In the history of Sarawak Bintulu claims the fame of being the place for the first meeting of the Sarawak legislature on Sept 8 1867. This meeting place - a plain wooden building- was gazetted as the General Council until 1903.
Apart from this Bintulu was a very small river side town servicing the small population of the Kemena River and its hinterland until it started to boom in the 1990's. And from then there was no stopping.
I often stop by on my homeward journey to Sibu and see the changes for myself in the last few years since the road from Miri to Sibu is better.
However throughout the 1990's I also had the opportunity to visit Bintulu and in particular the Bintulu schools as a teacher trainer supervising my own trainees. I found most of the schools bursting at the seams. Some of them continued to have wooden classrooms with chairs which were half a century old! But they were better than the plastic chairs which broke easily. I would always choose an old wooden but very sturdy chair to sit on at the back as I observe the practical. And in the evenings I would walk along the five foot way in the town and enjoy the slow small town life - shopkeepers wearing sleeveless Chinese singlets and Chinese women wearing their comfortable blouses and loose trousers.Some of the mothers would be feeding mouthfuls of rice to their young children.
In corner shops I could pick up a bowl of dry noodles (kampua mee) and nice cup of Kopi (made from freshly ground coffee). And every where there would be noises of fairly high decibels originating from loud voices and cars rumbling along the streets interjected by a bit of coughing and loud crackling and clearing of the throat and then followed by the grand finale of skilful spitting .
In recent years Bintulu has changed a great deal which amazes even someone like me - a not so frequent traveller. New buildings have sprung up - in the old town folks' language words like "mall" and "water front" intersperse with "clinic" and "bus stop". "Night clubs" have been replaced by "pubs". But there is not one decent book shop where one can pick up a good map or a good book to read during the long long boat ride up the river. At bus stops people tend to play with their handphones rather than read a good book.
One of the most interesting buildings in Bintulu is the twin blue roofed buildings of the Wet and Dry Market and the Native Tamu situated next to the Kemena River. I often wonder why the colour blue is chosen for its roof. Is it to replicate the Blue Mosque of Istanbul? What is behind the choice of the colour?
I like the space(padang) offered by the town council next to the market. Most towns have a grand town square in front of the Resident's office. But this spacious padang is adjacent to a market and in front of a huge multi million ringgit Chinese temple. There is indeed a huge open space for the public to linger in the evenings to enjoy some "chill time". The esplanade or promenade also provides the space for keen fishermen to cast their net or line. A long stretch of pathway starts near the kampong and express wharf and ends fairly near the old Bintulu Hospital (now the town polyclinic). At least the Bintulu town continues to have a good river frontage. I believe if I ever chose Bintulu as a retirement place (being the riverine person that I am) I would be jogging along this particular and splendid stretch of esplanade every evening - rain or shine!
The roof of this Wet and Dry Market and the next building (the Tamu) are designed from the terendak conical hat shape of the Melanaus. These cool, colourful Terendak hatss are made of palm or biru leaves sewn on to umbrella frames of rattan and coloured bamboo. The crowns are made of bamboo to fit the wearer’s head.
On a rainy day ( the day I took this photo of the tamu) one felt so close to nature watching the people hurrying to their boats and cars. However the coldness of the concrete open space reminds one of social distance and foreigness and strangeness one can experience in a bigger city too.
With such a rich cultural heritage architects in Sarawak indeed has a wide choice of designs. Inspiration can come from a great range : from common to mystical and rare shapes.
1. The Wet and Dry Market and the Tamu buildings : Architect - Lankie Simbas . (from PCK)
2. Notes on Chinese Temple : Bintulu Chinese Temple flyer