Pipe smoking in the olden days of Borneo

When it comes to traditional or the ‘old school’ way of smoking in Borneo, most people are familiar with the technique of wrapping the tobacco in a dried banana leaf before lighting up.

However, the oldest traditional form of smoking in the world is actually pipe smoking.

Even though pipe smoking in Borneo was less practiced compared to the traditional cigarette, it doesn’t mean it was not there.

Here are some descriptions of pipe smoking in the olden days of Borneo:

1.Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913)

When British naturalist Wallace was 31, he travelled through the Malay Archipelago including Borneo from 1854 to 1862.

Besides collecting specimens for his work on natural history, Wallace also observed the local culture.

Wallace once wrote in his book about pipe smoking, stating, “The Dyaks’ favourite pipe is a huge hubble-bubble, which he will construct in a few minutes, by inserting a small piece of bamboo for a bowl obliquely into a large cylinder, about six inches from the bottom, containing water, through which the smoke passes to long slender bamboo tube.”

2.Dayak smoking pipe in the Mahakam

Carl Alfred Bock (1849-1932) was a Norwegian author and explorer.

From 1878 to 1879, he travelled from Sumatra to Dutch Borneo under the authority of the then governor-general of the Dutch East Indies.

Based on his exploration, Bock wrote the book The Headhunters of Borneo; A Narrative of Travel Up the Mahakkam and Down the Barito, Journeyings in Sumatra (1882).

In the book, he described what a Dayak aasmoking pipe looked like.

“The Dyak pipe is a very peculiarly constructed instrument, consisting of a stout bamboo cylinder, about twenty-two inches long and one and a half inches in diameter, which contains water to cool the smoke ; inside this tube is placed a piece of split rattan filled with fibre, which absorbs the nicotine ; about one inch from the end of this tube is inserted, at right angles, a slender carved piece of ironwood, about eight inches in length, and bored with a hole rather more than a quarter of an inch in diameter ; this constitutes the bowl, which contains only a very small quantity of tobacco. The Dyak, however, never takes more than half-a-dozen puffs at a time, as the Java tobacco which is generally used is very strong, and the smoke is always swallowed. Cigarettes, made of a little tobacco rolled up in a small piece of banana leaf, are largely used. The use of opium is, in some districts, rapidly extending among the rich Dyaks.”

3.Owen Rutter

Speaking of a travel writer, Owen Rutter (1889-1944) was one of the prominent ones during the early 20th century,

From 1910 to 1915, Rutter was serving with the North Borneo Civil Service. After serving in the army during World War I, he travelled extensively around the world including Borneo, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, Canada and the United States.
Describing about smoking pipe of a Murut in his book British North Borneo: an account of its history, resources and native tribes (1922), Rutter stated:

“The pipe is a fearful contrivance, and is guaranteed to turn the most hardened European smoker green. It consists of a cylinder of bamboo twelve to eighteen inches long with a small brass or wooden bowl about an inch from one end. Into this bowl, which is about a quarter the size of an ordinary pipe, the Murut crams his tobacco, lights it, and then, having taken one or two enormous puffs down the bamboo mouthpiece, inhales violently.

“The air is choked with the reek of native tobacco and there arise great clouds of smoke, followed by a sound of coughing and expectoration. Immediately after all this you notice that he lays the pipe aside. The smoke is over. Mercifully so, for no pipe and a few smokers could endure so drastic a performance for very long.”

4. Did pipe smoking indicate a Chinese-occupied Borneo?

William Maunder Crocker was the Governor of British North Borneo from 1887 to 1888.

Unlike other Europeans who had observed pipe smoking among the locals, Crocker claimed, “I have never seen nor heard of any Bornean tribes who smoke pipes.”

However, English geologist Frank Hatton who worked in British North Borneo had two pipes in his possession before he died on Mar 1, 1883.

Commenting on the Hatton’s pipes, Crocker wrote, “They must be peculiar to that one tribe, the Tungara people. All the natives of Borneo smoke, almost from the moment they leave their mothers’ arms. They roll the tobacco in a palm leaf to smoke it and it has a very fine flavour. But pipes, this is the first time anybody has ever heard of pipes in Borneo.

“These two pipe-relics of Frank’s last expedition, are made of hard red wood, and have bamboo stems. They are much the same kind of pipe as that used by the Chinese, who only put in a pinch of tobacco.

“The discovery of these pipes suggests another piece of evidence favourable to the belief that at some very remote period Borneo was partially settled and occupied by China.”

5.The law against taking away a pipe

Whether part of Borneo was ever occupied by China is a story for another day.

One thing for sure is that there is a native law that still exists to this day regarding the Bidayuh traditional bamboo water pipe, sirubok.

According to Sarawak native law Adat Bidayuh 1994 Section No 56, whoever damages, contaminates or takes a away a sirubok from a pingudung (rest stop) shall provide one hundred fruit as pingasung, or some form of restitution for a breach of the adat.

So if you see a sirubok lying around, be a model citizen and treat it like you would any piece of public property – with respect.

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 is currently obsessed with silent vlogs during this Covid-19 pandemic.

Due to her obsession, she started her Youtube channel of slient vlogs.

Follow her on Instagram at @patriciahului, Facebook at Patricia Hului at Kajomag.com or Twitter at @patriciahului.

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