Tawau And Tarakan – A Tale Of One Family, Two Towns



COMMENT: Kota Tahele lives in two worlds – the Malaysian and Indonesian sides of Borneo.
Home for the 63-year-old Malaysian can be Tawau on the east coast of Sabah or Tarakan in North Kalimantan. The Bugis woman has a large family in Tawau and Tarakan.

For her, both towns are lebih kurang (roughly) the same, except they are in two different countries.

“When did you become a Malaysian?” I asked.

“Before you were born,” she said, with a sweet smile.

In 1966, Kota, who was then 12 years old, sailed north on a vessel carrying copra from her hometown Tarakan to Tawau. Her parents had arranged for her to be married to a Bugis man living in Tawau.

Tarakan is an island. Its name comes from the Tidung language: Tarak means meeting place and ngakan is to eat. Historically, it was a meeting place for fishermen to barter their catch. Its town is smaller than Tawau, Sabah’s second largest town.

Tawau has better town planning and more Chinese. Other than that, Tawau looks like an Indonesian town, especially with its large Bugis community and shops selling coto makassar (Makassar beef soup) and nasi lalap (rice salad).

Tarakan town, which is Tawau’s twin city in Indonesia. – Pic courtesy of Agil Murthala

Both towns are so entwined socio-economically that the ringgit is the second currency in Tarakan island.

To get a better understanding of cross-border trade, I read Joseph Conrad’s novel, Almayer’s Folly, during my trip in Borneo, the third largest island in the world.

The novel gives a literary-historical perspective of trade along the southern periphery of the Sulu zone – which in the late 18th and 19th centuries included the Sulu Archipelago and the northeast coast of Borneo. These territories – in what is known today as North Kalimantan, the east coast of Sabah and Sulu (in southern Philippines) – have been trading with each other before Malaysia, Indonesia and Philippines existed.

It was a time when if a trader found a river, it would bring him great fortune. The river brought the trader inland where he exchanged salt, rice, sugar, Javanese tobacco, opium, cloth, metal implements, firearms and gunpowder for raw rubber, rattan and wax from Dayaks living in the interior in what is now known as North Kalimantan and Sabah.

Some of the ethnic communities living in the surrounding areas of Tawau and Tarakan are from the same clan, according to Datu Norbeck Datu Bayal, a 61-year-old Tidung who is a descendant of Sultan Bulungan (the last Sultan, Jalaluddin, died in 1958).

View from the Tarakan jetty.

Datu Norbeck said that in 1777, some parts of the east coast of North Borneo (as Sabah was called before the formation of Malaysia in 1963) were controlled by his ancestor, Sultan Bulungan. In 1881, the North Borneo Chartered Company was created and Tawau was carved out of the Bulungan Sultanate as North Borneo fell under British jurisdiction.

Although Tarakan and Tawau were divided by the Malaysian/Indonesian border, traditional trade between the two towns continued. The trade brought the border communities together.

They also live in harmony by sharing and exchanging essential goods. In modern terms, it is called capacity sharing.

For example, in the 1960s and 1970s, Datu Norbeck’s father owned four wooden boats which he used to barter goods from Sulawesi and Kalimantan for goods from Sabah’s east coast towns such as Tawau and Semporna. He exchanged copra and salted fish from Indonesia with sugar and cement (cheaper in Tawau than faraway Balikpapan and Surabaya).

Norbeck has relatives on both sides of the border. They are part of the Tidung diaspora. And the Tidung, according to the Indonesian, have the family network to prosper from cross-border trading.

The place to get an insight on cross-border trade is Warung Kopi Indra (better known as Warung Kopi Aseng) in Tarakan town.

The wooden coffee shop is a meeting point for the local who’s who. It is famous for its coffee, porridge and buns (which can be found in other parts of Borneo like Kuching, Kota Kinabalu and Kuala Belait in Brunei).

Tan Tak Chong, who migrated from Hainan in China, opened a coffee shop near the Tarakan jetty in the late 1940s. He had two sons – one in charge of Aseng and the other sent to Tawau to open a coffee shop.

“He had to merantau (wander) to find economic opportunity,” said Awen, the 38-year-old Chinese wife of Tan’s 41-year-old grandson Martien Koesumo Hadinata.

The coffee shop in Tawau town was as popular as Aseng. But it was closed down when none of the owner’s children wanted to take over the family business.

Many businessmen from Sabah patronise Aseng. “I know they are from Sabah by the way they talk. Sabahans will say ais (ice) whereas we say es,” said Awen, who occasionally visits her uncle-in-law in Tawau.

• Philip is a Sabahan from Penampang who works as an Editor with the Star. He writes a weekly column – One Man’s Meat.