Thursday, 22 November 2007

SARAWAK REGATTA ~ Paddling Into The Past

SARAWAK REGATTA ~ Paddling Into The Past
By Sanib Said
Director Sarawak Museum

Other than known as the Land of Perfection (Darul Hana) during the Brunei Sultanate Period and now the Land of Hornbills, Sarawak is also known as the Land of Many Rivers. Certainly there are countless rivers, small and big ones, criss-crossing the largest state in Malaysia and playing important roles in the history and culture of its 24 ethnic groups. There are too many toponymns which derive their name from rivers including the name of the state, Sarawak. The capital city, Kuching, gets its name from a small river that no longer visible which once rose from the hill called Mata Kuching where trees known as mata kuching (not mata pusa) were found and its fruits said to resemble mata kuching (cat’s eyes). This simply shows how intricate the relationship between man and his rivers is in Sarawak.

In many ways, the link between men and the rivers are served by the boats. Until very recently rivers and boats are the major means of transportation and communication among big towns, small towns, villages and longhouses. If it could be called so, the climax of the intricate relationship of rivers and men with their boats was the annual regattas organized practically by all districts in Sarawak in the not so distant past when roads and cars were still rare and few. The annual regattas of the past were more than just boat racing but they were grand social events including peace celebrations, cultural performances and development exhibitions rolled into one big festivals.

The famous regatta in Sarawak was known as the Baram Regatta first held in 1899 in Marudi. But it was not the first. As the available historical records are concerned, the first regatta was held in January 1871 in Kuching known as the Sarawak Regatta. Practically every other district towns throughout the state followed and turned the regattas into great annual social event until the advent of more cars, planes and fast boats in 1970s.

The first Baram Regatta in 1899 in Marudi perhaps epitomized to the timeless value of regattas in Sarawak. The chief architects of the Baram Regatta was no other than the Resident, Charles Hose whose reminiscene could be found in his book, the Natural Man.

“Some thirty years ago it was my privilege to be present at a meeting at Marudi (Claudetown) in the Baram district, and in the presence of an overwhelming force of the tribes loyal to the Government of Sarawak, of all those tribes whose allegiance was still doubtful, and all those who were still at a variance with each other. The object was to abolish old bloodfeuds and persuade the tribes to aid the Government in keeping the peace. In calling this conference, I felt that in order to suppress fighting and headhunting, the normal young Bornean’s natural outlet, it would be well to replace them by some other equally violent, but less disastrous, activity; and I therefore suggested to the tribes a sort of loca Henley, the chief feature of which would be annual race between the war-canoes of all the villages. The proposal was taken up eagerly by the people, and months before the appointed day, they were felling the giants of the forest and carving out from them the great war-canoes that were to be put to this novel use, and reports were passing from village to village of the stupendous dimensions of this or that canoe, and the fineness of timber and workmanship of another.

Between the people living on the banks of the two rivers, the Baram and the Tinjar, hostility which just at this time had been accentuated by the occurrence of a blood-feud between the Kenyahs, a leading tribe of the Baram, and the Lirongs, a powerful tribe of the Tinjar. In addition to these two groups was a large party of Madangs, a famous tribe of fighting men of the central highlands whose hand had hitherto been against every other tribe; and also a large number of Ibans, who more than all the rest are always spoiling for a fight.

The winners were a crew of peaceful down-river folks, who had learnt the art of boat-making from the Malays of the coast; and they owed their victory to the superior build of their ship rather than to superior strength. When they passed the post it was an anxious moment. How would the losers take their beating? Would the winners play the fool, openly exulting and swaggering? If so, they would probably get their heads broken, or perhaps lose them. But they behaved with modesty and discretion. The excitement of the crowds on the bank was great, but it was entirely good-humoured; in the interest of the racing they seemed to have forgotten their feuds. This opportunity was naturally seized to summon everyone to the conference hall. This time they settled down with great decorum, the chiefs all in one group at one side of a central space, and the common people in serried ranks all round about it. In the centre was a huge, gaily-painted effigy of the sacred hornbill, on which were hung thousands of cigarettes of home-grown tobacco wrapped in dried banana leaf.

Many retired and senior civil servants still vividly recalled those so-called ‘good old days”. This is because most if not all available civil servants at the district events would be involved directly in organizing the event. One recalled the caretaker/maker of the boat who would spit all sorts of charms on the boat and forbid anyone from touching it; hence guarded jealously throughout the night. Most importantly, according to the ancient belief, no one should ever touch the front tip of the boat decorated with beautifully carved motifs and images.

In those days, just like racing horses today, boats were given names. Some were simple names but other were outrageously bombastic and long as those which had been found in some old programmes books and the old faithful Sarawak Gazette, viz. Burong Raja Wali Senang Hati (Happy Kingfisher) owned by Bujang Kontoi, Seri Bulan Pelandok Dara (Moon Virgin Mousedeer) owned by T>K> Senusi, Bendera Baru Note Sarawak (Flag New Note Sarawak) owned by Ason anak Lawat, Singa Terbang Kendawang Gronggong (Flying Lion?) owned by S.P.G. Rimbas. A few simple and futuristic such as Merdeka owned by Hassan Bros in 1951 and Tidak Disangka owned by Madenah Melayu in 1955. Many reflected the situation of the times such as Usaha Berjaya (Successful Effort); and Muhibbah (Harmony) that raced in the 1970 regatta.

Paddling through the past one could contemplate that it was the harmonious (Muhibbah) relationship between men, settlements and river that the people of Sarawak found in regattas. Such a relationship will guide us as Sarawakians paddle into the future.



The Chinese Dragon Boat features the head and tail of a dragon, a mythological creature regarded by the Chinese as having dominion over the waters and exercising control over rainfall. The head and tail are kept ashore during the year and are only affixed for the races. After they have been attached, it is necessary to bring the boat to life and a ceremony presided over by a Taoist priest amidst burning incense and exploding firecrackers. The eyes of the dragon head is dotted with paint and sacrificial paper money is put into the dragon’s mouth and then thrown into the water.

The Dragon Boat Race traces its history to commemorate the life and death of a famous Chinese Scholar-stateman, Chu Yuan. Some three centuries BC, Chu Yuan served the King of Chu during the warring states period. As a loyal Minister, Chu Yuan at first enjoyed full confidence and respect of his sovereign. Eventually through the intrigues of his rivals, he was discredited and was never able to regain the emperor’s favour. On the fifth moon in the year 295 BC Chu Yuan plunged himself into the Milo River in the Hunan province.

The people who lived in the area jumped in their boats and rushed out in a vain search for him. This unsuccessful rescue attempt traces the history of what the Dragon Boat Race is and is being commemorate every year.


In the olden days, the building of the Perahu Balok was largely undertaken by the Malays of Kampung Ladung, Batang Air Simunjan, an area famous for its timber (kayu balak).

Originally the perahu balok was created from a whole tree trunk using simple implements such as the “parang” and “beliong”. The boat can accommodate between 4 to 5 persons.

Over time the building method was modified involving building such parts as the “lunas’ and ‘linggi” separately and using water-tight woods such as ‘kayu penyauk’ or ‘empedu’ for the “timbo”. Accommodating between 5 to 10 people, it is also called ‘perahu sampat”. Because of its popularity, perahu sampat was distributed for sale not only at the Ceko Market, Kuching but also other part of the state, especially Samarahan.

Perahu Balok (or Sampat) is still popular especially among the riverine and coastal communities and serves a number of purposes, such as fishing, gathering of attap leaves and transportation.


The Melanau Community has a few types of traditional boats. In the Melanau dialect (Mukah) they are known as Bahong, Badong, Bakong, Buagan and Bidar. Each one has its own uniqueness, designed and constructed in different sizes and capacity to suit different purposes.
The boats are all made from wood, ranging from Kapur (Lelawak), Papa, Daeet, Gerangan and Meranti. The choice of wood influences the boat’s durability, speed and lightness for racing.

The Bahong and Badong boats are used for deep sea and shallow water fishing. Bakong boats is normally used for transporting goods along the wide and deeper rivers while Buagan, being smaller in size and capacity is mainly used in small rivers in the villages. Bidar boat on the other hand is used by the Melanaus for boat competitions and regattas held in Mukah, Dalat and other districts and divisions in Sarawak.

The boats are decorated with paraphernalia consisting of the ritualistic “Serahang”, a multi-tiered traditional basket specially used at the Melanau’s traditional Kaul festival and “Jengayak” as well as other accessories of a typical Melanau origin. The Melanau flags are held high by the men’s paddlers with headbands while women paddlers put on their “terindak” hats that served as a protection against the hot sun.

Whenever and wherever a regatta is held in Sarawak, Bidar is always present and had been on the racing scene of the Sarawak Regatta for over a century, thus contributing to the colours of this premier event which is of great historical and cultural significance.


“HARUK ADANG USUNG TINGANG” literally translated means “flying boat with the hornbill bow”.

So-callled “flying boat” because the Orang Ulu legend has it that during the tribal warring days of Borneo, the fire to avenge the death of their tribesman would burn so strong in their warrior’s chests that it would literally fuel the “HARUK ADANG USUNG TINGANG” to “fly”.

