Wednesday, February 25, 2009


I celebrated the purchase of my first ever digital camera a few years ago with an outing on my favourite beach - and my favourite past time - watching people at work.

The catching of bubuk is an annual affair in Miri. Fisherfolks go wild when the shrimps arrive in literally millions on the shallow waters and the sky and the water seem to be pink for days! They call it "itu benda sudah datang" with low toned reverence in their voices while their hearts would be beating a tattoo. And they often would even take leave just to go down to the sea.

In the days ready for bubok fishing the sea would be mirror calm. There might not even be a wave at all. That is the moment for the great bubuk! Only those of us who have a paka (or pangkak) know the real feelings of going into the sea and spending a wet day walking up and down and digging the paka into the sand. And the thrill of it would be later when our belacan is dried and ready to be patted into their rectangular shapes. The cooking of the belacan will be the climax of the season. Nothing is better is bubuk fishing!!

This lady is ready to go down to the shallow seas on her own. She sportingly posed for me when I met her early in the morning. A paka (net attached to two poles) is usually 8 feet long and the netting is store bought but home designed and customised. The ends of the Paka wooden rods have shoes which are recycled from rubber tyres. Almost every Kedayan or Iban shrimp fisherfolk can design a paka like this. When the fisherfolk get into the water they cross the rods to make the net take a triangular shape. It is indeed very simple but creative.

I used to own a paka twelve years ago and had a go at bubuk fishing. It was fun. But it was hardwork too. I was not too successful in catching those tiny shrimps although I was tickled pink by their small bites. Most of the fisherfolks I know can net about 10 kilos a day during a good season with a huge total of 150 kilos!! But for me I resigned to the fact that I was no bubuk fisherwoman. It was better just to hang out very often by the beach and soon I could get one or two plates of fresh shrimps free! Perhaps I am the only Foochow woman hanging out with them and getting to know them...and also asking too many questions!! I have long given away my paka.

When the season is over the fishermen and fisherwoman I meet in the fish market would ask me whether I still loaf around on the beach! That's wonderfully warm and friendly. Most of them actually do not live by the Luak Bay. We have come to recognise each other every where in Miri. I call that being real neighbourly.

This man is on his own. He walks in a slow manner pushing his Paka forward but touching the sand at the bottom of the shallow water. Shrimps come up to the shore in the most unique way. Often the Kedayans think that this "thing" (benda ini) is God sent. There is something spiritual about catching these tiny shrimps.

Some years the shrimps are beached in the same way as whales are beached. And the sand would simmer for days in different shades of pink and silver. Flies would then inhabit the beach and the smell would be overwhelming. But luckily this phenomenon does not happen every year. Our naturalists have not made a study about this significant and magnificient shrimp. I just hope that global warming would not destroy our modest but shrinking belacan cottage industry.

The team checking their shrimps at the base of the Paka.

Here the fisherlady has come up to the team of two men. She has lowered her paka. There is a lot of camaradarie amongst the fisherfolks. They all talk (almost whisper) to each other when they meet. They do not ask about each other's catch as if questioning the day's catch would make the gods shy away and the shrimps disappear. These folks continue to treat the supernaturals with respect and they carry on their traditional mores and norms when catching bubok.

The fisherlady is lifting her Paka up to check for shrimps which are caught at the base. She will scoop up the shrimps and throw them into the basket on her back. If she had brought her husband along she would be the one carrying the basket and he would be the one pushing the paka. But sometimes two men can be in a team and they might even be a father and son team. A single woman usually fishes on her own. And a widow can come alone too. Shrimp fisherfolks catch their bubok until they retire . That is the time when they say that their bones are not up to it. "Tulang sudah lemah." But this yearly endeavour to catch their very own bubok is a kind of pride dfor them. No family should be short of home made belacan!!

This lady fisher has placed her paka to level with the water. She is again checking her shrimps. If she has some she will raise the paka high up and then scoop the shrimps into her basket. If there are many fisherfolks on the shallow sea the scenery is very much like a dance sequence with the paka being raised and lowered to the rhythm of the waves at regular intervals.

