Wednesday, October 31, 2007

A Bowl of Mung / Green Beans (lu dou)

The practice of child bride was practised in China from time immemorial to post Republic days. And most pitifully and perhaps inhumanly, poor families also practised female infanticide, a practice which even the Emperor would turn a blind eye. When Sun Yet Sun came into power, many of the revolutionaries thought that a new age would come to China and the Chinese leaders would blaze a trail of new reforms and changes for the people especially for the women. But many disppointing years later, child brides who have grown into old ladies have stories to tell and according to many international media reports child brides are still available in the Carribean, Ethiopia, many African and Arab countries. China has changed especially after the One Child Policy. But the lessons from the Chinese experience have not been learnt.

My concern has been for female children who do not go to school, who do not know their rights, and who do not know what it is like to be treated like human beings.

My cousin, now 75 ,is a China- born child bride. This is her story. Although it is not a horror story, it is still a story of how much she has "LOST OUT" as a human being.

Her parents were poor farmers in Fujian, China, a little outside Foochow City in the sixth district. She was born a very small baby, hardly the size of a Milo tin, as she related her story to us.

At birth she was offered as a child bride to any family who would take her in as her mother was running out of energy and milk, in order to save her life.If no one could take her, her fate would be drowning in the river. And no one would raise an eye brow. Finally one family showed interested and , naked, she was given to the family which had come for her offering just a small piece of cloth to wrap her in. This was how poor the folks were at that time.

The distance between her parent's home and her new home was almost a day's walking journey. When she arrived, she was placed in a wooden bed. She was just so tiny that neighbours were wondering how she could survive as the new in-laws so to speak had already had two previous child brides who did not survive.She was likened to a kitten.

1932 -1950
Strangely she was a tough nut. She managed to survive infancy and grew into a very hardworking child, cutting wood, tilling the land, growing vegetables, looking for bamboo shoots. She looked after her mother in law as well as she could. By then her future husband had already "come out" to Sibu to look for a living. Then the second World War came and she survived the onslaught of the Japanese Occupation in China. She went through her teenage life with a lot of guts and laughter according to her. She learned the Foochow songs, riddles and traditional sayings and had them memeorieed. And as she was poor, she did not have even one day of school.

When word came to her, as she was approaching 18, that her future husband had enough to send for her to come out to Sibu, she was excited about the new future. She walked the day's journey home to pay her respects to her biological parents. Their lives were as bad if not worse than before. When she told them that she was going to Sarawak, her father went to the little shop, silently, to buy a small handful of green beans to cook for her, as a mark of farewell. After eating the green bean porridge, she left for her homeward journey. This was the last she saw of her parents alive. She said that she was duty bound to them, as she was a daughter. How could any one talk about love and bonding in a situation like this when love was almost an unknown word and affection was definitely non existent.She did not hug her parents and she did not even cry. They were so stone cold . Bidding farewell though painful to them, it had to be done. And with no feelings shown on their faces, they parted knowing that they would never see each other again.

Many years later, she heard that her father passed away and she sent some money to them for the burial rites from Sarawak. That was considered very filial of her even though she was given without a single stitch to her parents in law.

My cousin had been given away as a child bride. The parents felt no regret at that. And they could not feel anything for parting with their 18 year old daughter who had to make that long journey to a distant land. They could also not give any token, a small piece of gold , to her as a farewell gift. Such was the life of extremely poor Foochow farmers at that time.

1950 - 2007
When she came out from China she was still a tiny woman,hardly five foot tall, with small eyes but a lively attitude towards the tribulations of life. With her husband, Lau, she planted rubber trees, pepper vines and vegetables in Sarikei while raising three children, two boys and a girl.

Life did not deal her with a good hand. She tapped rubber and was once almost killed by a snake. She planted onions as a side line and earned enough to buy herself a motor bike. And when her husband was in prisoned for supporting the communists for 13 months in Kuching, she harvested enough pepper to build herself a new wooden house to welcome her husband home.

Even then with all the successes she had achieved she was still not highly regarded by her sister in law who was residing in Sibu, nor by her husband who was chauvinistic and too lacking in affection.

Marriage was a getting together of two persons, to regenerate. Love was perhaps not even found in their lives. Love making was a necessity to reproduce. She got pregnant, carried the child, while she and her husband went about tilling the land and coaxing a living out of it. She told us that life for her was one day at a time, one step at a time.

Her husband was obviously not a loving man who showed his expressions well. And she herself being uneducated probably did not know what else to do.

What is love? To her it is more or less respect for her husband, meeting his needs, bearing and raising his children and standing by him until he died from stomach cancer, even though by then she had known all along that he had many women outside their marriage. Everything she did was out of duty and her beliefs in her own worth as a woman from China. She had held her head high, she had been faithful, she had been forebearing. And she had not done anything that was inappropriate.

I feel that she has really done a lot for her family and that she deserves a better life that she is having now. But instead, her eldest son has his own family, her eldest daughter has her own life to lead. She is having a small room in her second son's house for which she has a monetary share of RM70,000, hard earned money from her farming days. Even her grandson does not know her pains as a child bride, or as a mother who has sacrificed all.

Had she wanted something else? Yes, definitely. She would want more than all these. But how could she? Who would help her? How could she have a better quality of life? She still owns a red Malaysian IC after she had lived in Sarawak since 1950. One of her greatest wish is to be able to vote in an election. So how could she get her blue IC, to become a true Malaysian. I think she deserves one. She has served the nation more than most people.

She will accept all, bear all. Typical old fashioned Chinese child bride. A brave and admirable soul to me. A good woman.


Mung beans are commonly used in Chinese cuisine, where they are called lǜ dòu (绿豆, literally "green bean"), as well as in Japan, Korea, India, Thailand and Southeast Asia. In Vietnam, they are called đậu xanh (again, literally "green bean"). They are generally eaten either whole (with or without skins) or as bean sprouts, or used to make the dessert "green bean soup". The starch of mung beans is also separated from the ground beans to make jellies and noodles.

Whole mung beans are generally prepared from dried beans by boiling until they are soft. In Chinese cuisine, whole mung beans are used to make a tong sui, or sweet soup, called lǜdòu tāng, which is served either warm or chilled. In Indonesia, they are made into a popular dessert snack called es kacang hijau, which has the consistency of a porridge. The beans are cooked with sugar, coconut milk, and a little ginger. Although whole mung beans are also occasionally used in Indian cuisine, beans without skins are more commonly used.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Mee Sua and Ah Chuo Pah and Ah Chuo Moo

I am dedicating this posting to two amazing characters who played an important role in my Foochow Sibu days. They contributed a great deal of joy and happiness to my family while living along Kung Ping Road which was later renamed Brooke Drive by the local government.

Our little community there was a wonderful set up with several different skills which made living and social development very vibrant and interesting.

Opposite our house were five houses which were home to more than ten families. The furthest away was Ah chuo Pah (Uncle Ah Chuo /Ting Huat Chuo), the second house on the right was home to Mr. Lau (at present the well known transport tycoon) and his growing family of boys. Next to his house was a smaller wooden house which was home to Mr and Mrs. Cheng. Mr. Cheng suddenly passed away, living behind a grieving widow and seven children. But they stayed on because the rental was so small at 25 ringgit for the whole house of four rooms. Then there was the long house with ten units which was home to ten families. And furthest on the left was a sort of semi detached house on stilts. This was home to two families.

This was my town "village" and we children grew up together ,scraping our knees while learning to ride bicycles, flying kites, playing marbles, eagle and chickens,etc. There was so much space and so much freedom and so little inhibition.

We were free to go in an out of each others homes without fear of predators or criminal tendencies of adults, unlike today . Mothers have to be on their toes twenty four hours a day on a look out for their children just in case a kidnapper is on the loose.

My favourite neighbour was this family of mee sua makers. The lived on the first floor of their house. The ground floor was their factory and their backyard and front yard the place where they would pull their long mee sua or noodles for drying in the sun.

The Ting family worked very hard as their day started at two or three in the morning when they would start kneading their wheat dough for the noodles. Ah Chuo Pah would twirl the long threads of noodles on two sticks and allow the noodles to dry slowly in their boxes. When it was about nine in the morning, he would take these noodles which were between two sticks out to the sun and stick them onto the wooden frame. He would pull slowly the noodles until they are long enough, and so slim that they were like threads. These noodles looked like a thin piece of cloth hanging from two sticks, drying in the sun. The whiteness of the noodles in the sun was a remarkable sight. Sometimes when the clouds form over the yard, we could see the anxiety on the faces of the Ah Pah and Ah Moo. They had to make sure that the noodles were dry before the afternoon rain came down in a deluge.

When the noodles were dry enough, Ah Pah and Ah Moo would collect them and bundle them up like long hair, and tied them up with red strings. These noodles were ready for sale.

Salty, fresh and fragrant. Mee Sua is definitely a huge part of the Foochow culture.

Chinese noodles have a long and well-established history. It was recorded as early as in Eastern Han Dynasty, which was over 1,900 years ago, that noodles were originally called "cakes", with "water boiled cake" being the ancestor of Chinese noodles. According to Liuxi's "Shi Ming" ("Meaning of Names"), "cake" was a generic name of any food made out of the combination of water and flour, including water boiled flour strips or flour blocks.

From the initial period of Eastern Han Dynasty, Southern and Northern Wei Jing Dynasties to the later Tang, Song, Yuan, Ming and Qing Dynasties, there were written records about noodles throughout the history of China. There was not a unique name of noodles in early times: in addition to the commonly used "water boiled noodle", "boiled cake" and "soup cake", the food was also called "shuiying bing" ("water concoction cake"), "bu tuo", "bo tuo" and so forth. It was not until Sung Dynasty did "mian" ("noodle") become the formal name of the food. In the shape of long strips, noodles came in a variety of forms such as cold noodle, warm noodle, plain noodle and fried noodle. There are also a variety of amazing noodle making methods such as twisting, paring, stirring, brushing, rubbing, pressing, rolling, leaking and pulling. In addition to being an inexpensive and satiating staple food, Chinese noodles can also be presented luxuriously. It was mentioned in historic records that many government officials and wealthy people enjoyed noodles and would serve the food to important guests.