Usually dug out from the “arau”, “merang kayuk” or sometimes known as “enkabang” tree. Its bow is usually curved with the hornbill motif, given that the hornbill is highly revered in the Orang Ulu culture as it was seen as a vessel for the spirits to communicate to the people. This legendary “HARUK ADANG USUNG TINGANG” did not remain as mere legend, but also made the long and ardous journey from upper Bakun to Kuching to pay tax during the reign of Rajah Brooke by sheer ‘paddle power’, and back!

Nevertheless, the mention of the legendary “HARUK ADANG USUNG TINGANG” never fails to inspire the modern-day Orang Ulus even though it belonged to a bygone era.


This type of ‘arud’ or boat is most popular to the Dayak Bidayuh Community along Sungei Kiri in the Penrissen area. They call it ‘Arud Diak’ (Arud Tikura) because of its peculiar shape, adaptability and suitability to rough swift river in the rural areas.

“Diak” in Bidayuh is a species of tortoise, which can survice on land, sea and rivers. It has a hard, thick and slightly brownish coloured shell covering the body with a pale yellow colour under the stomach. Around its body there are sharp edges which can cut.

Long before the Brooke’s arrival in Sarawak, the Bidayuh along Sungei Sarawak Kiri up to Kpg. Annah Rais in Padawan used this kind of ‘Arud’ as means of transportation. They paddled through swift flowing rivers bringing down with them fruits and rice for sale or trade with other villagers in kampungs like Buntal, Bako and Santubong.

The ‘Arud’ is usually made of a species of wood from the ‘Bitouh’, ‘Engkabang’, ‘Pota’ or ‘Miranti’ trees. These materials need to be thoroughly dried before the construction begins. The ‘arud’ normally has 10, 15, 20 paddlers and it would take them three to four months to complete.


The ‘Perahu Bidar’ also known as ‘Perahu Pengayau’ was known to be made more than a century ago in the Saribas and Skrang districts (Simanggang Divisioin, now known as Sri Aman). The construction of this boat then spread to Sebuyau and Lundu.

The ‘Perahu Bidar’ is usually made from hard wood such as ‘Meraka’, ‘Keruing’, ‘Penyauk’ and other hard wood species. The wood used is selected based on its durability and water resistance. Tools use to make the ‘perahu bidar’ include ‘beliong’, ‘rimbas’ and ‘parang’.

The hull or ‘lunas’ (langkan) is made from the trunk of a huge hard wood tree and is then ‘timbo’ (attached) with planks to make the ‘Perahu Bidar’. The boat is usually 36 feet long and 6 feet wide and can accommodate up to 20 to 25 paddlers.

With passage of time, the ‘Perahu Bidar’ has changed in size and use and some to 72 feet long and 3 feet wide that can accommodate from 10 to 30 paddlers. The ‘Perahu Bidar’ or ‘Perahu Pengayau’ is now being used for competitive river sports especially in the Regatta Sarawak which is held every year.

Monday, 19 November 2007



Otto Steinmayer, Universiti Malaya

Drawings by Augustine Anggat Ganjing

In Memoriam Augustine Anggat anak Ganjing, died 14 February 2007, Kuching.

Photograph by Charles Hose, ca. 1900

"All this is not too bad—but what's the use? They don't wear breeches." Michel de Montaigne, Of cannibals .


MANY may think that—like the loincloth itself—a paper on the loincloth ought to be brief and cover only the essentials. Yet just as we wear clothes for more reasons than mere utility, and dress decorates as much as it hides, the subject of the loincloth furnishes an occasion for remarks on history, culture, and psychology.

Despite being among the most basic markers of cultural identity, the loincloth has been distinctly ignored. Anthropologists generally give a word or two regarding it, then pass on to other matters, and writers on costume ignore the topic altogether. When I came to study Borneo, I tried to find a description of what the Borneo loincloth was and how to wear it. For as the Dutchman Karl Martin said of the Sulawesi loincloth a hundred years ago, "once it's on it's hard to figure out how it got that way."[1] Many Dayaks who have grown up in modern city life, or even farther out, are as much at a loss for the method of putting on a loincloth as any western man. Much as the western man now finds it difficult to tie a bow tie!

There are several reasons why western writers would not want to write much about the loincloth. In the first place, mere unfamiliarity.[2] European men's dress is an "arctic" style based on trousers and the shirt, which they inherited from the Romans. According to archaeological evidence,[3] European men have been wearing trousers from the remotest past, even when they too were "primitive." With negligable exceptions,[4] they have never worn any kind of loincloth. The only thing in Europe which resembles it is underpants, a garment that has a history of scarcely a thousand years and whose dignity and consequent esthetic value has been nil.

Second, though the purpose of the loincloth is to cover the male genitals, it leaves the buttocks bare. Most peoples feel shame about all or part of the genitals; but it seems to be a peculiarly western trait to feel equal shame about the buttocks, probably from a fear of homosexuality, an anxiety which also seems to grow with civilization. Hence, westerners have always considered the loincloth an immodest garment.

In daily life Europeans felt very uncomfortable with any kind of exposure, to the point that a peasant would not work with his shirt off even on a hot day. Only the ancient Greeks, whose clothing consisted of a single wrap, felt no shame about the naked body. This attitude has survived in western art's genre of the nude.

Clothing, which in its broadest sense includes ornaments and paint, is universal: there never has been such a thing as a naked people. Human beings have a horror of being nude, of being shamefully bare, which does not necessarily mean that the genitals can be seen. In the case of South American Indians, nudity meant appearing without appropriate ornaments or paint, something one would only dare to do while working in the garden when no one was looking.[5] You notice in photographs that the Penan, even on their hunting trips, wear their strings of beads and fiber bracelets.

There are, as I see it, four main functions of clothing, all equally important: ornament, modesty, protection, and the feeling of something on the body or constricting it.

The most profound function of clothing, in this widest sense, is to ornament the body, and thus to "humanize" and "socialize" it. Some South American Indians have expressly said that they ornament themselves because if they wear no ornament they feel there is no difference between themselves and animals. Ornament is a necessity for them to keep their identity as human beings in the vast and often terrifying forest. It is an expression of play, delight, and willed human beauty. For the same reason, the Balinese and other southeast Asian peoples formerly abhorred white teeth. They felt white teeth were a sign of animality, and hence they blackened them with iron salts in order to look distinctly human.[6] Ornament is also one way a person can show something about his standing and his life. The tattoos that an Iban man had pricked on him (which can also be considered a type of clothing) after say, bejalai, are an example of this.

The universal human feeling of modesty must also originate from this anxiety to be distinguished from animals, to put human order into overwhelming natural creation. Animals live their sexlives completely in the open and mix with any degree of kin. Human beings control their sexuality and respect the stringent and universal prohibition against incest. The Nambikwara of Brazil went completely naked, and never allowed themselves to become sexually excited in public. This was their way of modesty.[7]

Nakedness is nevertheless always erotic. Though eros is an essential of human life, unrestricted eros is both dangerous and "inhuman." Usually peoples have felt that they ought to render the genitals symbolically harmless with some covering or decoration. Many men of South American, Africa, and Melanesia felt ashamed that any other person should see their glans penis, and thus covered it with sheaths of leaves, or in the case of the Panamanians, of gold.[8] The men of the Yanomami tribe formerly tied up their penises to belts around their hips,[9] and they felt ashamed if their penises came undone, even in a fight.[10] Other peoples circumcise the penis, either because religion demands it or because (as is become customary among the natives of Borneo) the women are repelled by penis with foreskin intact. In Borneo, only antu are carved or depicted in weavings as entirely naked, a sign of their crude, powerful, half-animal nature.

But these coverings ornament and attract attention to the genitals as much as hide them. Their function is in fact not so much to hide the penis as to ornament it, humanize it and socialize it. Westerners misinterpret the erotic significance of the penis sheath; those who wear them consider them equipment for modesty and decency. Their function is to help create a humane balance in sexuality. The "primitive" man does not at all deny his virility, but displays it in such a way as to indicate also that he controls his sexuality and channels its energies in a socially responsible way. The often beautifully decorated front apron of the Bornean loincloth must likewise be a humane display of a man's sexuality, as much as is the sporran of Scotsmen's traditional dress.[11]

People in warm climates felt no false shame over going completely nude if necessary. It is interesting that the Igorots of Luzon, who speak a Malayo-Polynesian language and in many respects resemble the Dayaks of Borneo, were on occasion quite careless of being seen naked. Women took off their skirts and put them under their hats if it began to rain, and a photograph shows naked men in company with women (dressed in banana leaves) doing the messy work of churning up a rice field for planting.[12] I have heard of only one or two instances of Dayak men going naked like this. Dayaks in general are shocked at the idea. But a photograph of thirty years ago shows a Penan man entirely naked as he hauls a catch of fish out of a river.[13]

Thus, utility has always been a difficult justification for many types of clothes, especially in a tropical climate where they are not necessary at all.[14] How useful are high heels? or blue woolen suits such as we see bankers wearing on the streets of Kuala Lumpur? If utility were consulted, a loincloth would seem much more practical, a point that "primitive" men have made rather often, when they don't actually come out and say that wearing trousers is indecent.[15] To traditional tropic dwellers, the comfort of a cool body outweighs considerations of being scratched in the jungle, and modesty complies. Modern dress functions prominently as a complicated symbolic system for asserting status, and a blue suit in Malaysia is an especially Veblenesque piece of conspicuous consumption.

