Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Sibu Benevolent Society's Home for the Aged, Upper Lanang Road

A friend called up the other day and asked me to help her relative ask for a place in the Old Folks' Home. And this reminded me of all those long ago days when only the very childless poor would find themselves becoming inmates of the Benevolent Society Home. The BSH was the brain child of the early Chinese forefathers of Sibu, including my grandfather, who came together to donate a very low cost but fairly suitable piece of land in Upper Lanang Road. They then raised some more money and constructed a wooden house for just a handful of the old aged destitute. In the 1990's a lovely piece of land was purchased by the Benevolent Society and the Home for the Aged was moved to the Old Airport area about 2 km from Sungei Merah.

Originally,the management of the Sibu Benevolent Society was in the hands of a committee of businessmen ,some Civil Servants and the Chairperson of the Sibu District Council. It was a very loose kind of set up but it was rather honest, ethical and perhaps truly benevolent, without any political agenda.

A Catholic nun was sent there every day to be the nurse of the home. She was assisted by two helpers, also urchins who were given to the Catholic church to raise. Thus running the home was a very eccletic management - donations, funds, free Christian voluntary service.

Sibu being a very prosperous town in the early fifties and sixties was a place where plenty of people with warm hearts and generous attitudes could be found. They rallied around like brothers to help out the needy. Coffins were often the gifts of the rich to the destitute and they were all placed in this Home. The very poor could always apply for a Free Coffin and building which was on stilts. At that time, the Foochows were always on the look out to help one another.

Once during the great flood of 1963, the coffins stored under the home,floated away and the nun and her assistants tried to rescue them. It was quite a morbid sight according to some of my friends who lived in Upper Lanang Road. A friend said that she could never forget that in her life. Now she is about 58 years old. And I am wondering if she could still remember it. But I still remember the incident. I am also wondering if the Sister is still alive today.

As a student I would always be in the group to make the school-arranged social visits to the Home of the Aged. Teachers and students alike would cycle all the way to the Home and we would entertain the old folks with singing while some would just have simple conversations with them. Usually we would bring along a sumptuous dinner for the inmates.

I remember that this became a tradition of my school and every year most Sixth Formers would make arrangements to visit the Home. And out of these visits, a few students were inspired to become social workers, and doctors and other socially related professions. Most promised themselves that they would never treat their parents shamefully.

However one particular story is often in my mind.

The late Old Mrs Wong (name has been changed to protect her) was a very hardworking rubber tapper in Sibu in the early fifties. She and her husband had made a bundle of money for her children and they lived fairly well in every respect. When all her children moved to Sibu from their farm during the 1960's Emergency period, she was very apprehensive about the shift as she could no longer keep her chickens, pigs and ducks, wash her clothes by the river,and chat with her neighbours. She was already very old in her 70's. She thought that her quality of life would be eroded. And furthermore her daughter reminded her that everything cost money , living the town. And indeed what she feared became true!

Soon she was bedridden due to her "bitterness" and loneliness. And perhaps malnutrition.

Her daughter -in- law had a change of personality. She would be out somewhere every day working Her son had obtained a job as a boat man, plying the coast of Sibu-Bintulu and would be away for many weeks.

One day, the daughter- in -law went away for three day holiday, and the poor mother- in -law could not get to any food. All the tinned food, all the tins of milk powder were placed very high up on the shelves.

It was the stench of human waste and vomit that attracted the attention of the neighbours who broke into the house to find the old lady in very dehydrated condition. Immediately the ambulance was called for and the old lady was taken to the hospital . She in fact asked why she should continue to live in such conditions. She should have been just left to die!

However, fortunately her life was saved. Proposals were made to help her get a place in the Benevolent Society, but she refused. She said that she had a son, and her son must look after her.

When her son came back from his off shore work, she did not scold her son. Nor did she scold her daughter -in- law. She diplomatically said that she was glad that her life was saved! Her son was saved from the embarrassing situation by this gracious lady. The unrepentant daughter -in- law did not do much else to help old Mrs. Wong to have a better quality of life to our knowledge. Neighbours were not allowed to pop by and grand children were too busy in other towns . It was a pity she had no unmarried daughters to look after her. Her married daughters lived too far away. As far as we knew she continued to live for many more years in perhaps very difficult conditions but her doors were closed to the neighbours.

That's another story of "keeping mum".

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