The subtle charm of Siniawan

Siniawan alley is a heaven for photographers.

The narrow streets of Siniawan, flanked by rows of charming old wooden shophouses look rather lonesome, but the rustic setting offers more than just a glimpse of the town’s colourful past.

Hoping for better days ahead

A 25-kilometre drive from Kuching city, it is easy for one to think of the old streets of Siniawan, Bau as a ghost town.

However, in the evening of every weekend, it would be a different story. As dusk approaches, the town comes to life with bustling activities where traders will light up the streets and crowds of people swarm this little town, to spend their time with families and friends and enjoy the local delicacies.

With tall, rectangular louvre windows and vertical wood-panel shophouses along the streets, the 170-year-old heritage site seemed like a perfect place for travellers near and far to chill out and enjoy the picturesque view of the Sarawak riverbank, rugged mountains, and sprawling traditional villages.

As the wonderland for diversity, Siniawan’s romantic history and charming vibes managed to attract Hollywood film producers to feature the town in the upcoming ‘Rajah’ – a film that tells the stories of the White Rajah, Sir James Brooke.

Uncle Joseph Chai, a third generation owner of a shop in Siniawan old town.

According to 80-year-old Joseph Chai, the old wooden shophouses that visitors can see today dated back in the 1910s.

Chai, or Uncle Joseph as he is fondly known, is the owner of Sin Lian Ho, a shop that he inherited from his grandfather who were among the pioneering traders in the town.

“This shop has been here since my late grandfather. Now, I am the third-generation owner of Sin Lian Ho,” he shared in an interview with New Sarawak Tribune.

Since the transformation of the old bazaar into a night market on October 15, 2010, the town had welcomed travellers and visitors day and night, who often roamed the single-lane street like gunslingers, shooting photos in the day and looking for local street food at night.

But this was before the Covid-19 pandemic came crushing on social gatherings.

For the traders, their biggest fear were the aftermath of the Covid-19 outbreak — that their continuous efforts to rekindle the heritage site all these years will be buried in an instant.

They feared that the gloomy days of the town would return following the impact of the movement control order (MCO).

“I’m not really sure if our shops will be able to generate revenue during this recovery phase,” Chai lamented.

Ups and downs

Siniawan old town’s Kapitan, Bong Boon Koh.

Turning the clock back, Siniawan Kapitan Bong Boon Koh shared the ups and downs of the town.

“Back in the day, Siniawan used to cater to the gold prospectors in nearby Bau.

“It was established long before Rajah James Brooke set foot in the state,” Bong explained.

The old town was actually set up by the Chinese from Bau in 1821, after they fled from Rajah Brooke’s raid and some of them eventually settled here.

The town later saw further upheavals. Bong said Siniawan had went through three critical phases — from the Japanese occupation, to the Malaysia-Indonesia Confrontation and the communist insurgency 1971.

Undergoing the bleakest of times, the town appeared not to be as resilient as thought.

“During the mid 1970s, Siniawan became gloomier after the first road construction in Sarawak was completed — the road from the 7th Mile to Bau that bypassed the bazaar.

Bong added that the opening of the new roads and bridges in Batu Kawa completely changed the landscape of the once-bustling town. “Siniawan then slowly lost its glitter,” he said.

“After the formation of Malaysia in 1963, the land transport networks were improving and thus, people relied less on the river transportation.

“The construction of the roads, nevertheless, has shortened the travel time from Kuching. But it really impacted the old shops. The business suffered for quite long,” he explained.

Tracing back to the beginning, Bong said that back to the 1840s, Bau was a prosperous trade settlement where the river was the main mode of transportation.

And back then, Siniawan was one of the busiest spots. The town’s strategic location attracted many Chinese traders that were travelling from Kuching to frequently make their stop in Bau.

“In those days, many boats from Kuching stopped here to refuel and at the same time sell their products to the locals. The journey from Kuching to Bau by boat would usually take about two and a half hours. One would have to stop at a few points along the way, including Siniawan.

“I still remember the routes. From Kuching, the boats will stop at Batu Kawa, then Batu Kitang, to Keranji and then Siniawan. Usually the traders stopped in Siniawan for few days before they continue their journey to Musi and Buso,” Bong recalled.

Sometime later, the small town reached its peak when over 300 Hakka Chinese traders settled in Siniawan.

This was encouraged not only by the growing trade but also the gold rush by Hakka Chinese who fled from Sambas, Kalimantan, Indonesia due to mistreatment and oppression by the Dutch.

In the late 1850s, James Brooke who ruled Sarawak at the time, imposed new tax laws which caused unrest in the community. About 600 gold miners in Bau then launched an attack on Brooke’s mansion in Kuching, with the intention to take his life.

It was unfortunate for the Chinese as Brooke managed to escape during the attack. He later asked his nephew Charles Brooke to bring his Iban force to quell the rebellion, battling against the Chinese miners in Bau and near Siniawan.

Lost in the battle, the Chinese then fled back to Sambas and left the town empty for many years.

Siniawan alley is a heaven for photographers.

The incident formed the history of Bau — the town’s name. Derived from a Malay word, ‘Bau’ means ‘stinky odour’ — from the stench of rotting corpses dotted along the roads in Siniawan.

Siniawan turned to a sleepy hollow for many years until the early 1870s, when the town saw a new wave of Hakka Chinese from China came and rebuilt the town.

Covid-19 aftermath

With the recent announcement by the government to allow night market operations, the Kapitan is determined to revive the businesses in town, by opening halal food stalls in Siniawan in the near future.

By offering halal food stalls, he explained that this will open up more opportunity for visitors to come and visit the town.

“We aim to start the town’s revamping plan by offering halal food stalls to guests. Such hospitality will hopefully be able to attract Muslim visitors to come and visit, relax and enjoy the tranquil environment in Siniawan” Bong added.

On the latest standard operating procedure (SOP) for Siniawan night market to resume its operation, Bong explained that the State Disaster Management Committee (SDMC) is currently fine tuning the SOP for night market in Sarawak.

Daphne, one of the shop owners in Siniawan is hoping for better days.

“The SOP will be released soon. As for our initial plans, for our own SOP, we will limit the entrance where only two alleys will be opened.

“We will perform body temperature scanning, as well as collecting personal details from visitors. Traders are also required to provide hand sanitisers at their premise.

“Once the SDMC’s SOP is finalised, we hope we will able to get back on our feet,” he added.

He also hoped that visitors will comply with the SOP in order to ensure the safety of everyone.

“We hope this town will be able to recover from the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic and really wish that everyone would show their support and visit the town.

“We believe that this town has so much potential for Sarawak’s tourism industry,” he added.