Reminiscing about Nanga Meluan Bazaar

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One of the deserted shops at Nanga Meluan Bazaar, of which the owner had left for greener pastures elsewhere years ago.

NANGA Meluan Bazaar occupies a special place in Peter Wong’s heart.

Now at age 77, the retired Education officer is now living in Kuching, but he never forgets his birthplace – a quaint pocket in Julau, a district in Sarikei Division.

“I have tons of fond memories of Nanga Meluan Bazaar. I had lived among the Ibans who frequented my father’s shop at the bazaar, which was built during the time of the Brooke’s rule,” said Peter, who had once taught in Kanowit Government Secondary School, later named Sedaya.

He said his father, Wong Yuk Ping, came to Sarawak with his family from Fujian in China in the 1900s.

“In the years after my father had set up a shop at the bazaar, we became more acclimatised to the Sarawakian way of life.

“I dare say that I speak excellent Iban, thanks to my upbringing in the ‘ulu’ (remote upriver).

“My father passed away in 1962, but the shop remained in business for a few years after that.

“Our family still keeps the lease of the land. We love the bazaar,” he said.

The Wong’s family photo, taken in 1955. Peter, aged 12 then, is seen standing right next his father.

Glimpse of the past

Not many people have actually heard of, seen or visited this British Brooke-era Chinese bazaar, tucked away in Ulu Kanowit and far from the established settlements.

Interestingly, Peter’s family shop was among many iconic images immortalised by Hedwig ‘Hedda’ Marie Morrison (1908-1991) – a German photographer who captured historically significant documentary photos of Beijing, Hong Kong and Sarawak from the 1930s to the 1960s.

That photo, taken in the 1950s, represented a glimpse of a rural Chinese bazaar shop, one of many built in the remote pockets of Sarawak throughout the 1930s.

The famous photo, shot by Hedda Morrison taken during the 1950s, showing Yuk Ping’s shop at Nanga Meluan Bazaar.

Today, there is nothing much happening at Nanga Meluan Bazaar, although the shopkeepers’ families still keep the land leases.

One unit, belonging to the Hon family, is still operating. Two, including the Wong’s shop, were demolished years ago to make way for an access road.

Four units are still standing, but in a severe state of dilapidation as the owners had long deserted them for greener pastures elsewhere.

The history

The Nanga Meluan Bazaar was built by the then-Brooke government as a post for the immigrant Chinese to trade with the natives of Sarawak.

The Chinese shopkeepers brought in essential items like salt, sugar, condensed milk, biscuits and textiles, and sold them to the locals.

They also helped the natives bring jungle produce to larger towns like Kanowit and Sibu.

“Back then, the Ibans would bring their goods down to Nanga Meluan Bazaar via longboats, and sell them to the friendly shopkeepers. The brought many kinds of things like rattan, ‘engkabang’ (a native hardwood related to ‘meranti’, also known for its edible fruit called the ‘jungle butter nuts’, which is a delicacy), game meat, unsmoked rubber sheets, wild rice, durians, ‘dabai’ (local olives) and freshwater fish.

“There were no logging activities in those days,” said Peter.

Security was all-present then, with Fort Brooke located nearby providing protection to the area including the bazaar, as well as handling administrative matters and overseeing its socio-economic progress.

Peter’s father Yuk Ping, at the age of nine, came to Sarawak with his parents from Fuzhou, the capital of Fujian Province, in early 1915.

Initially, they were brought in to do farming in Sibu. The Wongs took the opportunity to establish a shop called ‘Hook Sin Lun’ at the newly-set up Nanga Meluan Bazaar in 1935.

The bazaar was typical of the Brooke-era trading posts: two-storey wooden shophouses, built near the riverbank but on higher ground to ensure that they would not be affected by the floods.

Yuk Ping also fashioned a motor launch from wood, which he used to run cargo service for his customers.

In 1945 after World War II, four more shops were added to the bazaar. Out of the six units, five were operated by Foochows – the other one was run by the Hons, a Cantonese family.

By the 1960s, however, four units had closed down, and today, only one is still operating – the Hon’s shop. Hon Ah Hon, the son of the original owner, is still in Nanga Meluan, teaching at SK Nanga Meluan. The bazaar is only a five-minute walk from the primary school.

Fondly called ‘Cikgu (Teacher) Hon’, he is now retired.

He told Peter that he would remain in Nanga Meluan with his Iban wife.

Peter and his wife, Patricia Shim.

‘The shops, and the neighbourhood’

According to Peter, all the six shops sold sundry goods, but only his father was licensed to sell ammunition, namely pellets for shotguns.