The last main reason for the wearing of clothes is the universal desire to do something with the body, to paint it, tattoo it, scarify it, to feel something constricting it.[16] It feels good to wear ornaments, paint, strings, and bracelets. Some peoples who do not cover their genitals enjoy simply wearing belts. A loincloth to a man gives the pleasing feeling of a band holding belly and genitals. It lets him feel his body, his nakedness and being, ornamented with something else. A loincloth is something put on the body. Western clothes that cover everything reshape the person entirely.

Now and again someone asks regarding the loincloth: "But can it be comfortable?" I assure them that it is.


ALTHOUGH at one time anthropologists who were guided by the idea of "progress" thought that people began naked, progressed to little piece of bark or tassels, etc., "to hide the shame," then went on to invent breechcloths and loincloths, and at last skirts and trousers, we can really discover no such sequence. The simplest sort of men's garment that westerners can recognize as such is a strip of skin, bark, cloth, or whatever, passed between the legs and secured front and back by a belt. This we English speakers (who have been late in finding names for such things) ought to call a "breechcloth." Even this is a misnomer, because its function is to cover the genitals, and not the buttocks or "breech." The Yami people of Botel Tobago Island, off southern Taiwan, demonstrated to two Japanese anthropologists how in very ancient times their men used large leaves for their strip,[17] which presumably they changed often, just as some Melanesian men plucked fresh leaves daily for their penis sheaths.

Barkcloth was doubtless certainly in use before woven cloth was, and it's natural to think that barkcloth was early used for breechclouts. Although Mangyan men of Mindoro in the Philippines still wear breechcloths as well as loincloths, there is no evidence either way for use of breechcloths in Borneo in the remote or historical past. In the Pacific region, the penis sheath is restricted to the Melanesian cultural area.[18]

Barkcloth can be produced easily in a long strip, and with that one has the material for making an actual loincloth, that is, a single piece of material that is both breechcloth and the belt that holds it. Such is what Hawaiian men wore before the Europeans arrived, and it's natural to believe that other Malayo-Polynesians did the same. A loincloth is easily perceived as more stylish than a breechcloth, and is definitely more comfortable, because the belt is broader, softer, and does not need to be cinched so tight.[19] When weaving appears, textiles are used for the loincloth, and when commercial cloth is imported, that is used.

In speaking about Borneo, I use the term "loincloth" throughout. Although European writers of the last century commonly used the Malay term chawat for the Borneo dress,[20] in current Bahasa Malaysia/Indonesia the word denotes such things as babies' diapers and beggars' rags and lacks dignity. To adopt the Iban term sirat would imply that I give preference to that language.[21] Throughout Borneo the loincloth is pretty much the same for all peoples, although different peoples undoubtedly wore it in subtly distinct styles.

The loincloth is a garment of great antiquity, the original men's clothing of most of the world, and particularly of the Malayo-Polynesian area, which includes the islands of the Pacific Ocean as far east as Hawaii and as far south as New Zealand,[22] the Malay Archipelago and the Philippines, the Malay peninsula, the island of Madagascar to the west, and mainland places inhabited by such Dayak-like peoples as the Mnongs of Vietnam, the Mru of Bangladesh and the Nagas of Assam.[23] On the continent west of India the loincloth is unknown. In Malaya, Java, Bali, and elsewhere, the loincloth was replaced by the skirtlike kain because of Hindu influence,[24] while the sarong (a sewn tube of cloth) is an Islamic import. It is worth noting that in the Balinese wayang kulit, the most venerable character, Twalen, wears a loincloth and not a skirt. Twalen is both a funny rustic servant and one of the highest of gods, and it has been suggested that his character represents the pre-Hindu and animist "native" nature of the Balinese.[25]

At this point, I ought to give the reader, who has been waiting, directions on how to make a generic loincloth, something that would pass for clothing among the right circles in Borneo, the Philippines, or the Amazon.

Take a strip of material about 10 inches wide and 10 to 12 feet long.Hold up one end in front with your left hand or chin. The distance it falls determines the length of the apron. Pass the rest of the material between your legs to the back and bring it up from back to front, from right to left around your waist (the other way if lefthanded). Wind it around your waist, and then, when you reach again to the back, double the material over and pass it under the cloth that comes between your legs, and pull on the loop thus formed until belt and pouch are sufficiently tight. There should be a little "tail" [iko sirat in Iban] in the back. The loincloth wound this way is quite secure and will not fall off even on a hard trek through the jungle.

Simple enough. But as dress is an important medium for individuals as well as whole peoples to express their individual styles, the loincloth too has many variants which we must consider. The Dayak loincloth is hardly a mere cache-sexe. No young man would have been caught dead in a skimpy ragged thing. (Although 140 years ago Spenser St. John found Murut men wearing just that, "chawats....absurdly small, not even answering the purpose for which they were intended."[26]) The standard Borneo loincloth goes at least twice around the waist, and usually more, and the apron and tail will hang at least two thirds of the way down the thighs. The Borneo fashion is to cover a broad band of waist, including the navel, although in the past, men often liked to squeeze the cloth of the pouch and apron very narrow.[27] While in the midst of some chore in which the apron and tail might be dirtied or caught, a man can tuck them into the waistband.[28]

Although Dayaks have been trading with other countries for thousands of years, barkcloth was certainly the original material for loincloths, as it was in Hawaii. Barkcloth was worn quite often in later times, even in the middle of this century, when trade stopped during World War 2 and nobody whether in Kuching or in the ulu could buy cloth. The poor Sebuyau of Lundu, who had by that time abandoned the sirat, were forced to make barkcloth shorts.

This ancient barkcloth loincloth must have been elegant. I have so far seen only two modern examples. One made as a gift for me by my friend Michael Gayut is shown in the illustrations. Dayaks preferred bark from the ipoh tree for its whiteness and softness, and often gave it a damasked texture by beating it with a carved mallet. One example is on display at the Sarawak Museum. Later on barkcloth came to be regarded as a stopgap material. Even Europeans felt that barkcloth was not up to standard. In the 1870s Margaret Brooke walked in the Istana grounds with the Rajang rebel Lintong, who had been captured and brought to Kuching:

Shabbily dressed, his chawat (or waistcloth) was made of bark, and he was naturally not allowed towear his head-dress of feathers which denoted to the Dayak world that he had appropriated human heads. No, Lintong was not smartly dressed when I saw him...[29]

However, men of the Mentawai people of Siberut still prefer barkcloth to commercial cloth, saying it is more comfortable.[30]

There is a limit to how long a strip of barkcloth can be made. The longest will go only about twice around the waist. Usually the Borneo loincloth is made of a piece of commercial cloth and longer than the minimum twelve feet, often eight to ten yards of cloth and more. Early Brooke officials frowned on this "extravagant waste." The common daily style was to wind the loincloth of a single long length off the bolt, folded in half lengthwise and not cut. Thus it would be about 18 inches wide.

Dayaks preferred to use cloth dyed in some color, especially dark blue, or bright red (kesumba , an assertive color), or black. A cheap cotton such as is still sold in Kuching was acceptable, but one hears even of silk loincloths. Photographs taken by Charles Hose around a hundred years ago show orang ulu men wearing loincloths of white cotton, which seems to have been the fashion in those days. Many photographs from the beginning of this century as well as the 40s and 50s show Dayak men wearing loincloths of cotton printed in a calico or large flowered pattern. It's an old and authentic fashion.[31]

I have seen no old examples of sirats woven in the ikat technique peculiar to the Ibans, though recent ikat loincloths exist from eastern Indonesian islands.[32] It would be natural to suppose that Iban women did weave them for their men, and there is evidence in the following passage of an ensera. Keling comes on a night visit to court Kumang [ngayap] and, as he gets up to leave, not yet having assurance of her love, she takes the tail of his loincloth in her hand. This must have been a very splendid sirat, since it was the custom for young men to dress carefully and stylishly for a courting visit.

Ninga jako orang ka indu munyi nya dia Keling lalu angkat beguai pulai. Sepi iya tak tekait iko sirat. Digama iya tak besabong sama jari.

"Nama main nuan megai iko sirat aku deh unggal? Enti nuan deka neladan iya tau ga unggal," pia ko Keling.

"Enda ga unggal. Ukai aku deka neladan tanda sirat nuan. Aku enda kala neladan japai jamah orang," pia ko Kumang.[33]

Keling asks: Do you want to copy the designs on the front and tail of my loincloth? As the great art of Iban women is the design and execution of ikat weavings, and since Kumang is in mythology the very greatest weaver, Keling here ironically supposes that Kumang wants to examine the ikat design of the ends [tanda ] of his sirat.

