MIRI was propelled into an urban setting after 1910 following the discovery of oil.
Nineteen years later in 1929, the headquarters of the Baram Division was moved to Miri from Marudi.
Any town or city would need food supplies, especially of fresh food and vegetables. These stocks usually come from market gardeners, to borrow a western term.
With the influx of workers to the oil field, transport sector, and other businesses, Miri started to expand. Soon, Krokop, a budding urban enclave became a supplier of vegetables and live animals such as chickens, ducks, and pigs.
Foragers and hunters brought jungle produce to the town in the early days, but in the intervening period, Miri witnessed the gradual beginning and development of an urban market garden.
Liu (name has been changed) learned from her mother that as early as the 1930s, women in Krokop were the main producers of vegetables.
They also reared chickens, ducks, and pigs.
The houses were far apart and all had their own food supplies. Many started to send their surplus to the market.
“That was our food supply chain in the early days when I settled in Krokop,” she added.
Liu recalled during the Japanese Occupation, many Chinese moved to the rural areas, setting up home on the hills in Lopeng, Riam, and even Sibuti, and surviving by planting crops.
Some of her relatives lived in Riam where they grew vegetables to support their large families.
When the Japanese invaded, Chan (name has been changed), who lived in Riam as a child, said her family grew lots of vegetables and planted padi to put food on the table.
A few people did drop by to buy from them, using Japanese banana notes, she told thesundaypost.
Today, her land has been converted to build semi-detached houses and she can no longer grow vegetables in her old age.
“It was good to grow our own vegetables. We didn’t have to buy anything. We saved but didn’t see much money anyway.
“People from the town (Miri) walked to our home to buy our vegetables. Life was hard — most of us had no shoes to wear. We walked everywhere and never complained,” she remembered.
Over time, Tukau, Bekenu, Niah, Suai, and Sibuti became the supply source of fresh food for Miri. Farmers started growing more food to meet the population surge in Miri due to the timber and oil and gas industries.
For some time, there was even a need for fruits and vegetables to be imported to support the sizeable expatriate population.
Food supply businesses started to sprout while canteens sourced for provisions outside town.
Business operators travelled to Beraya, Niah, Suai, and Sibuti in motor launches. More and more farmers planted fruits and vegetables and reared poultry and pigs to support the urban population in what was then known as small-scale market gardening.
Many forms and styles
Today, market gardening takes many forms and styles — some with government subsidies, others just small scale individual enterprises.
While foragers continue to supply Mirians with jungle produce, the newer vegetables such as kalian and even cauliflower, leeks, and chives are produced by gardeners and farmers who have the land to grow them.
Big vegetable plots, involving large capital investment, can now be found all over the outskirts of Miri.
The backyard farmers continue to be subsistent, selling some surplus in the market.
We’ve even heard of churches with good gardens. In the past, the Carmelite Church in Miri had its own system of gardening — a kind of European market gardening idea where the church tilled its compound to produce food and even medicated wines. They grew food and any surplus would be given to the needy.
Some boarding schools also cultivated gardens to supplement the students’ meals.
And today, the Miri Prisons Department continues to have its own vegetable plots with enough surplus to sell and give the inmates pocket money.
Market gardening veteran
Bulan has been a market gardener for the past 20 or so years.
Hers is a small-scale garden on her semi-detached house compound.
“We bought this house with my husband’s government loan. He was a civil servant and I have always been a housewife.
“To help the family out, I started growing vegetables here and also at a larger family plot in Bekenu,” she said.
Today, she grows turmeric, ensabi, kailan, cangkok manis, Chinese parsley, onions, chives, bok choy, and other greens in plastic bags and tubs.
Her Bekenu garden supports her fruit trees and other crops such as baby sweet corn and yams, which she harvests from time to time.
She transports her produce by the bundle in her hatchback car to the Saberkas farmers’ market on weekends.
She said her market gardening has greatly helped the family, especially in terms of education and paying the bills.
Bulan also sells her vegetables outside her home. She said this did not disturb the privacy of the family and she welcomes good friends to look at her vegetables in the backyard.
Most of her greens are grown in polythene bags as she does not have enough space.
Mirian Margaret Khoo moved into the low-cost housing area or RPR at Sungai Rait when her husband retired from government service in Batu Niah.
They have been living in Niah for almost 30 years and, in that time, have also developed her family’s land into an oil palm garden, and planted vegetables and fruits such as pineapples and mangoes.
Khoo sells her farm produce at the Niah Junction or to walk-in customers at the Sekaloh longhouse.
She has turned her green fingers into cash by doing what she loves — growing vegetables and flowers for sale and buying organic fertiliser to replenish the soil with the income.
Her flowers and non-flowering plants are selling well to new homeowners who call in at her home to admire her plants and come away happy with a few pots of hanging plants and even orchids.
Khoo also sells her vegetables to teachers and other civil servants around the housing area.
“I sometimes go back to my longhouse to get a few bags of good hill loam for my plants,” she said.
At Sungai Rait, she doesn’t have enough land but has converted metal roofing materials into long soil containers to plant sawi and other fast-growing vegetables.
She has also designed a hanging garden by suspending pots of plants from the walls, roof, and fencing. In this way, she has increased the size of her garden.
Gardener and baker
Sabariah is a retired Land and Survey Department staff member. Even before her retirement, she had been growing vegetables and flowers with her husband Jo. They have some of the best orchids and rare plants in the residential area, according to some teachers living nearby.
To the couple, gardening is a hobby as their children are all working away from home.
Occasionally, they would have enough vegetables to sell to quite a big following of customers through their WhatsApp chat group. Some buy directly from their garden.
Both husband and wife prepare their garden well for growing vegetables. They have also developed a hanging garden for their orchids and rare flowering plants. Bougainvilleas are grown in huge pots to add colour to their garden.
They told thesundaypost they got a lot of satisfaction from growing their own vegetables. To brighten up the surroundings, they also plant flowers along the roadside berms.
Although they do sell their vegetables, they said it wasn’t all about making profit, adding, “It’s sharing the fruits of our hobby which gives us a lot of joy.”
Sabariah also bakes bread and sometimes delivers the vegetables and bread together.
The small but beautiful gardens of these three women are inspiring. Hard work always pays. Their customers feel the vegetables they buy come with a lot of care and love.
Perhaps the next generation will learn to grow vegetables too. And if more residents were to put their backyards to good use like the three innovative women, Miri will never be short of food.