In Tang Dynasty, the most prosperous period in the history of China, "soup cake" and "cold noodle" were demanded in the imperial palaces during winter and summer respectively. In Yuan Dynasty, "hanging noodle", which could be persevered for a long period of time, was introduced, while in Ming Dynasty, with the superior skills of the noodle makers, "hand-pulled noodle" was brought to the light. All these noodle making techniques have contributed considerably to the evolution of noodles. "Five-spice noodle" and "Eight-treasure noodle" were the classics created in Qing Dynasty with "E-fu Noodle" being the most innovative appeared in Ganlong period. In fact, Chinese noodles had been developed to a mature and stable stage in Qing Dynasty with unique tastes and flavors established in different provinces, such as the 5 most famous noodles of China: Dan Dan Noodle of Sichuan, E-fu Noodle of Guangdong & Guangxi, Spicy Mincemeat Noodle of northern China, Pared Noodle of Shanxi, and Hot Dry Noodle of Wuhan. Cultural exchange and development between the East and West had also added splendor to Chinese noodles and the noodle making culture.

Chinese noodles is the ancestor of all noodles. They are not only world-renowned but also exert far-reaching impact on noodle culture round the globe. Spaghetti was the example of a transformation of Chinese noodles: it was Marco Polo, an Italian diplomatic agent, who learnt the techniques from China in Yuan Dynasty and let the people evolve and thus had the new type of noodle created in the country. Another example in 1912, the traditional techniques of making Chinese noodles were brought to Yokohama, Japan, from China and Japanese ramen was then introduced. Japanese ramen was initially called "Dragon Noodle" implying it was a food eaten by Chinese people-The people who are descendant of Dragon.

Culture of Noodles

The major ingredient of noodles is wheat flour. Although rice and congee used to be the staple food items for Chinese people, after the appearance of noodle, however, the food was as important as rice to the population. Noodle has become the staple food for people in the north. For southern population, although rice is still for major consumption, noodle has become an important food item in their menu.

Noodles in the north and south are vastly different. In the south, egg noodles with plain flour being the major ingredient are primary. Using yolks of duck eggs instead of hen eggs, the noodles are thin and pliable. There are raw noodle, dry noodle, and the popular fine dry noodle and shrimp-eggs noodles are pupolar. In the north, noodles are made of wheat flour usually without the use of eggs. Instead, lye is used to make the noodles more digestible as a staple food. Compared with those made in the south, noodles in the north are boarder, softer and more pliable. When you go into a shop in the north asking for "mian" (the word could mean flour or noodle in Chinese), they will give you flour. But if you are in the south, processed noodle will be offered.

Population in the north rely on noodles as their staple food to fill their stomachs, therefore quantity is weighed more than quality. They also do not care much about the ingredients for serving with noodlel. Noodles are always served with raw onions and raw garlic mix with soy sauce. The soup is also relatively oily and salty. On the other hand, the southern population, who rely heavily on rice as their staple food, is more concern on the noodle quality. Moreover, noodles are always served as side dishes and nicely presented in small bowls.

Traditional noodles are delicately hand-made. From flour mixing, beating, pulling and cutting, every step is done manually. But interestingly, noodle making techniques are uniquely different in the north and south. Ramen, a kind of hand-pulled noodle, is famous in the north. To make it soft and pliable is not an easy task: one does not only need to have a pair of strong arms but also have good skill to control the force to press on the dough. To the contrast, making of southern noodles requires gentle yet firm forces so that the finished products are crisp but not fragile. The critical part is the ‘bouncing' bouncing. The noodle maker's bouncing on the bamboo by using his body weight to evenly flatten the dough. The dough can then be cut into thin strips.

Among all special Chinese noodles, the most unique type ought to be "E-fu Noodle" (or "Yi Noodle"). Yi Noodle can be served dry or with soup. It is a creation of Scholar Yi Bingshou's chef during Ganlong time in Qung Dynasty. Yi Noodle is made in both southern and northern China with Fujian and Jiangxi provinces doing it most impressively. The noodle is special because it does not require mixing of flour with water but with beaten eggs. After a process of boiling, cooling, drying and frying, it becomes the semi-finished product. Due to its unique making techniques, Yi Noodle can be served in a variety of ways, making it superior among other noodles and become one of the must-haves in banquets.

Introduced in Sichuan in 1841, "Dan Dan Noodle" is another well-known noodle round the world. The name came from how the noodle was sold – it was carried to the street for sales with a bamboo ("dan"). People lived hard lives back at the time. A peddler named Chen Baobao used a bamboo to carry the noodle for sales on the street to earn a living. Although noodles were precious food for aristocrats in ancient times, Dan Dan Noodle was not served to the rich but the general public. Initially, the noodle was sold in bystreets and pipe alleys. It was coarse and cooked only in boiling water with chili pepper sauce, soy sauce and a little bit of pickle added in the soup, tasted hot and spicy for satiation. It was not until later when the noodle was brought into big restaurants and hotels and eventually became a dish in banquets.

In Hong Kong, the popular "Wonton Noodle" is made with raw noodle, which was originated in Guangdong. Hen eggs or duck eggs are the major ingredients of raw noodle. Hen eggs can make the noodle more crispy while duck eggs can add flavor to the finished product. Good raw noodle is called rice thread vermicelli, which is thin and turns yellow when it is cooked. In addition to being pliable but not too hard or too soft, it is most important that the noodle does not carry the taste of lye.

Stories of Noodles

Besides the different noodle cultures between the north and south, there are unique meanings and stories behind each type of noodle.

"Longevity Noodle" is a type of traditional Chinese noodle. As its long shape symbolizes longevity, the noodle is a must-have at every birthday banquet. In ancient times, having Longevity Noodle symbolized a wish for new born baby boys' living long lives and the custom has been passed on from generation to generation. It is a ritual that a piece of noodle has to be swallowed without cutting either by mouth or using a pair of chopsticks. In addition to meaning to live long lives, eating the noodle also represents showing of respect for the elderly. In a legend, it is said that Emperor Wang became immortal on the day of Winter Solstice in Han Dynasty. Since then, the noodle, also named "Winter Solstice Noodle," has been consumed every Winter Solstice Day to symbolize respect for the elderly. In fact, there are many stories about Longevity Noodle, and the aforesaid is just one of the many versions. (Extracted from "Anecdotes of Famous Chinese Food")

Vermicelli served on birthdays is called "Birthday Noodle." Vermicelli made in Fuzhou City is the most famous and it carries a variety of names: that given to children at their weddings are called "Happy Noodle", that to be consumed by pregnant women are called "Blessed Noodle", that presented to friends are called "Peace Noodle", and that for the sick and the elderly are called "Health Noodle." A legend said vermicelli was a very thoughtful birthday gift presented by Empyrean Fairy to her Queen Mother for her birthday. Because of this legend, noodle makers all worship Empyrean Fairy's statue in their homes. There are various kinds of Fuzhou vermicelli such as egg vermicelli, dragon-beard vermicelli and rice thread vermicelli. (Extracted from "Anecdotes of Famous Chinese Food")

Another example is the aforesaid "cold noodle", which was originated by Wu Zetian, the only female emperor of China. It is said that Wu's beauty got her chosen into the imperial palace as a scholar when she was 14. Having to leave Chang Jianfeng, her lover since childhood, for the palace, Wu and Chang went to a restaurant for noodles before they parted. It was a very hot day. Wu came up with a bright idea and created the tender and delicious cold noodle with the restaurant owner. It happened that the day was also Wu's birthday. In order to serve as a memorial to what happened, she would order the chefs to make cold noodle on her birthdays. This custom remain unchanged until the last day of her life. (Extracted from "Anecdotes of Famous Chinese Food")

There is another story behind Shaanxi's Qishan Noodle, which is also called "Harmony Noodle." It is said that in Western Zhou Dinasty, Emperor Yin seized Emperor Zhou in a castle of Youli because of his jealousy of his achievement. When Emperor Zhou was released and returned to his hometown, the local people noticed his very bad condition caused by the tortures and thus offered him plenty of food to help him recover. To express his gratitude to these people, Emperor Zhou personally made noodle with the ingredients brought to him to serve the crowd. When they ate up the noodle, they poured the soup back and cooked more noodle with it. This way of eating noodle without drinking the soup is called having "Harmony Noodle." (Extracted from "Stories of Famous Food")

It is said "World noodles are in China." The profound knowledge behind Chinese noodles cannot be summarized in just a few words. But it is certain that noodles are founded and evolved in China. Different types of noodles can be cooked and served in a variety of ways. With each type of noodle possessing its own history and culture, Chinese noodles are no doubt world-renowned.

Bicycles in Sibu

Have you ever asked any one about the bicycles of Sibu? You may be answered disdainfully - "Bah! Bicycles? They make Sibu the most difficult town in South East Asia to manoevre when you are driving....even cars are afraid of them!!"

Bicycles broke every traffic law in the town. They were every where! And almost every one rode a bicycle in the 60's. There were good Raleigh bicycles and the rest were made in China. The Catholic Priests rode them, the secondary school teachers rode them, the hawkers rode them , housewives rode them and when the school session ended, there were thousands of them on the road making a racket.

When did the bicycle first appear on the streets of Sibu? Nobody really knew. But it was said that a missionary brought one and gave it to a Henghua pastor as a farewell gift in 1900's , in Sungei Merah. Someone said that the Brooke government had brought some to help the officers move about in Sibu before cars came in the early 1900's.

In some ways, the use of the bicycle in Sibu had a direct relationship with the usage of bicycle in China.

The bicycle was already in existence in China before the Foochows came to Sibu in 1903.

The writer, Binchun who visited Western Europe noted the Michaux' pedal-driven prototype of a bicycle even months before the invention became known to the European public. Binchun had visited France, Great Britain, Germany and other nations between March and July 1866. After his return, he reported to the court on various curiosities he had discovered during his mission in the West. Among these he had seen in Paris two types of a strange device:

"On the avenues", Binchun writes, "people ride on a vehicle with only two wheels, which is held together by a pipe. They sit above this pipe and push forward with movements of their feet, thus keeping the vehicle moving. There's yet another kind of construction which is propelled by foot pedaling. They dash along like galloping horses." (Binchun, Chengcha Biji, 1866/68)

However, the bicycle or the velocipede is not commented on in any known official source.

