Borneo IV: Semporna, life on the water

August 28, 2013 § Leave a comment

Semporna is a town in the east coast of Sabah, Malaysia on the island of Borneo. There are a few stories how Semporna was founded, but I chose to believe one, that I heard while being there.

A local woman, named Lolita, told us the story of her life. “I was in my early twenties, when I lost my family in Philippines and therefore decided to look for a better place, illegally moving to Malaysia by boat. A man named Chang saved me. He said if I marry him, he will help me and other people from my country to move to Malaysia and start new life here. So I did. And since then – already over 30 years – we’re doing what he promised.

By the way, Semporna was actually founded by Chang’s grandfather. He was from China, traveling for business purposes and met a local Bajau (sea gipsy) girl, fell in love and married her. The girl was only used to live in boat, always floating on the water, meanwhile the guy was looking for some stable ground. They came to this place, where now Semporna is and saw elephants and tigers here. So they used to spend nights in the boat, where it was safer and go on land only during the day, to get some food and look around. Chang’s grandfather started to buy pearls from Bajau people and bring them for selling to Hong Kong. This is how he got rich and was the first man to buy land in Semporna district. Half of the land here now belongs to Chang’s family,” – Lolita finishes her story smiling.

Mister Chang was on vocation in Indonesia when we were there, so I couldn’t talk to him, but Lolita definitely told an interesting story. And I believe it, imagining crazy chinese traveler spending his days in the boat with a Bajau girl, buying pearls and looking for place to settle, where he and his wife, who used to always live on the water, feel good to start their new life.

Still till today there are a lot of Bajau people living in Semporna, other islands close to it and roaming waters around them. They are fishing, looking for pearls and making a living out of it. Some of them still spend the most of their time in the boats, but more and more are moving on lalnd, where they live in small shags on the beach. (More about Bajau – in the next post.)


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