These tanda are the most important part of the sirat, as they are that which shows, the body of the sirat being hidden under its coils.[34] Women often weave only these decorated ends and stitch them later to a strip of commercial cloth. I have in my collection three such pieces, which are shown in the illustrations.

I have also seen sirats made out of a body of white commercial drill cloth, with separate pieces stitched to the ends. These tanda are thickly embroidered with colored thread, in a style of design I have seen neither on mats nor on pua or other weavings, but most resembling mat designs. The hems of these tanda sirat are decorated with tassels of yarn and little pompoms. I cannot guess how old they are. From their good condition I would guess that these are recently made and were only worn on festival occasions. They also are about 10 inches wide and long enough to pass only twice or three times around the body.

The fashion of the recent present [35] among all Dayak peoples is to wear a loincloth of red, black or dark blue commercial cotton with one broad bar of white, then a bar of color contrasting with the color of the sirat's body, then another bar of white sewn to the apron and tail portions. Dayaks seem to have invented this design in imitation of hornbill feathers.[36] Other loincloths have tanda decorated with appliques of commercial fringe, or, among the orang ulu , with tanda painted in their special own tendril-like designs or with beaded portions.

These modern sirats are very long indeed, and are often wound to cover the middle body completely from the top of the thighs to above the navel. Pictures show that men need help getting into these loincloths. Sometimes excess cloth that passes from under the bunch between the legs is arranged in two huge billowing loops. These can be seen in photographs of Gawai festivals.

gawai loops

That the fashion of wearing a long sirat that covers much of the body is an old one we have the evidence of a phrase in an historical tale of the time just before the Brooke era: Sirat seduai nyampai di kerigai rusok marang —"The sirats of the two of them reached to their ribs, turning around both sides."[37]

While working or travelling, especially if one is an older man and does not feel obliged to be fashionable, one can wear a sirat sabelit , a "once-wound loincloth," as the Ibans call it: "a work sirat, i.e. once round waist and apron just enough for decency." [38] "Sirat Sabelit" is also the name of a hero of a story recorded by Jepet anak Achoi. He is a young man who begins as a diseased and despised outcast, and later with the help of an antu (spirit) becomes

[ photograph copyright © K. F. Wong, Anna Photo Co.] healthy, beautiful, and honored. His name characterizes him as one so poor and squalid that he takes no care of his clothing. No doubt this refers to his own opinion of his manliness as well.

Also while working or travelling men used to attach a trapezoidal mat made of woven rotan, often beaded among the orang ulu, or of bear or leopard skin if one could get it, over the buttocks from a string around the waist. This is called a tikai burit in Iban and tabin in Kayan, and makes a portable, instant seat.

There used to exist a sport of wrestling among the Orang Ulu (not the Iban) akin to sumo wrestling. In this the loincloth, as in sumo, was important, as a place to get a hold on. [ photograph by Charles Hose, ca. 1900.] kayans_wrestling

Accessories such as bamboo containers for tobacco or blowpipe darts (temila' in Iban) were fitted with a carved wooden clip so that they could be hooked to the waist of the loincloth. Charms [Iban pengaroh ] were not merely slipped under the loincloth for carrying but tied with a string around the waist.[39] Dayak men undoubtedly also stuck small items to carry in their waistbands. The Iban lost the skill of writing during the general Flood because they carried their papers in their loincloths, while the orang puteh carried theirs in their hats.[40]

In other cultures a boy's putting on the loincloth for the first time was a ceremony that marked his entrance into adulthood. There seems to have been no equivalent among Dayak peoples. Iban boys began to wear the sirat when they began to feel ashamed. According to Sandin[41] a boy at this age is called a sirat-leka , "one on and off with his sirat." One may compare the Dayaks' similarly casual attitude to circumcision, which in Borneo is performed with none of the solemnity which accompanies the operation among the Malays.

Other cultures also have certain customs associated with the loincloth or proverbial expressions concerning it, but I have found none in Borneo. This does not surprise me, since I have seen that Ucko found little symbolism attached to the penis sheath—to us a much more curious garment—among the peoples he studied. A Dayak man can hardly "gird his loins" in the Biblical sense for getting down to business, because he is always so girt. But a writer in a recent New Straits Times[42] discusses the Malay equivalent cawat kote that has become the Kelantan football cry. This means "loincloth the penis," to take the front of the sarong between the legs and tuck it up back to make a loincloth to wear for hard work, so that the penis doesn't waggle around. The Balinese also tucked up their version of the kain this way. Dayak poets pay attention to the loincloth now and again,vespecially the loincloth of a handsome bujang , or those of guests at a festival. The phrase sirat...nyampai di kerigai rusok marang mentioned above occurs as a poetic formula in the Renong cycle. Another expression applied to the tail of the sirat is ujok-ujok : "rising and curving over to the tip," also said of ferns and cocks' tails.[43] The fashion of wearing a long and billowing tail to one's loincloth probably began as an imitation of cocks' plumes. And just as the bars on the apron are derived from hornbill feathers, these loops too are also assertions of virility, for the cock and the hornbill are both manly birds, and appropriate to be imitated in the man's dress.

Dayak men always had to wear at least a loincloth. Photographs show that to appear well dressed a man could not dispense with unus , the calf-rings of demam fiber, and rangki , armlets of shell, stone, porcelain, or silver. A man should always keep his long hair neatly trimmed in the appropriate style [gumba ], wound in a sanggul , and wrapped by a labong . Fashion also obliged him to bear some tattoos. On festive occasions a man should wear all the ornaments he possesses: silver belts and chains, bead necklaces, etc.[44] Men commonly wore a shirt of barkcloth or ikat fabric (a garment perhaps originally derived from quilted armor), and the dress of the manang and lemambang may have a connection with Hindu dress.

It seems to be universal that persons in higher functions--rajahs and war leaders, priests, and partygoers—wear more ornaments and clothes. In Borneo, the lemambang during Gawai wear a long flowered robe, which puts me in mind, given all the well known connections of Dayak religion and Hinduism, of the injunctions of the Sanskrit smrtis and dharmasastras that command a brahman to wear an upper cloth (which, however, can be represented by the upapavitam , or sacred string) while performing religious duties.

Charles Brooke had strong opinions on the desirability of keeping the various races of Sarawak separate, and had noticed the part that dress played in creating racial identity.[45] A visitor in the early part of this century relates that the second rajah required Dayak men to appear in loincloths and appropriate ornaments on official occasions. At the same time he says that Brooke instituted a prize for the best dressed Dayak of the Sarawak Rangers,[46] the ancestor of the present Keling contest.

Finally, it is the opinion of most writers on Borneo from St. John[47] and up that the curious and persistent story that there are tribes with tails somewhere out in the jungle began when someone failed to to make out that the tail of the loincloth was connected to the garment and not the man.


THE loincloth has all but disappeared in Borneo. It may have been disappearing for a long time, since St. John saw a boy cast off his loincloth for a new pair of homemade trousers a hundred and forty years ago,[48] although until recently one could find older Iban men who were comfortable in nothing but their sirat. In my travels, I have only once seen any man wearing it. That was at Rumah Jimbun, Ulu Balleh on Dayak Day, when an older man threw a length of calico about him over shorts. The fact that traditional dress is worn on a holiday important to the Dayak people is evidence of how it is still seen as part of their cultural identity. Photographs show that Penan left on their own still wear their avets . Now and then one sees pictures of men in the Philippines, in remote parts of Indonesia, and on Pacific islands wearing their loincloths.

Native identity is strong in Borneo and elsewhere, but no one can deny that native ways of life have taken a beating, in part from the spread of western styles, in part because the environment is rapidly being rendered unfit to sustain a traditional life. Just as native material life is an adaptation—not obvious or easily got but carefully worked out with the experience of thousands of years—to the conditions of river and forest, wearing the loincloth, as I have tried to show in passing, is a small part of a psychological adaptation in human life, in which male sexuality is neither repressed or vilified, but asserted, and at the same time humanized. It would be a pity if this as other human achievements were allowed to be lost to the world.

A foreigner sympathetic to Dayak ways of life, and not only to its superficial particulars, can only deplore the nearly complete abandonment of this ancient and beautiful dress. I have especially wished to write this article in defence of it because of the remarks of persons who flaunt the Penan loincloth as a symbol of alleged Dayak "primitivity" (whatever that means) and unwillingness to conform to "progress." The argument that the loincloth is even "uncivilized" will not hold water. To the Penan, wearing the loincloth is one of the customs that makes them themselves.[49]

But as long as the rest of the world sticks in these unjust attitudes, foreigners cannot expect the Dayaks, in the face of such universal misunderstanding, to preserve a dress that will only cause them themselves further to be typed as "primitives."


Note: This paper is essentially unaltered from the verison published in 1991. However, one thing I would like to add is a part of a letter from James Brooke noticed by Prof. John Walker and printed by him in his article "James Brooke and the Bidayuh":
"...Following his accession to the government in 1841, therefore,
Brooke needed a large supply of cloth and garments to give away...

