Saturday, September 29, 2007

Sibu's Wharf Labourers

The Foochow were the labour force of Brooke Rule and Colonial period Sibu ever since they came to Sarawak in 1901

Most of the Foochows were from poor farming background in Fuzhou, Fujian Province in China. When they came with Wong Nai Siong, most of them were virtually recruited as indentured labourers.

This need for good farming labourers in Sibu,Sarawak, though also an idea of the Second Rajah, coincided with the forced opening of the Treaty Ports in southern China and Britain’s annexation of Hong Kong in 1842 . The Rajah had apparently met Wong Nai Siong, accidentally in Singapore towards the end of the 19th century and they talked about the possibility of recruitment of a huge labour force for agricultural purposes in Sarawak.

In fact, according to historians the opening of Treaty Ports in China accelerated the migration of Chinese from southern China to Southeast Asia, Australia, the Pacific and the United States. Rajah Charles Brooke must have heard a great of good stuff about the Foochows. By another act of Providence, the Foochows also migrated to Sitiawan in Perak for a rice growing project.

In most historical accounts, the migration flow was organised and exploitative, with male Chinese signing on as indentured labourers. However, what was recorded in Sarawak by either the Foochows or the English was not in the least exploitative. It was all very amicable with Wong Nai Siong as a benevolent leader.

Although most of the Foochow pioneers were male, many women were brought in later to Sibu, especially when Rev Hoover who was appointed by Wong Nai Siong to take over from him not as Kang Chu (Head of the Pioneering Settlement) but as a leader. Rev. Hoover started schools for the boys and girls and a very strong Methodist mission. He was a benevolent, multi talented and visionary manager and brought in a lot of innovations like refrigeration, mechanization, modern medicine and propoer human resource management through education. He was also a good mediator between the Rajah and the Foochows. Hence, Sibu developed very rapidly with a vision and a mission.

Because the Foochows were very enterprising and hoping to make a fortune, they worked extremely hard in acquiring land and working long hours. In no time they were able to send money back to their home villages in China. They had Plan A and Plan B. For Plan A,they had hoped to make a fortune and return to China to marry, buy land and live as prosperous farmers. Some succeeded. And if they failed to do that, they had Plan B which was to live and die in Sibu. They would also have asked someone to help them find a bride from China.

By the late 19th century and beginning of the 20th century Singapore was an important financial and commercial centre. It was a major trans-shipment port, where the products of Southeast Asia were collected, packaged and re-exported and from where the products of industrial Britain and Europe were distributed. Thus as Sibu developed, the Foochow community saw to it that they exported their agricultural products to Singapore. Pepper , juletong, and rubber were their best export items. Within twenty years, Sibu had a thriving inland harbour and a sizeable force of wharf labourers.

Many of the later batches of Foochows who arrived in Sibu became wharf labourers and they actually made a fortune. They occupied a very large area of land in Tung Sang Road in a huge house which was called the House of Wharf Labourers or Ka Koh Chuoh. Several families who were descendants of these wharf labourers are today very prominent to say the least.

These wharf labourers worked almost day and night to load and unload the ships which came to Sibu. Everything was done manually. They lifted goods with their bare shoulders and wiped their sweat with a piece of red cotton cloth. This piece of red cotton cloth towel was also a sign of their work. The cloth also could be tied around their head to keep the sun away or reduce their headaches.

Tied around their waist, the towels seemed to give them extra muscles to lift extremely heavy loads. Today, one can still see kung fu masters with such a piece of waist band. The towel also acted as a buffer between bare human skin and a rough load, which was usually a gunny sack of grains.

It was quite a sight to watch the wharf labourers working like ants, moving in single file up and down the plankwalks to the ships. And the heaving of the loads from the shoulders to the lorries was just amazing. I often saw as a child how much a trolley could carry, perhaps ten or fifteen gunny sacks of rice, to the supply shop, with just one wharf labourer pulling the trolley and two others pushing.

In those days, none of us every predicted the coming of containers, cranes, and lift forks. Life was just sheer human labour: muscle and sweat.

In 1952, the Wharf Labourers' Union Building was put up in Sibu sitting on a triangular piece of prime land, with two roads bordering it, thus giving it a very long shop front. It was then the tallest three story building in the town, perhaps even bigger than the then Foochow Association Building in Central Road.. What a pride it was! It is still there if one looks up one can still see the words engraved at the top of the building, with the year on it.

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