Monday, December 31, 2007

Disciplining Children - the Foochow Way

I have been observing and thinking about Foochow child rearing methods for years. Some children were lucky they became extremely successful, some were not so lucky. Was it entirely due to luck?

Perhaps I cannot actually propose a theory yet on child rearing.

Below are some of my observations.

Mr and Mrs. Ting ( Ah Chuo) were the one of the first Foochow noodles or mee sua makers of Sibu. Mrs. Ting was a woman with a loud voice, who often spoke loudly and rapidly until she lost her voice. So sometimes she would speak with crackling voice which we called "pang ak siang" in Foochow or half voice. She used two ways to keep her children in tow : scolding and cursing them loudly using phrases like "you die half way","son of a coffin","drop jaw",etc.

She also caned her children, very badly and one day we saw her dragging one of sons out from below the stairs by the hair and with one hand holding the hair, she used the other hand to cane the poor boy.

It was at this time my siblings and I learned the word "ambidextrous". So we would always associate our dear Mrs. Ting with the word. I wrote a sentence for her: "Mrs. Ting was ambidextrous when she beat up her son." I was scolded by my China-born teacher, Mr. Liong, for writing that sentence. He asked me to correct my statement. So I wrote,"Mrs. Ting,my neighbour is a good example of an ambidextrous person."

My classmate, the late Rashid, wrote a brilliant sentence,"Many husbands and wives are ambidextrous when they box each other." The whole class burst into laughter, in our innocence then. Mr. Liong kept a very stern poker face after that.

But as the years went by, Mrs. Ting became one of our best mothers in town. Her children grew up and one obtained a First Class Honours Degree in Economics from Malaya University,another took a degree from Christchurch, New Zealand. One of the Ting girls became terribly wealthy in her own right. And the rest are very good people - professionals. But what is important to the family is the fact that all the children are "GOOD PEOPLE'. And I take my hat off to them.

The Tings lived frugally and ethically. I will always remember their neighbourliness,respect, love and loyalty towards my mother for all those long years we were in Sibu. Their friendship lasted until Mrs.Ting passed away. And now her children and I are in our fifties and still good friends.

Another way of Foochow discipline is by punishment by the father who was regarded as the master trainer of the family. After the punishment, the mother figure would comfort the child to "soften the blow".

I observed this Mr. Wong (name changed) who was often depressed because of his financial difficulties. He had a unusual way of keeping his children quiet and less demanding. When a child misbehaved, he would punish him by humiliating him in public -forcing him to kneel in the shop front for an good half hour or longer,making the child to carry a red cross on the face for a long time, or just punching him in public at any odd him his temper let him . His neighbours were all very understanding and sympathetic. The adults did not consider these as domestic abuse at all. In later years,his children were indeed considered well brought up and folks give the father the thumbs up all the time. More than forty years later, today, his children have good professional careers . In a very Foochow way, the children remember and continue to respect him, even though he had passed away a long time ago.

The aunty staying not far away from us was a nagger. I have no idea why she was so. But whenever her children misbehaved she would repeatedly reprimand them, often for a few days. She would tell everyone their mistakes. Some times she would shout very loudly, releasing her frustrations, asking the heavens to punish her children. I reckoned at that time, it was the correct thing to do:to tell the neighbours that she was doing her duty to keep them in line. By scolding them publicly and very loudly, she was saving her own face too.

All the neighours considered her a good woman and mother. Uncle was a very quiet man, who was cheerful and keeping a low profile all the time.

And to the delight of every one in our neighourhood, aunty and uncle groomed their children to become very useful and God fearing people - accountants, entreprenuers and generally successful business people.

Thus in those early days, parents did not study psychology and sociology to be the perfect parents. No child psychiatrists helped them. They applied the only crude methods they knew and brought up a good generation of Foochows....along my lane in particular...

I would call my lane and my neighbourhood - the Bai Yu Lan Lane - symbolic of purity, fragrance and greenery. I truly believe that my parents , my siblings and I were really blessed by these wonderful people. Later when redevelopment took place, this piece of social history was taken away. Good folks move on and often move away from a place because of economic development but the human connections remain because we choose to keep and treasure them.

We are the sum total of all the micro bits around us.

the Making of Acar

There was no doubt that my grandmother was a Nyonya from Java. She was introduced to my grandfather by the Rev Hoover who had already introduced her brother and sister-in-law to the teaching community then. Hence the Chongs became very much a part of our Foochow community. In fact my grand uncle who was English educated became the first English teacher of Sibu in the 1900's.

According to our family history, my grandmother was not able to speak Foochow but she learned quickly and once she picked up the dialect, she never spoke any other, apart from the English she was able to speak.

All food served at home then was Foochow food as my grandfather was quite particular about food.

Any way, this brought out the significance of Foochow cuisine in my family for two generations. Without doubt, my extended family had only appreciation for the very traditional Foochow food which came from theFujian province of China.

I was a rebel and a adventurer where food was concerned. So ever since I was taught by an Indonesian born Home Science teacher in Form One, I was very keen to learn the cuisine of other ethnic groups. One particular dish that I wanted to learn was acar.

My mum was horrified that the acar had so many ingredients. Being frugal, she could not understand how a dish should have more than ten ingredients. Any way, I saved all my money for several weeks and then started to accumulate the ingredients according to the advice of my Hokkien friend.

On the day I started to make the acar, the cut the cucumber into thousands of small slices and dried them on a zinc sheet at about ten in the morning. At about eleven o'clock, the rain came. And I was truly horrified by the fact that I had squandered the family fortune in order to make a "foreign dish" , one which could not be eaten by a Foochow because of its spiciness.

My mother gave up and said, "Now what. I told you so. You cannot make any thing at all."

I cannot remember exactly what happened. But I did buy another batch of cucumbers and had the acar made in my friend's shop lot in Blacksmith Road. A lot of face was lost and probably I lost a lot of my feminine touch after that. whenever people asked me if I could make a cake or a delicacy I would pretend that I was a tom boy and I was not good in the kitchen.

