Monday, August 08, 2011

Johor’s own Iban heartland

One Man's Meat

There are thousands of them at Ground Zero' for Johor-based Ibans Taman Megah Ria in Masai. Six out of 10 of those patronising the shops there are Ibans.

ON Wednesday, I went headhunting for Ibans in Johor.

“Huh?” a peninsular Malaysian friend said, when told of my plan. “Ibans and Johor don't equate,” he said.

I told him arguably the largest number of Ibans living outside of Sarawak is in Johor.

The number depending on who you speak with ranges from 40,000 (Dr John Brian Anthony of to 10,000 (Datuk M.M. Samy, the MIC assemblyman for Permas, a state seat under the Pasir Gudang parliament constituency).

The Ibans crossed the South China Sea to berjelai (an Iban word for journey) to Johor (and nearby Singapore) because of limited economic opportunities in their home state.

Ground Zero for the Johor-based Ibans is at Taman Megah Ria in Masai, Pasir Gudang.

Six out of 10 people patronising the 40-odd shops in the housing area about 22km from Johor Baru are Ibans.

If you walk around the four blocks of shops, you'll get a clue as to why the place attracts Ibans.

There's Panggau Libau Paradise restaurant (serving ayam pansoh, chicken cooked in bamboo, and kolo mee, a famous Sarawakian noodle dish), the Apai Jamming Studio, Gereja Methodist Iban Johor, the Gagasan Dayak Iban Malaysia Bersatu (GAIU or Iban Dayak United Malaysian Organisation) office and a shop selling CDs of singers from Sarawak and Sabah.

The main attraction is the Tamu Dayak (some call it Pasar Borneo) on Wednesday and Sunday afternoons.

At the wet market at the car park boxed in by the four shop blocks you can find popular Sarawakian products such as fresh and salted terubok fish, live sago worms, midin (wild jungle fern which is stir fried in belacan) and wild boar.

Tamu Dayak, according to GAIU Johor president Sai Malaka, started around 1998 when Sarawakians attending three churches, Calvary, Methodist and Sidang Injil Borneo, located at Taman Megah Ria town sold vegetables such as midin along the shops corridors.

Then in 2005 the Johor Baru City Council “chased away” the vegetable hawkers because they did not have permits.

“We needed local backing to obtain a licence to open a market,” recalled Sai, an Iban who is a Johor People's Progressive Party (PPP) exco member.

“And we approached PPP to help establish a farmers' market.”

In 2007, the Pasar Pagi PPP (PPP morning market) was born. It evolved into an afternoon market and became known as Tamu Dayak.

The wet market, noted Johor PPP chairman Datuk Dr Siva Kumar, offered a unique Borneo experience to Johoreans.

“When you go to a local market it is all business.

“The hawkers do not have time to speak to you.

“The guy selling the vegetable will say How much do you want? One kilo? You don't want? Ok, you can go',” Dr Siva related.

“With the Sarawakians, no doubt they are there to do business. but I find them to be humble and simple.

“When you ask them about a vegetable from the forest in Johor which I've never seen, they will tell you how it should be cooked.”

Interestingly, I thought the produce sold at the Tamu Dayak was indigenous to Sarawak.

But when I did my “marketing”, the Iban hawkers told me the bamboo shoot came from Batu Pahat, the sago worms from palm oil estates in Kulai and wildlife from the jungles in Pasir Gudang.

“The locals have limited knowledge of what they can harvest from the jungle,” noted Sai, the owner of Panggau Libau Paradise restaurant.

“However, the market has made many aware and interested in this produce.”

The back of Panngau Libau Paradise faces Tamu Dayak and next door is an Iban restaurant, Randau Ruai.

There, 25-year-old kindergarten teacher Elise Lapik, an Iban who could easily win a Kumang Gawai (Dayak Harvest Festival Queen) contest, together with her mother and aunt were ordering Sarawak laksa.

“We are here because of the market,” explained Elise, born in Kapit, a town in Sarawak only accessible by boat via Malaysia's longest river, the Rajang, or by helicopter.

When she was eight, her family moved to the greener pasture of Johor. For her, Taman Megah Ria is like a mini Sarawak.

“I love this place. So many Sarawakians here. Whatever we want from Sarawak we can get here,” she enthused.