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Covid-19 looms large over Sarawak river town

Townsfolk worry that what promised to be a boom could turn into a bust thanks to the effects of the pandemic.

Our Sarawak Correspondent
3 minute read
A few customers sit at an otherwise deserted pub-cum-bistro known as The Bikalan, located in the heart of Siniawan town.
A few customers sit at an otherwise deserted pub-cum-bistro known as The Bikalan, located in the heart of Siniawan town.

The tiny Sarawak town of Siniawan, 40km from Kuching, has had its share of ups and downs over the years, and for many of its inhabitants this Chinese New Year certainly feels like a low point.

Bong Boon Koh, the kapitan or Chinese community leader of Siniawan, lives with his elderly parents in a wooden shophouse in the town.

He said the Covid-19 pandemic has dampened everyone’s spirits this year.

Normally, his brother’s family would be here from Singapore celebrating with them – the house filled with the sound of his nephews and nieces playing, and everyone sharing the traditional Chinese cakes and Sarawak kek lapis his mother always makes for the festivities.

This is the first time they have celebrated the Lunar New Year without the company of other family members.

“Seeing as here in Sarawak we are still under the conditional movement control order, flying back to Kuching at this time would be too much hassle for them because of the mandatory quarantine and other travel restrictions,” Boon told MalaysiaNow.

Bong Boon Koh, the kapitan of Siniawan, smiles for the camera against a backdrop of Chinese New Year decorations but his cheery expression belies a deep concern for the survival of his town.

Covid-19 has changed Chinese New Year. The hustle and bustle of going from one house to another has become a lonely time, sitting at home catching up with loved ones on WhatsApp or Zoom.

When MalaysiaNow visited, the streets were decorated with red lanterns, and traditional Chinese music echoed from the shophouses, but people were scarce.

The streets should be packed with family and friends visiting, and lion dancers noisily performing for the crowds but everywhere was practically deserted.

In other years, shoppers would be laden with purchases but this year many shops still have unsold lanterns.

“Many people are afraid to go shopping because of the increase in Covid-19 cases,” said Boon sadly, as he passed several shuttered shops.

The streets and alleys of Siniawan are festooned with colourful lanterns and umbrellas but few venture from their homes to enjoy the sight.

The town has enjoyed booms and survived busts before.

It was a bustling river stop for traders when everything went by boat, and in gold rush days it had its own casino, opium dens and hotels as Chinese traders and gold miners poured in.

But 50 years ago, after traffic took to the recently built roads instead of the rivers, decline set in.

According to Boon, things had begun to look up again as more people visited after the old Siniawan bazaar was restored 10 years ago.

“Busloads of people came to visit our night and weekend market. It certainly helped to boost the local economy,” he said.

In another good sign for the future, the town has regularly hosted cultural events and festivals such as Pesta Siniawan, a food and heritage festival with a folk music theme.

Boon said the event was an unexpected success and has become an annual fixture with over 18,000 visitors attending the last festival. Its future is uncertain now.

While not a casino or opium den, another good sign of regeneration is The Bikalan, a pub-cum-bistro located in the heart of the town. Run by husband-and-wife team Andy and Grace Newland, it opened late last year and serves authentic Bidayuh food.

For Joseph Chai, the big concern is the effect of the pandemic on the economy.

He fears Siniawan will be left abandoned if Covid-19 continues to surge.

Joseph Chai, fondly known around town as Uncle Joseph, outside his shop, Sin Lian Ho.

“I don’t know if our shops will be able to generate enough revenue during this recovery phase,” sighed Chai who owns Sin Lian Ho, a shop he inherited from his grandfather.

“All these wooden shophouses that you see here were built at the start of the last century and they’ve all survived until today. My grandfather was a pioneer in this town,” he said proudly.

With Covid-19 vaccines on the way, shop owner Daphne is hoping for a return to better days.

She told MalaysiaNow she believes getting the vaccine is the only way forward in the face of Covid-19.

“I hope the distribution of the vaccine in Sarawak will be conducted thoroughly and I hope everyone will get themselves vaccinated,” she said.

“I want to see this town filled with visitors again just like before Covid-19.”