The Industrial Revolution had taken off in Europe and economic progress was rearing its head in almost every coal producing European country,and the United States. Japan was just at teething stage too.

However, much later, it was through newspaper reports that the Chinese government in particular and the Chinese public in general, that a greater interest was made in the usage of the bicycle. Especially when it was found out that the bicyle weas better than the horse in military expeditions! There were Chinese newspapers reporting on competitions between horse and bicycle in western armies, and also in Japan. For instance, the 1900-mile ride, of the 25th US-infantry battalion, from Montana to St. Louis, Missouri in 1897, was discussed in the journal Shixuebao, in regard to the possible introduction of bicycles in the Imperial army, only a few weeks after its successful completion. Whether this discussion ever came to fruition is questionable, at least there is no documentation of trial runs, or bicycle squads in China, before the early 1930s.

Between the 1870s and the early 1890s, European and American expatriates, living in the so-called treaty ports; Shanghai and Tianjin, or in the Chinese capital Beijing, were practially the only cyclists in China. Members of these fast-growing multinational communities effectively transferred their materialistic western culture and life styles to the Far East. Like other western commodities, first introduced in the coastal cities, the bicycle came to China in the trunks of missionaries, businessmen or colonial officers, and spread from there, rather slowly to the hinterland.

One movie featuring Gong Li showed a scene of the beautiful actress learning to ride a 22 inch bicycle in the house. The time frame of this movie is probably the late 19th century.

Thus the first Chinese cyclists were probably wealthy students, journalists or businessmen who had returned from abroad and brought their bicycles back with them.

The traditional Chinese were still very much against Western influence so the bicycle probably remain a show piece for a longer period than necessary. At the same time gramophones, photographic equipment and other technical devices were bought by the upper class, and used to exhibit the progressiveness of their owners. To cope with this complex cultural dilemma, a rough simplification was coined in the commonly used 19th century formula: "Chinese knowledge as a basis, western technology for practical use" (Zhongxue wei ti, xixue wei yong).

It was mainly the high prices" which restricted the availability of the imported bicycle to a thin layer of the higher social strata. Cycling was a phenomenon of the western-oriented upper class. Democratisation of cycling thus did not set in until the 1920s." wrote a Chinese historian.

However by 1930, there was a record of 20,000 bicycles in Shanghai alone.

The bicycle entered into many aspects of life, not only privately but also due to its use by public institutions. Many Chinese may first have been equipped with bicycles as postmen, soldiers, or as members of modern police squadrons. But also, on the other side of Chinese society, the usefulness of the bicycle, for the fast and flexible transport of goods, was highly appreciated when rice was rationed in 1941/42. During the Japanese occupation of Shanghai, smugglers brought in quantities of rice on their bicycle racks.

In the 1930s, the Chinese cycle industry finally came into being. Nearly synchronously, the three largest importers of bicycles Tongchang Chehang (Shanghai), Changcheng (Tianjin), and Daxing (Shenyang) established their production lines. Starting around 1929/1930, with the assembly of manufactured and imported cycle parts, the enterprises grew rapidly. The combined output of the Chinese bicycle industry reached 10,000 units annually between 1937 and 1945. By the mid-1930s, Chinese cycle history reached a stage comparable to that of Western Europe around the turn of the last century. A rapid increase in numbers of cyclists in the larger cities can be observed shortly after mass production was taken up. Prices now finally reached a level, which brought the bicycle within the reach of a wider population. The number of bike owners in Shanghai (3.5 million inhabitants) constantly increased to 230,000 in the late 1940s. China-wide, there may have been half a million bicycles in 1949.

The year 1949 marks a pivotal year, not only for Chinese national history, but also for cycle history. After 1949, when the People's Republic of China was founded, the bicycle soon found a strong advocate in the communist government. Whether problems in the building of a public transport system, adequate to the needs of a "socialist" society, were the practical arguments for the endorsement of bicycle traffic, or whether there were ideological reasons, may be left to further research. As a matter of fact, the bicycle received strong support by the Chinese government in different ways: the cycle industry, which was established by merging smaller manufacturers into larger national firms, was given preferential allowances of rationed materials. The nascent bicycle industry thus was able to accomplish growth rates of 58.7% annually -ambitiously charted out in the first Chinese Five-Year-Plan. The level of one million bicycles was reached in 1958. Bicycle lanes became part of urban street planning and commuting workers received financial subsidies when purchasing a bicycle.

Today's ubiquity of the bicycle in China has led to the widespread assumption of a cultural inclination of Chinese to bicycling. In fact this is far from the truth. The Iron Leg Vehicle or the leg pedal vehicle or the leg vehicle had taken a long slow road into becoming a common machinery for the common man in China.

When the bicycle slowly made its way to the Sibu social scene, it was the Heng Hua community which was responsible for introducing its sale. Thus for a long time, the Heng Huas were associated with the selling of bicycles, repairing of the rubber tyres and other parts of the machine. Rubber tappers soon found that it was quite easy to balance the rubber sheets, or latex on both sides of the bicyle.

In many parts of the Rejang River Valley, the villagers used the bicycle to carry water , pepper,foodstuff,and any other goods,instead of using the local bamboo bian dan or pole.

When I was a child, having a ride across the central bar of the bicyle with my uncle was the time of my life.

And in later years, when I was old enough to own a bicyle to go to school, I gained my first freedom of a young adult. It was like getting a driving licence today.

However, it was the mobility which derived from using bicycles that enabled the Communist Underground movement to prosper. Youngsters were more mobile and they could easily speed along the rubber garden paths to attend their secret meetings.

During the Emergency in Sarawak, all cyclists were stopped by the Police, Field Force and the Gurkhas at checkpoints. Every one of us was suspected of being a Communist. Only our Hajis wearing their topi Haji and sarong were not stopped at a checkpoints. No Malay I suppose was ever involved in any Communist activity.

Inspirational quotations for teachers

Teachers in Malaysia "have been accused of committing serious crimes against the government!" "All tuition centres must me monitored!" "Teachers who give tuition must have their salaries cut!" These are glaring headlines in the papers in July 2007. And I felt a deep pain in my soul.

In order to regain my own perspective of my own worth, although I have never operated a tuition centre myself, I decided to collect inspiring quotations for teachers, and I would add to them, from time to time.....

Sibu has become a very interesting and successful town because when it was first started by Wong Nai Siong and Rev.Hoover, the most important aspect of town building in their minds was a school. They could not have been more right.

Teachers who educated children deserved more honour than parents who merely gave them birth; for bare life is furnished by the one, the other ensures a good life.
Attributed to Aristotle

To teach is to learn.
Chinese proverb

The first step in the acquisition of wisdom is silence, the second listening, the third memory, the fourth practice,
the fifth teaching others.
Solomon Ibn Gabriol

I'm not a teacher, but an awakener.
Robert Frost

One looks back with appreciation to the brilliant teachers, but with gratitude to those who touched our human feelings. The curriculum is so much necessary raw material, but warmth is the vital element for the growing plant and for the soul of the child.
Carl Jung

A master can tell you what he expects of you.
A teacher, though, awakens your own expectations.
Patricia Neal

A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.
Henry Brooks Adams

The aim of education should be teaching us how to think,
rather than what to think.
James Beatti

It is by teaching that we teach ourselves, by relating that we observe, by affirming that we examine, by showing that we look, by writing that we think, by pumping that we draw water into the well.
Henri-Frédéric Amiel

My love is thine to teach; teach it but how,
And thou shalt see how apt it is to learn
Any hard lesson that may do thee good.
William Shakespeare

I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.
Chinese Proverb

The art of teaching is the art of assisting discovery.
Mark Van Doren

What nobler employment, or more valuable to the state,
than that of the man who instructs the rising generation?

The successful teacher is no longer on a height, pumping knowledge at high pressure into passive receptacles....He is a senior student anxious to help his juniors.
William Osler

The object of teaching a child is to enable him to get along without a teacher.
Elbert Hubbard

Who dares teach must never cease to learn.
John Cotton Dana

Teaching is not a lost art but the regard for it is a lost tradition.
Jacques Barzun

If a man keeps cherishing his old knowledge, so as continually be acquiring new, he may be a teacher of others.

My joy in learning is partly that it enable me to teach.

Teachers believe they have a gift for giving; it drives them with the same irrepressible drive that drives others to create a work of art or a market or a building.
A Bartlett Giamatt

Dr.Zhivago and Sixth Form Film Criticism - 1967

"Knowledge is the ultimate investment project. - Ivan Majstorovic"

"In teaching I learn. In writing I think."

"Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely." Lord Acton.

Some how quotations one learn in Sixth Form never leave us. And today as I embark on writing about my memories of Dr.Zhivago, I dedicate the above quotations to all who went to school with me. And to let my teachers know that I remember dearly everything they taught me and how they helped me value reading and learning.

We were very excited when our wonderful (then and now ) Mr.K V Wiltshire allowed us as a group to watch the film "Doctor Zhivago" in Cathay Cinema, Sibu. It was 1967. It was a marvellous and memorable extension education.

The film was based on author Boris Pasternak's historical, romantic novel. It did not occur to us then that the English version of the book was only printed in 1957 !
The book was 592 pages, quite thick to many of my classmates who had not been very voracious readers. It was not exactly an "old book" as it is "a 20th century novel"

Written in Russian, the novel is named after its protagonist, Yuri Zhivago, a medical doctor and poet. The word zhivago shares a root with the Russian word for life (жизнь), one of the major themes of the novel. It tells the story of a man torn between two women, set primarily against the backdrop of the Russian Revolution of 1917. More deeply, the novel discusses the plight of a man as his life is slowly destroyed by the violence of the revolution.