“I remember this rule – the customers must show the spent shotshells, and could only buy one for one. If the customer had come with 10 hulls, he could only buy 10 pellets.

“I never knew why that was the rule.”

He also remembers how gruelling a journey it was whenever his family needed to do some official matters, purchase goods or attend an occasional wedding in Sibu.

“The longboat trip to Julau alone took four to five hours; from Julau to Sibu, one whole day on a motor launch!

“The journey could take even longer if the vessels were laden with cargo.

“Travel plans must be made meticulously; enquiries must be made, and seats must be booked – not unlike how we would make flight reservations today,” said Peter.

He said his father, realising the lack of connectivity in Nanga Meluan, had built a family house near the Dai Kung Primary School at Lanang Road in Sibu.

“My siblings and I spent a part of our young lives in this wooden house, with mother and grandmother, while father stayed in Nanga Meluan to run his business.

“I was blessed to have a grandmother who was a really good storyteller. She had told me lots of stories about her hard life in China; from her, I learned a lot about the history of the early Foochows in Sibu.”

Photo from the family album shows the Wong’s wooden house at Lanang Road in Sibu, built by Peter’s father so that the children could attend the good schools in town.

Peter and his brothers went to the Sacred Heart Secondary School Sibu, and his sisters to St Elizabeth’s School Sibu because their father wanted them to gain a good English education.

“Of course, every school holiday we would go back to Nanga Meluan to help father.

“This continued until father closed shop in 1964, just after Malaysia was formed,” said Peter.

Another part of his childhood was the ‘Kubu’ (Fort) Brooke.

“I always remember the ‘kubu’ as being a government office, staffed with a full team of administrators and clerks.

“There were government’s quarters nearby, housing quite a large community of civil servants – more than 30 families.

“Everyone knew the policemen stationed at the ‘kubu’, so we felt very secure.”

However, not long after it ceased operation in the 1960s, the fort fell into disrepair, said Peter.

“Fortunately, because the framing of the ‘kubu’ was made of ‘belian’ (local ironwood), it made the restoration easier and later on, the structure was revived.

“Fort Brooke is a heritage building now.”

The ‘teenage’ Peter manoeuvring a longboat along the Meluan River, in this photo taken in 1960.

Years of decline

Asked what he thought were the reasons behind the decline of Nanga Meluan Bazaar, Peter said most probably, the key cause was that the population had not been growing much since the 1930s.

“Of course, there were greener pastures elsewhere. Time and progress resulted in many rural Ibans migrating to the more developed towns and districts over the years.

“The closing of the fort also played a part. It’s known that having an administrative centre is crucial in population development.”

The falling prices of rubber and ‘engkabang’ were also contributing factors, opined Peter.

“Because of this (falling prices), the rural natives no longer found it economically viable to send rubber and ‘engkabang’ to the bazaar.”

The construction of roads could have been the final nail sealing the coffin, added Peter.

“Better connectivity meant better accessibility for the rural folks to obtain the goods in Kanowit or even Sibu, without having to wait long for them to arrive at the bazaar.

“Such access also resulted in the younger generation being able to gain better education and also better job opportunities beyond the countryside.

“The older generation also benefitted from it – having grown older, they required better medical facilities, and with their hard-earned money, they acquired houses in Sibu or Kuching.

“Of course, better accessibility also meant that those who migrated could travel back and forth at any time, but it was never the same.”

“Thirty years ago, no one would imagine that one could drive to Julau from Nanga Meluan in just 20 minutes, and to Sibu in about an hour, but development had come in and made this possible.

“It’s not only Nanga Meluan; it’s the fate of many other Brooke-era trading posts in Sarawak; those in Lubok Nibong, Sangan, Long Akah and Pandan,” Peter elaborated.

‘The present, and the future’

Peter was optimistic, nevertheless.

“I’m still hopeful for Nanga Meluan. Firstly, there is now a concrete bridge connecting the ‘kubu’ to the other bank of Kanowit River, where a new double-storey modern longhouse stands.

“Then, there’s SK Nanga Meluan next to the ‘kubu, with quite a sizeable pupil-teacher-school-staff population.

“Moreover, the good roads present an excellent opportunity for Nanga Meluan to become a wonderful stopover point for travellers coming to and going from Julau and Entabai.”

Peter said he and Cikgu Hon would never leave Nanga Meluan, and would definitely be ever-willing to serve the community, just like their parents had before them.

“Come to Nanga Meluan and visit Fort Brooke – if you’re feeling peckish or thirsty, just stop by at Cikgu Hon’s shop for some snacks and drinks,” he smiled.

Cikgu Hon and his wife, at their still-standing shop at Nanga Meluan Bazaar.