My mother probably also felt that I was a complete idiot as a result of that episode.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Visiting Grandfather's House in Sungei Merah

Visiting grandfather Kung Ping and grandmother Siew was a like a cultural ritual to me. We all regarded grandfather with awe because he was a very impressive figure and a leading personality in society at that time. He was therefore very legendary and much respected man through our child like eyes.

My grandfather had a lovely house in Sungei Merah. There were three hills in Sungei Merah. One was purchased to build the Kwong Ang Primary School but unfortunately in my opinion, today,it has been flattened to make way for the new school and a few houses. The other hill was purchased by the Tien Tao Tong, or Church of the Heavenly Way and the Tiong Hin School. They are still standing on the lovely hill today. My grandfather bought the third hill for his double storeyed white washed wooden house. Today, the hill is still part of the family property but the house has long gone.

We would perhaps stay two nights or more. Sometimes it was just a one day visit. But the earliest memories of visiting him would include memories of Great Grandmother. Having a great grandmother was a very enriching experience. We learned about how she made her small bound feet cloth shoes. We also learned that she could not move very well up and down the staircase. And we also learned that she was a very special mother to grandfather. And she provided the mysterious element in our lives and childhood imagination. Perhaps our curiosity was well developed because we shared a meaningful life with this wonderful China born quiet old lady who made moves which were so different from the normal Foochow women we were used to.

The way Grandmother Siew treated grandfather was very special. I remember two things in particular.

One was the special tea time session. At about four in the afternoon Grandmother would place two pieces of "pong pian" a kind of crunchy pastry with a sweet sticky filling which she would buy by the week from the pastry shop in Sungei Merah. Grand father's tea was always jasmine tea, which he would drink by the pot. No one else had this special treatment. And if we dared to go near him, when he was eatinghis pong pian, we would be given a small morsel. And that was a wonderful treat. Sometimes I was given half of a pastry . I presumed he must have loved me a lot, eventhough I was a girl.

The other memorable thing about Grandmother Siew's special treat for Grandfather was the preparation of personal dishes for grandather at meals times. The rest of the family had the "normal food" but grandfather had his specials. today whenever I patronise a restaurant I would think of Grandfather in particular when I order the specials.

Grandfather would be served one special meat dish for his meals. It would be pork with tou cheor (yellow bean sauce), or steamed minced pork, or a specially steamed black chicken in ginger and wine. These were served in small dainty dishes. In fact whenever Grandfather ate, he would have his rice, accompanied by three or small dainty dishes, all specially prepared for him. The rest of the family would eat later with Grandmother Siew. On rare occasions we would eat at the same time with him.

Fruits from the garden were very special and grandfather had rambutan, durian,star fruit, pineapple, banana,chempedak, papaya,jack fruit and Wong Dang, an old fashioned fruit which was red on the outside and white little segments inside. We collected the skin and dried them . These dried skins were then cooked to give special flavours to soups. The mixed garden was a very intelligent way of using land and a Foochow family would never be short of fruits the whole year through. Although apples,pears and grapes were available in the market, we had enough fruits in our diet, just from the garden. Besides, they made good gifts whenever grandmother Siew visited her daughters-in-law and friends. Life was very subsistent.

But what was very memorable was the way my grandmother Siew looked for bamboo shoots. Grandfather had at least four huge bamboo groves. And every now and then we would go down the hill to watch the bamboo shoots growing. It was perhaps our imagination that we we saw the head of bamboo popping out, the bamboo shoot would be ours and no one could claim it. After a few days, we would come and cut the bamboo shoot, which by then would be about two feet tall, and very edible and sweet. Carrying home a bamboo shoot with Aunty Hiong was like coming home from a big battle and she,our general. Fried bamboo shoot was a very great dish on our grandparents' table.

Kacang Puteh,Sweets,Iced lollipops at Rex Cinema

The cinemas in Sibu had very Latin names: Rex Cinema and Lido Cinema. How did this come about?

Perhaps when cinemas had to be named and licenses obtained from the then local authority, the British colonial officers then suggested nice sounding names they were familiar with from Britain. I suppose also at that time, if a cinema had a nice sounding name, the Colonials would most probably go to the movies!!

Or would the cinemas have more class if they had a nice foreign name. So the world over cinemas have been named The Palladium,The Odeon, The Colliseum, The Plaza,etc. Even in some parts of India, you can find a Rex Cinema or a Lido Cinema.

although many memories were associated with cinemas I particularly remember two.

Firstly, I remember how I had to queue up to book tickets for movies that were very popular.Most of us were very determined to get seats before the film ended its showing period. full house was bad news to us because we could not get to see the movie!!

Being very short and just a young teenager, I was often pinched and pushed, and sometimes punched, not only by men but also by women.

Forty years later, while in a queue for Air Asia , coming from KL to Miri,I was pushed by someone using the luggage trolley. somehow people never change when standing in a queue over the years. We have to expect very lousy behaviour.

And once when trying to get a ticket in Rex Cinema in Sibu, a friend of min, who was perhaps 12 at that time, put his hand into the little opening of a box office, to get his tickets with about ten other hands. The lady ticket seller pushed down the window like a guillotine when all the tickets were sold out. Those stronger arms withdrew immediately. But my friend's arm received a long scar which could be visibly seen until today.

I suppose this was how much all of us suffered because we loved movies so much at that time.

Secondly I would like to share with you one of my fondest memories of Sibu.

Outside the Rex Cinema was a little retail shop owned by one of the Tiong families. He was oen of my grandfather's cousins, who had emigrated with my grandfather. He also doubled as a well known and honest tomb builder. My Grand Uncle Tiong would always give me half a packet of kacang puteh and would not charge me at all. He would say, "Free for you. Your grandfather was a good man. Take ,eat...."