Unknown to us at that time, as we were merely students with very little information, the novel actually contains passages written in the 1910s and 1920s, and Doctor Zhivago was not completed until 1956. It was submitted for publication to the journal Noviy mir, but it was rejected due to Pasternak's political incorrectness: Pasternak, like Zhivago, was more concerned with the welfare of individuals than of the state.

In 1957, the publisher Giangiacomo Feltrinelli smuggled the manuscript out of the Soviet Union and published the book in Russian in Milan. The following year, it appeared in Italian and English translations, and these publications were partly responsible for the fact that the author was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958. The Soviet government forced him to reject the prize, which was unprecedented. Pasternak died a few years later, of natural causes.

The book was finally published in the Soviet Union in 1988, ironically in the pages of Noviy mir, although earlier samizdat editions also exist. A few years later, the Soviet Union was officially dissolved.

Yuri Zhivago is sensitive and poetic nearly to the point of mysticism. In medical school, one of his professors reminds him that bacteria may be beautiful under the microscope, but they do ugly things to people.

Zhivago's idealism and principles stand in brutal contrast to the horrors of World War I, the Russian Revolution, and the subsequent Russian Civil War. A large theme of the book is how the mysticism of things and idealism is destroyed by both the Bolsheviks, Rebels and the white army. Yuri must witness cannibalism, dismemberment, and other horrors suffered by the innocent civilian population during the turmoil. Even the love of his life, Lara (whose full name is Larissa Feodorovna), is taken from him.

He ponders on how the war can turn the whole world senseless, and make a previously reasonable group of people destroy each other with no regard for life. His journey through Russia has an epic feeling because of his travelling through a world which is in such striking contrast to himself, relatively uncorrupted by the violence, and to his desire to find a place away from it all, which drives him across the Arctic Siberia of Russia, and eventually back down to Moscow.

Pasternak gives subtle criticism of Soviet ideology: he disagrees with the idea of "building a new man," which is against nature. This fits in the story's theme of life.

Pasternak's description of the singer Kubarikha in the chapter "Iced Rowanberries" is almost identical to Sofia Satina's (sister-in-law / cousin of Sergei Rachmaninov) description of gypsy singer Nadezhda Plevitskaya (1884-1940). Since Rachmaninov was a friend of the Pasternak family, and Plevitskaya a friend of Rachmaninov, Plevitskaya was probably Pasternak's "mind image" when he wrote the chapter; something which also shows how Pasternak had roots in music.

Names and places
Zhivago: the Russian root zhiv is similar to 'life'
Larissa: a Greek name suggesting 'bright, cheerful'
Komarovsky: komar is the Russian for 'mosquito'
Pasha: the diminutive form of 'Pavel', from the Latin word paulus, meaning 'small'
Strelnikov: strelok means 'the shooter'
Yuriatin: the fictional town was based on the real Perm, where Pasternak had lived for part of the Second World War
The original of the public reading room at Yuriatin was the Pushkin Library, Perm

The film I saw as a student was the " most famous by far is the 1965 adaptation by David Lean, starring Omar Sharif and Julie Christie"

After the film we had a serious discussion at Mr. Wiltshire's sitting room. It was a great moment for us because we were so motivated by the scenery ,the music and the impactful acting of Omar Sharif and Julie Christie. One student who stood out in the discussion was an Upper Sixth girl, Felicia Toh. She was so good as pointed out very salient points. I was impressed by her English too.

Today many talk shows cannot beat this session of film discussion. Mr. Wiltshire led us very carefully in his Oxford inquiry style. I felt as if I was in an Oscar award panel then.

It was the music the group agreed which appealed to us the most. Even though most of us were not groomed in classical music (at that time not many could afford music lessons and piano was not an instrument most families wanted to buy because it was too costly), we truly appreciated the music. For months most of us hummed "Lara's Theme". Even now as I type these words, Lara's Theme is still in my head, after 40 years.

(Later through the kindness of Mrs. Wiltshire and several others, we were given a series of music appreciation lessons. I believe a lot of finesse was inculcated through these lessons. I thought they were just marvellous lessons in life! And I appreciate them to this day.)

Although many of us had not finished reading the book before we went to watch the movie, we were told by Mr.Wiltshire that the film was faithful to the book in a general sense, with no significant deviations from the general storyline; however, the depictions of several characters and events are noticeably different. After the movie,the book from the Sixth Form library was passed from one student to another. Several of us read and reread the book several times. And years later we were told that Malaysians read only one page a year according to one research. It was hard to believe.

Reading can be so much part of our life especially when we have good teachers who lead the way and try every means to get us to read.

Mr. and Mrs. Wiltshire had walked more than the proverbial second mile to help us along the path of reading.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Sibu Recreation Club

The Sibu Recreation Club is no longer in existence, physically that is. In its site is the huge Sanyan Building.

The Sibu Recreation Club featured significantly in our lives in the 50's and 60's. Lots of black and white photographs were hung on the walls . And I remember that many of them were actually of great historical value.

The Club was set up by a group of Foochow business men who were interested in having a venue for their recreation like mahjong playing, tennis, some beers and pool.

They were very successful in setting up a fund and in no time, they put up quite a reasonable double storeyed concrete building on the state land , next to the Sibu Boys' Club.

What I remember was the great noise the business men made when they played mahjong after their office hours.

Datuk Ting Ing Mien, his brother Ting Ing Ling and a few others were the frequent mahjong partners of my father. I often hanged out there as I liked to eat two or four pieces of siew mai (that was all I was allowed by my father).It was also here that I learned how to eat mustard. It had a beautiful taste.

I also watched the men playing billiard. They were very skilful actually. Two Malays were the "boys" and a Hokkien man was the bar tender. At that time I did not realise what clubbing was all about.

That was clubbing in the 1950's.

In the 1970's I played tennis in a teachers' tournament and had a peep.

All I could see were the ghosts of the days long gone. the ambience, the very essence of a post colonial club was all gone. Perhaps no one could put the spirit of the 50's clubbing back in Sibu again...

Then I remembered with great sadness the passing of a unique post colonial era.

I remember too how I would sit on the cold green cement staircase reading and memorising my nursery rhymes.

Somehow Humpty Dumpty plays a very significant role in my life....during my childhood, during my teaching life, during the upbringing of my children..and now writing about all that I cyberspace...I like this revisit to Humpty Dumpty.....taken from Wikipedia..

Humpty Dumpty is a character in a nursery rhyme portrayed as an anthropomorphic egg. Most English-speaking children are familiar with the rhyme:

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall.
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the king's horses and all the king's men
Couldn't put Humpty together again.

The fact that Humpty Dumpty is an egg is not actually stated in the rhyme. In its first printed form, in 1810, it is a riddle, and exploits for misdirection the fact that "humpty dumpty" was 18th-Century reduplicative slang for a short, clumsy person. Whereas a clumsy person falling off a wall would not be irreparably damaged, an egg would be. The rhyme is no longer posed as a riddle, since the answer is now so well known. Similar riddles have been recorded by folklorists in other languages, such as Boule Boule in French, or Lille Trille in Swedish & Norwegian; though none is as widely known as Humpty Dumpty is in English.

Previous to the "short, clumsy person" meaning, "humpty dumpty" referred to a drink of brandy boiled with ale. There are also various theories of an original "Humpty Dumpty", who was not an egg. As some are mutually exclusive, the theories necessarily include false etymologies.

According to an insert taken from the East Anglia Tourist Board in England, Humpty Dumpty was a powerful cannon used in the Siege of Colchester during the English Civil War. It was mounted on top of the St. Mary's at the Wall Church in Colchester defending the city against siege in the summer of 1648. Although Colchester was a Royalist stronghold, it was besieged by the Roundheads for 11 weeks before finally falling. The church tower was hit by enemy cannon fire and the top of the tower was blown off, sending "Humpty" tumbling to the ground. Naturally all the King's horses and all the King's men (Royalist cavalry and infantry respectively) tried to mend "him" but in vain. Other reports have Humpty Dumpty referring to a sniper nicknamed One-Eyed Thompson, who occupied the same church tower.
Visitors to Colchester can see the reconstructed Church tower as they reach the top of Balkerne Hill on the left hand side of the road. An extended version of the rhyme gives additional verses, including the following:
In Sixteen Hundred and Forty-Eight
When England suffered the pains of state
The Roundheads lay siege to Colchester town
Where the King's men still fought for the crown
There One-Eyed Thompson stood on the wall
A gunner of deadliest aim of all
From St. Mary's Tower his cannon he fired
Humpty-Dumpty was its name...
Another version has it:

In Sixteen Hundred and Forty-Eight
When England suffered the pains of state
The Roundheads lay siege to Colchester town
Where the King's men still fought for the crown
Then One-Eyed Thompson stood on the wall
A gunner of deadliest aim
The cannon he fired from the top of the tower
Humpty-Dumpty was its name...

In another theory, Humpty Dumpty referred to King Richard III of England, the hunchbacked monarch, the "Wall" being either the name of his horse (called "White Surrey" in Shakespeare's play), or a reference to the supporters who deserted him. During the battle of Bosworth Field, he fell off his steed and was said to have been "hacked into pieces". (However, although the play depicts Richard as a hunchback, other historical evidence suggests that he was not.)

The story of Cardinal Wolsey's downfall is supposedly depicted in the children's nursery rhyme of Humpty Dumpty. At length Cawood Castle (Cawood, a village in Yorkshire, seven miles southwest of York) passed to Cardinal Wolsey, who let it fall into disrepair in the early part of his career (1514 – 1530), due to his residence at the Court, devotion to temporal affairs and his neglect of his diocesan duties. King Henry VIII sent Wolsey back home in 1523 after he failed to obtain a divorce from the Pope – a huge mistake on Wolsey’s part. Wolsey returned to the castle and began to restore it to its former grandeur. However, he was arrested for high treason in November, 1530 and ordered to London for trial. He left on 6 November, but took ill at Leicester and died in the Abbey there on 29 November.

An explanation given on a British radio programme described Humpty Dumpty as a siege tower, used by the Cavaliers (King's Men) during the English civil war. Unfortunately, as it was poorly designed, the tower often toppled over when it was full of men and broke. Hence, "All the King's could not put Humpty
Dumpty toge ther again..."

