Memories of the Brunei River Regatta

The Brunei Regatta in the 1930s watched by the British Resident (Source: Brunei Archives)

Memories of the Brunei River Regatta
By Rozan Yunos
Published on The Brunei Times on 28th January 2013

After last year’s successful regatta, this year’s regatta at the Brunei River is expected to be an even bigger success. The Brunei Times on 25th January 2013 noted that a staggering number of competitors from Brunei and abroad have already signed up for ‘Regata Brunei Darussalam 2013’ to be held on 3 February - and even more are expected to take part including teams from Australia, Indonesia, Malaysia and the United States.

His Majesty the Sultan and Yang Di-Pertuan of Brunei Darussalam will be signaling the start in the afternoon whilst His Royal Highness the Crown Prince, will be in the morning. This year there will be 12 traditional boat race events, four speed boat events and two each for water taxis and jet skis. The boat race categories include the 12, 20, 25 and 30 Rowers Boat Races in various categories. His Majesty himself took part in the races last year.

The decision to revive the Regatta has to be applauded. The Brunei River has always been choc-a-bloc with activities. Though today’s activities are limited 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. Gone are the fishermen and the woman padians.

According to Webster’s Dictionary, the word ‘regatta’ was first used in 1729 and 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 kind of boat races including powered and unpowered crafts; or the whole event or festivities leading up to the races.

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 theorized the word ‘berjanawari’ comes from the month January. For these folks, ‘berjanawari’ conjures up the time when January was a festive month. Those who celebrated during this period were known as ‘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.

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.

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 nuisance, 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. 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. 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 used then were household names such as ‘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 interests 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. This year, local products from across the country will be displayed by members of various Mukim and Village Consultative Councils to promote their mukims’ or villages’ local handicrafts and places of interests.

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. Last year, 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 traditional and ethnic Brunei songs and dances.


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