I’d been to Borneo—and specifically Sarawak, in Malaysian Borneo—less than a year ago. On that trip I’d traveled from Kuching, to the west, all along the Pan Borneo Highway, to Bandar Seri Begawan, in Brunei, with stops in Gunung Mulu National Park and Sibu along the way. It was to the latter, Sibu, that I returned.
I hadn’t expected much of Sibu, having read that it was a rather gritty and unfriendly city more concerned with its lumber profits than with welcoming visitors. It was certainly on the gritty side, certainly not what I’d call a tourism-ready place, especially when compared to Kuching and its pretty riverfront. Yet, I enjoyed Sibu’s upfront and unpretentious air, it’s take-us-as-we-are attitude and lived-in, practical set up. Furthermore, I found that the city’s people, though not clamoring for tourists, were friendly and curious. More importantly, Sibu is the gateway to the Rejang River, Borneo’s (modest) answer to the Amazon.
While in Sibu the first time around, I’d taken a so-called Flying Coffin up the Rejang to Kapit, an absolutely lovely riverside town where I’d spent a few hours draining warm beers with a group of Iban, the indigenous people of the region. Unfortunately, I soon had to catch the last boat back to Sibu, though I remember seriously considering missing my ride and finding a place to stay the night in Kapit, especially once I was invited to go further up the Rejang, to Belaga, in the Ulu-ulu, meaning back of beyond.
Instead, I resolved to return, to dedicate at least a week to the Rejang. And so here I was, back in Borneo and strolling the streets of Sibu.
Within moments of arriving, I was hailed by a group of old men seated near the port. They were drinking beers around a metal table in the shade of a small shop awning. Id’ gone to the port to double check the schedule for the boat to Kapit and was now simply trudging along in the sun, sweating obscenely. The men waved me over to their table and, though not a one spoke much English, I well understood that I was being invited to join them for a beer. I grabbed a seat and a bottle.
They were all of Chinese origin, common for Sibu, known as one of the “most Chinese” cities in Malaysia. A couple were Hokkien Chinese, another was Foochow. Beyond this, I didn’t learn much. And then a new arrival appeared at my side and the others rejoiced: this man spoke English. He introduced himself as Mister Cho, a small and energetic man in his late sixties or early seventies. He joined us and facilitated a basic conversation as I learned that most of the men at the table were or had been fishermen, though business had been slow and slowing still. The fish were small, they complained, stunted by pollution in the river.
As though reminded that their livelihoods led to good eating, they called over the shop owner, a patiently amused woman in her forties, and ordered some food and another round of beers. I hadn’t paid yet but they informed me that the next round was on me. I laughed and agreed. When the food arrived it proved absolutely unidentifiable. They were chunks of meat, clearly fish, but the flesh clung to either side of a row of small, cartilaginous ribs.
“Ray,” said Mister Cho.
It tasted just like fish but the texture was more firm, like pork. It wasn’t bad at all.
Eventually, I let it slip that it was my birthday. I was turning forty that very day. They all toasted in celebration and, as we began to disperse, Mister Cho insisted that I follow him to his favorite karaoke bar.
It was still broad daylight, an odd time, it seemed to me, to go to karaoke, but Mister Cho was adamant. It was my birthday and he wanted to sing for me. How could I say no? The place was little more than a hole in a wall, a single long room with a small glass-doored refrigerator filled with beer cans, a small counter behind which a large woman watched us approach, and a small stage upon which a slight man in his fifties warbled. Three or four tables were scattered in front of the stage and, beyond these, the doors to the washroom and a tiny kitchen.
The large woman immediately recognized Mister Cho, as did the half dozen or so other patrons. Even the man on stage paused to acknowledge the older man’s arrival. We settled at a table with another Chinese man in his sixties. Mister Cho introduced him as Mister Terry. Mister Terry did not sing, he was there only to drink beer. He was a city bus driver, he explained between sips of Anchor.
After ordering some food, beers, and going over a stack of CDs, Mister Cho settled on a few Chinese favorites. He took to the stage and sang his goddamned heart out. It was a little awkward, being serenaded by an elderly Chinese man on my birthday, but I felt a little less uncomfortable on Mister Cho explained that these were not love songs or anything like that. No, despite their rather lovely melodies, these were mostly communist anthems dating back to the Maoist regime. Oh. Good.
After a few more songs and a couple more beers, it was time to call it a day—though it was still early afternoon. As we got up to leave, Mister Terry followed us, finishing off his third or fourth beer and explaining that he was actually only on break and he had to get back to his bus.
I thanked Mister Cho profusely for his hospitality, those things I’d read about Sibu being a cold and unfriendly place now proving all the more ridiculous. He gave me his phone number and told me to give him a call if ever I needed anything while in Sibu and we parted with a wave. He continued to hum those same Maoist tunes as he walked away.
That night I returned to one of my favorite parts of the city: the night market. I love the night markets of Asia and, with only a tiny doubt, I’d say that my favorite thus far might very well be Sibu’s. It’s not the biggest, nor the liveliest, but there’s something indefinably genuine about it, clearly existing for the people of Sibu. This is especially evident in its two-faced nature: with half of its space and stalls reserved for the Muslim Malay, with no alcohol or pork products on sale, but with some of the best satay you’ve ever had; and the other half taken up by the Chinese Malay, with pork buns spread and stacked everywhere and beer cans drowning in beds of melting ice.
I wandered the night market, collecting spears of spiced meat here, dumplings and bao there, my hands loaded with paper bags streaming fragrant steam, a beer tucked under my arm. I snacked as I walked, wondering for a moment if it was uncouth to munch on a pork dumpling while strolling through the Muslim side of the market, but shrugging it off as I spotted chicken in peanut sauce.
As was always the case in Sibu, I returned to my hotel room stuffed and dragging what food I couldn’t cram down my gullet. I slept hard, ready to begin my trip up the Rejang the next morning.