Last of the Jong makers

Abdul Rahman recounts his craftsmanship and the many sailboats he has crafted.

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Kenyalang Portraits

By Wilfred Pilo

BAU, April 14: Abdul Rahman Lamat, 79, is an icon of sorts in Bau for his name is synonymous with Jong — miniature boats that resemble Chinese junks — which he used to make for racing.

His beautiful and competitive sailboats used to be the talk of the town whenever the Jong Regatta (now Tasik Biru Festival) is around the corner. And he proved his prowess in building this kind of boat with his victories over the years in not one but in five categories: Schooner, Bandong, Kotak, Skuchi and Barong.

But, unfortunately, these colourful success stories and his craft will soon come to an end. This is because none of his family members is interested to learn what he knows.

DayakDaily caught up with this former Bau District Office worker recently to talk about his passion for Jong.

“I could be the last of my generation in making these miniature, traditional sailboats. I was only 12 years old when I got hooked on them.

“In fact, I can still remember vividly that my heart would pound with excitement every time my dad crafted a Jong for racing. Races back then were organised by the Bau District Office.”

Abdul Rahman (centre) making final preparations on his Jong before a race on Bau Lake.
Abdul Rahman and the trophy he won at the Jong Regatta in Bau Lake many years ago. Photo courtesy of Masliza Abdul Rahman

According to Abdul Rahman, the idea for Jong Regatta was mooted by Colonial District Officer (DO) A.J.N. Richard in 1949.

“Tuan Richard was himself an enthusiast of Jong, and he encouraged his staff to make such boats as a form of recreational activity.”

He recalled that way before the formation of Malaysia, there were many people in Bau who could make these junks for racing.

“My relative Percy Bodeh also has good eyes for sailboats, and his masterpieces are exquisite in design. I dare say he inspired me to take up this great handcraft, and it is from him that I learned about good woodcraft.”

Abdul Rahman narrated that well before all this type of big boat racing came into the picture, he and his friends from the same village created mini regattas of their own to race their foot-long junks.

“We competed at the used gold mine pond at Bukit Tiang, along Jalan Bungalow, during our spare time. Back then, our sails were all made of paper, so once our boats overturned, that’s the end of it.

“The finishing line is usually at the other end of the pond, and the winner will go home 10 sen richer. It was fun then because 10 sen was a lot of money at that time.”

Abdul Rahman about to get his Jong onto Bau Lake.

During the Jong Regattas in the 50s and 60s, workers of the Public Works Department (PWD) were at the forefront. They were good racers as they could make very competitive boats. PWD also had funds for proper building materials, so that helped, too.

Jong Regatta was also very prominent in the 70s but it stopped when Bau Lake was drained to make way for gold mining for quite some time.

“I think it was in the mid-1980s that the races were revived again and my sailboats never failed me as I always had Lady Luck with me. I never lost in any race I entered. If only the prize money was big, it would be much better, but to me, it was the satisfaction of having my boats win and my work appreciated by many that is of utmost importance.

“You know what, before each race, many competitors often teased me that I was going to win, and true enough, I was blessed by what they said.”

Abdul Rahman stopped making these junks some 13 years ago as age has caught up with him and he no longer can withstand the rigours of making them.

“No one in my family is keen to follow in my footsteps, and I may be the last of craftsmen of my generation doing these traditional miniature boats using simple tools like an axe, small parang, saw, chisel, a square ruler and a pencil. There may be a few left in Bau and Buso, but they could be as old as me and retired.

“I think these days people have more sophisticated tools to do the craft, but then the satisfaction is different.”

A family member posing with Abdul Rahman’s Jong at the Jong Regatta in Bau Lake.
A relative of Abdul Rahman posing with his Jongs.

On what he had used to make winning boats, he disclosed that his preference was to use light wood, which is still plentiful at the nearby secondary forests and by the roadside. This type of wood, he explained, is easy to craft and also light and fast on water. Of course, the design must be right.

To build one sailboat takes about a week. It could be merely a foot or 6 feet in length. Price for the timber depends on its length, but back then, they could be had for between RM3 and RM15 a piece. But if one takes the trouble to trek into the nearby secondary forest to look for them, then it is free, of course.

Although he has hung up his tools, his family members did take some of his remaining masterpieces out to race in Bau Lake in 2012.

“They own them now, and they have them stored somewhere. I don’t have regrets.”

Family members in a photo-call with Abdul Rahman (back row, centre) and their Jongs. They were participating in the Jong Regatta at Bau Lake.

Abdul Rahman revealed that after he retired from the Bau District Office and from making jong, he did receive requests from members of the Chinese community to built miniature boats for them. They would place offerings on them to appease their Gods.

“I sold them for about RM200 each.”

He hoped the government could look into this traditional way of making miniature sailing boats and continue with such boat races in Bau Lake or elsewhere.

“I am sure it can attract tourists. The government can look for those who are still capable of teaching the young. Anyway, these days, things are made easier by technology.” — DayakDaily