I remember him as a very hardworking person. Grand Uncle Tiong would go early to Sungei Merah to build the tombs and by afternoon, he would be back with his wife to man the little outlet selling kacang puteh, sweets and Ice lollipops. the family eeked out a living for a long time like that. The children grew up becoming very street wise and really good youngsters. Somehow they were extremely brilliant and hardworking.

I taught one of the boys and he was the delight of my heart. As a young teacher, untrained and temporary, I was very impressed by his attitude. He and some of his classmates really liked to learn English and they gave their one hundred per cent to the learning of the foregin language in Transition class.Each day of my first year of teaching was made better because of this wonderful class of Chinese boys and girls. Many of them are still my good friends today.

I remember that my grand uncle continued to provide tidbits to cinema goers for some time after he retired from his cemetery work. He was a good man who would not undercut, cut corners, or cheat on the daching so to speak. He was one of the best Foochow men I ever knew.

And in his last years, he looked extremely distinguished in his suit as he took photos with his children and grand children. To me, he had led a great life, in a very decent way. His hard work paid off. And as good parents and being very God fearing , he and his wife were truly blessed by good children who are not only successful but are today pillars of the society. My grand uncle's is blessed by two engineers, and two doctors.

Sibu lost a good man when he passed away.

Mini Skirts

Did you wear one in the 60's if you were a young girl? And if you were a young man then, did you look at all those legs?

I wore the mini skirts like most young girls in 1968 until 1972. But I did not wear them more than 8 inches above the knee. Quite conservative to the younger generation and yet quite daring to the older generation.

I did not dare to wear the hotpants though. Probably I had lots of Taiwanese singers in Sibu to compare with. They did not look too good in them. So I decided not to have any at all. However today, with all the girl bands, etc on tv, I find them fairly palatable. Better than some of the other styles.

the very short skirt actually came from Britain in 1967. while most people were still wearing the 1950's clothes in the very conservative Sibu, and the cheong sam and sam foo were still being worn by the married women, more and more young ladies took the the street with the interesting and attractive mini skirts by the late 60's. The movie stars, the Taiwanese singers and better economic conditions caused by good timber money helped propelled Mary Quant's style in Sibu.

According to fashion history,the fore runner of the mini dress the straight shift, which had developed from the 1957 sack dress, was still well below the knee.

In the early sixties, pleated skirts set on a hip yoke basque were worn with short sleeved over blouses which were cut not unlike the shell tops of today. Straight skirts had front and back inverted pleats called kick pleats and were ideal for doing the twist dance craze as they allowed the knee to move freely. Remember Chubby Checker? Boys and girls were crazy about the twist. They were twisting and shouting on Saturday nights in the Sibu Recreation Club.

In the United States, with movies like Gidget and Summer Holidays, pop stars wore straight sweater dresses in lambswool or the synthetic acrylic variety called Orlon worn belted with waists nipped in became fashionable. Sandra Dee, Yvette were the darlings of the cinemas. Every girl dreamed of a holiday by the sea. Bobby Darin was causing every girl to swoon. And I had pictures of Cliff Richard and Elvis Presley in my scrap book . All these new behaviours caused a great deal of headaches and heartaches to my mother and many other mothers who thought that they should have sent their daughters to Chinese school where girls wore pigtails and white and black skirts only.

Sweaters were the in thing and we all wished for a twin set. Singapore was the centre of fashion and every fairly wealthy Sarawak family bought some of these gorgeous sweaters in Change Alley or other shops .Pencil skirts were still worn with sweaters .

those were giddy days for the post war babes like us. And it was a good time. Bob Dylan, Slim Whitman, and other crooners sang, "Times, they are a'changin...."

And true enough, with changes in media, communication, magazines,radio and tv....times changed very quickly...we were all trying to catch up with everything on a gallop.

Murder : for the love of gold

There was this wooden house in Queensway in Sibu which was considered haunted and no one lived in it. Each time we cycled past this house, we would all increase our speed and feel the goosebumps growing on our skin.

It could only be just psychological that we felt this way. Were the spirits really that terrifying?

Here is the story that went around. It might not be entirely accurate after the passage of more than 50 years. I first heard it from my mother's washing lady. And of course, most women in Sibu at that time did not have any first hand knowledge of court cases.

The murder could have happen in the early 50's, even before my parents moved to Sibu. Not long ago I even tried to locate some local reference books to verify the story but to no avail.

The wooden house no longer exists. And the story is fading into the recesses of our mind.I have asked several people but they said, they have never heard of the story.

The native mistress of one of the British government officers had a peculiar liking for wearing a lot of gold on her wrists,neck and ears. It was rumoured that she had a huge gold chain around her waist too. Now at that time, it was not clear at all whether she was a Melanau, or an Iban or a Kayan because our Kak (the Malay washer woman) was also not very clear about the ethnic origin of the lady as she had not seen the woman in person herself. Everything was just hear say. And being illiterate, she had not been able to read the papers, which could only have been the local Chinese newspapers of the time, the See Hua Daily News or the Malaysia Daily News.

The lady of ill repute was given the wooden house to live in and it was well equipped with very modern electrical appliances and modern amenities of that time like electrical iron, refridgerator (a rarity) ,radio,a record player,an oven and other nice fixtures. It was said that she had many fine crystal glasses and dining sets in her cabinets. And she was naturally provided with cupboardful of the best whiskeys and brandies. Her wooden floor was well polished to be danced on every saturday night.

She was the top "socialite" of the day,as she was charming, beautiful and powerful. A word from her to the right officer, a person could get a job as kerani or driver with the PWD (Public Works Department). That was considered as "power" or "influence".

According to the local stories then, one day a group of men and women visited her after they learned that she was a very wealthy woman. They might even have been related. They had decided to ask her for a loan of money but she refused saying that her Tuan would not agree to such a loan.

Perhaps the drinking and the drunkeness which resulted from the day's visit had caused the conflict to blow up into a murder, we would never know from the lay person's view.

Perhaps this group of visitors left after their drinking. But unfortunately, she was strangled to death by some persons that very evening. They had used the wire of a very old iron to strangle her to death. And they buried her in a very shallow grave near the house in a hurry.

