Driving along the highway in the Bintulu Division, oil palms in hypnotic diagonal rows frame the road’s rural stretches. As you draw closer to the urban center of the district, the palms open up to fields of scrub grass and freshly dug red earth. Oil and gas tankers set the pace of traffic, and refinery pilot flames pierce the skyline. Hulking machinery idles on the side of the road, occasionally belching to life and trundling up the inland hills, while semis hauling loads of hairy hardwood planks head down dirt roads to lumber mills and barges on the coastal rivers.

When you reach the city of Bintulu proper, this bleak extraction landscape bleeds into a frayed urban border of concrete and cranes. Crews of men wrapped in scarves and shrouds beat back the encroaching brush and dust. Red-roofed houses and tin-roofed sheds line arterials that sprawl toward a glass-walled shopping mall and gated oil-industry headquarters, flanked by vacant lots and construction sites. This city is haphazard and frenetic; it’s also pretty ugly.

The growth of this administrative district on the coast of Sarawak is driven primarily by its oil plantations, which offer financial security but are also partly responsible for the rapid destruction of the region’s beloved forests. Bintulu is the archetypal boomtown. It’s a young city, known to Sarawakians as a place to earn a buck or a pit stop on a cross-state trip—but not much else. It’s a reputation many Bintuluans would like to change—including Mahmud Yussop, a 65-year-old Bintulu native, ex-development council manager, and, for the past 10 years, owner of a palm-oil plantation.  

Still, Yussop takes pride in his hometown’s industrial success and believes many workers do too. “The construction business is a beehive of activity,” he says. “You see so many people shopping in coveralls.”

Bintulu’s rapid growth began just over four decades ago. Before that,  Yussop says, “it was described as a sleepy fishing village and a tiny town.”

According to an account by an early explorer, the town popped up in 1862 after the Brooke regime—the white rajahs who ruled Sarawak for over a century—built a fort at the mouth of the Kemena River. The indigenous Melanau set up a village on the left bank; Chinese settlers did the same on the right. A century later the town had become known for the quality of the Melanau’s sago, a starch harvested from palm stems, and the potency of its belacan (fermented shrimp) paste. Its 5,000 or so residents clustered just off the tidal coast. Lacking a road to the nearest major city, Miri, they relied on supply ships from farther down the coast, supplementing their diets with bush meat and produce.

In 1969 surveyors located massive oil and gas reserves nearby. This touched off the first of a series of economic booms in the village. After energy came timber, plantation agriculture (oil palms, but also pepper, rattan, and other goods), and heavy industry like aluminum smelting and cement manufacture. Over the last decade Bintulu has become a focal point for the Sarawak Corridor of Renewable Energy (CORE) project, an ambitious plan to attain “developed country” status for the state by 2020. The project signals years of investment, development, and urban growth to come.

These sequential booms mean Bintulu has been radically expanding for over 40 years: the city hit 14,000 people in 1970 and ballooned to 100,000 people by 2000. A 2010 census put Bintulu’s population at just over 114,000, making it the fourth largest urban center in Sarawak. A 2014 article in the Borneo Post estimated the real population of the city and its environs (including informal settlements and illegal workers) at about 200,000.

“About two decades ago, you [could] see the town in, say, 10 minutes,” says Yussop. Now exploring the burgeoning industrial metropolis can take an hour by car.

Regional authorities have tried to manage the effects of this growth on the city. In 1978 the local development association was formed to oversee urban planning. (Yussop helped to manage the association from 1981 to 1992.) Recently officials have dedicated vast sums of cash for affordable housing, to replace the squatter camps pitched by the floods of workers seeking opportunity faster than developers can create it. The investment seems to have made an actual dent in homelessness and unsafe housing, as Yussop will proudly point out.

Joshua Toh Kok Hon, a 25-year-old music teacher from Bintulu, says that aside from traffic, the heavy extraction fueling the city rarely impinges on his life.

And Bintuluans have made significant efforts to beautify the city. During the 1970s, locals banded together to refurbish one of the city’s few heritage sites, the Tua Pek Kong Temple on Main Bazaar Road. In the 1980s, they initiated a major greening program, developing some lovely parks, like the swath of pine trees running along the rocky beaches of the city’s northeastern edge. In the past two decades, they’ve built golf courses and zoos, and they’ve begun advertising the town as a gateway to the national parks located a few hours up the coast. As of 2004, Bintulu started hosting an annual international kite-flying festival.

