Thursday, January 31, 2008

Dr. Xavier and Race Course Road

It is interesting how in the early days,Sibu had street names which came out of an English magician's hat. We had High Street, Race Course Road, Green Road,Cross Road, Bridge Road and Queensway. And of course there was a Market Road. Interestingly there was a Blacksmith Road too. This is indeed the legacy of colonial rule.

However,at some point of time,the local community leaders changed the names of many roads to gain political mileage. With due respect to all those in the road naming committee, some new names like Jalan Tuanku Osman, Jalan Lucky, Jalan Pahlawan were given to some existing and already well named roads. Some of the road names were translated into Bahasa Malaysia. So Lucky Road became Jalan Tuah for example. No one, I believe made any public outcry on that.

One road in Sibu in particular would often bring back many memories of a beloved Indian doctor to me.

Dr. Xavier was the first Indian doctor in Sibu, and he had his clinic on Island Road, next to the See Hua Daily News office, along the block of shop houses as Lee Hua Sawmill, Ting Nguiik Choon Coffee Shop and a large bicycle shop which filled its frontage with lots of new bicycles for sale. There was a Malaysia Daily New (now defunct) office there too. And opposite this block of shophouses were the Methodist Masland Church and Methodist Primary School His clinic was taken over by the son of his dispenser, Mr. Lim I remember when he passed awau. Dr. Lim's Clinic , now renamed,later moved to Jalan Tuanku Osman.

There are several things I remember about Dr. Xavier and his family.

Dr. Xavier was a very strict doctor who would tell his patients to be health conscious and hygienic. I really think that the people of Sibu were not at all unfriendly or unwelcoming to a person of another race. (And furthermore, Dr.Xavier was not a local man as he had come from Kuala Lumpur). We welcomed his services and in fact depended so much upon him for good private medical services. We even gave him a good name, "Seh Mii Ah Ee Ren" or Dr. Seh Mii Ah.

His treatment was careful and pretty good and so a lot of patients got well. My relatives used to say, "One injection from Dr. Xavier and you will be cured." there were three feared diseases at that time : meningitis, TB and polio.

Children used to cry a lot when they went to see him because he wore very thick glasses which magnified his eyes. The older children started to comment on his glasses : "If you wear thick glasses like Dr. Xavier, you must be very clever." Remembering this still brings a smile to my face.

Dr. Xavier built a very good colonial and 1950's style wooden bungalow in Race Course Road. It was a lovely house with a big garden. And his family would drive out of the road from the house. They had a very big European car and it could have been one of the older Volvo models . Mrs.Xavier would always sit at the back of the car, looking very grand. Today whenever I watch a Hindi movie with a scene of Bollywood older ladies sitting at the back of a 50's car, I would think of Mrs. Xavier. Mrs. Xavier was a very white, pale looking Indian lady who looked more European than Indian. She had an extremely sharp nose and sometimes we naughty students would whisper and say that she was a "Persian", thus making the lady even more legendary in our minds.

The couple had two daughters who were very friendly and spoke local Hokkien extremely well. Peggy used to play a lot of soft ball and was a good runner. Joan the older daugher, was more a scholar and she went on to beoome a very good English teacher.

Today the Xaviers are no longer in Sibu but many of the older folks would remember Dr. Xavier with fondness. He had saved many lives. And he was a man who inspired many Sibu students to become doctors. In many ways he showed the people of Sibu what it was to be a really good professional.

But to me, whenever I see the road sign, Race Course Road, I would think of the Xaviers.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Foochow breakfast in Mui Shun Coffee Shop

I have not been able to get a photo of some one playing Erhu in Sibu, specifically in a coffee shop. So I found inspiring photo of Wong Lee Hom playing erhu. I find him a very amazing musician even at my age. So it is fun just to help him advertise here a bit. In my younger days I would have put this poster in my office. However, the point is I do wish he can play his erhu in Sibu and perhaps join the old folks in Mui Shun Coffee Shop.

Mui Shun is a coffee shop that must have existed since 1903, or at least since 1928 after the fire of Sibu, when the whole Sibu town was rebuilt with concrete and steel. It is situated on Channel Road and faces the Sibu Express Jetty. You cannot miss it because it is at the corner of Island Road and Channel Road. It can be considered the busiest corner of Sibu, especially during the 60's.

