Padungan, and hoped to go twice each week. The headman was cooperative and a class of six children (including two girls) had been formed. They had not yet mastered the alphabet. Noted by Taylor, “The Lingga people were Balau Dayaks. The Sebuyau were nearer to the coast.”

I have a complaint to make. Many writers on Sarawak did not mention names of people they met or talked to. For instance, what was the name of the Tuai Rumah at the Padungan longhouse? ‘A Dayak’, sure. But it would be nice to know the name of this Dayak!

There is an old cemetery at Chawan Road in Kuching, maybe the Padungan Dayaks buried their dead there. Lucky that the cemetery has been preserved; no grave has been exhumed. It’s in the middle of town, the land is valuable.

Fox and Steele 

Of interest to history buffs is that Fox mentioned above was destined for priesthood but joined the Rajah’s service. No doubt to Bishop McDougall’s annoyance. He and another candidate for priesthood, Steele, were sent to Kanowit and in 1859 were murdered under strange circumstances.

The potters

Ibans were not the only people in that area of Padungan. Down the river, at Tanah Puteh, there were some Chinese craftsmen making clay pots. These were Teochews, most likely by the surname Goh. The ‘I Love Kuching’ and ‘Kuching – Then and Now’ groups should find out from the existing potters at Mile 6, Kuching -Serian Road if any of them is a descendant of the Gohs of Tanah Puteh.

I would be grateful if any would be kind enough to fill in the gaps in the story of the Dayaks of Padungan.

Have a good weekend.

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