It was a very, very messy murder actually and within days the murderers were caught by the police,produced in court and sentenced to death.

All the gold, bottles of drinks, crystal glasses and furniture were found from various places by the police very easily.

This was one of the first murder cases of Sibu involving non Chinese.

Friday, December 28, 2007

The Deaf Mute in the Sun

I must have been quite a vocal and spirited child to many people! My uncles used to say that I never stopped thinking and talking when I was young. I must get my opinion in between their conversation and they would give me that particular look. But as a child, I was not at all bothered about how they looked at me. I would just run along and be happy doing what I liked best I suppose.

And this story I am going to relate is one that I had plenty of occasions to repeat to others. Telling my listeners over and over that those horrible taxi drivers should not have done what they had done.

We had this interesting deaf mute who worked for some food and some pocket money for the Yen King Restaurant in Sibu. The Yen King Restaurant at that time had taken over Hock Chu Leu as the best one in town and a very "happening place". To have a meal there was like going to the poshest place in town, and having a great treat.

Parked in front of the restaurant was a whole row of taxis ready to provide service. I remember the road being named "Wong Nai Siong Road".

The taxi drivers would rest under the shade of the trees near the Sarawak Hotel, which was just opposite the restaurant. Sometimes the taxis were parked next to the five foot way of Yen King, just to be as near to the restaurant as possible, to catch the customers directly.

So one day, a huge feast was held in Yen Ching and my family was invited. I was a bit bored by all the eating and adult chat so I went down stairs to play with my newly collected bottle caps on the five foot way with my cousins and to be away from the horrible mixed smells of whiskey, brandy and beer and oily food. The restaurant was not air conditioned at that time. so you can imagine how hot it must have been.

We then witnessed the horrible scene of the taxi drivers having fun with the deaf mute,who was already tired from his waiter's work for the day. One taxi driver played an a-go-go tune very loudly and another driver got hold of the deaf mute. The third one put a lot of ice cubes inside his shirt at the back!! As the deaf mute twisted and turned, the whole bunch of taxi drivers was having fun, shouting, clapping and saying, "Hao, Hao!!" (Good! Good!) Some were even shouting, " A- go - go!!" But there was no way for the deaf mute to dance rhythmically to the tune. He was just trying his best to shrug off the ice from his back. Finally he got the presence of the mind to pull up his shirt from his tight trousers.

He was terribly red in the face when he finally got rid of the ice and I could see the anger which he could not express well enough.

At that moment, I was really horrified and ashamed that adults could really torture and bully a very mild,disadvantaged fellow man.

Later when I commented on this incident to an uncle, all he could say was, " Hey, what does a little child like you know.......don't be bothered. No use. Adults do what they like."

Although Foochow adults were supposed to be very wise , somehow I had the impression that they were not very much in favour of smart alecks!! In later years, I also discovered in the same manner, that many of the older Foochow men I knew ,were not much in favour of "activists" and "environmentalists". They preferred people who "live and let live" and not rock the boat.

Years later in order to redeem myself and my fellow Foochow men I would push a few ringgit into the deaf mute's hand whenever I met him in town. I cannot explain why I should do that. But I had that inner desire to do so. May be it was because I could talk and he could not talk? After I moved away from Sibu, whenever I went back to Sibu I would be on the lookout for him. But I never saw him again. Perhaps he had passed on. And I hope that he had at least a few years of good life at the end.That someone would love him and respect him. I believe he had done no one any harm. And he had been known to have helped lots of people, like the Good Samaritan.

Having come across him at some points of my life has made the tapestry of my life richer.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

The Butcher and the Debtor

There is a Chinese saying which goes like this,"Ten years a river flows in front of the house. Then ten years the river will flow at the back." This is metaphorical talk.

The Foochows are very good with metaphors and inferences but unfortunately as the younger generation have become more modern, more Malaysianised, the older generation's version of Foochow dialect is a disappearing feature.

There is a real story which is related to this saying.

In the 50's a poor man who was out of luck wanted to buy some pork from a butcher . Butchers were traders who had sharp knives and probably a sharper tongue.

It was a normal practice then for customers to put their finger on the cut pieces and to point to the slices they would like to buy. The butcher would stand at a respectful distance and wait upon the customer until he/she made up his/her mind what to buy. The butcher would then cut according to the customer's heart's desire. Most customers would be very happy with this kind of service. And it was expected that a good butcher would behave in this manner, since Sibu was a small town and everyone knew everyone.

However, on that particular day, the poor man approached the wealthiest and perhaps the best butcher to buy himself a small piece of pork. And he did what was customary, pointing to the pork and asked for a certain cut.

But the butcher, knowing the out of luck gossips of the man, said rather rudely,"Put away your fingers. My knife will cut your hand off!"

The butcher cut a poor thin slice for the poor man and wrapped it up quickly, weighed it with his "daching" or chinese balance and called out his price loudly and curtly. The poor man was taken aback . Feeling slighted,belittled and embarrased no doubtm he said in a firm voice, probably with throbbing temples, he said, " My friend, a river water may flow in front of the house for ten years. And the water may flow to back of the house after that... ....."

He then left rather abruptly.

Many years later, the poor man came back to Sibu , now well known for his success in business in South East Asia. He was able to redeem himself by paying off all his debts and giving treats to everyone he knew.

One day he went up to the pork market. And the wealthy, but now older butcher took him by the arm and welcomed him to his stall, saying "Any cut, which ever you want. Just show me... And I won't even charge anything higher than necessary. It will be cheap for you. I will definitely give you the best price."

The now rich tycoon gave the butcher a cold look,and said, "My friend,fortunes of men may change with time. Never underestimate a poor man."

I often use this story in my training of adult students and teaching of younger children. Sometimes I would be all choked up inside remembering the hard times of the past of so many people I know.

Monday, December 24, 2007


Some how we humans have a great abhorrence for snakes and other scaled serpents.

