When men go out to sea, these inspiring wives stay on land to support the family fishing business.


On the coastline of Pantai Penunjuk in Kijal, Terengganu, lies the village of Kampung Tengah. This hidden gem on the map is home to fishing families whose main commodity is ikan bilis, or anchovies.

Every day, the men of Kampung Tengah go out to the stormy seas in their wooden flat-bottomed boats to reel in the catch of the day. But while the men are away, it’s the women who hold down the fort. In fact, women and children play a very important role in the supply of one of Malaysia’s central ingredients.

Ikan bilis is used in the preparation of all sorts of local cuisine, such as fish essence, sambal and nasi lemak.

The women and children, who have volunteered the stay on land, have formed a coherent support system not only for their family business, but for their husbands and fathers at sea, who risk their lives every day to provide for the family.

30-year-old mother of four, Ju, is but one of them. She, and the other young women in the village, holds the crucial duty of boiling and drying the ikan bilis.  “I wake up at dawn every day, after doing some house chores, I come to [work] at 7am,” said Ju. “I return home at 10pm latest”.

Alongside Ju is Zaitun, 64, an elderly, but vigorous wife of the business owner in Kampung Tengah. Zaitun explained how the women in the manufacturing station do it. Once the fish have been caught, the fish is boiled in a “kawah” for 10 minutes. A kawah is a large tank of water, mixed in with 40 kilograms of salt. After the fish have been boiled, they are laid down on the floor to cool. It is here where the fish are categorised and separated according to their species, such as mata hitam and mata merah, as Zaitun said.

The ‘kawah’ is one of the things they use to process the anchovies.

The fish are brought outside in plastic baskets, and then scattered on a long mat, spanning nearly 15 metres, beside the coastline. The fish are left to dry under the sun, “if the weather is good, it will take about one day for them to dry,” said Zaitun. Once dried, the ikan bilis are finally ready to be shipped off to the suppliers.

Nur Syahira, 23, the daughter-in-law of Zaitun, on the other hand is the ‘caregiver’ of the family business. Syahira, who was holding a 6-year-old toddler in her arms when we were interviewing her, said, “I help take care of the younger children when everyone else is busy working.”

The children, and even grandchildren, have a role in the family business too. The youthful generation sometimes help out by boiling the fish, carrying the baskets, and counting the ikan bilis, said Ju. “Some of my kids say they want to become fisherman too when they grow up,” said Ju. She hopes her children may continue the business and pass it down for many generations to come.

Zaitun and Ju explained that while they enjoy the work they do, the women of Kampung Tengah do not have it easy. Fish drying is a very weather-dependent process. If it rains, the whole family comes together to bring the fish indoors, as letting them get wet can cause the ikan bilis to turn bad, said Zaitun.

Not to mention, watching their loved ones go out to the blue seas to provide for the family can be extremely worrisome. “It’s saddening to see kids playing in the water, as it reminds me of the past,” said Zaitun in a melancholic voice. “I’ve witnessed one of our people die when they went out to fish.”

While men make up a greater portion than women in the fishing business of Kampung Tengah,  Ju exclaimed, “It’s the same! Men and women are equal! We all help each other and work together.”

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