Spending Christmas in Bau, Sarawak always reminds me of John Prine songs.
The great singer-songwriter is a fabulous storyteller who always paints a vivid picture of small towns – ‘In a town this size’, ‘Donald and Lydia’ and ‘Knockin’ on your screen door’ among others.
And Bau is the proverbial one-horse town with all the old world charms and stories which come from a place that was once famous for its gold mines.
Bau is the perfect place to ‘lepak’ for those coming back from the rat race in Kuala Lumpur and other parts of peninsular Malaysia
Like all small towns, it is easy to get around, laid back and kind of sleepy – most shops close by 9pm.
Although lately there have been a couple of establishments which open later and there are a KK Mart and three laundrettes which are open 24 hours!
As for Christmas here, I am always reminded of Prine’s ‘Silent night all day long’ which to me is the perfect Yuletide song – if only Malaysia had snow!
The opening verse goes:
“There’s a pine tree in a window in a house on a hill,
With a tree top angel sitting perfectly still,
She’s watching the shoppers walk through the snow,
With their arms full of treasures and hearts all aglow.”
It evokes many memories as my in-laws’ house is actually on a hill and many a time the angel on top of the tree was peering out the window onto the main road of the town – observing all and sundry.
Like most east Malaysian towns – be it in Sarawak or Sabah – Bau is a harmonious place.
Here, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus – and to my surprise, there is a Bahai centre nearby – get along with nary a hint of religious intolerance which we are so accustomed to back in ‘Semenanjung’.
You can see Muslims selling food in a Chinese coffee shop and no one bats an eyelid.
Most speak in Malay or Bahasa Sarawak to each other so you cannot tell what race they are and nearly all of them are proficient in Mandarin (although when the Bidayuh community gets together they do speak in their language).
Whenever there is a wedding or some other celebration, people of all races sit together sharing meals – just like it used to be back in west Malaysia – before we became overzealous in religious matters.
For Christmas fare, besides the usual ‘western’ food such as pies, roast chicken or pork and ham, you also get plenty of local delicacies such as rendang and lemang or other types of curries!
Families spend the whole day preparing the feast and Prine’s brilliant lyrics once again strike a chord:
“There’s a family that’s gathering in some living room,
Dinner on the table that’s been cooking since noon.”
The man surely knows how to turn a phrase!
This year, while driving my brother-in-law’s car, we were tuned to an Iban station and heard all the Christmas carols in that language.
And unlike when Prine sang:
“When the angel on the tree top requested a song,
We sang Silent Night All Day Long.”
This was different and exciting as it was the first time I listened to so many Iban Christmas songs for hours on end.
Merry Christmas everyone, let’s spread the love all year round!