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Longhouses, Sarawak cultural heritage we lost to fire in 2018

On Nov 19, a 30-door Kenyah longhouse called Uma Bakung in Sungai Asap was razed by fire at around 10.46am.

Locally famous for its pineapple production, the longhouse fire left over 400 people homeless.

Many people may not realise that a loss of a longhouse is a loss of cultural heritage.

A longhouse is more than just a home where family memories are made, it’s also where family heirlooms and traditional crafts passed down from generation to generation are stored.

Taking the recently burnt Uma Bakong for example, every ‘bilik’ had a display of ‘sa’ong’(a Kenyah sunhat) in its living room as decoration.

A sa’ong, similar to the Kayan’s ‘hong’ is made from palm leaves and usually decorated with beads and fabric.

Nowadays, it is difficult to harvest palm leaves in the jungle and even more difficult to find is the art of making sa’ong among the younger generation.

Furthermore when a longhouse is lost to fire, it takes some time to rebuild it. For safety reasons, most wooden longhouses are rebuilt in concrete, forgoing the authenticity of the traditional structure.

While the worth of burnt properties could be estimated and become a Fire and Rescue Department statistic, the value of customary items and traditional artifacts to the family and the community as a whole can never be quantified.

A photo of Uma Bakung before it was taken by fire in early October 2018.
What is left of Uma Bakung after the fire on Nov 19.

Apart from Uma Bakung, here is a list of longhouses in Sarawak we lost so far to fire in 2018:

1. Rumah Langat Anthony Collin, Tinjar (Jan 31)

When fire gutted the entire 37-door Rumah Langat Anthony Collin, one of its residents reportedly died from an apparent heart attack after the incident.

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Located in Nanga Majang, it takes two hours’ journey by boat from Marudi where the nearest fire station is situated.

2. Rumah Mawang Takan, Tatau (Jan 25)

A 21-door longhouse was engulfed in flames in Tatau on a late Thursday night. However, the fire and rescue department reportedly only received a distress call the next morning due to poor phone connectivity in the area.

3. Rumah Nyipak, Sebauh (Feb 4)

A Sunday night fire engulfed more than half of the 63-door longhouse at Rumah Nyipak in February.

In this case, the firefighters were able to save 27 units of the longhouse from being razed. Still, more than 250 people lost their homes that night.

4.Rumah King Brim Kartadem, Limbang (Mar 4)

Rumah King Brim Kartadem was one of many longhouses in rural Sarawak located too far from any fire station.

It took about four hours for personnel from the Limbang fire station to reach the scene when fire razed the seven-door longhouse. In the end, 27 victims were left homeless when their entire longhouse was completely destroyed.

5.Long Peluan, Ulu Baram (Apr 5)

A midnight fire destroyed a 19-door Kelabit longhouse block reportedly in just 15 minutes. The incident left 19 families homeless with nothing but their clothes on. The second block of the longhouse with 12 families was unaffected by the fire.

6.Rumah Museh, Pantu (Aug 19)

About 40 residents lost their homes to an afternoon fire on Aug 19. The fire gutted a 20-door Rumah Museh in Sri Aman. Only the kitchen section of two units were undisturbed while the rest of the longhouse was razed to the ground.

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7.Rumah Sengalang, Tatau (Aug 27)

Luckily there were no injuries when a fire razed the 12-door longhouse in Jalan Seliliut Tatau-Bintulu. According to a statement by the Fire and Rescue Department, the firemen used water from the fire engines as well as from Sungai Selitut to take out the flame. Regardless, about 65 people lost their homes in the early morning fire.

7. Rumah Augustine Sait, Sri Aman (Sept 14)

This 24-door longhouse was reduced to ashes leaving 50 residents homeless. Thankfully, there were no reports of injuries or casualties.

8. Rumah Patrick Kebing, Tubau (Sept 12)

Two families lost their homes in a fire that burnt a five-door longhouse in Tubau, about an hour from Bintulu. Fortunately, there were no casualties in the incident.

9. Rumah Dagom Sanggai, Song (Sept 25)

Located at Nanga Makut in Sungai Katibas, Rumah Dagom Sanggai was one of the longhouses which still retained its traditional structure. A fire broke out at about 8am, razing the longhouse to the ground. The incident left almost 300 residents homeless.

10.Rumah Bada, Song (Sept 29)

Less than a week after fire in Rumah Dagom Sanggai, another longhouse in Song district went up in smoke. The 16-door Rumah Bada was completely destroyed in a fire happened around 6am.

Watch the video of Uma Bakung after fire on Nov 19, 2018 at 12.30pm:

 

Various efforts by the Fire and Rescue Department and corporations have been carried out to prevent or minimise fire damage which include training longhouse chiefs in fire safety. But with challenges in water supply, cell phone service and logistics for many rural and remote communities is it enough?

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Read about how a longhouse was rebuilt after being razed to the ground:

The soul of a community: How a young architect helped resurrect a village longhouse in Borneo

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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