Monday, September 03, 2007

A Grandmother's Tale

My grandmother Lian Tie was taken from China to Sibu when she was five years.

Foochow men at that time was enterprising to the core! Because they knew that they could not afford to marry in the usual way by choosing a bride at a correct age, they resorted to the age old tradition of having a child bride.

This was a practice in China which lasted for centuries!

A child bride was a female child literally sold to a family who would bring up the child for one of the sons to marry at a proper age, which could even be 16! My grandmother was thus sold at the age of five to my very enterprising young Granduncle Lau Kah Tii who decided to buy her for his younger brother, Lau Kah Chui. He was barely 20 at that time.

One very amusing anecdote was this. My Granduncle was nicknamed Moh Moh because he raised mother ducks as his business when he just arrived in Sibu in 1903. He was very clever and good in business. He also had the habit of carrying everything in baskets slung from a bamboo pole called Pian Dan. So one day whenhe returned from the market after selling his ducks, he carred his own child bride( 9 years old) and my grandmother (who was about 5 years old at that time) in each of the baskets.

Neighbours called out to each other to watch the interesting sight. He got so embarrassed he called his brother (my grandfather) who was extremely shy to help him carry the two girls sitting nicely in the baskets. I often wonder how long the two brothers continued carrying the girls up and down the village road. But the story was always told to the amusement of their descendents.

In fact my grandfather and grand uncle were very involved in the development of rubber in Sibu. My granduncle acquired about 800 acres of rubber land, whereas my own grandfather only about 80 because he was working very much on his own and did not have enough resources to get labourers to help him.

When my grandmother was about 16 and my grandfather about 28 they got married and started their own family. They had 4 sons and 5 daughters together. My grandfather died in 1945 due to poor health and extreme exhaustion from farming and the Japanese War. My grandmother who had been stranded in China because of the war, was not by his bedside.

Below is my account of the development of the rubber industry in the Rejang River Basin.

During the Rajah Brooke rule 1842-1946, rubber was enthusiastically planted by Chinese, Malays and any native interested in the crop. There was no restriction in land use, hence "land was a gift of the Rajah to the adventurous new settlers who were willing to clear the land. Hence land was cleared for the planting of rubber, the most exciting and lucrative commercial crop, in places like Ensurai, Sibu, and Binatang (now called Bintangor).

Many of the Foochows and Henghuas who arrived between 1903 and 1913, the period before the First World War (1914-1918), were zealous agriculturalists who helped increase the revenue of the Rajah (Rutter,1991)

These rubber farmers did not establish estates like their British counterparts in the then Malaya. The Rajah on the other hand, did not encourage any British to plant and develop rubber into huge plantations. Instead the Rajah Government was more interested in establish smallholdings, which were self-sufficient. Hence throughout most of the foothills of Sarawak appeared smallholdings of rubber in a scattered manner. This remained the scenario of the development of rubber growing until the end of the Second World War when Sarawak was handed over to the British Colonial Government.

Smoke houses

Smoke houses were established by the riverbanks conveniently by some of the wealthier rubber planters. A small Foochow village like Lower Ensurai with about 20 families would rally around the village leader's smoke house. The smoke house would smoke the rubber sheets by the tons twice a year at least and all the villagers would be notified before the smoking began.

The smoking was done in a cooperative manner, as no charge in cash was demanded. All the able bodied men would chop the firewood taken from the collection of drift logs from the river. Once the fire was made, a man was nominated to tend the fire one day at a time. The smoking went on for a week. Meanwhile the rubber tapping was carried out.

Once the smoking was completed, the rubber sheets smelled fragrant to the knowing nose. The better-treated rubber sheets would have a translucent sheen and a mathematically accurate rectangle shape and these would be classified as Grade A ("look very good"). The rubber sheets were then bundled and sent by a slow motor launch to Sibu.

The "packing" day was an exciting day for all the families involved. Food would be cooked in large quantities and it was a merry time. When the loading was completed, the motor launch would sail off from the jetty by a boisterious group of women and children. The men would accompany the rubber sheets to Sibu. All the loading and unloading were done by manual labour. Not a single machine was used to help the strong and muscular Foochow men. A few Foochow men were well known for their strength. Had they been sent to represent Malaysia in weightlifting today, they would have broken a few Olympic records! Such was their strength that Lau Pang Sing, an uncle of mine, for example,at the height of his adult years, was able to throw one tan (the measurement of weight of that time, equivalent to 100 lbs) of rubber sheets on to his back and walk many yards to the trolley which he would then pull to the godown.

Selling and Buying of Rubber
The selling and buying of the rubber sheets was done in Sibu and it was carried out in the most gentlemanly way possible. The agent who was responsible for shipping the rubbers sheets to Singapore fixed the prices of the three grades of rubbers sheets. These prices were in turn based on the prices fixed by the Singapore exporter. A good example of the rubber shipping agent would be Hock Chiong of Sibu.

When the rubber sheets were ready to be exported to Singapore by Straits Steam Shipping cargo boats, Sibu was a hive of activity. And everyone would be so extraordinarily happy.

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