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Letter from Lundu.

The summons for my Letter comes at the rainy end of the year. Life in the kampong is so busy--especially so during the major holidays--that I have trouble remembering what was happening three weeks ago. Thus many of my pieces have dealt with flood, gloom, and damp. This year, though, landas came to an abrupt end weeks earlier than usual. The change happened the same time the severe cold weather reached far south in North America. Climate change made itself felt here on the equator. On 4 February 2014, before dawn, I measured the air temperature at 17[degrees]C out in back.

Musin kemarau, the dry season between May and September, has traditionally been a slack time for Borneo people. The rice has been harvested, Gawai has been held, and one waits until August when the rice-year begins anew with clearing and burning of fields. What do people do in the interval? Miscellaneous stuff: build boats, fish, and in the old days, collect getah or other forest products. (1) People take advantage of the dry weather as people in temperate climates take advantage of summer, to plant and garden.

Lundu's domesticated nature seemed an obvious theme for a companion piece to my last on wild nature, but only in hindsight. Gardening is not exactly a conspicuous occupation here, for reasons we'll get to. In fact, the inspiration came to me when I was raking leaves and pondering kangkong (Ipomea aquatica).

The day before, Malaysia's prime minister declared that the people should not blame his government for rising prices, but rather feel grateful that the cost of kangkong had fallen.

An odd observation. One might as well say to Frenchmen, be grateful that dandelion greens are so cheap. Kangkong grows in any kind of ditchwater. If your ditch is a clean ditch you can pick the leaves and stems and fry them with belachan. The dish is quite tasty. And, as I reflected, kangkong grows as plentifully in landas--when the price of lettuce shot up 100%--as any other time. Our poor PM, nonetheless, aroused much mirth with his appeal to the humble convolvulus. (2)

Pondering kangkong led me to consider the state of Lundu agriculture. Nature tamed is as much Nature as Borneo's wild world. Indeed, the one and the other have intermingled for so long it's hard to define the boundaries.

Kangkong is an instance of this ambiguity. It is native to SE Asia. "Planting" it means sticking a few snippets of stem in mud and leaving it alone. Just about as much work is involved in raising coconuts, bamboo, changkok manis (Sauropous androgynus), and even imported species like manioc. Human beings have tinkered with the forest for thousands of years, and probably should be regarded as significant natural agents in the dispersal of seeds. If, in a Lundu jungle walk, you meet even such a primal forest tree as an engkabang (Dipterocarpus), chances are somebody "helped it along."

My Sebuyau relatives are markedly fonder of fruit than vegetables, and cultivate as many kinds of fruit trees as they can assemble. Our garden boasts rambutans, mangosteens, cempedak, breadfruit, petal, tarap, bananas, papaya, and, of course, the noble durian. Few vegetables figured in the traditional cuisine. Three--tubu' (bamboo shoots),paku '(fern shoots), and midin (another kind of fem shoots)--were foraged, and an occasional wild mushroom joined them. The round and yellow Dayak eggplant, terung, and the yellow Dayak cucumber could carelessly be raised in a patch of burnt soil. There was no need to garden until other plants (chiefly American in origin, such as pumpkins and beans) were introduced and caught people's fancy. The Sarawak Agriculture Dept, in the 70s published a pamphlet, in Iban, on growing asparagus. Asparagus hasn't caught on, but it should. It's excellent with shrimp paste and chili.

No "subsistence farming" exists in Lundu. The people who make a living off the land do so commercially, such as the owners of truck gardens and chicken farms along Batu Kawa Road, and the rice cooperative which farms the tongue of land across from Lundu town. Such may have been the case for two hundred years or more. James Brooke, whose picture of Lundu is the earliest to survive [1839], describes a Chinese settlement 2Vi miles up the Batang Kayan from Stunggang (on Tanjung Sejirin opposite present-day Munggu Raman): "many acres were cleared and under cultivation...and they were able to supply us with seven pecul, or 933 lbs., of sweet potatoes, [also American in origin] without sensibly diminishing their crop." (3)

Twelve years later, James's nephew Charles, in Lundu on his first posting as an officer of the Raj, climbed Gunung Gading along with the Orang Kaya, and on their return to Stunggang [they] "passed through Chinese gardens spreading over many hundreds of acres, containing the sweet potato in large quantities, with which they supply the coast." (4) The route from Gunung Gading to Stunggang lies through the site of the present day Lundupasar, and here, I conjecture, is the earliest evidence of a town. (5) Charles's "supply the coast" is significant: these gardens were a regular business.

