Small traders in rural Tatau feel the pinch of Covid-19 as business slows down

Rebecca waiting for customers at her stall selling some local products including tuak and ingredients for the miring ceremony.

By D’Drift Team

TATAU, Oct 19: Small traders like Rebecca Abon at the Tatau market here are feeling the pinch of Covid-19 as business has slowed down significantly even though restrictions have been eased as Sarawak continues to transit into the endemic phase of the disease.

During the D’Drift Team’s stopover at the town on Monday, only a handful of stalls at the roof-covered market remained open at about 1.30pm.

Rebecca was seen seated and playing with her smartphone while waiting for customers at her stall that sells ‘tuak‘ (rice wine), ‘langkau‘ (distilled tuak), homemade yeast balls known as ‘ragi’ for wine-making, ingredients for ‘miring‘ (ritual offering ceremony of the Iban) and some local produce and products.

“Customers and visitors have not returned. It is pretty quiet, business is really slow and we are seeing a decrease in sales. A small number of people do stop by in the morning but not throughout the day, unlike before the pandemic.

“That’s why it is so empty today as scores of stalls have already reduced their hours as there are not many customers coming in. Even on weekends, there aren’t a lot of people,” she said.

The quiet Tatau roof-covered market on a Monday afternoon.

Having traded in the market for many years, Rebecca pointed out that it is a difficult time, especially for small businesses in rural towns which have no choice but to just tough it out.

“Last year was worse and trading has just picked up this year but it is still very slow. Even the supplies of produce from farms are inconsistent and uncertain. Normally, my counter will be filled with products including bananas and seasonal fruits like langsat and rambutan but this time around, it is hard to get them.”

She also observed that the pandemic has changed consumer behaviour as there are people who are out of work and those on daily wages see less job opportunities, thus leading to a decline in spending as people are trying to be prudent.

“Things are also more expensive now. The value of money has shrunk and you can’t buy a lot of things for RM50. Even a few bunches of vegetables are costlier now.

“We are also earning only a small profit from the things we sell because the price of products from suppliers have increased,” she added.

Before saying our goodbyes, the D’Drift Team took the time to pick out a few choice items from the market, in the hopes that the local traders may be able to sustain themselves for a little longer, and for the crowds to return.

Local markets like this one in Tatau are a great place for visitors to immerse themselves in authentic local culture.

A visit to the market can give visitors a candid look at the life of local people and gain some insights into the traditions, cultures and customs practiced by the diverse communities living in Sarawak.

For example, ragi have been the secret ingredient in making tuak, the fermented alcoholic drink of the natives in Sarawak.

The traditional starter base that contains bacterial enzymes and yeast is produced from a mixture of ingredients including local galangal, pepper powder, ginger, cinnamon, rice flour and water.

It is kneaded and rolled into a ball and then left to dry in the sun for three to four days, during which enzymes and yeast from the environment are accumulated.

Traditional yeast balls used for making rice wine like tuak.
Tuak in mineral water bottles sold at Tatau market.

Meanwhile, the miring ceremony is performed to honour or appease or seek blessings from the gods, spirits and ancestors for protection, prevent natural disasters and ensure that everything will run smoothly.

Prior to the ceremony, various preparations must be made including preparing important ingredients for the ritual. They include glutinous rice, unhusked glutinous for making puffed rice, glutinous rice flour, rice flour, nipah sugar for making rice cakes and eggs.

Other materials used for preparing the offering are betel-vine leaves (sirih), gambier leaves, tobacco, lime paste, dried wild banana leaves, dried nipah leaves used as tobacco wrappers, salt, tuak, weaved small ketupat or small packets which will be filled with certain ingredients and red threads. — DayakDaily

The various ingredients for the miring ceremony can be found at Rebecca’s stall at Tatau market.
Dried tobacco wrappers on sale at the market.