Sunday, 2 September 2007

Chicken River!

Why it is called ‘Sungai Ayam’ or ‘Chicken River’ nobody seems to know. Spending half a day at Sungai Ayam fishing village with a fishing family at the invitation of Ah Ik, a friend, was memorable: the warmth and hospitality of village folks, a 68 year old man trawling the river for small shrimp, two men digging the muddy bank for clams, a mother bathing her children, birds in their natural environment, the stench of rotting fish, and the euphoric sense of well-being from Carlsberg and Guinness.

The Sungai Ayam village which is about 7 kilometres from Sungai Suloh has about 75 families, 15 of which are Malay. They earn their livelihood going out to sea which is a short distance from the village. Most make three trips a day, setting out to lay their fishing nets and coming back each trip with their catch. On an average, a fisherman takes home approximately RM 5000 a month from 18 days of work.

The first thing that struck me was the overpowering stench of rotting fish as we walked up the gangway to the house. It is a large airy house that juts out to the river. It was low tide. Rubbish trapped among the stunted mangrove plants reveals that the river is still a dumping ground for all types of waste.

His wife and a neighbour were cleaning fish and peeling prawns as we walked in. The entrails, fish scales and shell are conveniently swept below. Fish that have no commercial value are also thrown below. The tide would later remove them. That was where the stench came from.

The Sungai Ayam fishing village. From the many cars that are parked in the compounds of houses, the villagers are apparently quite well-off. The houses on the left are built on the bank of the river.

Brick houses juxtaposed with wooden ones reflect the relative affluence of the fishing families. According to Ah Poh many young men and women have left the village to work or live in towns

A house built above the river

Fishing boats moored to thick poles in front of the houses

A boy is laying out fishing net to trap fish and shrimp

Ah Poh’s well ventilated house. In front of the house is a wide platform that is used to store or dry nets and shrimp as well as to board the fishing boat below

Ah Poh’s wife cleaning fish

Ah Poh’s wife and a neighbour shelling shrimp to be mixed with batter and fried for the ‘guests’

This is where the stench came from. Fish that have no commercial value as well as entrails and scales from fish that are cleaned and refrigerated are dumped on the mud floor. The tide would come and carry them to the river

A grim reminder that rivers are still used as a convenient dumping ground for plastics and other non-degradable waste

The neighbour’s fishing boat. It is low tide as seen from the exposed mud floor

Opposite the house is the mangrove swamp that stretches all along the muddy river bank. It is home to many varieties of birds and monkeys. Unfortunately, we didn’t see any monkeys that day

Ah Poh (in the centre) and one of his neighbours on the left. On the right is Ah Ik. He has made himself very much at home without his T-shirt

Another friend, Oni Kee enjoying the hammock and a can of Carlsberg

Ah Poh’s wife has prepared this mouth-watering shrimp fried in batter for the ‘guests’ and neigbours

The wide platform that extends from the house allows large fishing nets as well as small shrimp to be dried

Two fishing nets. The one on the left has larger meshes for trapping fish while the one on the right with smaller meshes is used to trap shrimp. Each net costs approximatelyRM1,200 but its life-span is 8 to 10 years with constant mending

Discarded plastic containers used as floats attached to fishing net

Cement casted in cut plastic floats used as weights to anchor a fishing net to the bottom of the sea bed

Small shrimp that cannot be sold are first boiled with salt. They are then put out to dry. Once completely dried, they are put into a gunny sack and pounded on the platform to separate the shell from the shrimp. The pulverized shell is used either as chicken feed, fertilizer or for the making of prawn paste. There is no wastage.

Shrimp spread out to dry on large gunny sacks

A close-up of cooked shrimp being dried in the sun

Pulverised shell of shrimp

Dried shrimp that fetches RM40 a kilogram. It takes 12 kilos of fresh shrimp to obtain a kilo of dried shrimp. We were offered some. They were delicious

Ah Ik’s wife feeding her baby with water

Putting her baby to sleep in the hammock

Two lady customers drop buy to buy fish. The customer busily working out the cost of the seafood she has bought happens to be a doctor’s wife who makes regular trips to buy fresh fish, shrimp and squids. Partially hidden is another lady working out the cost

‘Timah’ fish as the Malays call them are packed in plastic. The Hokkiens call them ‘leng jik’ or ‘dragon’s tongue’

This is a large pomfret which fetches RM 38 a kilo. Restaurant operators require pomfret of a certain size

The smaller fish are the black pomfret which are cheaper. In the foreground, a white pomfret whose tail is bitten by other fish. Unsold fish, shrimp and squids are later bought by a wholesaler who visits the fishermen regularly

Learning the trade at an early age

They managed to catch a large mud-skipper!

Anglers returning from a fishing trip. Anglers pay RM 200 for an eight hour boat trip to take them fishing. A trip that starts from 5 in the evening to the next morning would cost RM300

At the opposite bank two men are digging the mud floor for clams

This 69 year old man wading in the shallow river to trawl for small shrimp which are commonly used as fish baits. According to Ah Poh, a kilo of shrimp fetches RM12. This man has a fondness for Chinese wine to which a large part of his income goes

It is no easy task to do what he does at his age

The shrimp are loaded into a tub that is tied to his waist with a string

Ah Poh getting ready to go out to sea to pull in the nets in the later part of the afternoon

Ah Poh and his companion maneuvering the boat out to the sea

A heron picking on small fish in the shallow part of the river

Ah Poh’s son climbing down the stairs to get to the boat

Ah Poh’s wife and his two children enjoying the breeze on the platform. Behind her is Ah Ik's son

Time to bathe the children. It is about 6.00 in the evening. Note the rectangular hole on the wooden floor through which human waste is expelled

It is about 7.00 in the evening. Time for insects and mosquitoes to make their appearances. Coconut husks being burnt to shoo away the insects and mosquitoes

How to get to the fishing village

It was half a day well spent. Our next plan is to get Ah Poh to take us out to sea which is 10 minutes away.

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