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April 16, 2014

The Kampongs Across the River

Tom McLaughlin

Kuching, Malaysian Borneo – Across the river from my condo are several kampungs. A kampung can be divided with a surau, which is a small mosque that cannot hold Friday prayers, the most important day of the week.


They can however perform such rituals as the slaughter of goats or cows for Hari Raya Haji, a place to pray five times a day, meetings for the welfare of the kampung, and religious and political talks. It is here where elderly men gather to exchange information and prepare for the arrival of Allah.


Another symbol of the kampung is the country store. It was usually run by the Chinese and is a place where one could gather and sip coffee with their fellows. It was a source of news and information for the community.


The kampongs along the riverfront are named Boyan, Gersik, Suarabaya Ulu, Surabaya Hilir, Panglima Seman Ulu, Panglima Seman Lama,Kampung Semarang, Kampung Pulo Ulu, Kampung Pulo Hillir, Bintawa Ulu, Bintawa Tenggah and then Kampung Bintawa Hilir. For this column we will only address Kampungs Boyan, Gersik, Surabaya and Pangliman Seman.


Kampung Gersik was the first kampung to be established. It was a small village, which probably had a surau, or most likely a small mosque. The people served the fledging government of the new Rajah, James Brooke from England.


The first settlers to Kampong Gersik were from Kayong in the Menangkabau district of west central Sumatra, about 30 kilometers from the coast. Their leader was Che Abu Bakar who dressed in the familiar menangkabu style. His son, Che Mohammed Ali became the Rajahs private secretary. (Suliaman, unpublished manuscript).


The meningkabau came from a matriarchal society. The land passed from mother to daughter, the decisions were made by the women and the boys had to move out of the kampung and into the surau by the time they were 14 or 15. They learned to read and write and to manipulate numbers. Cooking was important and daily housecleaning tasks were shared by the group. They would often join a group of men who set out to find their destiny.


However, this is not to exclude others who came to settle in Kampong Gersik.


The name Gresik come from a small fishing village in north Java. The coastal area is now a mid-sized export town where ships come in and on-load products such as timber from Borneo. The village is also home to the Islamic Missionary Sunan Gersik. Whether it was named for the missionary, or for its prowess as a small port, nobody seems to know.


The next kampung, Surabaya, was also named for a town, now a huge city, Indonesia's second largest. Here again, we have a missionary, Sunan Ampel, who was also from Surabaya. Again, whether it was named for the missionary, or the location, is not known.


These two kampungs are separated by a small stream leading straight back. However, the kampungs could not be more different. Kampung Gersik served the Rajah. It had access to modern medicine of the time and was allowed the privileges of being employed by the state.


Kampung Surabaya was a trade kampung. Ships docked at the harbor and small boats ferried the goods on toward the fledging town of Kuching, beginning to show itself on the water's edge.


It has been said that the two kampungs were tax bases for the Pengirins. Ships from Surabaya would dock at Surbaya, and from Gresik at Gersik, allowing for tribute to be taken before going off to unload in Kuching. (Awang Ali, oral history.)


The quality of life between the two kampungs was stark. Kampung Gersik had access to modern medicine, while Surabaya had to rely on bomohs (medicine men for lack of better translation) and traditional folk medicine. As recently as 1951, the infant mortality rate was four times higher in Surabya as it was in Gersik.


Inhabitants of Kampung Boyan, of the same name as the island of the north Java coast, were originally brought here by Pengirian Muda Hashim. They were to take care of the Rajahs gardens and grounds, although it has been said they were brought here by the Rajah.


...Life is good. . . . .


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