On the steamy swampy flats where the Landak ( porcupine ) meets the Kapuas, Indonesia’s longest river, across the imaginary line that divides our earth into perfect halves is a happy, sleepy city with a creepy name.
Many stories surround Pontianak’s name which in Malay folklore is a female ghost who had died giving birth to a child
The one often told is about a seafaring Sultan who set up a kingdom here in 1771. His name was Abdurraman al Kadrie.
He was a sayyid, a descendant of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), whose family had settled in these Eastern Isles from Yemen.
An outsider to these parts of Borneo, he gained political power and influence by marrying two local women from important families. One was a daughter of the Ruler of Mempawah to the north. The other was the daughter of the Sultan of Banjar on the island’s south coast.
According to legend, the site on which Pontianak now stands was once a haunt of blood-thirsty female vampires. The Sultan and his retinue spooked by the shrill eerie voices from the dark deep forests surrounding their settlement fired cannon balls towards their direction to scare off the nocturnal denizens.
The booms and blasts duly drove the spirits away. The relieved Sultan then built a mosque and palace there and gratefully named his realm after his evicted paranormal tormentors.
Thanks to Pontianak’s location in the middle of the Malay Archipelago equidistant from Singapore and Batavia ( the old name for Jakarta ), it became an important riverine port and trading station. Ships from across the sea sailed upstream filled with iron, opium and textile to trade for the seemingly inexhaustible supply of products from Borneo’s rich and vast interior.
Among the earliest visitors to the area were the Chinese. They made their seasonal journeys to Borneo by junk to procure from the Malay and indigenous Dayak people natural products that would fetch them a profit in China such as birdnests, agar wood (gaharu), and sea cucumber ( beche de mer).
They also went there, more importantly, to look for gold.
By the 18 th century the dream of striking a small fortune brought thousands of Chinese gold diggers to Pontianak and its surrounding districts.
In July 1818 the Dutch, worried that Britain’s would threaten its dominance and economic interests in the Indies, established a permanent station in Pontianak and began to exert its authority over Kalimantan.
Text and Photographs copyright Kerk Boon Leng November 2017