What’s in a name? Stories behind a few of Sarawak’s rural place-names

Punan River. This is the river that gives the Punan (not Penan), their name. Once a deep wide river but in recent decades become shallower due to human activities such as logging and plantations.

Kenyalang Portraits

By Calvin Jemarang

WHAT’S in a name? A lot, particularly for the name of a place as it is not merely a label of a certain geographical location. There is always history and culture behind each and every place-name.

For example, if one were to visit settlements in Baram or Telang Usan as it is known to the locals — there are places called Long Bedian, Long Lama, and Long Moh. Further to the east towards the mountainous region of the Kelabit Highlands, you would encounter ‘Pa Umor’.

“Long” denotes settlement or longhouses of Kayan, Kenyah and Penan. On the other hand the “Pa Umor” definitely is not a Kayan or Kenyah toponymy — it is Kelabit. Actually by place-names alone, one would immediately know they have entered a ‘foreign’ territory. Place-names are a reflection of the rich cultural heritage, history of a certain geographical region.


In certain cultures, place-names have certain spiritual, mythical and sacred elements. A river, located about 80km south of Bintulu called ‘Punan’ is considered a sacred river among the Punan people. Its sacredness, in the last century was desecrated by outsiders.

In early 1935, the Ba River (‘Bah’ on maps), including the Punan River was logged by Borneo Company Limited (BCL) — a company linked to the then White Rajah. Even through it was less destructive than today’s mechanized logging, the damage done was immense. Here is how a former colonial officer Ian Urqhuhart in his memoir “Sarawak Anecdotes: A Personal Memoir of Service 1947-1965” described the destruction:

“Eventually, some elephants arrived at a riverside camp and were then released to go and forage for themselves. … for by chance the elephants wandered into an ancient graveyard and the Penghulu [Puso] expressed his extreme horror at the dreadful desecration, and that considerable monetary compensation from the B.C.L. would be needed to rectify matters. To the outsider, it was often difficult to know where were ancient and no longer used graveyards but it seemed almost everywhere that the elephants foraged turned out to be such a graveyard! At this rate, the extraction of timber by elephants in Sarawak was going to be far less profitable than was the case in Thailand. The B.C.L. asked for all graveyards in their concession to be surveyed, but this proved expensive and difficult to carry out. Eventually, the B.C.L. decided to withdraw their elephants.”

The BCL logging operation ceased and all the elephants were removed from Ba River sometime in the 1960s. Then, over a decade later, a new concessionaire came in. Instead of elephants they brought in “lipan komatsu, ketapila” (Komatsu and Caterpillar dozers), and “lori hino, mercedes and nissan” (Hino, Mercedes and Nissan lorries). The logging operation was very destructive. The Punan River, which at all time was over a few feet deep, today is only about four feet deep due to sedimentation.

Consequently, the Ba watershed has been logged over a few times in the last few decades, depleted of its valuable timber, then converted into a massive oil palm and acacia tree plantation. As a result, the sacredness of the heavily degraded watershed that gives the Punan their name has been reduced to no more than a stream.

The view of the mighty Rajang River as seen from the rooftop of an express boat. Rajang is derived from “Lajeang” or “Lajang” — the name of this mighty river in the local tongues.

Cultural sensitivity is important. Disregard locals’ wishes at your own peril as manifested in the Bakun Resettlement Scheme (BRS) at Sungai Koyan and Sungai Atap. To the thousands of Orang Ulu residing in the BRS Sungai Asap, the scheme’s name is a dreaded one. Apparently, someone misspelled the word ‘Atap’ to become ‘Asap’. Atap is Malay word for ‘roof’, whereas ‘Asap’ means ‘smoke’.

The issue surrounding the BRS name was contentious. Superstitious or otherwise, some believed it was a bad choice for a place-name. And, seemingly to perpetuate the superstition, one after another, longhouses within the BRS went up in flames. The most recent fire incident was on April 15, 2019 that saw 30 households at Uma Bawang being made homeless. The Orang Ulu folks in the BRS began petitioning the state government to change the name of ‘BRS Sungai Asap’ and sometime in 2019, BRS Sungai Asap was renamed “BRS Apau Koyan” or “BRS Apo Koyan”.

Place-names also undergo changes due to shifting demographics. The mighty Rajang River’s name is derived from ‘Lajeang’ or ‘Lajang’ as it known to this watershed autochthonous groups — Punan, Sekapan, Kejaman, Lahanan, Kanowit and Tanjong, or Kajang as they are collectively known. The Iban, Kayan and Kenyah who dominate this watershed today, according to many historians, were recent arrivals from the mid-18th century onwards.

Amo and Mamong Rivers

A Kayan village near present day Amo River. Amo River was known as ‘Me Amau’ – a place-name of Punan origin how it was known until the early twentieth century.

The arrivals of new peoples often led to changes in toponymy. Today the Belaga landscape is dominated by Kayan and Kenyah, while a few villages belonging to the region’s much earlier settlers, the Kajang, are tucked in between them.

This shifting demographic reflected in the alteration of a few toponyms, or place-names derived from topographical feature features. As we drift down the Rajang River, about a kilometre downstream of Belaga town, there are two small rivers — Amo and Mamong Rivers as stated on most maps today. These two rivers were previously called “Me Amau” and “Menamoang” respectively by the region earlier settlers — the Punan.