The following August [1842], he asked his mother to send him

a quantity of cloths from fifteen to eighteen feet long, and from nine
to fourteen inches wide. The material to be course Russian duck, such
as seamen wear, each end to be worked about a foot and a half, in
different fashions according to the ladies taste, either in gold or red
threads, spangles, beads, shells, or the like, and some may be fringed
with red, or gold, or blue, in worsted or silk.

These are the dimensions of a Bornean loincloth (chawat or sirat)."

We note that Brooke did not mention to his mother the particular destination in the wearing of such needlework.


1. Taup, (Bidayuh). Ipoh (Antiaris toxicarica) bast, dyed with wild tumeric. Strips of black-dyed bark inserted through slits, and triangles attached with the tree's own latex. 21 x 173 cm.


2. Cotton Sirat in ikat technique with vegetable dyes, woven by the late Samba Indai Sendi of Stampin. A) 25 x 182 cm, pieced out with commercial cloth to 462 cm. B) Uncut, 29 x 191 cm.

3. A) Sungkit (metallic brocade) sirat, cotton (Dylon) and silver thread, woven by Mrs. Edward Senada of Stampin. 26 x 183 cm, pieced out with commercial cloth to 623.5 cm. Hems and fringe of tanda ornamented with glass beads and brass bells. B) Cotton ikat sirat (Dylon), woven by Indai Lian of Rumah Jimbun, Ulu Balleh. 23 x 439 cm.

4. Tabit, seat-mat attached to back of loincloth [Iban tikai burit, Kayan tabin. Penan. Rotan in natural color and dyed black. Made by Mdm. Raden Bong, Long Main, August 2000. NB. The tiles are 8" square.


[This article originally published Sarawak Museum Journal vol. XLII, no. 63 (New Series) Dec 1991, 43-61. Text copyright © Otto Steinmayer 1991, 2001. Drawings copyright © Augustine Anggat Ganjing 1991, 2001. Photograph by K.F.Wong copyright © Anna Photo Co. 1960, 2001.]

[1] p. 121ff.

[2] Westerners who early met loincloth-wearing men had great trouble finding words to describe the loincloth. The earliest writers, such as Marco Polo, use the vaguest expressions. The first attempt accurately to describe what southeast Asian men wore seems to be the following from the end of the 16th century [Cavendish p. 290]: "The people of this island [Capul, near Luzon] go almost all naked.... The men wear only a strop about about their waists, of some kind of linen of their own weaving, which is made of plantain leaves, and another strop coming from their back under their twists ["the junction of the thighs, the fork" OED], which covers their privy parts, and is made fast to their girdles at their navels."

[3] See Hald.

[4] The Minoans wore some sort of breechcloth. The Greeks wore a loincloth at the Olympic games up to a certain date. (See Thucydides History, 1.6.) Later, men exercised naked.

[5] See Gregor.

[6] Covarrubias, p. 119.

[7] See Levi-Strauss, p. 302.

[8] Which gives an interesting twist to the conquistadors' lust for this metal. See Wafer, pp.83-4, who, perhaps surprisingly for a 17th century Englishman, comments on the Panamanians' modesty.

[9] Which the ancient Greeks were also accustomed to do when exercising.

[10] Chagnon, p. 65.

[11] Some passages of traditional Bornean poetry seem to confirm this view. See the Kenyah poem Lalo-o-o-o in Rubenstein, p. 1242."The Long Bakong people...The loincloths that they wear to cover their genitals, / their loincloths are white in color, of hard stiff cloth,/ so they are always pulling them up and down, /adjusting their loosening loincloths..." Compare the traditional Hawaiian genre of the poem in praise of the chief's loincloth [malo]

[12] Masfarré, p. 24.

[13] Lim, p. 40.

[14] See Montaigne's essay On the custom of wearing clothes for the most intelligent discussion yet on this subject.

[15] Plenty of evidence shows that both the Greeks and the Romans thought trousers an indecent as well as barbarian garment. The most interesting is a passage in Hippocrates' treatise Airs,Waters, and Places [chap.22] in which he attributes the infertility of Scythian men to their practice of wearing trousers.

[16] See Bateson and Mead concerning the Balinese idea of the"separability" of body parts.

[17] See Kano and Segawa, plate 58: "IGAKUJUT-NO-ANUNURA or loin cloth of ancient time. The Yami tells us that, in ancient time when the present loin cloth was not used, the rude loin cloth was worn by fastening two pieces of the long leaf of a wild grass called Anunura..."

[18] See Ucko.

[19] I have read somewhere about a Sulawesi man who used a string strung with large beads for his breechclout belt, in order, says the writer, "to forestall abrasion."

[20] "Chawat" first attested in English in Beeckman, p. 54.

[21] A few of the many names in Bornean languages for the loincloth: Kayan: bah ; Penan: avet , iveg ; Bidayuh: taup . Certain names are perhaps related to Philippine words for the same thing,for example, Kayan bah with the Tagalog bahag.

[22] The Hawaiian and Samoan term for the loincloth is malo, in Maori maro. The Tahitians wore a loincloth, also called maro , alone or as underwear beneath their skirtlike pareu . (See Oliver v.1, p. 153.) These names are all cognate with the Malay malu.

[23] The natives of the Americas (when they did not go naked in rainforest areas) wore a breechcloth or loincloth. The civilized peoples of Mexico and Central America wove loincloths almost exactly like the Bornean loincloth. Inca men used a style fastened by a string with an apron long enough so that a decorated fringe would show from beneath their upper tunics, exactly like the Japanese etxhu fundoshi.
Africa shows a great diversity of men's lower body garments, which awaits study.
Japanese men also wore the loincloth [fundoshi ] from ancient times up through WW2, either alone, or as underwear. Many still wear the fundoshi in Japan. This ought to counter arguments thatthe loincloth is a "primitive" garment.

[24] The ancient Indians were the only Indo-European speakingpeople ever traditionally to have worn a loincloth. The nîvi (which means "knot," presumably a knotted loincloth) mentioned inthe Atharva Veda was used as an undergarment beneath the skirtlike vâsas (the modern dhoti ). The later name for it is kaupîna or langoti . Many references make it clear that the little breechcloth was a symbol of chastity and decency. When worn alone by any person other than a small boy the breechcloth was a sign of extreme poverty. Poverty, however, was no shame if borne in following the life of a spiritual ascetic. The ascetic's breechcloth is also a symbol of his virility, which to an Indian is all the greater for being contained. Heroes of romantic tales such as the story of Nala and the Dasakumâracarita generally spend some time wandering around in a breechcloth.
Nowadays it is reported that a little breechcloth is worn as underwear in the south of India, where not replaced by modern commercial underpants.
Indians and other civilized peoples distinguish between inner and outer clothing; in Borneo, no such distinction used to exist. The loincloth is worn all by itself.

[25] Covarrubias, p. 242-3.

[26] v.2, p.129.

[27] See too a recent photograph in Chen, after p.32.

[28] See Ejau, pp. 8-9, in which the character Ula runs to save a favorite dog from the fire that is burning his garden-land, and scorches his sirat. In one of the Apai Sali stories, Apai Sali deliberately burns his sirat's tail in order to have an excuse for running off to the jungle. [Nyangoh, p. 4]

[29] M. Brooke, p. 74.

[30] Hanbury-Tenison, p.47. Cf. p. 156.

[31] See also Brooke Low's comments on colors of loincloth material and decoration in Ling Roth v.2, p. 54-5

[32] See Majlis.

[33] Pitok, p. 5.

[34] If Hose and McDougall are to be believed, the first ruler of Brunei, Awang Alak Bertatar, later known as Sultan Mohammed, wore the most extraordinarily grand tanda on record: "Like most of his subjects this warrior was a Bisaya, not indeed a civilized potentate at all, to judge by conventional standards [sic ]; for the chief mark of his royal dignity was an immense chawat, or loin-cloth, carried as he walked by eighty men, forty in front and forty behind." [v.1, p.18] I have not been able to trace this story farther than Hose, and therefore repeat it with caution. But if true, this story would show that Borneans shared with the ancient Hawaiians the notion that a chief's loincloth is a symbol of his royal prowess. Up to Hose's own time, an official at the coronation ceremony of a Brunei sultan wore a chawat over trousers to show he represented the sultan's Dayak subjects. [p.20]

[35] That is, much used recently; but the style has a history of at least 150 years. Wallace reported of the Bidayuh style during his visit: "The chawat is generally of blue cotton, ending in three broad bands of red, blue, and white..." [p. 51]

[36] See the Bidayuh poem Tingiring Nyamun Anak Ihang in Rubenstein, p. 338.

[37] Jacob anak Imang, p. 42. See also Sandin 1977, p. 39.

[38] Richards, sub voc.

[39] See photograph in Morrison, p. 72.

[40] Richards, sub voc. burong.

[41] 1966, p. 7.

[42] 15 May 1990.

[43] Richards, sub voc.

