Pioneers of the Bidayuh Mountains

Among Sarawak’s most innovative and hard-working communities are the Bidayuh — highlanders who came down the mountains to settle on the plains around Kuching.

Originally from the Sungkung mountain complex in South Western Kalimantan, the community trudged across the forests to the hills of Sentah, Bratak, Singai and Serembu in Sarawak.

Mount Singai

These hills not only gave the Bidayuh protection from hostile tribes, but sustenance because below them were fertile lands which the farming community tilled and cultivated.

However, after the Brunei Sultanate established itself in Kuching to exploit the trade of antimony and gold in the Bau region in the early 1800s, sea-faring ‘Sea Dayaks’ raided the homes of the docile Bidayuh in the upper reaches of the Sarawak River.

On May 1, 1838 the hill village of the Jagoi community of Gunung Bratak were attacked by the Skrang Dayaks’ who killed and kidnapped scores and laid waste to the region.

After that tragic attack the survivors moved out abandoning this ancient village to seek their fortunes elsewhere; most of the descendants settled in 30 villages stretching as far as the border town of Serikin and coastal region of Lundu.

Just before the arrival of Brooke two Skrang chiefs “Bulan” (the moon) and “Mata Hari” (the sun) had also wanted to attack other communities on the agreement with the Brunei rulers that they (the Sea Dayaks) would keep the heads and the former; “the loot (and)…prettiest of the women and children as slaves”.

However, when James Brooke was declared ‘Rajah’ of Sarawak in 1841, he outlawed headhunting and the Bidayuh enjoyed a short period of peace.

In the 1850s Brooke made Gunung Serembu his second home Bidayuh among the longhouse folk at ‘Bung Muan’, just below the 1,600ft peak.

Only 16 miles from Kuching, Brooke’s cottage high up in the hills attracted world-famous 19th century personalities to Sarawak in the 1850s.

Among the dozen-or-so prolific VIPS were British colonial administrators. Sir Hugh Low, Governor General of Labuan Sir Spenser St John, British admiral Sir Henry Keppel, Austrian traveller-cumauthor Madam Ida Laura Pfeiffer, Italian naturalist Odoardo Beccari and world-renowned Englishman Alfred Russel Wallace.

But a rebellion by Chinese gold miners from Bau in February 1857 motivated the Bidayuh to take up arms and join forces with Brooke leading to a bout of headhunting; only that the victims were Chinese.

In 1860 after the failed rebellion Anglican Reverend William Chalmers from Kuching started missionary work among Bidayuh of Serembu, Peninjau and Bumbok.

It was only in the 1900s that the Bidayuh Christians settled at the foothills before the spread out to the Chinese bazaar at Siniawan and across to Sarawak River.

At a third majestic mountain around Kuching is the1,800ft Gunung Singai home of the Singai Bidayuh. In 1885 a 24-year-old Roman Catholic missionary Father Felix Westerwoudt from Amsterdam built his hut and a church at Singai.

Entrance to the hike up Singai’s Holy Mountain

The Prefect Apostolic of Borneo Reverend Father Jackson who assigned Westerwoudt to live among the Bi-Singai said, “The Singai is a solitary and very steep mountain…about a day’s journey from Kuching. Half way up is a plateau on which dwelt five thousand Land Dayaks. About fifteen hundred of these were known on Felix’s arrival

“They lived in seven or eight campongs, or settlements, all under separate chiefs, one of whom, the Orang Kaya, was head of all the Singai Dayaks.”

Even though Westerwoudt preached among the people for 13 years, they remained pagans even after he died from pneumonia at the age of 37.

Today Gunung Singai is Roman Catholic stronghold and the location of a Catholic Memorial and Pilgrimage Centre and grotto accessible by a steep climb up a wooden staircase.

View of Kuching hinterland from Bung Bratak

The Bidayuh who call themselves ‘Bi-Singai’ (people from Singai) have since moved down to the foothills and settled in 10 villages communities; Sagah, Bobak Tengah, Browing, Daun, Sinibung, Tanjong, Bowang, Tanjong Poting, Atas, Sudoh, Apar.

Another mountain 16 miles North of Kuching is Gunung Sentah which is the home of another progressive Bidayuh community — the Biatah.

One of the first Bidayuh groups to settle on the plains of Siburan and Seratau, they migrated as far as the Quop River 10 miles from Kuching where they established a settlement; now the largest and most prominent in Sarawak.

In the late 1880s the Bidayuh village at Kampung Quop (also spelt Kuap) was not only a thriving Anglican stronghold, but also a musically talented community as the church raised a choir and their own band.

William Chater in ‘Sarawak Long Ago’ said that when the Filipino bandsmen first arrived in Kuching in May 1888, they were attached to the Rangers but were not required to drill or guard work.

Their job was to practise every morning, play for military purposes as well as the Astana and at the bandstand (initially at the esplanade, now called the Central Padang and later at the Sarawak Museum grounds) twice a week.

Later the Bidayuh from Seratau and Quop were also incorporated into the band as drummers and buglers. Some of the Filipino musicians who remained in Sarawak after the War inter-married into the Biatah community at Seratau, which is a catholic community.

Baruk Headhouse at Bung Bratak

In the 1930s the 3rd Rajah Vyner visited Kampung Seratau where he was entertained by the village orchestra with musicians playing the double-base, saxophone, clarinet and guitars under the leadership Kampung Kuap village chief Pengarah Harry James.

Currently Kuap’s St James, the oldest Anglican Church, has its own Acapella choir.

Bidayuh: ‘Golden Ladies’ of Padawan

Another famous mountain complex beyond Kalimantan border is the Padawan Range — home of the last Bidayuh ‘Golden Girls’ who decorate their limbs with copper coils and other ornaments.

Apart from their rich culture, the Bidayuh with 200,000 people is second largest native group in Sarawak with one of the largest pools of architects, educationists, doctors, lawyers and professionals.