Memory is the treasure house of the mind wherein the monuments thereof are kept and preserved.

— Thomas Fuller, English historian

When I first arrived in Kuching to head the New Straits Times office in Sarawak 40 years ago, I made it a point to visit a historical site that had long been forgotten.

Only 30 minutes from Kuching lies Bukit Peninjau, home of the brave Bidayuh — the first Dayak community to join the fight for Sarawak’s independence from Brunei in the late 1830s.

With my little knowledge about Sarawak and her peoples — almost non-existent in the country’s history books — I decided to scale this little hill with the late member of parliament for the area, Steven Sinyum.

Bukit Peninjau and its surrounding are in fact a Pandora’s box of Dayak tales, legends and famous leaders. Since the 1980s, I have been up and down Bukit Peninjau several times.

Little did I know that an illustrious British biologist, Datuk Seri Lord Cranbrook, had also taken an interest in the Bidayuh enclave.

It was here 160 years ago that Brooke’s wartime effort turned out to be a blessing in disguise because he won the respect of the Siniawan Malay leaders and Bidayuh who later became his staunchest supporters.

Even in those days, there were close connections between the Chinese and Malays of Siniawan and the Bidayuh.

Brooke’s biographer Sir Spenser St John, who passed through the area in the early 1850s, wrote: “Their women, half breeds, are better looking than any others in this part of the world; some of the girls were handsome, in one point they set a bright example of their neighbours, and that in their
cleanliness.

“The Malay girls bathe at least three times a day, but they are careful of the condition. It was quite a pleasure to look at the little Chinese maidens in their prim, neat dresses, and their parents evidently have a pride in their appearance.”

By then Brooke had built a cottage on Bukit Peninjau, which soon attracted world-famous anthropologists and travellers.

In early 2012, Cranbrook asked me if I could help organise an entourage to
emulate Brooke’s first journey along Sarawak River.

His interest in Sarawak and Brooke history goes back to the days when he was attached to the Sarawak Museum under Tom Harrisson in 1956.

His mission was to find Peninjau and the first Brooke fort at Belidah opposite Siniawan bazaar.

Peninjau’s first visitor was naturalist Sir Hugh Low, who was the first European to travel to Upper Sarawak to explore and collect research material.

Others such as naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace and Italian Odoardo Beccari followed suit.

It was here that Wallace began his studies on the orang utan, leading to a published paper entitled, “The Origin of Human Races and the Antiquity of Man Deduced from the Theory of Natural Selection (1864)”.

It was Wallace’s contributions to the world that motivated Cranbrook.

Unlike Wallace’s journey in the 1850s which took several hours of arduous paddling, our trip was over tranquil waters passing quaint villages, small boats with fishermen and prawn catchers.

It took us past the old Satok suspension bridge, the Batu Kawah area, to Lidah Tanah and eventually to the old Chinese bazaar of Siniawan, about 16 miles from Kuching by road.

On arrival, we met Kapitan Lai, who is a descendant of early Hakkas who built up Siniawan, which became a ghost town when the Kuching-Bau trunk road was diverted in early 2000.

However, in August 2009, the Chinese community established a Siniawan Heritage Conservation Committee to rekindle the local pride of its rich history.

About four years ago, the Siniawan Chinese community decided to turn the one-lane road in Siniawan into a weekend food bazaar until the recent Covid-19 pandemic.

Today, three months after complying with coronavirus lockdown measures, the popular food stalls are set to resume business.All three communities

living around the area — the Chinese shopkeepers, Bidayuh community of Peninjau and Kandis, and the Malays of Kampung Seberang, are excited.
Siniawan’s own Rela volunteers will oversee standard operating procedure (SOP) compliance to ensure a safe and happy reopening.

And tomorrow will be another big day — the 87th birthday of Cranbrook, which he will celebrate in England.

So have a safe and festive weekend in Siniawan, and happy birthday Datuk Seri, from the people of Sarawak!

The views expressed here are those of the columnist and do not necessarily represent the views of New Sarawak Tribune.