[44] Compare the scene in Visakhadatta's play Rakshasa's Ring , [act 5, after verse 11]. Indian men of the time in which the play is set wore very little, a piece of sheer fabric they draped scantily around their loins. Here Rakshasa is summoned to court, and calls for his ornaments, saying that he cannot appear without them.

[45] C. Brooke, p.202.

[46] Smith, p.148.

[47] v. 1, p. 399.

[48] v.1, p. 321.

[49] SAM, p. 33.


Bateson, Gregory, and Mead, Margaret (1942): Balinese character: a photographic analysis. Special publications of the New York Academy of Sciences, v. 2.

Beeckman, Daniel (1718): A voyage to and from the island of Borneo. London.

Brooke, Charles (1866): Ten years in Sarawak. reprint Oxford University Press, Singapore, 1990.

Brooke, Margaret (1934): Good morning and good night. Constable and Co., London.

Cavendish, Thomas (1587): Voyage around the whole earth. in Hakluyt, voyages and discoveries, ed. Jack Beeching. Penguin, 1972.

Chagnon, Napoleon (1983): Yanamamo, the fierce people. 3rd. ed. Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, New York.

Chen, Paul C.Y. (1990): Penans, the nomads of Sarawak. Pelanduk Publications, Petaling Jaya.

Covarrubias, Miguel (1937): The island of Bali. Alfred A. Knopf, New York.

Ejau, Andria (1964): Dilah Tanah, Borneo Literature Bureau (BLB), Kuching.

Gregor, Thomas (1977): Mehinaku: the drama of daily life in a Brazilian Indian village . University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Hald, Margrethe (1980): Ancient Danish textiles from bogs and burials. National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen.

Hanbury-Tenison, Robin (1975): A pattern of peoples . London.

Hippocrates (5th. c. B.C.): Works . ed. with a trans. by W.H.S. Jones, Heinemann, London, 1957.

Hose, Charles and McDougall, William (1912): The pagan tribes of Borneo . 2v. reprint 1966 Frank Cass & Co., Ltd., London.

Jacob anak Imang (1966): Ijau Berani , BLB, Kuching.

Jepet anak Achoi (1968): Sirat Sabelit. BLB, Kuching.

Kano, Tadao & Segawa, Kôichi (1945): The illustrated ethnography of Formosan aborigines, the Yami tribe. Contribution from the Shibusawa Institute for Ethnographical Research. Seikatsusha Ltd., Tokyo.

Levi-Strauss, Claude (1955): Tristes tropiques. Plon, Paris.

Lim Poh Chiang (1989): Among the Dayaks. Graham Brash, Singapore.

Ling Roth, Henry (1896): The natives of Sarawak and British North Borneo. 2v. reprint 1980, University of Malaya Press, Kuala Lumpur.

Majlis, Brigitte Khan (1984): Indonesische Textilien. Ethnologica, neue Folge, Band 10, Koln.

Martin, Karl (1894): Reisen in den Molukken. E.J. Brill, Leiden.

Masfarré, Eduardo (1988): People of the Philippine Cordillera, photographs 1934-1956. Devcon IP Inc., Manila.

Montaigne, Michel de (1595): Essays. trans. Donald Frame. Stanford University Press, Stanford.

Morrison, Hedda (1962): Life in a longhouse. BLB, Kuching.

Nyangoh, Harry (1967): Apai Sali. BLB, Kuching.

Oliver, Douglas L. (1974): Ancient Tahitian society. 3v. University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu.

Pitok, Norman Rundu (1966): Salumpong Karong Besi. BLB, Kuching.

Richards, Anthony (1981): An Iban-English dictionary. Oxford.

Rubenstein, Carol (1973): Poems of indigenous peoples of Sarawak: some of the songs and chants. Sarawak Museum Journal, special monograph no. 2.

St. John, Spenser (1862): Life in the forests of the far east. reprinted 1986 Oxford University Press, Singapore.

SAM [Sahabat Alam Malaysia] (1990): The battle for Sarawak's forests. 2nd. ed., Penang.

Sandin, Benedict (1977): Gawai Burong. Universiti Sains Malaysia, Penang.

Sandin, Benedict (1966): Tusun Pendiau. BLB, Kuching.

Smith, Harrison W. (1919): "Sarawak: the land of the white rajahs." National Geographic Magazine, v. xxxv no. 2, [Feb. 1919] pp.110-167.

Ucko, Peter J. (1969): "Penis sheaths: a comparative study." in Proceedings of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland for 1969.

Visakhadatta (8th. c. A.D.?): Rakshasa's Ring. in Coulson, Three Sanskrit Plays. Penguin.

Wafer, Lionel (1692): A new voyage and description of the isthmus of America. ed. L.E. Elliot Joyce. Oxford, Hakluyt Society, 1934.

Wallace, Alfred R. (1890): The Malay archipelago. 10th. ed. reprint 1983, Graham Brash, Singapore.

An insight into Brooke's raj

New Straits Times, 31 May 1991

Henry Keppel: The Expedition to Borneo of HMS Dido. reprint by Oxford University Press, Singapore, 1991, of the original second edition published by Chapman and Hall, London, 1846. Two volumes in one with an introduction by R.H.W. Reece. 764 pages + maps and illustrations.

Reviewed by Otto Steinmayer.

How they could write in those days! Henry Keppel and James Brooke, the sailor and the soldier, probably never realised what good authors they were. But then, they had advantages, having left school at an early age, their minds and their prose still unspoiled. Their calling demanded they write well, and the first half of the 19th century was, as Ezra Pound would say, a time when the English language was in good working order.

It may seem bizarre of me to begin a review of a historical reprint with praise of Keppel's and Brooke's style, but writing is something I know about, and a book of striking content expressed in striking words is hard to find, especially when the authors write for political reasons.

The title page names Capt. Keppel as author, but in fact most of Expedition was written by James Brooke. The first Rajah of Sarawak met Keppel in Singapore, where Keppel was posted with a very useful 18 gun Royal Navy corvette. The two hit it off instantly, and when Keppel was recalled to England after a few exciting weeks of killing pirates together, Brooke gave him his journals to edit and publish.

Despite the title---one imagines a dowdy Dido unloading a cargo of frock-coated naturalists ready to pounce on Rafflesia and Longicorns---Keppel's and Brooke's memoir reads, probably deliberately, like a novel of grand adventure without the hype that mars the genre.

Except that everything here really happened, and real human beings, Native and British, live in this book. The first half of Expedition recounts, in Brooke's own words, his first arrival in Sarawak, his friendship with Rajah Muda Hassim, whom he helped in putting down a civil war, his surprising appointment as rajah, and his desperate struggle to stay alive and turn a nearly empty title into reality.

The second half, to which Keppel contributed largely, tells the story of the first bloody hunts against the "pirates" of the Batang Lupar and Skrang.

Of all the western explorers, adventurers, and imperialists who came out to this part of the world in the last century, James Brooke was the least typeable. Sarawak too has a strange place in the history of East and West. Though it remained for a hundred years the property of English rulers, Sarawak was technically never a colony, and defied the mode in many other ways.

Expedition remains the only written account of the beginnings of the Sarawak Raj and a mirror of the principal actor's mind and intents. It is packed with matter, a document of the highest importance.

Brooke wrote down things as they happened. We see him feeling his way---no westerner knew much about Borneo before he got therehis developing ambitions and hates, his doubts and crises.

Journals are supposed to be private, and Brooke wrote shrewdly to the convention, with one eye on publication. He needed very much to raise English support.

Some readers may dislike Brooke for the way he always presents himself in the best light. Was it all that kind of him to insinuate himself into a place where people had always been pretty much content to live and fight their own way? No one can deny that Brooke fully believed in his vision of creating a fixed society and increasing profit trade through the exploitation of Sarawak's resources, a vision shared by the present government.

History is a view from the eyes of many people. Most of us take our history from abridgements and reworkings. But I, wherever I can, prefer to get at history from the source, to make up my own mind. It is easier to deal with the biases of the actors than the prejudices of those who come at second hand to explain them.

One advantage I found in reading Expedition was that I finally got the bare facts straight. If you want to learn how Sarawak began, read here first, and then when you are familiar with the names and events, go to Robert Pringle's Rajahs and Rebels and the remaining memoirs. R.H.W. Reece's admirable introductions to Expedition and to Charles Brooke's book also guide the reader and fill in what Brooke or Keppel left out.

The story of a westerner's adventures in future Malaysia is bound to be controversial. Few of us now may see Brooke's aims as nobly as he did. Brooke is too enthusiastic, and, to his credit, too honest to conceal his hunger for glory and expansion.

The hardest reading here is the account of the slaughter wreaked on Dayak and Malay pirates by Brooke and his British navy friends. Genuine pirates, real scum, plagued Borneo, as they still do in some places, and deserved all they got. But how far did Brooke carry "suppression of piracy" as an excuse to cow his Dayak and Malay opponents? Could he distinguish between piracy and the normal, almost legitimate S.E. Asian warfare?

Did the Brunei nobles, expert politicians themselves, believe that Brooke would last as long as he did? It's my own opinion that Brooke was playing well within local rules. Guns and ships helped him, but his greatest weapon was his British conviction that politics and war were to be pursued with earnestness and to the finish.

