HERE COME THE BOATS AGAIN! The Sarawak Regatta is here again in the Sarawak River, Kuching from 18-20 November 2016.
More than a decade ago I wrote a short feature on the history of regatta in Sarawak, entitled “Sarawak Regatta: Paddling Into the Past”. It was a popular piece. I remember the Malaysia Tattler, a magazine for rich people found it worthy of publishing it for money, not much though. Many anonymous social media bloggers pirated my work in their blogs with Google blogspot and later Wordpress.
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Other than known as the Land of Perfection (Darul Hana) during the Brunei Sultanate Period and now the Land of Hornbills, Sarawak is also known as the Land of Many Rivers. Certainly there are countless rivers, big and small ones, criss-crossing the largest state in Malaysia and playing important roles in the history and culture of its 24 ethnic groups. There are too many toponyms that derive their names from rivers including the name of the state, Sarawak. The capital city, Kuching, gets its name from a small river that is no longer visible which once rose from the hill called Mata Kuching where trees known as mata kuching (not mata pusa) were found and its fruits said to resemble mata kuching (cat’s eyes). This simply shows how intricate the relationship between man and his rivers is in Sarawak.
In many ways, the boats and the abundant source of food bound the relationships between men and the rivers. Until very recently rivers and boats are the major means of transportation and communication among big towns, small towns, villages and longhouses. If it could be called so, the climax of the intricate relationship of rivers and men with their boats was the annual regattas organized practically by all districts in Sarawak in the not so distant past when roads and cars were still rare and few. The annual regattas of the past were more than just boat racing but they were grand social events, including political peace celebrations, cultural performances and exhibitions rolled into one big festival.
The famous regatta in Sarawak was known as the Baram Regatta; first held in 1899 in Marudi that was called Claudetown then. But it was not the first. As the available historical records are concerned, the first regatta was held in January 1871 in Kuching known as the Sarawak Regatta. Practically every town in the all the districts throughout the state followed and turned the regattas into great annual social event until the advent of more cars, planes and fast boats in 1970s.
The first Baram Regatta in 1899 in Marudi perhaps epitomized to the timeless value of regattas in Sarawak. The chief architect of the Baram Regatta was no other than the Resident, Charles Hose, whose reminiscence could be found in his book, the Natural Man.
He wrote; “Some thirty years ago it was my privilege to be present at a meeting at Marudi (Claudetown) in the Baram district, and in the presence of an overwhelming force of the tribes loyal to the Government of Sarawak, of all those tribes whose allegiance was still doubtful, and all those who were still at a variance with each other. The object was to abolish old blood feuds and persuade the tribes to aid the Government in keeping the peace. In calling this conference, I felt that in order to suppress fighting and headhunting, the normal young Bornean’s natural outlet, it would be well to replace them by some other equally violent, but less disastrous, activity; and I therefore suggested to the tribes a sort of local Henley, the chief feature of which would be annual race between the war-canoes of all the villages. The proposal was taken up eagerly by the people, and months before the appointed day, they were felling the giants of the forest and carving out from them the great war-canoes that were to be put to this novel use, and reports were passing from village to village of the stupendous dimensions of this or that canoe, and the fineness of timber and workmanship of another.”
Between the people living on the banks of the two rivers, the Baram and the Tinjar, hostility which just at this time had been accentuated by the occurrence of a blood-feud between the Kenyahs, a leading tribe of the Baram, and the Lirongs, a powerful tribe of the Tinjar. In addition to these two groups was a large party of Madangs, a famous tribe of fighting men of the central highlands whose hand had hitherto been against every other tribe; and also a large number of Ibans, who more than all the rest are always spoiling for a fight.
The winners were a crew of peaceful down-river folks, who had learnt the art of boat-making from the Malays of the coast; and they owed their victory to the superior build of their ship rather than to superior strength. When they passed the post it was an anxious moment. How would the losers take their beating? Would the winners play the fool, openly exulting and swaggering? If so, they would probably get their heads broken, or perhaps lose them. But they behaved with modesty and discretion. The excitement of the crowds on the bank was great, but it was entirely good-humoured; in the interest of the racing they seemed to have forgotten their feuds. This opportunity was naturally seized to summon everyone to the conference hall. This time they settled down with great decorum, the chiefs all in one group at one side of a central space, and the common people in serried ranks all round about it. In the centre was a huge, gaily-painted effigy of the sacred hornbill, on which were hung thousands of cigarettes of home-grown tobacco wrapped in dried banana leaf.
Many retired and senior civil servants still vividly recalled those so-called ‘good old days”. This is because most, if not all, were available civil servants at the district events would be involved directly in organizing the event. One recalled the caretaker/maker of the boat who would spit all sorts of charms on the boat and forbid anyone from touching it; hence guarded jealously throughout the night. Most importantly, according to the ancient belief, no one should ever touch the front tip of the boat decorated with beautifully carved motifs and images.
In those days, just like racing horses today, boats were given names. Some were simple names but other were outrageously bombastic and long as those which had been found in some old programme books and the old faithful Sarawak Gazette, viz. Burong Raja Wali Senang Hati (Happy Heart Kingfisher) owned by Bujang Kontoi; Seri Bulan Pelandok Dara (Virgin Moon Mousedeer) owned by Tua Kampung Senusi; Bendera Baru Note Sarawak (Flag New Note Sarawak) owned by Ason anak Lawat; Singa Terbang Kendawang Gronggong (Flying Lion) owned by S.P.G. Rimbas. A few simple and futuristic names such as Merdeka owned by Hassan Bros in 1951 and Tidak Disangka belonged to Madenah Melayu in 1955. Many reflected the situation of the times such as Usaha Berjaya (Successful Effort); and Muhibbah (Harmony) that raced in the 1970 regatta. Today the event is promoted by the Sarawak Tourism Board.
Paddling through the past one could contemplate that it was the harmonious (Muhibbah) relationship between men, settlements and rivers that the people of Sarawak found in regattas. Such a relationship will guide us as Sarawakians paddle into the future as long as there is a moon in our planet.