My family had several frightening encounters with snakes and also a few snake related stories under our belt.

One of my earliest snake encounter was during a particular high flood and we were living in the Hua Hong Ice Factory's manager's house (built by my great grandfather and grandfather), across the Rejang River, near Pulau Kerto.

My mother was always very provident and we had lots of ducks and chickens in the coops. We had fresh eggs every day and fresh meat every now and then. The chickens and ducks also made very good presents for our elders in Sg. Bidut and across the river, in Sibu town.

One evening, the skies were very dark and the flood water was rising fast. We thought that the water would reach the top the stairs. Our house was very intelligently built on stilts, very similar to the Malay houses by the river side. We were always confident that no water would ever reach our living quarters.
And suddenly, we heard our chickens started making a lot of noise which challenged the loud thunder claps and the splish splash of the flood water. The sounds created quite an eerie atmosphere.

In very fast movements (usually he was very slow and measured in his movements), my father took down his gun from the wall, put on his long rubber boots and waded in the very high water, cautiously stepping on the plank walk which we could see quite clearly under the water, to the chicken houses. We saw him beding down and opened the door. Later he told us that he saw these huge eyes staring at him. He gave the reptile one shot a point blank!!

We heard the echo of the shot and I felt as if the whole house shook. That was the only time in my childhood that I heard a shot from my father's gun. In 1963 he surrendered his gun to the government and we never saw it again. He died two years later very suddenly and before his time.

We thus lost our protector,our guide and our provider. It was a terrible loss to the family and especially my mother who has been the only one person I know who has been grieving for more than 40 years for a beloved spouse. Her heart has always been heavy and she would never put on makeup to look pretty.

It is a pity I never learned to handle a gun as well as a man. I believe I could have been a very sharp shooter.

The snake was removed and given to some of the workers for a great feast. It was about seven feet long. My mother and younger siblings never came out of their bedroom during the whole episode.

Another encounter I had with snakes was a huge one that coiled up in a beam in a longhouse. I was helping an English Missionary nurse as a translator during my school holidays and we operated a mobile Mission Clinic.

We had to spend the night in this longhouse as it was quite far away from the mission house in Bukit Lan. As we were having our dinner with the Iban family, I noticed this huge python coiled up on a beam in the ceiling. The longhouse folks were unperturbed but I could hardly take my eyes off the reptile. I could not even eat that evening, wondering why no one was bothered and feeling fearful that the reptile may drop on to the floor any moment.

the next day I was told that the python was probably an ancestor coming back to see the family and according to the longhouse "pantang" or taboo, no one was to kill it. This particular family did not eat snakes because they believed that one of their ancestors had turned into a snake after he died. Nothing untoward happened to us or the family while the snake was up on the beam.

But as I thought about those mersmerizing eyes and shiny scaled snake on the beam, I would give shudder. Every time I see a snake skin handbag, I would be reminded of that particular one. Snakes are just so haunting in the mind.

Kassim and the One Legged Trishaw Driver

In the fifties most of the kids went to school in trishaws.

These three wheeled vehicles were commonly parked outside the Chinese Temple in Pulau Babi, the Lido Cinema, the Rex Cinema and the Palace Cinema. A few were found in the Lau King Howe hospital. There were probably about ten taxis.

Life was slow paced and perhaps we knew almost everyone.

And best of all, we were always looking out for each other.

Not many families had their own car. My father did not own a car until he started working in Bukit Aup where my grandfather started his brickyard. He bought his first British made Land Rover. For a while we kids were not too happy with the purchase because we would rather have a sedan, not a multipurpose one but any way we got used to jumping in and sitting at the back. We would also squat down and look out from the back. We loved the canvas flipping in the wind.

Kassim the driver took my sister and I to school. So we had the nice cushioned seats all to ourselves as only two small persons could occupy them. A larger person would take one whole trishaw to himself or herself.

I sort of looked up to Kassim because he would tell us little stories, some without beginning and some without ending, just to entertain us. He could speak a bit of English. But it was the funny, mixed up ,punctuated with some Hokkien,Pasar Malay ,that we learned from him. But .we also we noticed that he had a whole range of moods. He could be very happy one day and very sad another day. But basically, he was a very caring person. On rainy days, he would take his umbrella to shield me from the rain, and carry my sister on his arms, right to the school.

One day he told us the story of a Malay man without a leg and how he pedalled a trishaw with all his might just to feed his family of six, including his old parents.
I developed so much sympathies for the handicapped as a result, thanks to Kassim.

At that time I was too young to know that this Malay man was actually diabetic and had lost his leg to the disease. Many years later I worked at the hospital as a volunteer selling basic necessities to patients who had no visitors like orange juice, toilet tissues, sanitary pads,etc I came across this very old man without a leg. I was told that he was a trishaw driver and I realised that he was the very one-legged trishaw driver we had in Sibu.

Trishaw drivers, and taxi drivers formed a very special breed of breadwinners in Sibu and they were all from the various races. Whenever they grouped together, under a big angsana tree or a banyan tree, to play a round of cards, or a game of chess, these men would be so happy and chatty. They were all darkened from the tropical sun.

As a child it was fun to watch them. And one very endearing sight was when I caught sight of them falling asleep in their own trishaw or taxi. In my innocence I had no idea how hard their life was, how much worries they had and how long their hours were.

But Kassim would also be in my mind as the role model of a great and caring trishaw driver. He was part of my life for a few years. In such simple ways of story telling and chats, he made me see from different perspectives. And the one legged, diabetic trishaw driver would be the saddest image in my mind for ever. Life is not fair! Perhaps it was Kassim who helped me soar above the ups and downs of life later.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Physical wounds and lack of first aid knowledge

I was born in a house by the riverside. It had tall stilts very similar to Malay Kampong house. A detached house, it was home to my great grand father and great grandmother. It was also home to my grandfather and grandmother and a long list of aunts and uncles.

In fact the house would be kept as a great memory in the minds of many of my relatives. To many outsiders, it was the house of the towkay of the Ice Factory.