Books still remain to be written on these questions. Brooke's arrival changed Sarawak forever, and the era of his family's rule is a time that Sarawakians and Malaysians still have to come to terms with. A true review of Expedition is the sum of Sarawak history, even to the present.

In Expedition Brooke, who was not always intriguing or fighting, gave us the first long, accurate description of Borneo and Borneo life in a western language. He had an acute eye, and knew that scientific and ethnographic details would appeal to English readers.

It's modern Sarawakians to whom this information now comes home most. I had personal proof of this. Chapter three, wow!, consists of a long description of STUNGGANG, my wife's kampong on the banks of the Batang Kayan upriver from Lundu. There Brooke first tasted Dayak hospitality, which he and every western visitor since has not failed to praise.

The daughter of the present Orang Kaya Pemancha Kalong, a direct descendant of O.K.P. Jugah, who invited Brooke to visit his longhouse, pored over the pages at my house, while the coffee grew cold in front of her. Her critical remarks were a good check on Brooke's truthfulness.

Along with the text was a drawing, looking downriver from a spot perhaps 50 m from where my in-laws' house now stands. Sure, the artist chopped off Gunung Gading halfway. But, there's where Sg. Stunggang joins the main river, there's where the ferry now crosses, and my mother-in-law points: "That's the kind of boat my grandfather used to make!"

Brooke really was there. The exotic feeling vanishes from this curious lithograph, from his language, and we again see people close to us, of an old time, but people we know.

A book that contains such history is beyond being recommended. It has passed into the realm of permanent value.
Oxford University Press has over the years steadily been reprinting, in luscious facsimile editions like this one, the books of the earliest British writers on Sarawak. Keppel's is a highly welcome, standing as it does at the starting point of Sarawak's modernity. We hope that Oxford will continue to give us reprints of the remaining documents, including the rest of Brooke's journals.

Not long ago only a western Ph.D. student could find these books in the locked section of a giant research library. Now the honourable common reader has a chance to read Sarawak history as it was made. Few Malaysian students will be able to afford the price of $120; but we hope that public libraries, especially in Sarawak, will make it a point to get it onto their shelves.

Friday, 16 November 2007

Miri resort City

Miri is a city in northern Sarawak, Malaysia, on the island of Borneo. Miri is home to a population of about 300,000 people and is thus the second largest city in Sarawak. It serves as the government administrative centre of Miri District (4,707.1 square kilometers) in Miri Division of Sarawak. Miri was elevated to city status on May 20, 2005 and it is the 10th city in Malaysia (Kuching has 2 cities)and its local authority i.e. Miri City Council is the 10th city council in Malaysia.

Miri is the birthplace of Sarawak's petroleum industry, which remains the major industry of the city. The first oil well was drilled by Shell in 1910, and is now a state monument and one of Miri's tourist attractions. Shell also

built Malaysia's first oil refinery in Lutong, a suburb of Miri in 1914. Recently, vast oil reserves were discovered just offshore northeast of the city. Miri has grown phenomenally since oil was first discovered in the early 1900s, burgeoning into the modern and dynamic business, commercial and educational centre it is today. The city's other major industries include processed timber, oil palm production, and tourism. The world famous Gunung Mulu National Park with the Sarawak chamber, a half an hour flight from the city, is one of the favourite eco-tourism destinations. Miri is also the main tourist gateway for the Loagan Bunut National Park, Lambir National Park and the Niah Caves at the Niah Caves National Park. Miri is lately known for its exotic coral reefs as well.

Miri is considered safe generally, although with the influx of illegal immigrants and the evergrowing triads organisations, crime rates have increased.


The earliest officially recorded oil find in Malaysia was made in July 1882 by the British Resident of the Baram district in Sarawak. The oil was used by the local residents for medicinal purposes and later for lighting lamps and waterproofing boats. Commercial exploitation only began in 1910 when the Anglo-Saxon Petroleum Company, the forerunner of the present Sarawak Shell which was granted the sole right to explore for petroleum in Sarawak, struck oil in the town of Miri,(also a good name) marking the start of the Malaysian petroleum industry.

By the 1950s, attention turned to the seas as the onshore oil fields in Miri shows serious depletion. This was made possible by new improvements in offshore petroleum technology. Marine seismic surveys were carried out for the first time in Sarawak in 1954. The shift offshore began to show results in 1962 with the discovery of oil in two areas offshore Sarawak. Other finds followed in rapid succession. The first offshore oil platform was West Lutong, about 6 miles from shore.

The last onshore oil field was shutdown in early 1970s as oil production from offshore Miri started. Miri started developing very fast eversince the Parliament enacted the Petroleum Act which force Shell and Exxon to share their oil revenues with the people of Malaysia. It is by this time that Miri began developing its tourism and service industry.

In 1989, the vision for Miri to become a city was mooted. The proposal received the blessing of Sarawak state government in 1993. A public forum was held in 1994 and a grand signature-collecting campaign was organised in 2004 and more than one-third of the population in Miri had put down their signatures in support of the government's efforts for Miri to obtain city status. Miri had the city blue-print drawn up in the early 2000s, while the government together with the private sector had managed to fulfill the Federal Government's ten main criteria of becoming a city. The Sarawak State Government approved the then Miri Municipal Council's application for Miri to be elevated to a city and concurrently the Council to be upgraded as Miri City Council on 20 May 2004. The Federal Government approved its application on 16/3/2005. The Yang di-Pertua Negeri of Sarawak made an order on 12 May 2005 on the establishment of Miri City Council. The King of Malaysia, Seri Paduka Baginda Yang Di-Pertuan Agong XII issued the Instrument for conferment of city status of name Miri City Council on Miri Municipal Council with full jurisdiction on Miri City on 13 May 2005. The appointment of Mayor, Deputy Mayor and City Councillors of Miri City Council was published on Sarawak Government Gazette on 19 May 2005. On 20 May 2005, the official proclamation of Miri City and appointment of Cr. Dato Wee Han Wen as first Mayor of Miri City Council were held at Miri and this was then followed by city day celebration. Now, 20th May every year is the Miri City Day.

World War II

Realizing that war was imminent, the Brooke Government, under Sir Charles Vyner Brooke, conducted preliminary work to establish airstrips at selected locations throughout the country. These airstrips would be located at Kuching, Oya, Mukah, Bintulu, and Miri.

With no air or sea forces stationed in or around Sarawak, the British government encouraged the Brooke Regime to adopt a "scorched earth policy" in the event of a Japanese attack. Later, it was proposed to develop a Denial Scheme. Denial Schemes were in place to destroy the oil installations at Miri and Lutong.

The oilfields in British Borneo lay in two groups: one at Miri close to the northern boundary of Sarawak, and the other thirty-two miles north, at Seria in the State of Brunei. The crude oil was pumped from both fields to a refinery at Lutong on the coast, from which loading lines ran out to sea. Landings were possible all along the thirty miles of beach between Miri and Lutong and there was, with the forces available, no possibility of defending the oilfields against determined attacks. Plans had therefore been made for the destruction of the oil installations.

In December 1940 a company of 2/15th Punjab was sent to Miri for the protection of the demolition parties, and in May 1941 the rest of 2/15th Punjab was sent there to provide a garrison. This lone battalion consisted of approximately 1,050 soldiers under the command of Major C.M. Lane. These troops were entrusted with the destruction of Miri Oil Fields. It was to be known as the Miri Detachment.

In December 1941, The Brooke Government which had already heard of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor (on 7 December 1941) quickly ordered the complete and total destruction of the oil fields and airfields at Miri and Seria. Orders for the demolition of the refinery at Lutong and the denial of the oilwells reached the officer commanding at Miri on the morning of the 8th December, and by the evening of the same day the task was completed.

On the 19th December 1941 the Dutch flying boat X-32 from Tarakan Island sank the Japanese destroyer Shinonome (Cdr. Hiroshi Sasagawa) of 1,950 tons off Miri, while another flying boat X-33 damaged a transport ship. The destroyer could not take the pounding and went down with her entire crew of 228 officers and men.

Miri, a town in Sarawak located in northern Borneo, fell to 2,500 Japanese invaders on 17 Dec 1941, after two days of fighting. The small garrison of Dutch troops was no match for the Japanese.


Miri's population consists of Chinese, Dayak, Malay, Melanau, Indian , Kayan, Kenyah, Kelabit, Iban, Bidayuh, Penan and other indigenous groups. Through this broad classifications, the races are further sub-divided into different tribes, each having their own particular areas of abode, occupation and language.

However, the commercial, industrial and technological advances, coupled with easy accessibility and a growing number of inter-racial marriages among locals, has shaped Miri into a potpourri of customs, traditions and beliefs inherited through the generations.

It would be a difficult task to differentiate one race from the other, for the general populace look similar, although some are a shade or two darker than others. It is interesting to note here that people of different creeds live side by side in full religious tolerance. Religious festivals of different races are celebrated by all citizens, while greetings, wishes and visits are exchanged.

