postcard from porcupine river

fullsizeoutput_15ff0

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.

fullsizeoutput_15fd0
Local children enjoying an afternoon swim in the Kapuas River. To the population living along the banks of Kapuas and its tributaries the river is the main provider of protein with over 300 species of fish living in its basin including the Pangasius catfish, Giant Gourami and the fast swimming Jelawat (or Sultan Fish). However, pollution and overfishing are causing the depletion and extinction of many types of fish in the river.
fullsizeoutput_15ff8
With passenger fare at Rupiah 15,000 (USD1.10) each, the half hour boat ride that departs from Taman Alun Alun must be the cheapest city boat cruise in the world.
fullsizeoutput_15fe7
Surveying life along the Kapuas from the boat’s deck
fullsizeoutput_161d5
The Kapuas is a great river in every sense. Originating in the Mueller Mountain Range in the heart of Borneo the river drains an area covering 67% of West Kalimantan and is navigable by large boats up to the town of Putussibau about 900 km from the mouth. 

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.

fullsizeoutput_1608f
Istana Kadriah the old residence of the Sultans of Palembang located near the confluence of the Landak and Kapuas Rivers is one of the oldest buildings in the city.
fullsizeoutput_160d4
On the steps outside a Sunday church service on Jalan Gajah Made, Pontianak’s main street
fullsizeoutput_160ed
Migrants from all over Indonesia have settled in Pontianak bringing their cuisines with them including their own version of sate ayam (chicken satay).

fullsizeoutput_1603eS0752533fullsizeoutput_16103fullsizeoutput_160f0

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.

fullsizeoutput_15fb8
Modest off the main street cafes such as this one serve up a great iced cappuccino on a hot day
fullsizeoutput_1606a
Bashful but inquisitive shop assistants in a stationery cum provisions shop
fullsizeoutput_161fa
Chinese along with Malay are the largest ethnic groups in Pontianak. Although Hakka is overall the main subgroup of Chinese in the district, the Teochiu Chinese are in the majority in Pontianak city centre.

S0074041fullsizeoutput_161dcfullsizeoutput_1603ffullsizeoutput_160d5fullsizeoutput_161c6S0683526fullsizeoutput_161d4

Text and Photographs copyright Kerk Boon Leng November 2017