The coffee shop has another beautiful feature - in the evenings, the Foochow orchestra of Er Hu and other instruments would be practising even while people began to go home for their evening rest. Mr. Wong Nieng Siing was the leader of this Foochow musical orchestra at that time. Perhaps they were the only ones who kept Foochow music alive.

Many people would associate eating you char kueh with soy bean milk, with this coffee shop.

You Char Kueh has an unusual story behind its existence. This popular breakfast food, for as long as I can remember, first became known to me in Mui Shiin in Sibu and the towkay made good ones in the days of my youth. The night market stall owners came much later. But then, I am not very sure, after so many years, who was the one who introduced You Char Kueh to Sibu. That would be a great find indeed.

So whenever you are in Sibu, go to Mui Shiin Coffee shop and order a nice cup of coffee and watch the people go by.

Perhaps today, you might not be able to buy you char kueh directly in the shop. But you can get other breakfast items.

Below is the story of you char kueh:

You Tiao and You Zha Gui - Deep-fried Ghost came from China, naturally. You Tiao, or You Zha Gui (deep-fried ghost), the Chinese deep-fried breadstick stuck in pairs, is such a common breakfast for hundreds of years. Often eaten with hot soya milk or plain rice porridge (some call it congee) in the morning, it is also used to complement Bak Kut Teh (pork rib in herbal soup) and all sorts of rice porridge such as chicken porridge.

What’s interesting is, the breadstick gained its intriguing name from a rather heavy and serious part of the Chinese history. During the Song Dynasty (960-1279), there was a famous and well-respected General, Yue Fei (岳飛), who had been known for his loyalty towards the kingdom and his Emperor, to the extent of getting the four words: 精 (jing - utmost) 忠 (zhong - loyal) 報 (bao - serve) 國 (guo –country) meaning “serving the country with the utmost loyalty”, tattooed on his back by his equally patriotic mother. Yue Fei had fought hard to protect the kingdom, against the outer invasions particularly the Jin Dynasty (or the Kingdom of Jin: 金國).

However, the Prime Minister of the time, Qin Gui (秦檜) had unusually resented Yue Fei for some, or no reason. With the manipulative influence from his wife and to gain real power, he accused Yue Fei of a crime “Mo Xu You” (莫須有: could be or could be not guilty, but not necessarily innocent) and executed him.

Although frustrated, there was nothing the public civilians could do. To relieve his anger, a baker thought of an idea of making bread in the shape of 2 people twisted together and deep-fried it in burning hot oil. The shape was to signify Qin Gui and his wife, and this fried bread was named “You Zha Gui”, meaning deep-fried ghost, because the word ghost in Chinese is pronounced the same as “Gui” in Qin Gui’s name; and in the public’s eye, they surely were as bad as ghosts. Symbolically, they had burnt the Qin Gui couple in hot oil and eaten them up.

Through the years, You Zha Gui has been given another name as You Tiao (plainly means deep-fried breadstick), and its shape has also been much simplified to what we see today. This is however, just what we’ve learned in primary school history, and a small extract from the much more complicated Song history (which is good enough for You Tiao). To know more about the Song Dynasty and the detailed biography of Yue Fei, a library that stock academic books on Chinese history would be a good place to go.

Crullers are a popular Chinese breakfast item.
1 teaspoon salt
3/4 teaspoon alum
1 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 teaspoon ammonium bicarbonate
7/8 cup water
2 cups all purpose flour
8 cups oil for deep-frying
Place salt, alum, baking soda, and ammonium bicarbonate in a mixing bowl. Add water and stir until thoroughly dissolved. Add flour. Stir with chopsticks to make the dough soft and smooth.

Knead the dough until it is elastic.

Ang Pow and other stories

Today I received an ang pow or Little Red Envelope or - "Ya Sui Qian" from a very loving eighty year old aunt. She insisted that any one, at any age, who visits her must have an envelope. I was terribly touched by her traditional attitude, and she has no reservations about giving her gift of money, even though she is no earning an income now.

