Sunday, January 01, 2017

Sepupok or "Old Niah Town" – a unique history

SEPUPOK is also known as Old Niah Town. Many people are often confused by its two names and unique history.

During the Brooke rule and the British colonial administration, Sepupok was the gateway to the Niah Caves and therefore, the precious birds’ nests as well.

Originally, it was a 12-woodenshop Chinese bazaar set up in the early 20th century and surrounded by Iban longhouses, Penan settlements and Kedayan fishing villages.

Until very recently, people travelled to the Niah Caves by longboat along the Niah River in the absence of no roads between Miri and Old Niah or Sepupok.

In the 1950’s and 60’s, the research and excavation of the Niah Caves were conducted via Sepupok. The administrative centre of Niah, especially Subis, is in the District Office building on top of the hill, overlooking Sungai Peri and the old Sepupok bazaar.

Thirty years ago, the Malaysian government built a road joining Sepupok to the main trans-Sarawak road, leading to the founding of a new township called Batu Niah and putting Niah Caves on the world tourist map. This has led to the ‘Second Life of Sepupok’.

In the last two years, a new Sepupok — its ‘third life’ — had risen up along the new Coastal Road.

Iban-Chinese trading

In her younger days, Monica Ngumbang’s world revolved around her longhouse along the Niah River.

Naturally, she compared most things with what she knew. When first brought to see the Chinese shops of Sepupok by her parents in the late 60’s, she likened the whole Chinese bazaar to their longhouse.

“The shops were the bilik where the towkays sold stuff or served coffee and the five foot way was the ruai. Upstairs would be the sleeping area for the families. And like the longhouse, the bazaar faced the river,” she said.

Monica was born in Rumah Limbang, not too far from Sepupok, more than 40 years ago. She vividly remembers the Chinese wooden shops and the Chinese friends she made there.

Her parents tied their longboats to jetty of their special ‘towkay’. Each family would be closely connected with one towkay.

It was always a good outing for the family to sail down the Niah River to Sepupok where Monica’s parents would sell their rubber sheets, rice and jungle produce.

On their return journey, they were happy to load their store-bought items in their longboat. The children loved having some cakes, biscuits and even sweets as treats. Aerated water from the coffeeshop was a must while their mum would also buy some material.

Monica remembers the towkays and the Ibans from the various longhouses were the best of friends, calling each other by their nicknames. The usual arrangement was for the customers to purchase goods and pay at the end of the month.

Each family would have a special ‘account book’ to record their purchases from the towkays.

Thriving town

Inggol Rangong, who was born in Ulu Niah, told thesundaypost Sepupok was not only a ‘thriving town’ back then but also a centre for news about the ‘outside world’. The Ulu folks brought down rice, rubber sheets and jungle produce, including rattan and game meat.

Inggol said: “Sepupok was the business centre, before Batu Niah was established. It was truly an old trading centre during the colonial days.”

The Chinese towkays also conducted ‘mobile’ business upriver in longboats filled with biscuits, sugar, salt, salted vegetables, fresh Chinese vegetables.

They would stay a week at each longhouse, and on their return journey, their longboats would be filled with jungle produce such as rattan, fruits, rice and rubber sheets.

The relationship between the Chinese and the Iban was always amicable and some even became ‘bian’ or brothers.

In return, when the Ibans needed to stay at Sepupok for administrative purposes (Sepupok was then the British administrative centre of the Niah Valley), they were welcomed to stay with the shopkeepers and their families.

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