Memories of the Brunei Regatta
[The Managing Editor of Brunei Times asked me to write about the regatta in time for the Brunei River Regatta last Sunday. Usually my article on my column The Golden Legacy is every Monday but because the regatta was on Sunday, the column appeared on Sunday too and was published on 22nd January 2012. This article is based on a 2007 article which I wrote about Berjanawari which is the Brunei word used for regatta in Brunei.]
Memories of the Brunei Regatta
by Rozan Yunos
THE Ministry of Home Affairs' decision to revive the Brunei River Regatta was certainly appropriate. The Brunei River has always been choc-a-bloc with activities. Though today's activities have been focused on using the river as the waterways with perahu tambang criss-crossing the river to bring the residents of the Kampong Ayer to the other side and vice versa. In the old days, there would be fishermen and also boat races along the river.
The word "regatta" was first used in popular English literature as far back as 1709. According to the Webster's Dictionary, a regatta originally referred to a gondola race in Venice, where a grand rowing match was held in which many boats or gondoliers are rowed along the Grand Canal for a prize.
Nowadays a regatta can refer to any boat race or series of boat races which can include both powered and unpowered crafts. The whole event or festivities leading up to the races is also term as the regatta. One of the longest running regatta is called Cowe's Week which has been held every August since 1826 on the Isle of Wight.
In Brunei, a regatta used to be called "berjanawari", a word which will crop up every now and then among elderly folks in Brunei. Many have said that the word "berjanawari" comes from the month January. For these folks, "berjanawari" conjures up the time when January was a festival month hence, "berjanuari". In fact, Bruneians called the people who celebrated during this period "Orang berjanawari".
By the 1950s, when Sultan Haji Omar 'Ali Saifuddien Sa'adul Khairi Waddien became the Sultan, the regatta was moved to September as that was the month of his birthday. By then, the name "berjanawari" was no longer appropriate and was dropped.
According to the explanation of this year's organisers, the Brunei Regatta is to bring back memories of the regatta in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. However many remembered the regatta on Brunei River was much earlier than that.
Some say that this regatta was first conjured up by the British as a way to celebrate their New Year here in Brunei Darussalam. In the early days, during the regatta, the river would be festooned with rows of British Union Jack flags rather than the black, yellow and white Brunei flags. It was also said that this was to celebrate the British Queen's birthday but for some reasons it was never called that.
To most Bruneians who lived in Kampong Ayer, before the World War and after, berjanawari is a most unique festival. It is a time when the river is jammed packed with boats. Some boats come "dressed" for the occasion and some boats are said to be berpanga decked with a roof on top.
This would be a time for spectators around Brunei who would come in their tongkangs and other large boats. In those days too, when the border was deemed an administrative boundary, Bruneians who lived in the non-Brunei areas would come flocking to Brunei.
Rowers and boats came from the other "rivers" near the Brunei River. They came from Lawas, Sipitang, Rangau, Baru-Baru, Awat-Awat and Limbang. The regatta which normally took place for about five days was organised by the Marine Department and was probably about the most unique event in Brunei then.
Due to the distance of the other rowers, the "foreign" rowers would come to Brunei with their family and stay here for those few days. Kampung Lela Menchanai was a favourite place for them to stay.
Some of the rowers would be bringing their own boats and race them against the other "river" teams. Some would be paid or sponsored to race for a Brunei team. This was also the time for cows to be slaughtered to provide food for the mercenary rowers as well as for the celebratory festivities.
There will be a series of races for the rowing boats, all finishing their races at the Royal Brunei Customs wharf in Bandar Seri Begawan or Brunei Town as it was called then. There were a number of categories including single rowers, a pair of rowers, a 20-men rowing team and a 30-men one.
The single rowers would race from Kampung Pengiran Pemancha to Customs Wharf, the double rowers from Kampung Pandai Besi, the 20 rowers from Jong Batu (just behind Istana Nurul Iman) and the 30 rowers from Luba (near Kampung Bunut).
The names of the boats or perahus used then were also household names. These included "Duri", "Seri Tamoi", "Paita" and "Santana".
Equally famous were the names of the "pencaruk" and "pengemudi", rather like the captains or players of today's football team. The pencaruk is the one sitting up front who shouts encouragement to his teammates and is like the team captain. The pengemudi is the one at the back, ensuring that the boat steers the right course. Famous names included Pengiran Damit, Pengiran Haji Daud, Haji Bakar Bayau, Yassin, Ibrahim Metali and others.
Many elderly people recalled that Sultan Haji Omar Ali Saifuddien himself was a famous pencarok and would shout words of encouragement to his teammates during the race. He had a difficult task of manoeuvring the boat as pencarok and as lead rower.
In the book "Memoir Seorang Negarawan" written by Dr Muhammad Hadi Muhamad Melayong, the author described His Highness Sultan Haji Omar 'Ali Saifuddien Sa'adul Khairi Waddien as a keen sportsman and one of his interest was to take part in boat races. His Highness team usually takes first prize and his boat named "Seri Gudam" designed by His Highness himself won as many as six times. Sultan Haji Omar 'Ali Saifuddien himself took part in the rowing boat races and also the fast boats. For the fast boat, His Highness designed the boat himself and in the construction of the boat, he would be assisted by Pengarah Haji Mokti and Haji Murah. Sultan Haji Omar 'Ali Saifuddien has been known to construct boats as his hobby at both Istana Darussalam and Istana Darul Hana.
In the latter years when outboards fitted with power motors of about 15hp entered the scene, there was a new set of players and teams. Now boats like "Pila-Pila", "Sporting Star", and "Garuda" appeared on the scene.
On the river banks too, there were a number of activities, rather like today's nightly birthday celebrations for His Highness. There were so many people who came to Brunei, especially for the regatta, that something had to be done to entertain the visitors.
There would be a number of stage performances such as "Pertunjukan Pentas Bengsawan", "Bangsawan Seri Noran" and "Bangsawan Si Bakir". These stage performances came from Singapore and Indonesia as well as the performers from Brunei. Even now, on the eve of the Regatta, performers and dancers from the Culture and Arts Division of the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sports performed various ethnic Brunei songs and dances.