You may have seen the little red envelopes containing money, given out during Lunar New Year. Some call it Hung Bao (means red packet), some call it Ang Pao (depending on the dialect), but the original name of the money wrapped in little red envelope is Ya Sui Qian. It is given to children by their parents for good luck, and it is only given by those who are married, to those who are younger. It will usually be given to children who come to visit the family, or to the younger frined and relatives whom we visit. Chinese are very particular about longevity of life, and they - well, we - believe that by doing so, our ageing process can be decelerated. (Ya Sui means compressing age, Qian means money) Honestly, a lot of younger Chinese nowadays, are not aware of this. The money contained in the packet has over-shone the real meaning of the gesture.

I have a few anecdotes about the giving of ang pow, some are sad, some are hilarous and some a totally mean.

A friend told me that when she was young, her widowed mother would never let her visit any of her father's relatives because the mother would not be able to reciprocate the angpow they received and these relatives would say a lot of negative things about their unlucky family. So when she was young, the only angpow she received was from her mother. And she developed a terrible fear of visiting people because she did not want her mother to suffer from unnecessary anxieties. Besides, she and her siblings developed very low self esteem. But because she and her sister became Christians, they were blessed by an unusual intelligence at secondary school. They graduated with top honours and went on to become high ranking bank officers. In later years,the family was blessed with exceptional wealth and health. Her father's family changed their attitude towards her mother. But childhood nightmares often cannot be erased from one's mind.

In my own experience, many relatives would give less to us so that my mother need not reciprocate with a large amount to give to their children. We received one or two dollars very shyly from these mean-er aunts. We did not develop much social confidence actually after my father passed away. But I remember fondly one or two aunts who were very good to my mother and us. We would sit in the kitchen on our visits and they would open up every biscuit tin to give us pieces of goodies. We were not bashful to visit these aunts on Chinese New Year. They were the same genuinely good when my children visited them in later years. It was so kind of them.

A wealthy woman was known to give out ang pows marked with stars. The children of lesser important people were given one star ang pow, the significant ones were given two star ang pows, and the close relatives and very significant ones were given three star angpow. She had all these angpows in different hand bags as well. Her maids would be told to hold these hand bags properly. I believe that she has an excellent memory to be able to manage all these little red packets through out the days of her New Year Celebration . One year my friend's star must be shinning particularly bright upon her. Her children were delighted to receive an extra star of angpow. The following year, they went very early to visit her. But their star dropped. I wonder what kind of evaluation system she used. She is ahead of ISO creditation.

But I think the best angpow that I ever received was from a well known local dignitary, now a Tan Sri. My husband and I met him at the old Sibu airport accidentally one Chinese New Year season and he just automatically reached into his pocket to put a good handsome note into my son's hands. He simply said, "How wonderful to meet such a nice looking boy. Here's his angpow for the New Year." He was genuine, and he had no hesitation of giving the money (although not wrapped in a red envelope. I was overwhelmed by his genuine kindness,sincerity and display of family love! I have been blessing him all these years.

Other Activities, Practices and Taboos
Other common practices are new clothes, new hair-cut (traditionally, those who are in mourning stage are not allowed to have their hair cut), paying visits to friends and relatives to give good greetings to each other, reconciliations, etc. popular festive activities such as Lion Dance and Dragon dance are believed to have the effect of ridding evils and bad luck, and to bring harvesting rain in the coming year.

Naturally, there are taboos that we have to abide during the festive season. Any sharp, pointy objects are not to be visible, no sweeping is allowed during the first few days of the New Year - even brooms have to be hidden away - to prevent any good luck or fortune that may be swept away. Breaking anything is also a taboo. Should it unfortunately happen, we will have to quickly say something nice to accompany it, such as Sui Sui Ping An - which means "out of harm's way, all year round". "Sui" means age or year, which sounds the same as "shattered". Apart from that, any vocabulary related to unfortunate event is a big No-No. In our family, we have to even hide the eggs away.

Vegetarian meal

Many Chinese choose to eat only vegetarian meal throughout the first day of the Lunar New Year. This is mainly for the belief of cleansing and for good deeds.

Other must-haves

Other new year must-haves are Mandarin oranges, dried oyster, various types of melon seeds and sweets, steam cake (Fa Gao - symbolises proprerity), oil-preserved smoked duck and smoked sausages, etc.

