Sunday, July 12, 2009

History - Where did Sarikei get its name?

What's in a name? The old names of Sarikei were spelled differently in colonial books and maps. The earliest version was Siriki and the other versions were Seriki, Serikei or Serikye. This was likely because there was no frame of reference then - names were recorded based on what the colonial folks heard from the locals and how the colonials pronounced the local words to other colonials.

Sarikei pineapple statue, 2008

Prior to 1873, Sibu was called Maling, named after the winding portion, Tanjung Maling, on the other side of Rejang River. On 1st June 1873, the Sibu division was created by the colonial government and named after the rambutan known as buah sibau in Iban. (Source: 1) The origin of Kuching's name may be from a fruit tree called “Mata Kucing” or the Indian port, Cochin. (Source: 2). Bintangor was called Binatang (likely from the native term for animal).

Then where did the name Siriki come from?

"Coast of Borneo Proper" Map 1846
With the track of HMS Iris from June 1846 to Jan 1847
By G. Rodney Mundy, Captain
Names of River by Brooke
The corner box shows Capture of Brunei, 1846
Published by John Murray, Albemarle St, London, 1848
Click to enlarge. Click back arrow to come back.
For high resolution map, click "Map" label for the 1846 post.

The name Siriki first appeared in an 1846 map by Captain Rodney Mundy and was published in 1848. Is Siriki related to Tanjong Sirik (or Sirik Point) on this map? The sketch of the house of Patinggi Abdul Raman at Siriki was also dated 1848.

The local name for betel leave is sirih. There's a chance that Siriki was derived from the betel leave because in the old days, the betel leave was called siriki in the Indian Archipelago. James Brooke and his men may have brought this siriki term from India. Betel quid chewing was common in the pre-colonial days as documented in colonial books. Some thought for you to chew on.

It could also be named after the native name of something from nature like a tree or fruit. Is there an Iban name for a tree called Siriki or some similar sounding name? Was Siriki named after the Seribas (Saribas) Dyaks from Batang Saribas?

Sarawak Map - Published 1866
Source: Ten Years in Sarawak. Vol. 1 by Charles Brooke, 1866
Click to enlarge. Click back arrow to come back.

The name "Sarikei" first appeared an 1866 map so it was likely that the Brooke government changed the spelling from Siriki to Sarikei. The name Siriki existed (map of 1846) before the first Chinese (Hokkien) came to Sarikei in 1864 and before the Cantonese reached Sare a few years before the documented year (1885) of the Sare kongsi house. The other stories that linked the name to Chinese words do not hold water. i.e. the stories that "kei" is a Chinese term for "street" and Sarikei is the Cantonese term for "sa-rie kei" ("market centre for chicken"). (Source: 3) The Chinese characters 泗里奎 is simply a literal translation of Sarikei with no implications, just like several towns of Sarawak.

Sarikei town, 2006

Another story tried the phonetic transcription angle. Some colonial officials asked a local boat operator for the village's name but the local did not answer as he couldn't speak English. The colonial guy scolded, "Silly guide!". The local repeated after him, "Silly guide" and the words became the name of the town. Really? How creative can this version be? (Source: 4)

We still don't have the answer on the origin of the name. We are back to square one in the name game.

Reader Ikan Sembilang did most of the research on the colonial history and maps.

1. Sibu Online
2. Wikipedia
3. Rakan Sarawak, September 2002
4. Legends and History of Sarawak, Chang Pat Foh. 1999 Edition. (Submitted by reader Georgina Wong)


Sarawakiana@2 said...

I was told a long time ago (folk lore) that the name sarikei came about in this way - There was a place with perhaps three shops and a kampong called Sari or Seri....and the Chinese added Kei (street or pasar) so it is more a combination of a local name and a Chinese suffix to make a town's name.
I have never been able to find a source for this folk tale.

It is the same in Miri where many Chinese call the pasar Miri-kei.

nelson said...

i have no idea!

Daniel Yiek said...

I have heard of that story too. But...the name Siriki existed (1846 map) way before the first Hokkien came to the village of Sarikei in 1864 and the Cantonese to Sare village a few years before the documented year of the Cantonese kongsi house at Sare in 1885.

I will also update this post to add the source of the "kei" story.

Greenspot said...


Sibu was named after the wild rambutan, Sibau. The Malay called it Sibo. In old colonial maps, Sibu is spelled as Siboe. How it becomes Sibu is anybody's guess but take a look at my writeup:


@!EX said...

Hi. Your blog is nice. Very informative. I'm interest in maps.
Can I have the large image (full resolution) of the two maps you posted?

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