Golden Churn Butter and Kaya

When I was in China recently for a month, I had dreams of eating bread with butter and kaya. I must have been very homesick in my dreamland. And my dreamscapes were often full of things from my childhood.

Thus I decided that I should come home and write more about butter, kaya and other comfort foods of my childhood.

The butter that we HAD to use was Golden Churn. And it is the best brand for the last fifty years. Today, during Hari Raya in Miri or Sibu, or Kuching, or any where in Malaysia and Singapore, I believe the price of Golden Churn has to be controlled for the festival. Sometimes they just disappear from the shelves without notice.

When frustrations mounted one Raya and I could not buy a single tin of Gold churn I decided that I must see how butter is made. But of course I did not make any as we are now from a dairy farming zone.

So here's how to make butter, as a matter of interest:

Things You'll Need
raw milk
quart jars
heavy creams
butter paddles
1.If you're using raw milk, separate cream from milk by letting the milk sit for 12 to 24 hours in the refrigerator until the cream comes to the top of the milk. Use a large spoon or dipper to take the cream from the top of the milk.
2 Let cream sit at room temperature until it is 60 degrees F.
3Pour cream into a quart jar and cover with a lid.
4Shake jar until globules of butter appear and most of the liquid has turned to a soft solid.
5Drain buttermilk from butter.
6Add cool water to jar and shake gently.
7Place cheesecloth over top of jar and drain.
8Rinse butter until liquid poured off is clear. If buttermilk is left in butter, it will give it a sour taste and cause the butter to spoil more quickly.
9Dump butter onto a cool surface, such as a marble or wood cutting board.
10Squeeze liquid from butter using wooden paddles or spoons to smash butter and pour off liquid.
11Add 1/4 tsp. to 1/2 tsp. of salt as you are mixing butter.
12 Shape butter or place in bowls with a lid and store in refrigerator. Store excess in freezer.

Tips & Warnings
If you are making large quantities of butter, you may want to invest in a paddle churn.
Sometimes it will take a while - perhaps 20 minutes - for the cream to turn to butter, so be patient and keep shaking that jar at a steady pace.

I believe very strongly that if we had cows in the early 20th century and that my grand father was keen enough, he would have been the first one to make butter as he was such an innovative and mechanical person.

the other dream and comfort food is Kaya which is sweet, sticky and oozing with cholesterol. But as a child, nothing was better than kaya in my life. It was every day with kaya in the morning.

And my mum even made the kaya herself, with a small measure of success just to be "in" with the group of high achieving housewives.

As a free spirited young lady, I vowed that I would not join the mainstream of competitive, cackling,and kiasu or "won't lose to you" housewives. I could not take the strain and the stress. I am just wondering if I have a chip on the shoulder all this while....when I am too shy to put a nice roasted chicken on the table for four generations to admire.

But anyway I did beg for a recipe in my younger days, secretly made a few jars and sent them for food tasting and food testing. Is it good? Is it ok? Better than Mrs.wong's? Wow, those are so evaluative questions!!

1 kg freshly grated coconut (to squeeze out 1 cup very thick Coconut milk)
4 medium Eggs
1 cup sugar
10 pieces of pandan leaves, washed and wiped dry and tied into knots.

(This recipe makes roughly about 1/2 cups of kaya)

1. Wash, dry and knot 5 pandan leaves together
2. Beat eggs lightly till yolk and white mixed.
3. Pour all(as in sugar, coconut milk and eggs) into a deep bowl and beat with an egg beater until very smooth.
4. Add in the knotted pandan leaves.
5. You can steam the kaya slowly over a charcoal stove or a gas stove. If you just want to cook it over a stove, then stir constantly to avoid burning.
6. After about 1 and 1/2 hours, take the kaya out and cool.
7. blend the mixture until it is smooth and not lumpy if you need to add some more colouring of your desire.

If you prefer a dark red colour use brown sugar or cook a three spoons of white sugar until it is caramelised,add that to the kaya towards the end.

If you like your kaya greener, you may pound or blend a portion of the pandan leaves and strain it for the pandan juice and put it into the mixture before cooking.

Happiness is two thick slices of bread with butter and kaya dripping from the sides and a big mug of local kopi.

Golden churn butter has a special indescribe-able "good taste". It is rich and smooth and any cakes made from it become special and slightly more costly. A proud homemaker would announce,"I used only Golden Churn to make my cakes...." and a knowing and satisfied smile follows.....

Kaya? You can put ice cream and kaya together as number 1. they tie for top place. At least in my judgement.

I will tell more kaya stories later.


note: The coffee shop owner would definitely know that you are not a mainland Chinese when you order roti kahwin with double portion of kaya in Sarawak.

Or when in China, you ask for bread with butter and kaya....hehehehe

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Believe it or not

In this posting I am veering away from my Methodist Foochow back ground to relate some incidents associated with "going back to China and spirits from the other world".

When China opened up in the 70's some of the my relatives began to travel "home" to spring clean their ancestors' graves and to donate some money to rebuild or renovate their ancestral homes to the delight of their mainland relatives. The flow of these homegoers so to speak was quite limited and travelling documents were not so easy to obtain. Only older folks or senior citizens were allowed to leave Malaysia. But then , at that time, I thought it was very generous of the Malaysian government to allow such home visits.

An uncle went back, carrying all the pictures of his deceased parents. This was to "return" the spirits to China. He arrived in Fujian and placed the photos on the altar properly. He bowed to heaven and earth and said very respectfully, "My honorable elders, you are now safely back in China, coming all the way from Nanyang. Please be at peace and bless all who are here in this household. Next week I will return to Sarawak. I have brought you home because I feel that there will be more descendants in Sarawak to look after your spirits. You will be well served. Whatever you need, you can ask them."

I am not sure if this is still considered a convention or norm but something happened to his wife upon his coming back to Sarawak. It was claimed that he carried the same suitcase back to Sarawak, the same one he used to carry the photos. Apparently, Kuan Yin , the goddess, went into his suitcase and arrived together with him at his home. His wife was very disturbed and in order to follow the wishes of the goddess, she became a vegetarian and put up an altar for her. After that, she had peace and good health.

Whenever she ate a piece of chicken or a slice of pork, she would throw up. In this way she has been keeping her peace with the goddess and survive to this day. According to her, the goddess has been blessing her because of her abstinence and her obedience to her. For the goddess, she will never convert to another religion.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Smelly Root Soup, Chop Chai Hin and Sundry Shops of Sibu

I have yet to find out the scientific name of this special root which has helped all my siblings to grow physically healthy and mentally strong. It is a concoction that we were given whenever we felt tired. My grandmother would alway prescribe that as an antidote for any ills. Perhaps it was because of this traditional root that we are all very hard working children.

In the olden days, all Foochow parents nursed the hope that their children would be hardworking so that they could have "something to eat". Howcver today, Foochow parents hope their children would become dragons and successful people who drive three mercedes Benz.

In those young and faraway days of mine, my mother would buy a bundle of these roots imported from China from a sundry shop which was mainly family owned and which sold everything. She would check the smell,quality, colour and size of the roots. A good discussion would ensue on the significance of brewing the herb with the shopkeeper. That would take several minutes as business was familiar and extremely slow. The shopowner normally would enjoy such a conversation with a customer. He would have a chance to show his knowledge and in a slow humble way, the customer would walk away very happy knowing that she had purchased some goods wisely.

Upon bring the roots home, my mother would sit down on her stool and start chopping the roots slowly. It was a hard job as the roots were really hard to chop. I can still remember how she lovingly chopped the roots carefully, put them in neat piles, and then wash them , getting them ready for the pot.

Before we had gas for our kitchen, we had the wonderful Chinese stove with three stove tops and a nice chimney rising from the side of the house. We children would chop wood for the fire in the evenings and make a racket at the back of the house. It was always good to see a good wood pile, ready for my mother to use. In a small way, this kind of preparation gave us a lot of satisfaction in life. Wood piles for cooking always crack me up today.

The smelly root soup is made from boiling this particular herbal root for a few hours. When all the goodness has been extracted from the chopped pieces of the roots, the soup is added to a chicken, or a kilo or so of pork leg, or a duck for another two hours of slow boiling.

The resulting brew is good for the tired and aching body. My siblings and I enjoyed the nourishment provided and naturally we felt that our mother was looking after us very well. In later years, we remember her tender loving care very very often. Thoughtful Foochow mothers show their love in many ways, especially in preparation of nourishing herbal soups. She had hoped that after we drank the soup, we would study very hard. In a way we all did study very hard and went to university.

On the other hand, having said so much about this particular smelly root soup, my thoughts digress again to the once familiar, old fashioned shops I grew up with . I really miss them nowadays when I do my shopping in supermarkets which are indifferent, cold, and inpersonal.

The shop that I loved was called Chai Hin, (or Progressively Wealthy)located along Kampong Nyabor Road and just opposite the Sibu Malay Union Club. It had the typical Foochow or Sibu sundry shop interior decor. It had bags of rice , corn, flour ,copra scraps (for ducks) and other cereals and animal feed on one side of the shop. And on the other side of the shop, one would find huge glass bottles containing sugar, biscuits, and other goodies. Tins and tins of biscuits and preserved meat, vegetables would be arranged neatly on the glass cabinets. Then whatever could be arranged in boxes would also occupy one front portion of the shop, like mee sua or long life noodles, dried yellow noodles, mee hoon, and other dried vegetables from China. This little front portion display of goods was the main attraction for customers. Tins of cooking oil, and other supplies would be towards the back portion of the shop. And at the extreme back portion, the family would have a little stove for cooking of meals. A small collapsible table, or if the space is enough, a wooden square table would be placed at the back with some nice wooden stools for the family. This table would also double as the study table for the children to study.

We literally saw the family prosper and get educated. Mary the daughter prospered and became a leading English teacher in Kuching. One of the sons is a business man and the shop owner and his wife went to China and other places towards the later part of their lives. Most probably they also accumulated a very large fixed deposit in a bank. This is considered Sibu Foochow success or life achievement.