“In [the state capital of] Kuching, there is rich cultural life and soul,” says Yussop. “Bintulu has not reached that state. But I can see it is on track to become a livable city.”

It feels like Bintulu is trying to follow in the footsteps of Sibu, another town that sprang up in the 1860s around a Brooke-era fortress—this one at the mouth of the Rajang River, a little over 100 miles down the coast—and likewise became inhabited by Melanau natives and Chinese settlers. Sibu’s boom came a bit more gently in the early 20th century, mostly focusing on timber and a related shipbuilding industry, which picked up steam in the 1930s and hit its stride in the 1970s, when wood from the town made up a huge chunk of Sarawak’s exports. The city went from a few thousand people in the early 20th century to more than 10,000 people in the 1950s, 50,000 in the 1970s, and 130,000 in the 1990s. By the end of the century, Sibu had become the second-largest community in Sarawak.

By the 1990s, timber had also lured the largest population of millionaires and billionaires, the most bank headquarters, and generally the most liquid assets floating around the region to the city. Some of that money similarly went into building up Sibu’s civic and cultural infrastructure.

Sibu’s boom wound down in the 1990s when timber regulations tightened, but it maintained its status as an economic hub. By 2001 the city had built Sarawak’s largest tower, town square, and market, located just off a beautified waterfront decorated with swan motifs. It had built a number of museums celebrating local culture; one building contains early settlers’ agricultural equipment. It hosted regional dance, motorcycle, and talent festivals. Old mining sites and quarries turned into beautiful parks—grassy slopes with fish-feeding ponds, walking paths, and quaint wooden rest houses.

Despite a history soaked in industry and resource extraction, Sibu is rich in culture. The streets smell of must, not mortar and earth. Its people have lived in their neighborhoods for years; they walk down familiar streets to neighborhood kopitiams (coffeehouses), where they read papers in the morning and drink Tiger beers at night. They have a regional cuisine, with delicacies like red-wine duck.

Sibu is a hard contrast to the still-churning Bintulu. In Bintulu’s old town, you can find a few relaxed kopitiams serving up soups with the freshest and most potent belacan you’ve ever had, as well as regional dishes like frog’s-leg porridge. But this old town is ultimately swallowed up by sprawl that feels rushed and shoddy. The downtown waterfront promenade is often deserted, save for one or two old men leaning over the railing to see what they can catch in the waters below a patina of lumber waste.

“Most people gather in [the center of] town only for business or necessary purposes,” says Hon, the music teacher from Bintulu. “I myself stay in my neighborhood more than going into town.”

That seems to be the pattern for many who, like Hon, socialize at the local bars that stud the housing developments and long-term motels serving those who come to live and work, not stroll the seaside.

Hon adds, “You can find really nice food here … and the weather is nice. [But] I only recommend my friends come for, at most, two days. Bintulu is quiet.”

A future like Sibu’s is the dream for some Bintuluans. “People used to work and earn their living in Bintulu during weekdays and would drive or fly back to their hometowns during weekends,” Yussop says. More people are settling down in the city now, and he hopes that entertainment options and civil society will grow in response.

For now Bintulu is too rough, raw, and shifting to become what it wants to be. Its early bids at culture are half-forgotten banners and faded flyers for festivals on cracked, incomplete, and empty pedestrian walkways that run parallel to freshly tarred and busy throughways in the center of town. That scene may change when, like Sibu, Bintulu’s population and industry even out, and the city can settle into the earth rather than constantly battling against it. Yussop believes this shift is already happening.

“Life in Bintulu is far more exciting than it was at the turn of the century,” he stresses, “when it was veritably a ‘cowboy town’ or a ‘place to make money.’”

That’s great news for locals who’ve been stuck in Bintulu’s grind for ages. So it’s a positive sign for the future, but it doesn’t mean the city is a destination yet. For now it’s a crash course in the realities of the industries that are driving much of modern Borneo and a representation of the developments in many towns-turned-cities along the coastal fringe of the island. Bintulu is illuminating to wander through. But it still doesn’t feel meant for foreign travelers—unless you’re looking to develop.

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