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Cost of food was also an issue in Sarawak back in 1899

No matter which country or century you are from, living expenses like the high cost of food has always been a primary concern.

But did you know this issue also affected the people of Sarawak even in 1899?

In an article published in The Sarawak Gazette on Nov 1, 1899, an unnamed author compared the increasing of cost of food in the former kingdom, highlighting how much the prices had increased over the years.

According to the author, there were no import duties on any food stuffs. Meanwhile, the market tariffs only affected vegetables, pork and fish, and these to a very small degree.

Here at KajoMag, we enjoy looking back through history, and so here is how much our food commodities cost back in 1899:

1.Fish products

Fish was sold at the market for 1/2 to 1 cent per catty (the weight equivelent of 604g). Salted terubok fish was sold at 2 or 3 cents each, which then increased to 8 to 10 cents in 1899.

The author also complained that salted tenggiri fish was selling at $5 per picul (which is old-school for a shoulder-load or 60kg), and then increased to $18.

Even dried prawns suffered the same fate whereby the price rose from 7 to 8 cents per catty to 20 cents.

Dried shrimp. Credits: Pixabay.

2.Vegetables

The switch from vegetables to pepper cultivation had led to an increase in vegetable prices in Sarawak in 1899.

“How prices have risen with the last few years the following figures will show: Kribang or sweet potatoes which is a staple article of food formerly cost 35 to 40 cents per picul and now cost $1 to $1.50, and all other vegetables have risen over 50%.”

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3.Pigs

The author also wrote about the price of pigs in 1899, “Pigs which were formerly sold at $9 per pikul now fetch $24 per pikul, and the retail price has risen from 13 to 14 cents per catty to 30-35 cents.”

Sarawak used to import pigs from Pontianak but then the number slowly decreased due to export duty imposed on these animals.

Was price control the answer to the high cost of food?

Although the author concluded that the cost of living and the cost of production had increased in Sarawak, he pointed out that the ‘reasons and the remedy for it are beyond us’.

He stated, “The government cannot say to a man, ‘you shall produce such and such food stuff and sell at such and such a price’. That experiment was tried during the first French Revolution and failed miserably.”

So according to the author, the government’s hope that bringing Hakka immigrants to plant more rice and vegetables would be fruitful in catering to the increasing demand of food.

He continued, “Cheaper rice would doubtless make a difference but we cannot hold out hopes of any great reductions either now or in the near future.”

More than 100 years later, these prices have never been reduced!

Patricia Hului
Patricia Hului is a Kayan who wants to live in a world where you can eat whatever you want and not gain weight. She grew up in Bintulu, Sarawak and graduated from the University Malaysia Sabah with a degree in Marine Science. She worked for The Borneo Post SEEDS, which is now defunct. When she's not writing, you can find her in a studio taking belly dance classes, hiking up a hill or browsing through Pinterest. Follow her on Instagram at @patriciahului, Facebook at Patricia Hului at Kajomag.com or Twitter at @patriciahului.
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