Then it will be the spring-cleaning, that indicates sending the old and bad away, and prepare to welcome a better new year.

Modern takes on decorations

As the New Year is approaching, most Chinese will shop for some good luck plants. More popular ones are Narcissus flowers, chrysanthemum, plum blossom and peach blossom. It is believed that, if the peach blossom blooms on the 1st day of New Year, the person or the family will have good luck for the year or find love. But these plants are only found in 4-season countries so Chinese who are in warmer countries will have to settle for other alternatives.

The red strips of paper with writing on are called Dui Lian (paired sentences), which come in pairs. These sentences should be written in complimenting manner, for instance, the first sentence (Shang Lian - "upper sentence") should have the noun, verb, etc complimenting the noun, verb, etc in second sentence (Xia Lian - "lower sentence"), in the same order. These phrases often describe the mood in spring and receiving fortune and luck. People will also put up other red decorations such as the word "Fu" (luck) on the wall or the main door. Some may like to place it upside down, reason being, "upside down" in Chinese shares the same sound with "arriving". So it in a way signifies the arriving of a lucky year.

A Long and Colourful Celebration
The Lunar New Year celebration officially lasts for 15 days. The second day of the New Year is the day when all married daughters have to go back to their parents' home for a visit. They is usually accompanied by their husbands, especialy the newly weds.

Yuan Xiao - The Chinese Valentine's Day

This is not really practised by the Foochows in Sibu. But we know more about it from old stories, books, movies and now the TV.

The 15th day is also being referred to as the Chinese Valentine's day. On this day, many single girls will gather at the riverside upstream to toss mandarin oranges into the river, with the hope that the right single men who await downstream, will pick up the oranges.

It is believed that this act will bring the person to his/her right match. So it's no surprise the mandarin oranges will sell really well on that day.

The Rejang is just too big for this to be practised!! And it is not practical any way because there are too many different races living along the river. One can imagine how a marriage could be concluded if a person of another race picks up the orange!! A Malay friend of mine did indicate a long time ago that he was waiting to pick up a mandarin orange because he would like to marry a Chinese girl this way.

Chinese New Year Eve - 30th Night

My mother would usually go overboard when it comes to the 30th Night. She had known bad and hungry days when she was younger, when she had to give the only slice of chicken to her younger brother and she would go without meat herself. Those were the Japanese Occupation days when the extended family depended on everyone's effort to grow vegetables, rear chickens and dig for potatoes while at the same time being afraid of Japanese soldiers coming for a raid.

In the 1970's when she grew older and as we children started having jobs and bringing home enough for her, she was more than happy to cook a good New Year Eve's dinner for us.

Today, already in her 80's the Reunion Dinner on the New Year's Eve is important and everyone in the family is expected to be present. However each year she would also remember the loved ones who had gone earlier: my father and my brother. But the evening is for the living and there is a quiet joy as we count our blessings. Sometimes we would have an aunt or a cousin to join us and that is definitely an added blessing.

However certain years in the past, just to be a little different, we had dinner or made do with even a lunch in a local restaurant.

What is significant for the New Year Eve dinner is that we must have fish on the menu. In Chinese (Yu) shares the same sound with the word 'extra' or 'leftover'. There is a New Year phrase that says "Nian Nian You Yu" which means, "there is some (fish) leftover from the previous year, every year". Therefore the lucky fish is a lucky dish, and paintings of fish are also loved by many. We will usually keep a little leftover from the reunion dinner, just as a symbolic gesture.

Although we Foochows generally do not like Fa Cai, sometimes for the fun of it, we will cook this common lucky dish which means "prosperity and good fortune". Fa Cai is a type of fungi that looks a lot like shiny black hair, and its Chinese name sounds just like "prosperity" in Chinese; whilst Hao Shi is preserved oyster, which sounds like "good things".

Besides we also have duck, chicken, noodles, and a green vegetable which is usually leek (in Chinse it means count - so it would imply that we have plenty of money to count). Many Chinese like to have abalone and sharksfin. But as we become more environmentally conscious we are beginning to make do without sharksfin especially. Personally I cannot bear to picture the finless sharks' carcass being thrown into the sea.