Such a Chinese convenience shop and familiarity and long lasting relationship with the proprietor's family was just so much part of our life that we did not realise that it was suddenly gone when supermarkets took over.

So each time I prepare smelly root soup for any one in the family, memories would flood back and I can still imagine the quaint mixture of sourish smells and fragrances of the copra, flour, sago, and salted vegetables.

With a sigh...I would just linger for a few moments more mentally. A part of the Foochow neighbourly spirit is gone forever with the influx of malls and fancy stores.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Mediums and Reaching the Other Side

Growing up in a Foochow Christian family does not mean that I was entirely free from the influences and associations with what is commonly known as Chinese religion which is an eclectic religion, a conglomerated set of beliefs which incorporate a great deal of religious philosophies, most of which are not in the written form. It has idols, it has spiritual beings, it has heaven and earth and everything else from China. And one of its chief tenets is the phenomenon of spirit mediumship.

This particular phenomenon has been written about in diverse langauges especially English. And one of the best texts is a monograph by Alan J.A. Elliott (1955 ). However very few books have been written about mediums. Mediums in South East Asia have been featured in newspapers and magazines especially the infamous ones. A few short stories in Malaysia made mention of them. But definitely, it is no laughing matter.

Sibu, being a mix of Foochows, Hokkiens, Heng Huas who embrace many different religions besides the Chinese religion, has a long history of good and bad mediums.

I have indeed visited two mediums,one to accompany a cousin who sought healing and another time purely out of curiosity. The first mediuam I visited was Madam Kong in Sg. Bidut ( a well known male medium who spoke with a woman's voice) and the second, Madam Wong in Upper Lanang Road. Both were able to proclaim oracles and provide communication between god and man.

"Madam Kong" was approached by my cousin who required medical attention since all the doctors in town could not cure her of her ailments. The medium immediately counted with his fingers and mentioned a few things she had to consume before the end of the month. He had the clear voice of a woman when he was in a trance. Quickly the "secretary" noted down everything "she" said. This was a typical scenario in a medium's little hut situated in an eerie place.

In those faraway days, Sg Bidut was traversed and criss-crossed by little cement paths and very few people had motor bikes even. I had to put my cousin at the back of my bicycle and I cycled all the three kilometers into the dark and lonely rubber garden. How I had the strength and courage to do that at that time is still a mystery to me. I was only 18 years old. I felt that I pedalled for an eternity to reach the scary place. And after the oracle was announced, I pedalled back again to the river side with my cousin at the back to take the sampan back to Sibu. I felt that she had become heavier than before. Perhaps the "spirit" had entered her.

A medium was visited by believers through word of mouth. Very often cures were exaggerated, but this cousin of mine swore that she was completely cured after the visit. I cannot now rememeber what she had or what she bought. But what is important is that my cousin is still alive today at 75, healthy and still praising the medium, who had long departed from this earth.

The other medium was Madam Wong whom I visited with my students when I was a temporary teacher before I went to university. She lived in Upper Lanang Road. We again had a good bicycle ride to the little hut that she lived and practised her communication with the other world. Later on, she grew so rich and famous that a little temple was built outside her house as was the normal practice in Sibu or in any part of the world like Singapore or West Malaysia. Madam Wong or Sister Fairy as she was also called, could predict many future significant incidents, including, an unusual skill, the outcomes of legal cases. She had predicted a few murders in fact. Many years later I learnt from a relative that she was so accurate in predicting possible crimes that even the Police was sacred of her. Thus words were passed from one person to another and finally, she was literally given an injunction by a very wealthy and leading community leader not to practice!! I am not sure whether that was just a rumour or a fact. I don't think I would be able to find out as there would not be any written record or documentation at all for researchers.

When mediums like them deal with the unknown forces, people usually hold them in awe. And very often, in temples, they would be able to answer questions from clients, prescribe medicines and even speak with the real voices of the dearly departed.

According to local beliefs in Sibu many of these mediums actually allowed the demonic spirits to live in them, although some did resist them. One medium became one after a long series of illness. And when the temple supervisors asked him to stay with them, he started his work as a temple medium, and attracted a lot of customers with his accurate oracles.

In many other areas in the vicinity of Sibu, in special places like top of a hill, or curve of a hill or river bend, mediums could be just the local con men pretending to be healers and spiritual guides. They would call for sacrifices and donations and on special festivals they would don their colourful clothes to perform various rites for their followers.

But in my opinion,often a medium would more or less have a great understanding of the workings of the human mind. A good medium is like a good psychiatrist. He would be able for example, to placate the distraught housewife when ever she came with her marital problems. A good cure is often the ashes from the burning joss stick. Comforted, the housewife would go home, "cured" and happy to note that her erring husband would come home soon. She would be told by the medium to do "good things" to the husband and cook as many good meals as possible.

And in these days, one can always pick up a few tips from the internet on "how to win back your husband/wife in ten ways" and you don't have to cycle to a deserted rubber tapper's hut to find a medium.

But I have very little to say about speaking to our dearly departed from the other side. It is still something I have experienced in my youth and cannot explain.

But nevertheless, mediums are interesting and they will still be around for a long time to come.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Chinese Herbal Soup - Eight Treasures Soup

I don't claim an exceptional knowledge of Chinese herbal soups and their effects on our health. But growing up Foochow means that we have been given lots and lots of them. and here, I would like to help all my friends remember the excellent soups we had eaten when we were young. But now with age catching up and cholesterol having a bad name, we have not put these herbal soups at the top of our priorities.

First and foremost is the Pek Ting soup (or 8 treasures herbal soup). There are eight different herbs taken from seeds, barks, roots and leaves. Foochows can buy this particular combination from any herbal soup in Sibu. Some shops would sell a better and "thicker" soup for the same price. But I really think it depends on whether the piece of dong gui in the set is thicker or not, as dong gui is the herb which gives the bitter taste to the soup.

My mother would boil the herbs for an hour over a slow stove, like a charcoal stove or a kerosene stove (to save money so as not to waste the expensive gas). When the herbal soup is ready, she would take out the herbs as we do not eat them. Then she would put a huge duck (serati in Malay,or the duck with the red face)which she had already chopped up, into tjhe soup and let it boil until the meat can easily leave the bones. This will take about two long hours. By then the whole kitchen would be filled with a heavenly aroma and young and old would literally crowd around and get their chopsticks ready!! My mum liked that. When dinner was almost ready, we would all rally around without being called, lay the table, and arrange all the chairs for dinner. It was a really good feeling to have...togetherness and bonding.

To make the soup really nice, my mum would add some sugar and some soya bean sauce.

The soup is sweet and bitter at the same time. It is nourishing and warming. And after drinking it one would feel warm. But best of all, one would feel good.

This is a good soup to have when you feel terribly homesick for Sibu. So if you live far away from Sibu, always get packets and packets of them before you leave Sibu.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Movies,Shaw Brothers and Run Run Shaw

I grew up, probably in a world of make believe. My life was basically family, school and movies in those slow pre-television, pre Internet ,Foochow days.

The man who contributed to a third of my life was Run Run Shaw. Today, he is 100 years old and I would like to thank him by writing a posting for him. I owe so much of my youthful energetic and dream like young life to him through his films. I must have seen them all, sitting in the cheap 50 cents seats on the eighth row from the front, quite near the one dollar seats. Sometimes when we went to the double feature or double film sessions, it was really worth every cent we spent. (This was the buy one get one film free offer of the Sibu cinemas.)

It is remarkable that Run Run Shaw has provided us with 80 years of great cinematic services. He himself is a passionate film lover from an early age. 'Legend has it that the young Shaw firswt cut his teeth in the business by distributing film reels on a bicycle to rural, village cinemas in Singapore and Malaysia, giving poignancy to his name "Run Run".'

The Shaw Brothers' first studio was set up in Shanghai in 1925 and they later moved to Hong Kong. Run Run later set up his own studio in 1950 and heralded in the golden era of Hong Kong film making.

Run Run Shaw perfected the Wu Xia or sword play genre films, which had a long lasting impact on cinema goers. According to critics, Ang Lee's "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" was a modern take of Shaw's sword playing films. Other movie makers like Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan and John Woo were also close followers of Shaw.

Very low keyed, Shaw and his brothers made their fortune slowly but surely. Run Run became a media mogul, loved Rolls Royces and glamourous young actresses. However he remains humble, simple and perhaps just ordinary.

According to Forbes Magazine, Shaw has an estimated net worth of US$3.5 billion. However he is a philanthropist and has donated mainly to China, through his Shaw Foundation.

The sixth child of a well to do family in Ningbo, eastern China, his birthdaate was never know although he was definitely born in the year 1907 and perhaps in the month of October.

So I would like to say, "Thank you, Sixth Uncle, or Luk Suk for enriching my life and teaching me all the important values of a good swordswoman. I will continue to right the wrongs....and till we meet again...."

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Famous Ghost Stories of Sibu

Stories have been used since ancient times to teach the young, to pass on moral values , quick thinking and most important of all to pass on the importance of being human.

In many respects, ghost stories were often used to frighten children to behave! But some ghost stories were used to teach the inherent importance of propriety, moralilty and codes of conduct.

I have lined up here three stories which used to circulate amongst the elders and children when I was growing up in Sibu. I will let you judge the significance of these stories.

Tai Kah Li Hair Dressing Salon's Ghost Story

Tai Kah Li was a very popular hairdressing salon owned by a couple who were quite "pop" or up beat.

One evening a beautiful girl appeared and would like to have her hair washed and blown dry. The proprietor was about to close but he obliged and did her hair. He did not take the opportunity to misbehave towards her even though he had every chance to do so. There was no one else in the shop except him and the girl and the streets were silent and the skies had darkened.

He politely accepted her money and even a tip. As she bade farewell, he did not even have eye contact with her. He quickly closed the shop and went home, before it was too late for dinner and lots of explanation to offer to his wife.

He remembered putting the money into the drawer and locking it, as was the habit of most shop keepers. No thief would break into a shop in those days. A lock was just enough.

When he went home, no questions were asked and he had an ordinary evening.

The next day, when he went to the shop with his wife, he discovered lots of funeral money (death money) in the drawer. He immediately had cold sweat and goose pimples crawled all over his body. He had given a ghost a hairwash!