As a child I thought it was very grand. But by today's standard, it was not very much as it was wooden,with lots of windows. But I remember that it was a very intelligent house. Without any airconditioning or fan, the house was very cool throughout the day. At night when we used our mosquito nets, it was just warm enough to lull us to a very comfortable sleep.

We did not really get bitten by mosquitoes either. And I do remember running about the house a lot. One day I had a very deep cut on my knee from the zinc sheet that kept the vegetable garden from intrusion by animals like goats,dogs and cows. The scar remains with me to this day. I did not have any stitches. My mother just put iodine on the skin and plaster it. I was in pain for many days. But nothing untoward happened.

My mother said that a cut (it was about two inches) which was deep needed only to be kept clean and the wound would just heal itself. She blew on the wound every now and then. I felt very loved and soothed by her. We were not allowed to cry loudly. So I grew up with very little tears actually having been told that a ghost would carry us away at night if we cried .

We learned many years later that when my mother was a child, before the Japanese occupation,there was very little medication around. So the most horrible thing she remembered was the pain and agony children and even adults suffered. They had little knowledge of first aid in the first place. When wounds set in, they did not have cotton wool and any other dressing.

So a wound would just be left unattended, usually for a long time, until it just dried up.

This is lack of medication and lack of medical knowledge caused my mum's deafness in one ear. Her ear was infected for a long time and no treatment was given during the Japanese occupation. How much must she have suffered we would never know. Few can even imagine her pain and agony!!

Friday, December 21, 2007

Christmases past and present

Sibu was built on very solid Methodist values when it was set up in 1903 and later with the coming of Rev Hoover, management of the new town was very American and very Methodist.

Sibu is a Methodist town, just like Sitiawan in Perak. And indeed this is very remarkable.

Each Christmas my thoughts would go back as far as I can remember. And remembering the past only makes the present much better.

Past Christmases celebrated with Grandfather Kung Ping and Grandmother Siew were memorable ones.

From a granddaughter's view every Christmas with Grandfather was a specially good one because he had a great Christmas tree and I remember my first reindeer hanging from the tree.And I remember Aunty Greta putting up the last touch of the star on top of the tree.(that was the period before she married Uncle Henry and before Grandfather passed away.) And then the aunts would a few days later put away all the baubles, special pieces in a box , ready for the next Christmas because Grandmother Siew was a very neat and tidy person.

Although it was a small tree, placed on top of the table near the huge mirror, it was a tree that exuded love, care and the Christmas and Christian spirit. There was this special air in Grandfather's house - the joy of homecoming and the joy of reunion. He had such a presence, and an aura about him as head of the family.

I can still hear now, as I write, people calling him "Ah Ka"(father) and "Ah Kung" (grandfather). These were old fashionFoochow ways of calling father and grandfather.

I believe Grandfather loved Christmas because he also enjoyed the midnight carolling. Carollers would come and he would be so happy serving them drinks, biscuits and rambutans.And he would listen very silently the little sermon the pastor would give. He waited for the blessings or benediction that the pastor would pronounce before the group left the house. Today I would like to believe that he had the faith that the blessings would come to his family.

As a child looking at that tree, I felt very proud to be a member of the Tiong family. Somehow, my own parents did not have a tree in our house in Hua Hong Ice Factory. Perhaps my father thought that if Grandfather had a tree in his house, it was alright if we did not have a tree in our own house.But thanks to the big family home, I did not in any way feel deprived at Christmas. Food served by Grandfather and Grandmother were always luxurious and delicious. And we were blessed for having Ah Hiong Koo and later Ah Mee with us.

The next tree I looked at lovingly was the Masland Church tree. It was always quite near to the piano. And I remember Mr. Chong, Ivy's father, playing the piano . I loved the Foochow service and all the wonderful hymn singing in Foochow. I was also amazed by the preaching in Foochow by Rev Dr. Coole. Later we had Rev. Ling Chi Shii who had a very low bass voice. In my youth I was particularly impressed by the preaching of Rev Ho Siew Liong, the only Heng Hua pastor I know in my young days. I remember him being a great reader and he had all those soft covered books which came all the way from China in his library.

AS I compare Christmases past and Christmases present, one very important ingredient is the roles played by our own earthly grandfather and father who would make the important decisions for the direction family should take. Family culture and life depend so significantly on their wisdom. Our joy and outlook in life, our attitude towards everything and our own youthful behaviour hinge on that very firm guidance from the head of the family.

Likewise, our belief in our Heavenly Father who has given us spiritual direction in our lives continue to put us on the right track all the time.

And finally, I will always remember the Christmas letter from Aunty Grace who wrote: "If I could give you presents, they would be wrapped up in the boxes under my Christmas tree. And these presents are Joy, Peace,Faith,Courage, Patience, Love, Warm Relationships,loyalty,Good health...and as I look at each light on my tree, as each light would represent father, mother, my brothers, sisters, nephews and nieces, sisters in law and brothers in law....see how bright they shine! " She had a wonderful style in writing, very American.

So in the same way, I would like to wrap up metaphorically my presents for you all, and place them under my tree...Joy, peace, patience,love, faith,loyalty,courage, warm relationships to be opened to bless you every day of the coming new year!!

Let us remember those who have gone before us. May their souls rest in peace.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007


Floods all over the world are caused by several factors.

Floods can be defined as the overflow of river water into the flood plains. A river's main job is to channel water into the sea or ocean, apart from cutting down it sides of the mountains to accomodate the stream flow.

And we now have to discuss what cause this overflow of river water. According to nature, water springs from the mountain tops and cuts a valley on the surface of the earth. At the upper course, the river is fierce and powerful and cuts deep into the rocks to form a very deep v shaped valley. In the middle course, the river is wider, slower and cuts a wider v-shaped valley. As the river moves nearer the sea,w here it will pour out its volume into a huge body of wa ter, it meanders and swings like a snake , criss crossing the deltaic region to form a huge flood plain.