Although Bahasa Melayu is the national language, the people of Sarawak have their own dialect, which is rather like a Bahasa Sarawak-which has become the Lingua Franca for the general population.


Air transport

Miri Airport is the third busiest airport in Malaysia after Kuala Lumpur International Airport and Kota Kinabalu International Airport and receives flights from Kuala Lumpur, Johor Bahru, Kuching, Kota Kinabalu, Labuan, Sibu, Bintulu and many other smaller towns throughout Sarawak.

Miri Airport is also an important aviation hub for MASwings's fleets to rural services that operate connecting flights to isolated communities in the interior. It serves as the essential airway to national parks such as Mulu Caves, Niah Caves, and Lambir Hills. MASwings is headquartered in Miri Airport. Malaysia Airlines and AirAsia operate flights from Johor Bahru and Kuala Lumpur to Miri at competitive prices. Malaysia Airlines is also flying the Miri-Kota Kinabalu-Hong Kong sector since May 2007. The airport is a new air terminal which was launched by the then Prime Minister of Malaysia, Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, on 25 July 2003. Its roof and large columns resemble the Kuala Lumpur International Airport(K

LIA). The terminal has a 2,745 meter long runway and it can provide the landing of aircraft bigger than B737, like Boeing 747.

By land

Miri is accessible by road from Bandar Seri Begawan (Brunei) and all major towns in Sarawak. Connected to major towns in Sarawak and to Brunei and Sabah by the Pan-Borneo Highway. There is no pay-toll along these highway(except the ASEAN bridge) as the road are contructed by the local government.

Golf and Clubs

Miri Golf Club

The very idyllic Miri Golf Club is set among the rustic surroundings of a Malay Kampung (Village) on top of a picturesque sand bar between the Miri River and the South China Sea. Though only a stone's throw away from the bustling city centre of Miri, separation by the Miri River offers a worry free hideaway and the hustle and bustle of the city is hardly noticed.

The 18-hole course itself is built on flat land bordering beautiful white sandy beaches washed by the gentle waves. To make up for the seemingly flat and "easy" terrain, the early pioneers successfully added vigor and colour to the course by using strategic placements of water hazards and bunkers. Shaded by tall and ancient casuarinas trees, Kelab Golf Miri indeed has a unique beauty.

Discovery of oil in 1905 brought wealth, prosperity and tremendous growth to the then small fishing village of Miri. Today, Miri has evolved into a bustling metropolis. To cater for the recreation of the expatriates flowing in from the Netherlands and England, Miri Golf Club was established as early as 1910.

Eastwood Valley Golf Club

A relatively newer golf course, located 5 minutes from Miri airport. 18 holes with accommodation facilities.


From a bustling oil town, Miri is experiencing a development boom into a brand new resort city. The skyline of Miri has changed a lot ever since. There are ambitious plans for Miri. The Miri Waterfront and Marina Park projects will give a complete facelift to Miri City in the near future.

Even though the atmosphere in the city is relaxed and casual, it is a bustling commercial centre with lively native markets, scenic parks, beaches, excellent restaurants and pubs. Miri City has become a vibrant and exciting city to Northern Borneo’s myriad of cultural, adventure and nature attractions.

Miri is often called the Northern Gateway to Sarawak and is one of the state's main and most important tourist attractions. Miri, together with its natural assets, are impressively beautiful, breathtaking and captivating. It boasts to be surrounded by four world-class national parks (Mount Mulu National Park, Niah National Park, Lambir Hills National Park and Loagan Bunut National Park).

National Parks

The Gunung Mulu National Park is a certified UNESCO World Heritage Site and boasts the world's largest natural cave chamber, the Sarawak Chamber. The Niah Caves in Niah National Park is an important archaeological and historical site as one of the oldest human remains in South East Asia was found here. Lambir Hills National Park contains very diverse species of flora and fauna and is ranked as the 12th mega-biodiverse sites in the world. The Loagan Bunut National Park has Sarawak's largest natural lake and also contains diverse species of birds. There is also the recently gazetted Miri-Sibuti Marine National Park that has one of the region's most beautiful coral reefs and diverse marine life. The National Parks in Miri boasts superlatives and are frequently visited by tourists.

Grand Old Lady and Petroleum Science Museum

The Grand Old Lady is a must see for all visitors to Miri. Historically, Miri is a town founded upon oil and nothing captures this relationship so well than the Miri Oil Well No.1 or fondly known as the "Grand Old Lady".

The "Grand Old Lady" was situated on top of Bukit Telaga Minyak (Oil Well Hill). It was formerly called Canada Hill (the old folks said that there was one Canadian who lived there and his main business was to recruit foreign and local workers to work in the oil fields around this mountain). Oil Well No. 1 is the first oil well in Malaysia to be drilled by Shell Company in 1910. After a productive six decades and estimated 660,000 barrels of oil, it was shut down in 1972. It was eventually declared a national monument. There was a lookout tower near the monument where the visitors can have a good view of Miri City with the sea as its horizon. The tower was dismantled to make way for the construction of Miri Petroleum Science Museum and it is now being replaced by a viewing platform provided on top of this Miri latest landmark. The

museum itself also provides various kinds of exhibitions apart from those related to oil industry.

The Grand Old Lady is accessible through narrow and steep road. While slowly moving your way up to the hilltop, you can have a glimpse of the nice scenery on both sides of the city which is being divided by this hill.

Pubs and Bars

Miri has an impressive nightlife scene and a large number of pubs and lounges, considering a city the size of Miri. Most of them are located in the Pelita Commercial Centre and the Boulevard Commercial Centre, where both centres are located 2 km apart of each other. Both foreigners and locals usually hang out there.

Parks and Gardens

The city has 14 public parks and recreational grounds. Out of which, Miri Bulatan Park (a lake garden), Luak Bay Esplanade (a park at the sea front), Taman Selera (family picnic spot), Taman Awam Miri (a theme Park) and Miri City Fan are the more popular parks among residents as well as visitors. The Miri City Fan, a 10.4-hectare park right in the heart of the city, was accorded Malaysia's best landscaped city park in 2001.


Miri is also well known as a shopping paradise among Malaysians and Bruneians. These include the Bintang Plaza (or Parkson as most of the locals call it), a popular mall and hang out place for most teens; Boulevard Shopping Complex, Imperial Shopping Mall, E-Mart, Miri Plaza, Miri Square, Wisma Pelita Mall and many more. In addition, Miri is also well-known for its fine handicrafts, especially the bead products.

Handicraft shops along Jalan Bendahara and Brooke Road are favourite destinations among tourists and locals. The Miri Handicraft Centre at the junction of Merbau Road and Brooke Road is also the favourite site for handicraft and souvenir hunters.

The entertainment outlets, restaurants (for both Muslims and non-Muslims) and road-side cafes along South Yu Seng and North Yu Seng Roads, are the ideal and popular night spots to those visitors who are looking for fun, nice food and quality hangouts at night. The Pasar Malam and the row of Malay restaurants at Saberkas Commercial Area is also a great place to hang out too.

Lotus Hill (Lian Hua San) Taoist Temple

This magnificent grand Taoist Temple located in the Krokop suburbs of Miri is South East Asia's largest Taoist temple. Its remarkable architectures and intricate sculptures have attracted flocks of tourists. Every corner of the temple is not only stunning, but is a feast of form and colour.


Miri, being geographically close to the sea, boasts some spectacular beaches. Some of the popular beaches include Tanjong Lobang Beach (Taman Selera), Luak Esplanade, Hawaii Beach, Bekenu-Sibuti Beach, Lutong Beach and many more.

Coral Reefs

The Miri Reef off Miri is one of Malaysia’s most recent discovered diving locations. Within this patch of reefs at varying depths, from 7 to 30 meters, there is a variety of coral and marine life that rivals the best anywhere in Borneo.


Due to the diverse population of Miri, comprising a great number of foreign expatriates, Miri has a wonderful sports scene. The sports and games commonly played in Miri include paragliding, go-kart racing, motocross racing, car-racing, golf, tennis, swimming, paintball and many more.

Higher Education

Curtin University of Technology Sarawak Campus

Curtin University of Technology - Sarawak Campus
Curtin University of Technology - Sarawak Campus

Curtin University of Technology Sarawak Campus is the first offshore campus of Curtin University of Technology, Western Australia. Opened in 1999 in partnership with the Sarawak Government, it serves the educational needs of local and foreign students. Curtin Sarawak is the first foreign university campus to be set up in East Malaysia. Curtin Sarawak is also the first foreign university branch campus in Borneo. Curtin has a fine reputation as a dynamic and stimulating place of learning, and the Sarawak campus partakes in this tradition.

The diverse student’s population makes campus life a learning experience in the cultural melting pot of Miri.

Sited on a 4,000-acre (16 km²) site, with a large man-made lake and the parent university’s signature brickwork buildings, Curtin offers world-class facilities and a home for students from all over the globe. Curtin University also offers courses, ranging from Foundation programmes, Bachelor and Master's degree as well as PhD-level programmes, which are relevant to demands of the present job market.