The story spread and the town folk quietly absorbed the lesson in their hearts.

Beauty asking for a lift

One evening a barber closed his shop and went happily home in his car. Not far from Sungei Merah, he was stopped by a lovely girl who needed a lift and her house was just a stone throw from his house in fact.

As they rode in the car, she asked a lot of questions and the barber got a little interested in her. So they drove a little longer and soon he lost his way.

Whatever happened no one knew exactly but he woke up the next day near the Sungei Merah Cemetery. From that day on his health deteriorated and within a few months he died a terrible death.

Naturally the town talked about his misadventure long after he was buried.

A Ghost from a Hotel Cupboard

Not long after a good hotel was declared open in Sibu, a quite famous man and his wife came from Kuching to stay in the new hotel.

That evening, he and his wife slept early as they had to attend an important function the next day. In the middle of the night, the wife got up to find the husband talking very loudly as if to some one sleeping on top of him. Her husband was pushing the invisible person away and soon he was talking gibberish. Finally the wife decided to slap him hard across the face and he finally woke up. But unfortunately, his face became lopsided from that moment on.

Apparently, a female ghost had come out of the cupboard and fell on top of him. She wanted him to marry her. She also asked him to get rid of the wife sleeping next to him. But he was sane enough not to oblige her.

It was a fortunate that she got up in time to save her husband by slapping him. The ghost somehow slipped through the window and escaped.

According to the frightened couple, the next day they moved out immediately without giving a reason. They also did not attend the important function.

Instead they had to see a specialist to straighten his face.

It is believed that for some time the man did not appear in public and he had to make peace with the ghost at the insistence of his very understanding wife.

What happened in the end, very few people knew because this ghost story came from the hotel employees.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Gurkhas in Sibu and other related articles

The Gurkhas came to Sibu to protect it when Sukarno declared confrontation against Malaysia in 1963-1966.

The Foochows were terrified of war because being business people, war meant chaos and chaos meant no profit and difficulties in doing business or making a living.

Many Foochows then still remembered the Allied Forces which arrived in Sibu in 1946 and they were used to the British. But this time , the British brought in Asian looking soldiers who spoke English but no Asian languages. It was a fact that the Gurkhas had arrived in Sibu within 6 hours' notice from the moment Sukarno declared war against Malaysia!!

Unknown to many people these Gurkhas had been a part of the British Army for almost 150 years by 1963.

Gurkhas were actually Nepalese fighters and their motto is "Better to die than be a coward" .

They served Sibu well and according to news and local reports they were excellent soldiers who tried their very best to keep the peace. After the confrontation was over, the 17th Brigade, as they were called, returned to Kuala Lumpur for further assignment.

But nothing untoward happened during their service in Sibu and the local people were comfortable with their presence. After they left, the peace and security continued to be maintained by the Police Force, the Police Field Force of Sarawak. There was a group called the Border Scouts too...but I will write about them in another post.

Today after 200 years of serving the British Army,the Gurkhas facing financialdifficulties living in Britain as well as in Nepal. Thus the most important issue regarding the Gurkhas now is how to help them financially when they retire from active service and how to help their widows and orphaned children who may either live in Britain or in Nepal. In many ways Sarawak has not in any known record given them any recognition or reward whether individually or as a group. They came, they fought and they went home. I thought they deserve more than that. Without their courage and intelligence in facing off the enemies, Sarawak could have faced the same fate as Vietnam which had a long drawn and debilitating war against the communists.

While they were in Sibu, the troops provided opportunities for many business men to improve their services and increase their incomes. More drinks were sold in the town than anywhere else in Sarawak. More people were recruited to do housekeeping, laundry and maintainence of vehicles,etc.

So the presence of the British Army in fact triggered off quite an economic boom in the town.

According to written records the Gurkhas carried into battle their traditional weapon - an 18-inch long curved knife known as the kukri.

It was said that once a kukri was drawn in battle, it had to "taste blood" - if not, its owner had to cut himself before returning it to its sheath.

(Today, Brunei our near neighbour still uses the Gurhkas to protect the Sultan and his people. And the Gurkhas say that the Kukri is used mainly for cooking)

According to modern historians, the potential of these warriors was first realised by the British at the height of their empire-building in the 19th century.

After suffering heavy casualties in the invasion of Nepal, the British East India Company signed a hasty peace deal in 1815, which also allowed it to recruit from the ranks of the former enemy.

Following the partition of India in 1947, an agreement between Nepal, India and Britain meant four Gurkha regiments from the Indian army were transferred to the British Army, eventually becoming the Gurkha Brigade.

Since then, the Gurkhas have loyally fought for the British all over the world, winning 13 Victoria Crosses between them.

More than 200,000 fought in the two world wars and in the past 50 years, they have served in Hong Kong, Malaysia, Borneo, Cyprus, the Falklands, Kosovo and Afghanistan.

They serve in a variety of roles, mainly in the infantry but with significant numbers of engineers, logisticians and signals specialists.

They keep to their Nepalese customs and beliefs, and the brigade follows religious festivals such as Dashain, in which - in Nepal, not the UK - goats and buffaloes are sacrificed.

But their numbers have been sharply reduced from a World War II peak of 112,000 men, and now stand at about 3,500.

The Gurkhas are now based at Shorncliffe near Folkestone, Kent - but they do not become British citizens.

The soldiers are still selected from young men living in the hills of Nepal - with about 28,000 youths tackling the selection procedure for just over 200 places each year.

If there was a minute's silence for every Gurkha casualty from World War II alone, we would have to keep quiet for two weeks

The selection process has been described as one of the toughest in the world and is fiercely contested.

Young hopefuls have to run uphill for 40 minutes carrying a wicker basket on their back filled with rocks weighing 70lbs.

After the Gurkhas have served their time in the Army - a maximum of 30 years, and a minimum of 15 to secure a pension - they are discharged back in Nepal.

Historically, they received a much smaller pension - at least six times less - than British soldiers, on the grounds that the cost of living is much lower in Nepal.

But with more choosing to settle permanently in the UK with their families, campaigners said this left them suffering considerable economic hardship.

Another article:

Brief History of Gurkhas in British Army -The Gurkha takes their famous name from a small principality of Gorkha who’s King in the eighteenth century conquered most of the area now known as Nepal. The Gurkhas have been associated with the British Army since 1815 following the war between the British in India, in the shape of The Honorable East India Company and the warrior tribe from the Gorkha state of Nepal. After two long and bloody campaigns the peace was made in the spring of 1816.


Ironically, it was the mutual respect that developed between the two sides that led to the Gurkha being permitted to join the ranks of the then East India Company.

Initially 4 Gurkha Regiments were raised in the service of John Company (Johnny Gurkha) and six more Regiment with two battalions each followed soon and saw service throughout the subcontinent of India. They took part in operations in China, Tibet, Afghanistan, Asia Minor and Cyprus.

First & Second World War - Over 200,000 Gurkhas joined the British Army, Fighting in Flanders with 6 battalions in 1914 and 1915. The Gurkhas were the first unit to break the German lines at Neuve Chappele. They also fought in the Middle East and most notably at Gallipoli. 10% of those who joined were killed.

During the Second World War a quarter of a million Gurkhas joined the British Gurkha Regiments and in addition the entire Nepali Army was placed at the disposal of the British.

With a population of 9 million this meant that virtually every Nepali of martial clan and military age was serving the British Crown. Again casualties were heavy, especially in Burma and Italy and almost 10% were killed.

Gurkhas War Cry "Ayo Gurkhali"
Gurkhas served as part of the British Indian Army and there were 10 Regiments, but following Indian Independence four Regiments were transferred to the British Army, the remainder stayed with Indian Army.

It was at this time in 1947 that the British, Indian and Nepalese Government signed a “Tripartite Agreement” with intention of regulating the pay and conditions for Gurkhas serving in all three Armies. The agreement is still in existence today

Post War Conflicts/Operation – The Brigade in 1948 was some 15,000 strong and was immediately plunged into the bitter struggle with the communist terrorist in the damp and torrid jungle of Malaya. A war that despite casualties bought many more awards but was not to end for 12 long and arduous years. The Borneo campaigns followed in 1962 and the revolts broke out in Brunei. The Gurkhas were the first to dispatch to the scene of trouble, flying from Singapore in six hours notice.

The revolts were dealt with within a short time but the Indonesian Confrontation with Malaysia from 1963 to 1966 the Gurkhas at war again, the bore the brunt of fighting and played a major part in bringing the Borneo campaign to a successful conclusion.

The Gurkhas conduct, velour and the jungle welfare skill were the main factor in British victory in the Malaya and Borneo and helped to prevent those lands suffering the same fate as Vietnam

And an additional article, which might be of interest to some friends and relatives:

The Cemeteries where they are buried :-

1. KR- Kranji Military Cemetery Singapore

2 Belait Cemetery Brunei

3. TM-Terendak Military Cemetery Malacca & Memorial Wall in memory for those who have no known Graves also those buried at the Bukit Serindit Christian Cemetery Malacca

4. SN- Seremban Christian Cemetery Negri Sembilan.

5 KL- Cheras Road Christian Cemetery Kuala Lumpur

6. BG- Batu Gajah Christian Cemetery "God's Little Acre n/r Ipoh Perak

7. TG- Kamunting Road Christian Cemetery Taiping.

8. PG- Western Road Christian Cemetery Penang.

Food on the table and savings for tertiary education

When my father passed away suddenly, prematurely and untimely at the age of 56 in 1965, my mother was traumatised and saddled with seven children all below 16 with my youngest brother at only 11 months old.

The world had fallen apart and she had no income at all because after she married my father, she was not allowed to earn a living. My mother had to sell precious property to settle some debts my father owed his brothers,partly because he had not completed his tasks. And we eventually had a small property from which she collected some rental enough for our meals. Apart from that little income we had very little else. But every month we received a gift of a note of 50 dollars from our dear aunt Lily from Singapore without fail for about 9 years until I, the eldest, started teaching. Her monthly gift accompanied by a short note to recognise warmly my mum as sister in law was the one thing that motivated my mother to live on and raise her family in spite of all odds and tribulations.