A river is dynamic. It has a life of its own. And nature evolves itself into new forms, new shapes, sometimes beyond the control of man. But nature will definitely take its course.

Left alone, a river runs its course, its high tide, its low tide,its over flow and its low and slow flow. But man wants to be a master. And this is where the nature of a river will become unruly. Man wants to tame a river. But does it really want to be tamed on man's terms?

When man removes too much forest cover through rapid logging, runoff will be too rapid and the poor river cannot contain the heavy torrents and floods occur.

when erosion is too rapid, sedimentation and siltation of the river takes place. And the river overflows naturally.

The normal high tide will flood the deltaic regions without doubt.

Too much concretization in urban areas will also mean that run off will be too rapid and the river cannot channel the volume of water into the sea rapidly enough. So the excessive volume of water will only top up the river flow, forming an overflow. Flood results.

We humans must learn to create a balance with nature. And when man play God, he will have to face unpredictable consequences.

Floods have been a regular occurence in all parts of Sarawak and in particular Sibu. They are not strange or unique to us. We have been having huge floods sicne 1963.

We just have to something about it, quickly and sincerely because too many people will be affected and too much property will be destroyed. Our projections must be accurate, our designs must be intelligent and our lives and livelihood must be preserved.

We have learnt a great deal of history and geography in school. I am taking a leaf out of that education to share with you here:

 In the Minjiang River of the Sichua Province, the annual flux up to 15 billion cubic meters, and about 40 million tons of sands and stones were washed down from upper reaches. Flood burst out frequently, in 256 BC, the governor of the Shu Prefecture (now as Sichuan area) organized local people to build the greatest project, and till now it works very well.
The Sichuan people summarized its experience in flood control and water usage as: "Harnessing Shoals Deep, Building Dams Lower" or "Keep the weirs low and the sluices deep".
Fish Mouth (Yuzui in Chinese),is located in the upper middle (the heart point close to the bend of the river) of Minjiang River . The Fish Mouth dyke divides the river into 2 flows: the inner river (D) and outer river (E), with wide for outer river (with little higher river bottom) to keep more flux (60%) into outer river if rainy season and keep few flux (40%) into outer river if non-rainy season, as well as more sands and stones into outer river, narrow for inner river (with little deeper river bottom) to keep certain amount of flux to into inner river.
Bottle Mouth (Baobingkou), the bottom width 14.3M, the top width 28.9M, height 18.8M, water width 19M at lower water and 23M at its flood water. It divides and controls the water again to keep water into irrigated canals for Sichuan irrigation.
Feishayan (drainage dam, training banks),has width of 240M with 2 meters height. It is about 710M to Yuzui and 200M to Baopingkou. During flood season, the water flows to the bank (upper) and then returns to this dam, and carry sands with stones across the dam into outer river with large flux. And this dam was built with bamboo cages filled with cobblestones more than 2000 years ago.

Actually there is no dam in this project, but only a lower dyke to keep the water flowing naturally with different direction to different way. It is believed that no one should ever break the flow with a high dam. Every year there is a annual reconstruction (just as: carry the sands out of the river bottom). Thus there has been no environment problem such as Dam breaking up,sedimentation and erosion etc.

Here a second article to share with you.

Dujiangyan Irrigation Project of China

Dujiangyan Irrigation Project is time-honored water conservation works. It is 56 kilometers (34.8miles) away west of Chengdu at Dujiangyan city, lying in the middle reach of Minjiang River, the longest tributary of Yangtze River.

In old days, Minjiang River surged out down Mt. Minshan, pushing toward Chengdu plain. When it came to flatland, the speed slowed down abruptly. Thus the watercourse filled up with silt became vulnerable to flood, the people living on the plain suffered a lot. Around BC 250 during Warring States Period, Libing, a governor of Shu prefecture (present Sichuan province) in Qin state, together with his son, directed the construction of Dujiangyan. The governor gave up the old way of dam building to catch floodwater. Instead, he employed a new method by water channeling and diversion to harness Minjiang River and built the whole works up mainly in two parts: the headwork and the irrigation system.

The project effectively put the flood under control. Up to now, the whole system still functions perfectly, serving over two thousand years for flood prevention, irrigation, shipping and wood drifting. It contributes a lot to the richness of Chengdu plain and its reputation as the Land of Abundance.

On November 29th, 2000, Dujiangyan was listed on world cultural heritages by UNESCO.

Headwork of Dujiangya Irrigation System
The headwork consists of three projects: Yuzui, Feishayan, Baopingkou.

Yuzui: It is a long and narrow dyke built in the center of the Minjiang River, dividing Minjiang into the inner river and the outer. Uniquely governor Libing designed it in a shape of fish mouth, in order to receive least water resistance. In average, 40 percent of river' runoff goes into the inner river in flood season, 60 percent into the outer, and vice versa in dry season. The inner river diverts water into Chengdu plain through Baopingkou. And the outer is the main flow, which carries off 80 percent of silt.

Baopingkou: It is the main diversion gate to draw in water for irrigation in shape of bottleneck. In construction of irrigation system, governor Libing had a canal cut through Mt. Yulei toward Chengdu plain. Baopingkou marks the inlet of the man-made river. It works for conducting water and controlling the volume of inflowing water.

Feishayan: It is spillway for releasing flood and silt from inner river to outer river. When the volume of water in inner river goes beyond the upper limit of influx at Baopingkou, excessive water will flow over Feishayan to outer river. At the same time, the eddy force of overflowing water helps take along the silt and sand, which in other cases would settle to the bottom. In ancient times, with no cement in use, Feishayan spillway was originally made of piles of bamboo cages filled with cobblestones. If there happened unusual big flood, Feishayan could collapse by itself, leaving water channel much clearer. Now it has been concrete work.

Anlan Suspension Bridge
Anlan Suspension Bridge, also called Couple's Bridge, spans 500 meters (1640.4feet) long over both the inner and outer river, right above Yuzui dyke. It used to be secured by thick bamboo rope. Although it is reinforced by tight steel wire now, visitors still can have fun by swinging back and forth on the bridge while walking across.

