Stewart Ngau Ding — The Baram regatta connection

I’d been busy, busy, so busy, preparing for life, while life floated by me, quiet and swift as a regatta.

— Lorene Cary, American author

At the turn of the 20th century, “head-hunting” was rife in most parts of northern Sarawak, namely among the up-river Orang Ulu tribes.

Aristocratic ancestors of namely the Kenyah, Kayan, Kelabit and Lun Bawang were the biggest perpetrators.

Unlike the White Rajahs and their European administrators who were Christians, the pagan tribes took some time to adjust to modernity.

One of the first Baram Residents Charles Hose, the equivalent of present-day District Officer, persuaded the warring tribes to seek peaceful means instead of war.

In 1897, Hose invited both the Kenyah chief Tama Bulan and Kayan chief Tama Usong for a trip to Kuching to attend a ‘Council Negri’ (legislative assembly) meeting.

It was an epic journey at that time given the difficulty journey from the remote and inaccessible jungle by foot and river followed by a two-day sea voyage to meet top Brooke officers and Council Negri members.

Both the chiefs who were the first Orang Ulu to visit the Sarawak capital were so impressed that they have to Hose’s suggestion of a regatta “boat race” between tribes.
On April 7, 1899, a six-day competition to stimulate “peaceful competition” among the people of the Baram Division was held at Marudi and is still the practice.
In keeping with the tradition, Baram’s first Kayan District Officer Stewart Ngau Ding has provided an insight into his life as in the “Ulus”.
Descended from aristocrats who participated in the Baram Regatta, Ngau Ding and wife Magdalene Belawing recalled how he helped organise the first post-Malaysia Baram Regatta in 1973.
In his memoir “My Changing World” (edited by daughters Usun and Soiphia), Ngau Ding wrote: “I received word from the Miri Resident that the royal visitors (the Sultan of Pahang) and his consort were coming.”
Unlike the old days when visitors came by boat, they arrived by helicopter in Marudi and were received by chief minister Tun Abdul Rahman Ya’kub.
Sultan Abu Bakar and consort were the first royalty to attend a “tuba” (using poisoned roots) fishing event involving the community.
Ten years later in 1983, Ngau Ding organised a second Baram Regatta attended by the late Sultan Ahmad Shah of Pahang and the Queen of Pahang. Sultan Ahmad Shah was then the King of Malaysia.
Ngau Ding remembers this “special event” well as all the Baram chiefs helped organised an elaborated ceremony when they built a “mini-Istana” next to the Baram rest house where the royal couple were lodged.
He said: “We decorated the tongkang (tug boats) berthed on the river in front of the grandstand with colourful lights to look like fairyland.”
It was so successful, that the Sultan sportingly took the lead in the traditional long dance.
“My wife invited the King to wear the warrior head gear while the women followed suit by inviting the other dignitaries such as the governor (Tun Rahman), chief minister (Tun Abdul Taib),” added Ngau Ding.
“My Changing World” is about the challenges of being a native civil servant who served in various stations in the State — from Kuching to Limbang, from Kapit Division to Belaga District, to Bintulu, Miri, Lawas and finally Baram where he served as the first Kayan District Officer.
As a child, he had to swim across the river to get to school. “I soon mastered the art of crossing the fast-moving currents of the Akah River holding my books and loin cloth with one hand over my head.
“I used the other hand and legs to propel myself across the water to the opposite bank. After school, we swam back again,” he wrote.
Stewart was 12 when he went to Kuching to study at Batu Lintang; on his first day at school, he went to class barefooted as he would do back at Long Tebangan, and he became the butt of the joke.
After completing three years at Batu Lintang in 1954, he attended secondary school (Forms 1 to 5) at Tanjung Lobang in Miri and later St Thomas’ school in Kuching.
Passing his Senior Cambridge examination, he was one of 12 natives taken in as Sarawak Administrative Officer (SAO) before he ended up in Marudi as the District Officer.
As a youngster, Stewart would accompany my father and his men for barter trading with the nomadic Penan at a large long hut or pasar tamu (barter trading market) built by the Kelabits of Long Lellang. Soon he spoke the Penan language fluently.
There is a poignant ending to Stewart’s tale, when he was sent to Canada to study for a year. As that was the icing on the cake, he had set a standard for his children, some of whom pursued their education up to university level.
This book highlights some of the old Kayan customs and traditions, taboos and changes that took place specially during the Brooke era up till World War II and colonial rule right up to the present Malaysian administration.
Today, Ngau Ding, 83, lives a quiet life with his wife at their BDC home in Kuching where he dotes on the grandchildren.

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

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