It was her creativity and stoical approach towards life that helped her manage and feed the family as well as to send us to university. I was specially blessed because I received a special scholarship from the United Methodist Church of America which inspired me to be a teacher for life.

My mother was extremely frugal in food preparation but we did not starve as children.

If she was a TV celebrity chef, my mother would have an excellent programme to help women prepare excellent food and yet save enough to put children through university.

One of her favourite dishes would include the use of Tianjin preserved vegetables. And all of us children , including my own children continue to find her dishes wonderful till the end of our lives.

This preserved tianjin vegetable (天津冬菜),is similar to the salt pickled vegetable, or yancai (腌菜) of Guizhou cuisine, but the former takes much longer to prepare than the latter, usually half a year. Another clear distinction between the two is that instead of having two separate steps of salt pickling and then fermentation, the salt pickling and fermentation is combined in a single step that takes a much longer time:

Chinese cabbage is mixed with salt and garlic together and then fermented, which creates the unique garlic flavor / taste and golden color. In order to preserve the unique taste, Tianjin preserved vegetable is often used for soups, fishes, and stir fried and directly eaten.

The Foochows call this little urn vegetable (Ern Yang Cai) and we use it a lot and in as many dishes as possible.

It is indeed indispensible in fish ball soup ,steamed egg ,steamed minced pork,pork and tianjin vegetable buns or dumplings, plain tianjin vegetable soup, egg and tianjin vegetable soup, steamed fish with tianjin vegetable,etc.

This wonderful vegetable cost only 30 cents per jar at that time, and it could be used for as many meals as five or six. Its fragrance and aroma would fill the whole house and our appetite could be aroused.

While my mum in her grief would just eat plain cold rice with sweet tea and salted fish, we would have our plain rice with egg and tianjin vegetable soup. And that was one happy meal accounted for!

Today whenever one of my children is sick, she would ask for grandma's sugary tea and salted fish rice. And recently I found out that in one Japanese food outlet, there is indeed such a dish called tuna fish with rice in tea at 6.90 ringgit a bowl!! My mother was eating that forty years ago.

In those fatherless days, we got to my mother's table happy just to watch her serve her warm dishes cooked from her heart. We really liked her steamed egg. This special dish is made by beating only two eggs( sometimes only one) with equal portion of water,some salt and pepper and topped with some tianjin vegetables. And then steamed quickly. Again, it is heavenly. The Maggi Company demonstrated how this dish could be cooked on Malaysian TV in the seventies.

Thus we learned from an early age, especially from my mother's table, that if we prepared our food frugally but not poorly, we could still save a lot of our earnings for tertiary education. None of my siblings received scholarships from the government. They had MBF or Mama and Baba's Fund.

My mother is still the best person in the world for stretching the dollar......and we are the richer for it. Very rich indeed. And very educated.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Foochow Gift Giving in the 50's and 60's

In Sibu, where I grew up,as in any where in the world, gifts were often given to express gratitude or friendship or hospitality. It was and still is a common courtesy observed in many cultures.

However, in the western Christian world especially, and in a business setting, gift giving is generally frowned upon as a suggestion of bribery. Though this is not always the case, it's important to be proper and properly sensitive when choosing to give a gift in a business context.

"For thousands of years, Chinese people have believed that courtesy demands reciprocity, meaning that well-mannered people return favors and kindness. Whenever someone receives a present, treat or invitation from a friend, they will try to offer one back on a suitable occasion. This customary reciprocity is considered necessary to build friendship between people. "

Elsewhere I have written that many Foochow families did keep an account book of who gave how much for weddings, birthdays and funerals. So whenever my mother was invited to a wedding, she would take out her little note book and check what the host had given to her, for example, my wedding. And she would reciprocate. Even when she had to attend a funeral, she would take out my father's funeral account book and check against the names. She would then wrap up the "white gold" or gift of money she would give to the bereaved family. If she was in a generous mood, or she had a great deal of respect for the family, she would give more. In later years,when all of us were earning well and her properties have become very valueable, she was generous indeed towards her less well off relatives. She gave very generously.

Other suitable occasions to give gifts included important milestone birthdays like the 70th , 80th, 90th and 100th birthdays or wedding days, or for a special holidays like Christmas or a special party held in honour of a person who had been given a title by the Government. Often gifts were also given as a way of saying thank you.

The Foochows were particularly fond of giving a gift of money to someone who was embarking on a new course of study. When I went to the university, my mother recorded all the gifts of money I received from my uncles, aunties, cousins and other relatives. I was quite special to them because I was not as fortunate as others as my father had passed away when I was just 16 and so relatives were very considerate and they decided to help out by giving me their angpows. This was also one way of telling my mother how much they had appreciated her as a relative.

Others also gave chickens as gifts so that we could have a few good meals before I left for university.

But today many changes have come about. People have become more affluent. Many of the customs have disappeared and in fact many of my relatives have decided to reduce some of their gift giving for economic reasons. Some have said that they wanted to have very simplistic lives.

However, here are some general gift giving tips in a Chinese way:

1. Give gifts to people you visit, as a way to thank them for inviting you.

2. When giving a "visiting" gift, find something the whole family can use. For example, give food or tea. Or, give something that is important in your home country or community. For example, you might give wild rice from Minnesota or a framed photo of your family.

3. In Sibu as well as in China today, tradition still dictates that the recipient not appear greedy. Therefore, he or she will often decline a gift two or three times before accepting. If you’re the giver, offer again until it is accepted after the third time. At the same time, especially in business, your gift may be absolutely refused, so don’t press beyond several refusals.

4. Remember you must not be offended if the person does not open the gift in front of you. The traditional Foochows do not usually open a gift in front of the giver. It might embarrass them. They will open it later, then call or write to thank the person for the gift if they are western educated. But usually the genuine and sincere Foochows will say their thank yous profusely.

5. To give a business gift, always remember to wrap the gift well. Do not leave the gift in the store's bag. Use colored ribbons to wrap a gift using these colors:

Red for general and happy occasions
Gold and silver for wedding gifts

6. I used to find that my best relatives would give the same kind of gifts or the same value of gifts. The recipients are just as human as the next person. So comparisons would be made and talk would surface and hurts would be caused. I remember one of my relatives was very good in giving gifts to all her sisters in law. She gave them exactly the same gift of a good purse bought in England. So when the sisters in law went to a party, they displayed their new purse with pride and every one was beaming. Her diplomacy was excellent.

(more later)

Monday, October 15, 2007

Bond Maids

The practices of having bond maids and child brides were carried out until the late fifties in Sibu by the Foochows.

It was also not uncommon then for girls to be given away to Malay or Iban families. One of my mother's cousins had 7 girls and 4 boys and had found it difficult to keep the thirteenth child, a daughter. So arrangements were made by their Malay friend to come and pick up the new born baby. Gifts were bought for the child as a send away token and the Malay family was delighted to welcome the child. They bought new baby cot, clothes and the traditional baby mosquito netting.

However, two weeks later, the children formed a brigade and marched against the father and demanded the baby to be taken home. While their mother was still in confinement and was not allowed to look at what they were doing, the older children took their father along with them and marched towards the kampong. After some negotiations, the tearful children brought back their new baby sister.

To this day, this particular family has grown wonderfully to respectable men and women in the society and the baby girl has indeed succeeded in life and has her own wonderful family. The fortunes of my uncle turned and finally he made it years later. He often wondered what would have happened if the adoption did take place and the Malay couple refused to return the child.

During my childhood many of my friends in the kampong were actually Chinese girls given away when their parents could not afford to raise them. Today they are well educated and having high social status. If they had remained in their Chinese homes probably they would be still in the villages, married with many children. But they would have succeeded one way or another too, like so many other Foochow women.

Another lot of the unfortunate Foochow girls were those sold by their fathers to well to do families. This was quite a common practice in fact as the families were poor and they could not feed another mouth. Another family who had enough would buy the child without any qualms although they would make sure that the baby was of good physical built, intelligent enough and fair in complexion. A dark child could not find a good home amongst the Foochows and she would then be sold or given to an Iban or Malay family.

These girls became bond maids or maid servants in the Foochow homes and they would be at the beck and call of their mistress and "adopted sisters". their duties would be to cook, wash,tend to the family members,iron,grow vegetables and feed the pigs to mention a few. Beating of bond maids was common and in fact I saw some very brutal beating when I was a child. The mistress would have let out all the reasons why the poor bond maid was beaten: " Can eat but cannot work...lazy like a worm...only know how to look at boys...slow..." Thus while the mistress pound away on the head of the poor girl, the whole neighbourhood would hear a clear verbal evaluation of the performance of this young girl who was only ten, about my age. It was very pitiful indeed and no one dared to stop the mistress from using her hand in this way.

My own grandfather had in his lifetime bought many girls because he was able to buy them and the local community respected him. Our family treated the adopted girls well and brought them up. Some even went to school for a few years. When they grew up, they were married off properly to good men, specially selected by my grandfather and uncles, with proper match making. These bond maids were greeted as "aunties" by all the grandchildren and we had a lot of respect for them.

After their marriage, they would come "home" to visit every one, bringing dumplings, and other goodies.They would be invited to attend any weddings, and birthdays. whenever a member of the family gave birth, they would rally around, ever ready with chickens and good mee sua. At funerals, they would come and help to sew all the funeral clothes and mourning clothes, while weeping sorrowfully like any one of us.

And as they prospered, we were extremely happy for them. Our ties could not be broken as they had been truly an important part of our family.

Our grandfather's last bond maid had married reluctantly in the early seventies and she was well matched to a very enterprising young man who could anything for my gandmother. He was such a handy man to have around, especially when our grandmother
was getting on in age.

Today I must say, all the bondmaids from our family have done well and succeeded in life. Recently one celebrated her 80th birthday with great pomp and splendour. Another one has become a "towkay neo" or wife of an entreprising rich man. One has a son who has graduated as a medical doctor. We are just so proud of them.

But I am glad in a way, the days of old style bond maids are over in the Sibu Foochow society.


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