Erwang Temple
It was built to commemorate Libing and his son, who made great contributions to enable people a better life. Besides, Libing was an outstanding hydraulics engineer. He invented the dyke of fish-mouth style, erected a stone man amid river as water gauge for long-time observation of water in different seasons, and buried a stone rhino on bottom of the inner river as titer for measuring the concentration of silt and sand when dredging for annual maintenance. He ever summed up his experience of water-control: dredging the sand deeper, building the dam lower. The eight words are inscribed on a wall inside the temple.

Copyright © 2002 All rights reserved.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

59 gunny sacks of pepper

Pepper,the green gold of Sarawak, and the world, has only been an exportable commodity from the Rajah Brooke Period (1842 - 1946) of Sarawak history, although it was a known agricultural crop since the Middle Ages.

The Chinese were interested in its cultivation in Sarawak. It was a cash crop first grown by the Chinese in the areas surrounding Kuching when the Brookes brought more peace to Sarawak in the 1840's and later, when the Foochows arrived in Sibu in 1903, more pepper was grown in the Rajang Basin. the Ibans and other natives also grew pepper but their production was not very well documented, although many Ibans have actually become very wealthy in the 1960's because of their hardwork and diligence in the production of both black and white pepper.

In many ways, it is the Foochow who gained the most from the growing of pepper at the beginning of the formation of Malaysia.

However pepper gardening also suffered a slight blow from the Communist Insurgency around the beginning of independence.

My story of my cousin and her hardwork was taken from this historical chapter of Sarawak.

My cousin, Moi Leng, (not her real name) was already a successful rubber planter and tapper in the 60's just ten years after she arrived in China. Still at the prime of her life, and her children just toddlers, she embarked on pepper growing because she was strong and enthusiastic. She and her husband planted altogether 1000 pepper vines. And within a few years these vines started to bear fruit. The couple harvested some pepper and sold them by the gunny sacks. The measurement of pepper was in the Chinese ton, or dan, using the daching or balance or chen.

However, life was not smooth for the family as her husband was reported to the Police as a collaborator. He therefore spent about 13 months in the Kuching Chinese Re-education Centre.

While away, Moi Leng, worked herself to the bones. The children were school going age, but she herself was determined to make a go of both rubber and pepper, the only way, she and her family could survive.

The eight sheets of rubber she could tap each day went to their daily food and fertilizers for the pepper. She worked in the pepper garden in the afternoons after processing all her rubber sheets in the morning.

At the end of 13 months, she had harvested 59 gunny sacks of pepper, all ready to be sold. When her husband came home, the couple was ready to build a new house from the sale of the pepper which was fetching a record high price. If they had waited for the price to increase, they could have made a bigger fortune.

She said that she harvested the pepper bunch by bunch, standing for more than 8 hours on the three legged ladder, sometimes only going home when the sun was already too far gone in the horizon. She never failed to fertilizer the 1000 vines. The sun burnt her skin until it glistened like a silver sheet from a distance. Her determination finally paid off when in later years, she would just shake her head and said it was definitely an amazing feat. Who could have thought that a child bride, less than five feet tall, could build herself a big house, and from the sale of 59 gunny sacks of pepper.

She had also been frugal with food, sparing in clothes, and extras. All she had to help her was her old faithful of a Japanese made motorbike to transport herself and rubber sheets to the market and to transport fertilizers and food stuff back. Every other day, people could see her on the road in this manner and complimented her for her stoicism and determination.

From her year's toil and sacrifice every one knew that she alone had harvested the pepper and as a result built herself and her family a new two storeyed house with three bed rooms,a kitchen and a toilet and other modern fixtures. She was the toast of the town. People all around congratulated her for her capabilities and staunch family values.

Her husband came home to enjoy the fruits of her labour after spending 13 months in prison. He was actually wrongly accused as he had not inclination at all towards communism.

She was glad that he was home and that she had "managed to do all that". In a very humble way, she said that it was just her duty as a wife to plan,organise,lead and control her family resources.

She did ask once,who could actually believe that someone like her, with no education at all (she is illiterate), from a village in China, could achieve so much. She herself did not believe in herself at first. But she did it.

Unfortunately our country does not have a medal for a resourceful woman like her.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Leh Pian (Sizes 5, 3 and 1)

A Foochow was ready to get married and a match would be made. The girl's family would have lots to do before the wedding.

One of the first things to do was to announce her forthcoming marriage through ordering of the "wedding cakes" or leh Pian. Size Five wedding cakes would be sent to all the married sisters and brothers, aunts and uncles from the mother's family and father's family.

This cake was made from flour, sesame seeds, pork fat, sugar and peanuts. To me it was a wonderful cake and not made any more today due to changes in taste and inconvenience.

In the 50's and 60's when these cakes were sent out to relatives, it was a wonderful event because it meant that a daughter was to be married and great happiness was in the air. And the wedding was so exceptionally important event in any body's life.

those who received Size Five leh Pian would have to give a gold ring as a wedding present. Besides the really warm hearted aunts and uncles, brothers and sisters would also get together to give a few dinners before the girl was married off. This was called the "sending off" dinner. There would be a lot of merry making and good advice given. sometimes the aunts would pull the girl aside to whisper some very personal advice, and some tips about the birds and bees.

Size three leh pian were meant for near relatives and in return these relatives would present two yards of cloth and or a sarong, plus the red packet of course.

Size one leh pian was for ordinary close friends.

I miss eating these actually because I love the sesame seeds. In those days, one could not get sesame seeds easily, except in the biscuits, kompian or leh pian.

Today as I have said earlier, Foochow families find it unrealistic to make all these cakes and it would be inconvinient to send them around as close relatives are now all over the world. Mobility and modernity have definitely put a stop to this very interesting and warm and affectionate social etiquette.

Many families say," We just want to make life as simple as possible."


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