Friday, April 09, 2010
Sibu, the swan town - soon 'pesta with a lot of goodies' is coming
Ask around and you will hear some townsfolk saying they are Sibunite or Sibuan.
Whatever you call them, the people of Sibu are staunchly proud of their town, which has several 'record breaking' features that sort of compensate for its poor siting on what was marsh land at the time it was founded.
There is no escaping the flash floods that occur several times a year (pic).
The population is dominated by the Chinese especially the Foochows. Others include the indigenous Melanau, Malay and Iban. The population of Sibu district, according to 2009 census, is about 260,000.
Sibu , which I reckon is about the size of Ipoh city, is the main tourist gateway to the upper Sungai Rajang , with its small riverine towns and many Iban and Orang Ulu longhouses.
A frontier town by the river
It's in the news now following the death of Bandar Sibu MP Robert Lau Hoi Chew.
Lau, who died at 66 after a long illness on Thursday, will be remembered as the man who modernised Sibu although its status as the second largest city in Sarawak (after Kuching) has since been overtaken by Miri.
The Sibu district has another parliamentary seat, Lanang. The MP there is Tiong Thai King, the current Sibu Municipal Council chairman.
It was only once that the DAP had won Bandar Sibu and that was in 1982, albeit a small majority. There are three state seats within the constituency: Bawang Assan, Pelawan and Nangka.
In Lanang, there are two state seats: Bukit Assek and Dudong.
In the March 2008 general elections, Lau (pic) retained Bandar Sibu with a 3,235-vote majority in a three-cornered fight with PKR's Lim Chin Chuang and Sarawak DAP chairman Wong Ho Leng.
Except for Bukit Assek, where Wong is the state assemblyman, the other state seats in the two parliamentary constituencies are held by the Barisan.
It has been more than 15 years since I stepped into Sibu and I had visited the town and its outskirts at least four times before that.
Several people were my hosts during my visits there, taking me to different places by 4WD and express boats and introducing me to the 'wonders' of their town and the longhouses on the outskirts.
I was taken to restaurants selling exotic animal meat - like crocodile and flying fox - though I was not game enough to try them. And every street in town, I thought, had a girlie barber or some sleazy joint.
The 'first' sides of Sibu
Sibu has a reputation as a rough, frontier town on the riverside. It was the 'New Foochow' to the immigrants from Fujian who settled in Sibu in the early 20th century at the invitation of 'White Raja' Charles Brooke.
Due to the Rajang bustling with activity, Sibu served an important role in the Brooke administration as a trading centre between the coast and the vast upriver hinterland. It continues to fulfill this role today.
There has been tremendous development over the years and I am told that much of the transformation of the town was attributed to Lau.
Sibu now boasts of having the tallest building in Sarawak - the 28-storey Wisma Sanyan (to be surpassed by a towering building in Kuching soon) and the largest town square in the country.
The Lau King Howe Hospital Memorial Museum is the first medical museum in Malaysia,in honour of one of the oldest hospitals in Sarawak.
Its Central Market is the biggest indoor market in Malaysia and home to thousands of stalls selling fresh vegetables, fruits, live poultry and numerous farm, livestock and forest products.
One of my pals wrote to me in February that Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak had visited the market during an official trip to Sarawak and had posted pictures of his visit there on his official Facebook page.
When Lau was chairing the Sibu Municipal Council, before making his electoral debut in 2004, he had this grand idea of promoting his town globally and proposed the idea of having a 'Visit Sibu Year.' This, however, was only carried out about five years later.
During his council term, Lau adopted the swan as the symbol and mascot of the town.
The swan, the symbol
The bird is actually non-existent in Sibu, except for numerous huge artificial swans and statues.
However, according to the Chinese community there, when the early immigrants arrived in Sibu in the mid 19th century and early 20th century, the Sungai Rajang reminded them of Swan River in Fuzhou, China.
And it is this tale that inspired Lau to take the swan as the town's symbol.
Due to his passion to promote the town he is often called 'Mr Sibu' and because he actively promoted toilet cleanliness during his stint as Deputy Housing and Local Government Minister (2004 - 2008) he was also known as 'Mr Toilet.'
Lau also promoted tree-planting and green lungs in town and city areas.
River cruise into the deep
His grand design to make Sibu a preferred tourist destination in Sarawak's central region bore fruit when the municipal council launched 'Visit Sibu Year 2009.'
A major attraction introduced during the year was the Pandaw River Cruise, a nine-day crusing up Sungai Rajang, the longest river in the country, deep into the rural areas of Sarawak.
Tourists in the cruise enjoy the sceneries of the tropical rainforests as well as visiting traditional and modern long houses.
However, while Lau was the most popular personality from Sibu in recent times, the town's most illustrious sons is arguably Sarawakian nationalist Rosli Dhoby.
He is remembered for his assassination of Sir Duncan George Stewart, the second governor of colonial Sarawak in 1948.
Rosli was sentenced to death by hanging and was buried at the Kuching Central Prison in 1950. After 46 years of his remains resting in the prison compound, it was moved out from the prison and and re-buried at the Sarawak Heroes Mausoleum near the Sibu Town Mosque on March 2, 1996.
A hero remembered
In honour of his involvement in the anti-colonial movement and his struggle against the British, Rosli and his accomplices in the assassination (Awang Ramli Amit,Bujang Suntong,and Morshidi Sidek) were later given a full state funeral by the Sarawak Government.
Thus, Sibu citizens - by whatever name they call themselves - certainly have much to tell visitors about their history, heritage and local heroes.
Should there be a by-election arising from Lau's death it would certainly be a great opportunity to bring the 'swan town' into the mainstream of national news to share its wonders with all Malaysians. —Malaysian Mirror