As we go through phases of modernisation, many old buildings have been replaced with new ones, leaving only the legacy and memories behind. One such place that held significance was Blacksmith Road — a settlement for Henghua fishermen and Hakka blacksmiths.
Once a bustling centre for metalware traders
With rapid development in place, Kuching is a different place now compared to 50 years ago.
Within the city, tall buildings now decorate the skyline, and as a lot of areas had undergone development and modernisation, what used to be land of thatched houses, are now a manifestation of the current century.
However, what many do not realise is that much have changed from the olden days. At Jalan Petanak, by the Sarawak River, where the development of the Riverine condominium is currently ongoing, there used to be a settlement for Hakka blacksmiths and Henghua fishermen.
Though there are not much traces of it left, through the memories of those who have been there, the settlement known as ‘Blacksmith Road’ was among the thriving areas back in the 60s and 70s. Not much was written about the settlement, although the Sarawak Gazette did record the name in 1901.
The harmonious living
Before the settlement was relocated in the 90s to make way for development in the area, two different Chinese natives made the area their home. One was the Henghua who came from different districts in China — Putien, Shangtien, and Hsiangcheng. Another community that inhibited the Blacksmith Road was the Yong Ding Hakka.
It was said that the Henghua who originated from different districts had stayed at Blacksmith Road were often involved in disagreements. According to T’ien Ju-K’ang’s book on Southeast Asian studies, “The Chinese of Sarawak”, the disagreements were thought to have come from the historical disputes over fishing rights and irrigation facilities since even before they migrated to Sarawak.
Carrying the deep-rooted hatred, these group of Henghua fishermen were eventually separated with the colonial government’s help. Those from Shangtien and Hsiangcheng were moved to Sungai Apong, while those from Putien moved to Bintawa fishing village. Most of the Yong Ding Hakka who settled in the living area became blacksmiths, and some even opened sundry shops to earn their living.
Overall, these mixtures of fishermen, fishmongers, blacksmith and others became part and parcel of Blacksmith Road during the mid-20th century Kuching. The area consisted of four blocks of shophouses — lined in two rows by the river, kotaks (Henghua fishing boats) can be seen parked nearby at the bay.
At the area, during the low tide season, boulders could be seen in the river. However, when king tide rushes in, Blacksmith Road will be flooded and everyone would scurry to keep their belongings safe.
Just by the row of shophouses was a small fishing village where the fishermen lived. And at the direct opposite of the shops was an old temple that has been relocated in between the now Petanak market and Riverine Condominium.
Reliving the memory, Jenny Sim, currently in her 40s, was a young, primary school girl when she spent her first 10 years of childhood there. According to her, there was a bus stop in front of the shops where she would wait for the bus to go to school. There was also a jetty at the riverbank where sampans would transport villagers across so that they can take the bus to work.
Family of blacksmiths
Jenny remembered spending her time at Blacksmith Road as her late grandfather, Foo Gee Hai, was a blacksmith who set up his shop ‘Eng Hai’ at No.16. Housing a total of 17 shophouses, the architectural concept was having the shop laid out in front, while having the family house built directly behind.
“When I was little, during the school holidays, I used to help my grandfather with the blower. A simple job of pulling and pushing. This was before he changed to electronic blower. He would give me some money for helping him, and I would spend them at the grocery shop nearby.”
Another fond memory she recalled was the time when her grandfather took Jenny and her other cousins out for a morning walk and have breakfast at the coffee shop nearby. “Milo and Roti Kiap! We look forward to that every weekend.”
As a blacksmith, Jenny remembered that her grandfather Foo catered to customers from all over Sarawak, especially those from Miri and Limbang. He also received orders from villagers across the river.
Smithing all sort of metal tools, most of his customers were fishmongers, butchers, farmers and others. “I remembered our neighbours who were fishmongers, drying their salted fish nearby, and my grandfather would often sharpen their parang for them.”
According to those who value workmanship, products made via the smithing process would often be of better quality compared to factory-made metalwares. Alhough the business is currently fading due to the rising cost of raw materials, Jenny explained that those who are used to a blacksmith’s parang, will detest factory-made ones.
“Smithing metalwares is a laborious job but the end product is sublime. The toughness and sharpness of a handmade parang will often be extraordinary, and the accurate built and weight of the parang can be customised accordingly to suit the user,” she said.
Recalling the times when her grandfather worked the steel and iron, Jenny said it can take two days to finish an average of 75 parangs, and it also depends on the grade of the iron. Different grade produces different quality parangs, and also differs in time as some are harder than the others.
After the premises relocated to Jalan Gubah, Bintawa, Jenny said that business dropped significantly, but there were still regulars who visited her late grandfather. “Back in the early 90s, business was still fine. However, the number of customers from across the river dropped as the new place were located further away.”
Alongside the development and small traces of its once-upon-a-time, Blacksmith Road, once a bustling trading centre of Jalan Petanak, continues to live on in the memories of those who were there back in the day. This article is written as a memorabilia and serves as a reminder that there was a road specially dedicated to blacksmiths here in Kuching.