In the 18th century, the Kajang (Sekapan and Kejaman) were driven out of Balui and Linau Rivers by the Kayan and Kenyah. Later, this Kajang group relocated to below the Bakun rapids.

During the first few decades of their relocation downstream, their settlements were clustered between Mejawah River to Segaham River. Then, the Sekapan gradually drifted towards the Belaga River. After the Mamong-Ba Dungan area was deserted by the Kulan group (Punan) who then settled at Laveang (Labang), in the Kemena River, their leader Avit moved the Sekapan further downriver to near the Dungan River.

Shortly after the relocation, Avit died, and his community split into two groups. A group led by Matu Navit (Taman Menteri) remained at Dungan, while his brother Langet with a few families went to Piit River. In 1882, Brooke Low reported Matu Navit’s longhouse as a “26-door house”, while his nephew Ngang Langet’s, was a 10-door house. Today, these two Sekapan longhouses are known as “Sekapan Panjang” and “Sekapan Piit” respectively.

Metah, Enchermin River

Farther downstream closer to Kapit, there were clusters of historic settlements belonging to various eras of settlers — from Punan, Tanjong, to Kayan and most recently the Dayak Iban. This changing era is reflected in the renaming of the toponyms. The Metah River used to be called ‘Peta River’ when the region was inhabited by Punan, Lepu Wun, Tanjong, then the former nomads — Sihan, Beketan, Lugat and Lisum peoples. The Punan remained in the area until mid-late 19th century.

Their last known settlement was located a short distance downriver from Peta River, which was called Lo’o Koho. The settlement apparently still exists in 1848, based on an account of Robert Burn. It was subsequently visited by a colonial officer named H. de Windt shortly after Robert Burn. de Windt said it was located about three miles from Kapit Fort, inhabited by 150 people and measuring 40 yards (36.6 metres) long. de Windt described the longhouse was built on the same principle as those he saw at Kanowit. Today, Lo’o Koho’ has been renamed “Enchermin” or “Cermin” — a name obviously linked to the region’s new inhabitants — the Dayak Iban.

Sibu

Present day Sibu town. It’s name is a corrupted version of “Sibau” or “Sibau Maling”. The origin of the name is unknown, but the Orang Ulu in particular Kayan called it ‘Sibau Maling’.

We know it today as ‘Sibu’ but decades ago it was called ‘Sibau’ or ‘Sibau Maling’. The origin of this name is unknown, but seems to be what it is known to Tanjong, Kanowit, and Kayan who reportedly had a settlement on one of the islands. C.D Bethune in “Notes on part of the West Coast of Borneo” published in 1846, reported Kayan presence in the Rejang delta to as far as Sarikei.

Mount Mersing, Anap River

Mount Mersing is the source of Anap, Penyarai and Merit watersheds. It is actually still known to the region autochthonous groups — Punan and Tatau (pronounce Taytow) as “Tuguong Siing” — tuguong (mount). Anap River obviously is a corruption for Enap River. But geographically, Enap River is located near the mouth of Tatau River and is actually a small stream. The toponym ‘Enap’ is derived from the word “mengenap” which means “scaling a fish” — a Punan and Taytow word. Legend has it, the stream was where fishermen returning from the sea would scale (mengenap) their catch. But into the middle of the nineteenth century the area near the mouth of Tatau River gradually populated by Iban. However, to avoid conflict with the region’s original settlers, their number was restricted by the colonial administrators based in Balingian and Mukah.

However, they learned of a route into Tatau and Kemena via Pelagus, thanks to their allies, the Beketan. The Iban, seemingly clueless, begin to call the upper Tatau River, Opai Tatau in Punan, as “Anap River”. Consequently, the name was adopted by the colonial administrators.

Pandan, Labang

Pictured is the Pandan River estuary with Pandan Bazaar, which started as a trading post for Chinese traders in the late 19th century. Pandan is a corrupted version of ‘Pedan’ which is the river’s original name.

The first settlers of Pandan and Labang were Punan. They called the present-day Pandan as ‘Pedan’, while Labang was ‘Laveang’. There were several burial poles of Punan found along Pandan, Labang and Jelalong River — a few remain in situ today.

The changes of place-names are also due to politics. For example, Sri Aman town has always been called Simanggang by the locals. Somehow, back in 1974 Simanggang was renamed ‘Sri Aman’. It was a politically-motivated name change, that is to commemorate the suppression of Communist activities in the region. However, locals dreaded the ‘Sri Aman’ name. In 2019, the current Chief Minister Datuk Patinggi Abang Johari Tun Openg decided to revert the town’s name to Simanggang, and ‘Sri Aman’ became the Division’s name. Similarly, a small town near Sarikei called ‘Bintangor’ has not always been known by this name. It was previously known as ‘Binatang’ — considered a derogatory name.

Ultimately, place-names are an important part of our geographical and cultural environment. These names are actually the manifestation of different identities and cultural values of certain groups. It gives people a sense of belonging, well-being, and of major social importance. Place-name after all is a reflection of our rich history and cultural heritage. — DayakDaily