However these days with global warming and competition from motorised boats these homely and kindly fisherfolks are disadvantaged. They would often go down to the fish market and buy the mechanically netted shrimps at a price and make their belacan. In the last few days the bubok is priced at RM 4 per kilo. I hope the price will go down.

According to most of my Kedayan neighbours shrimps caught by their grandfathers helped made the best belacan. And I do not disagree with that!

And I too believe that happiness is taking your own paka out and getting your own shrimps in the evening!!

When you next eat your laksa in Sibu remember the shrimps have first to be caught in the sea and sometimes under very hot sun. The process of making the best belachan is slow and steady in only the traditional people know how.

8 memories:

Robert Rizal Abdullah said...

A very interesting phenomenon that the shrimps will come back every year, despite being harvested.

I Am Sarawakiana said...

Bubuk is definitely God's gift to the people of Sarawak and especially Bintulu-Miri coastal areas. We must always treasure this gift.
There should be a rule to say that harvesting can only be done in the traditional way. Motorised boats can only be used once a week for example. I would be happy to see the fisherfolks continuing their age old traditonal practice.

What about shrimp fishing in Kedah and Langkawi? Is it the same?
Thanks for visiting!

A.H.AWANG MOIS said...

An interesting article. My first exposure to bubuk was at our beloved school in Tanjong Lobang. There was a great excitement as groups of boys and girls went down the Tanjong to catch the shrimps. As you said they don't come every year. In 1970 there was a good landing and I joined the rest of the Melanau "experts" from my class to try my luck at catching them. We did not have the paka but the white long sleeve school shirt that I wore was good enough for our purpose. We caught about half a pail of bubuk on one occasion - more than enough to supplement our meager evening college ration!

Amongst the Selako Dayak of 1st Division Sarawak a good landing of bubuk in a particular year is taken as a sign that there could be an equally good season of honey collection that particular year since the spirits that influence the behaviour of the bubuk are considered to be related to the spirits of the honey bees.

I Am Sarawakiana said...

Remembering school events is always very nostalgic. I remember a story from another one of your seniors how he used his only towel to "net" the bubuk. The beloved towel was damaged but getting the bubuk and sharing the harvest with friends at the end of the day was worth the sacrifice. He worked one weekend to get a cake of soap and finally managed to buy a smaller towel too.
Yes it is interesting to re-consider and pay serious attention the mysticisms and local beliefs related to bubuk and honey bees even in our modern age even if it is only for academic purposes. In our daily living we cannot totally ignore these issues.
Perhaps in spite of their lack of education our forebears have more respect and regard for the environment.

The Kedayan cultural practices regarding bubuk fishing are enlightening.

Bengbeng said...

i did it before. it was amazing. they were just waiting to be harvested. there was no end to it. the only limit was the energy left in me which was rapidly waning. any how i didnt have the means to sell it or to use much of it so in the end, i just gave it away and jus enjoyed myself on the beach. it was in Mukah, one of the river mouths.

I Am Sarawakiana said...

I am glad you had a chance in this very traditional ritual. Giving away the bubuk was definitely a happy thing for you!! It would always stay with you in your memories.

We must pass on these thoughts and photos to our next generation.

I do hope some one would start a fishing museum in Miri . We have many unique artifacts and ideas!!

Just a Little Kindness said...

You seem to have been observing bubuk activities.

My relatives buy bubuk to make belacan and cencaluk when the price is very low. 50 to 60 kg bubuk only makes 20 or slightly more kg belacan. But it takes several hardworking members to make belacan.
Just to jaga from flies also tough.:( :(

May be my family will make paka also. Just to try. By the way we live too far from sea. Hope this bubuk seasons good.

I Am Sarawakiana said...

Dear Just a little kindness
Thanks for visiting.
Making belacan and cincaluk is an annual and seasonal activity. And I really like to hear my friend's children saying "My mum's belacan is the best" This is keeping the family ties and loyalty strong.
Whenever my friends make their belacan I would like to visit and help out.
It is something I look forward to every year in Miri.


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