What you need to know about all the great fires of Sarawak

Sarawak has been through quite a number of great fires throughout its history.

Just like the Great Fire of London which took place from Sept 2 till 6 in 1666 which gutted the medieval City of London, Sarawak has experienced fires so ‘great’ that have taken down whole bazaars or large sections of a town. Moreover, some places in Sarawak were unfortunate enough to have more than one great fire

Illustration only. Image by Pixabay.

So here are some of the historic fires that have taken place in Sarawak:

1.The Great Fire of Kuching

Sarawakians might have heard about the Great Fire of Kuching that broke on Jan 20, 1884 at 1.05am.

What most people may not be aware of is the looting that happened during the incident.

If the same case happened in Kuching today, the looters would, without a doubt, be condemned on social media.

Here is a report from the Straits Times which was published on Feb 2, 1884:

“Private advices received from Kuching, Sarawak and from Captain Joyce of the S.S. Ranee, inform us that a great fire occurred there on the morning of Sunday, the 20th January, which nearly proved the destruction of the entire town. The fire originated in Carpenter Street, entirely consisting of wooden houses, which were quickly consumed, and the fire soon spread into China Street and Bishopsgate Street, in which latter thoroughfare ten wooden buildings were also consumed.

The houses were old, and the fire ran from one to the other so rapidly that in a very short time from the first alarm the the three streets above named were one mass of flame, and it was thought the entire town of Kuching be destroyed.

Some of the principal merchants’ houses in the main Bazaar were connected through their back premises with these three streets, and at one time great apprehensions were entertained that the entire Bazaar and the merchants’ premises would be absorbed in the conflagration. The brick houses of Messrs. Seng Keng and Kong Wan were entirely gutted; but further damage was stopped by an opportune downpour of rain, which fell in torrents and effectively subdued the fire.

One hundred and thirty-two houses had, in the meantime, been destroyed, including the whole Carpenter Street, China Street, and Bishopsgate Street, and some new houses built in Nochi Road by Mr Ken Wat.

The Chinese residents and coolies stood looking at the fire, and not only refused any assistance, but devoted their attention entirely to looting.”

2.The Great Fire of Lundu

The common solution for all fire incidents in the past was to rebuild the town in ironwood.

Here is a report from Straits Times on Oct 17, 1893 that showed the Brooke government had another precaution to prevent fire from spreading.

“At Lundu, a town in Sarawak, a fire which broke out in the bazaar on the 3rd September consumed fifteen shops with property valued at $40,000. The Resident paid a visit to the town a few days afterwards, and on the shopkeepers proposing to rebuild the bazaar with ironwood, he advised that it should be built for the future in blocks, with plantains or some quick growing trees planted between which would serve as a screen in case of fire in the future.”

3.The Great Fire of Bau

The fire that engulfed Bau Bazaar in 1909 was so huge that the glare was reportedly distinctly visible from Kuching.

“Shak Lung Mung Bazaar Bau, was totally destroyed by fire early on the night of the 3rd. The shops on both sides of the Bazaar road were built of most inflammable materials, wood frames, attap and kajang roofs and walls, while many of the shops contained kerosene oil in tins. In such circumstances it only remained to try and save what could be got at from the shops not burning as nothing could possibly save the Bazaar when the fire had once obtained a hold, which it did in a few minutes,” The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser reported on Dec 30, 1909.

According to the report, the loss was estimated at $50,000.”

Meanwhile, a Chinese correspondent wrote to his Singaporean friend about how Bau town was destroyed by fire, causing panic among ita inhabitants.

The content of the letter was reported on The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser on Dec 16, 1909 under the headline ‘The Gods Send Fire’.

According to the correspondent, the flames rose hundreds of feet and, together with the crackling of wood, the smoke and frantic shouting, it was likened to a day of judgement for them.

He also attributed the cause of the fire to the ‘High Gods’ to whom, the writer stated, “the people have not prayed regularly for the last ten or twelve years.”

Hence, according to writer, the only way to wreak vengeance on the ungodly was, like Sodom and Gomorrah, to devour the town with flames.

4.The Great Fire of Simanggang

“From private advices we learn that on Tuesday last, at two o’clock in the morning, fire broke out in the bazaar, at Simanggang, Sarawak.

In a short time the whole bazaar was ablaze, and seventy-five shops were demolished, in the daylight.”

This was what Malaya Tribune reported on Dec 20, 1927 about the fire.

5.The Great Fires of Matu

Matu town was first established in 1885 by a group of Chinese who came directly from China to trade with the Melanaus.

According to Chang Pat Foh in his book Legend and History of Sarawak, Matu went through two great fires in which the whole bazaar was burnt down.

The first fire took place in 1897 and the second one 30 years later in 1927.

The Straits Budgets, however, reported on Feb 18, 1909 that another fire happened a month prior.

With the headline ‘Serious Fire in Sarawak’, this is what the paper reported:

“News was received in Sarawak, on January 21, that the whole Matu Bazaar had been destroyed by fire a few days previously and the Chinese shopkeepers there were destitute of goods and provisions.
The Government dispatched the steamer Alice Lorraine direct to Matu the following morning, with stores. The Sarawak Gazette understand that the loss to the Chinese is somewhere about $99,000 at the lowest computation.”

6.The Great Fires of Sibu

Sibu was burnt to the ground twice. The first fire happened on the night of Feb 10, 1889. About 60 shophouses were razed to the ground.

At that time, the cost of the damage was estimated at $15,000.

Then another bigger fire took place on Mar 7, 1928.

According to the report on the Straits Budget which was published on Mar 22, 1928, the blaze lasted for some hours but ‘the ruins were still smouldering three days afterwards.

The report continued, stating that “The only building that escaped in the bazaar was Messr. Soon Seng and Company’s retail premises. The premises of two British firms in Sibu, the Borneo Company and the Sarawak Steamship Company were destroyed. The former company had $50,000 in notes in a Chubb safe but the money and documents were untouched, and another firm which had $100,000 in notes in a fireproof safe was equally fortunate. The total damage was estimated at about $4,000,000, several hundred houses being destroyed together with other property and merchandise.”

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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