Lundu began to be settled when, at the end of the 18th century, Iban Sebuyau, Chinese, Selako, and some Jagoi arrived from both east and southwest. The late Jonathan Saban told me that the Sebuyau migrated to Lundu specifically so they could raise wet rice in quantities for trade, and improve their standard of living. (6) Aki Jon told me that the Lundu Sebuyau traded with the Natunas for dried fish. Certainly the Sebuyau must have been used to travel. James Brooke met Jugah, the tuai rumah, in Kuching. Jugah, himself ennobled by patent from the Sultan of Brunei, was well-known to the elite of Kuching.

I conjecture that the Sebuyau and the Chinese of Lundu speedily worked out a neat arrangement: the Sebuyau grew rice, the Chinese grew veggies, and they traded with one another. This exchange set up a pattern that holds today. When Sebuyau garden, they plant rice or maize, and particularly like to plant fruit trees. Vegetables are at most a small sideline with the Sebuyau.

Real gardening belongs to the Chinese and the Selako. In Lundu's veg-market, a majority of Chinese occupy one pavilion and sell imported cold weather greenstuff such as leeks, cabbages, snow peas, imported fruit--apples, pears, grape--and groceries (e.g. onions, garlic, potatoes), alongside local produce. I have brought down many loads of breadfruit from our garden for sale through their agency. Across the parking lot, another pavilion houses the Selako traders (mostly women, just like in Bali) selling magnificent homegrown chilies, com, tomatoes, lemons...too much variety to review! Everything is packaged in bundles priced RM2.00 apiece, and the freshness and quality beat anything I have ever seen in a Malaysian city supermarket.

Our personal experience suggests two other reasons for the Sebuyaus' relative lack of interest in gardening. First of all, Kpg. Stunggang is sited on land whose soil varies from swamp, riverine to peat, to fine white sand packed hard as stone. The soil quality changes every ten feet, and most of it is poor and unfertile. (7) Neither topsoil nor manure can be obtained.

Second, Mother-of-Sam, as many Sebuyau ladies, prefers raising chickens, and she raises them kampong-style, sell., chickens have the ran of the yard. Chickens love tender little sprouts, and if fowl and lettuces are to be reared in the same place, one or the other must be stoutly fenced in. My wife's sister and her husband tend a magnificent garden of several acres across the river from us including such goodies as okra, but keep not a single chicken to murder their seedlings.

At present, people here garden for much the same reasons as Americans do, to have something to do, to save some money, and to taste specialties you just can't buy. The vogue for "amateur" rice-growing waxes and wanes. Some years ago, when the price of rice suddenly jumped 30%, some older people, pensioners, reopened and planted their old rice fields. Their plots weren't large enough to feed a family for a year. Serious rice-growing demands much labor, and since children are otherwise occupied, the elderly husband and wife are the entire workforce. They have the satisfaction of eating exceptionally tasty rice, as well as fulfilling a cherished Dayak piece of the Good Life.

For myself, whatever the opposite of a green thumb is, I have it. Nonetheless, I am overjoyed that Dayaks, better friends to plants than I, have discovered the delights of the plum tomato. We're in the middle of a great season, and I'm making sauce tonight.

Otto Steinmayer

P.O. Box 13

94500 Lundu, Sarawak


(1) And in the really old days, headhunting.

(2) See

(3) Henry Keppel, The Expedition to Borneo of HMS Dido. 1846, vol 1, p. 66.

(4) Charles Brooke, Ten Years in Sarawak. 1866. vol. 1 p. 17.

(5) Additional note: I call your attention to the Sarawak State Library's on-going project of scanning the entire ran of the Sarawak Gazette, 1870 and on, and posting it online. This will be a most valuable resource, and the SSL deserves highest praise for it. beta/sarawak_gazette_details.php

(6) Other branches of Iban, enemies to the Sebuyau, sneered that they had moved because they were tired of being headhuntees.

(7) Additional note 2: Bruno Manser Funds has recently installed a "Sarawak Geoportal" on its website. This contains a wealth of information, including topographical maps, details of geology and land use, and much more.
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Author:Steinmayer, Otto
Publication:Borneo Research Bulletin
Geographic Code:9BRUN
Date:Jan 1, 2013
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