The reunion dinner is always a happy occasion when everyone will let down their hair and eat to their heart's content.

And my mother would always enjoy seeing so much left over. She would say, "A lot , a lot!!" This is very auspicious for all of us and the year would be bountiful.

May you have a prosperous, blessed and healthy Lunar New Year!!

And a Chun Lian or Spring Couplet for you:
Ping,Ping, Ang, Ang (Peace) or Chu Jin Pin Ang (Peace wherever you go)
Wan Zhi ru Yi (Success in every endeavour)

Chinese New Year Eve Memories

When we were young we would be so excited about the arrival of the first day of the new year and we were asked to sleep early so that we could get up early the next day to help father let off the fire crackers to announce the lovely first day of the new Lunar Year. That was an exciting time.

Later as we grew older we learned about other Chinese who would stay up all night to play mahjong or gamble or talk. We felt that we were very different from other dialectic groups. And we wondered about the differences. However we just accepted that we Foochows were just different.

One beautiful,treasured and memorable activity we had with aunts and cousins, dear relatives was the getting together on the first few days of the Lunar year to crack melon seeds and tell stories, over cups of warm Chinese tea. Seated around the family marble table we would crack the melon seeds daintily with our good teeth and relate stories old and new to each other. Sometimes it could be very academic, sometimes it could just be something so hilarious that we stopped talking and laughed our hearts out. And there would be teasing too. Seventh Aunt would always bashfully say that she could not understand our English and we would revert back to Foochow for her sake. And then all the banter would start again in English, in Foochow and even Hokkien. All these were just warm feelings which flowed through our veins , across three generations sometimes,and we would look forward to another visit, perhaps the next year, or even the next few months. These were good days of good family togetherness which wealth cannot obtain.

Although my maternal grandmother passed away many years ago, I

Tung Kui or Nien Gao

I read in the Star how an Indian man each year would make thousands of nien gao for sale and this part time ibusiness of his is a booming one. I am glad thatan Indian can make a niche for himself in the Chinese community, and provide part time employment for more than forty people before Chinese New year. This is a good example of real supply and demand in Samuelson's classical economic schema.

Nien Gao is Chinese New Year must-have It means every year we achieve higher. In Miri, there is a figure 3099 (Samling Gao Gao) which is sported by Samling Company. It indicates that Samling goes higher and higher. Therefore the sound Gao is a good sound to the Chinese ear.

According to Chinese legends,this sticky sweet snack was believed to be an offering to the Kitchen God, with the aim that his mouth will be stuck with the sticky cake, so that he can't badmouth the Chinese family to the God of all Gods (Yu Huang Da Di). Nowadays, the Chinese can easily buy their Nian Gao from the supermarket, but may still choose to cook it traditionally.

The sweet sticky cake doesn't usually get consumed completely during Chinese New Year period, due to the overwhelming choices of other food. So we often have loads of leftover of the cake. We'll wrap it up and keep it in the fridge for future use, for example fry it up, or steam it for a snack.

Each year my family will retell tales of Chinese New year experiences when we get together. And this is one related to nien gao.

My grandmother's house in Ah Nang Chong, Lower Southern Village, was a typical Foochow house with the kitchen jutting out at the back of the house. Actually the kitchen was a separate unit, and it was linked to the main house by an open verandah,where we had our all night long story telling sessions. The verandah, called "lang nor" in Foochow, also acted as a sitting room. This is in fact an ingenious piece of architecture, most probably invented by the Foochows and was a safety facility idea.

My mother's eldest sister in law (Tui Ging)was a keen cook and she decided to make a lot of nien gao for the new year, to be given out as gifts to her close relatives. So she had herself prepared with lots of wood for the stove, lots of flour and sugar.
Having finished tapping rubber, and processing it, she started her work on the nien gao and in no time, the nien gao was ready for steaming. She steamed batch by batch into the early hours of the morning. And she had already been up and about for twenty four hours. At that time, the kitchen was lit only by a small kerosne lamp called "tu mah giang", as it was fuel saving. In the bed rooms, we had a small kerosene lamp, and in the living room or langnor, we would have a pressure lamp. The Yamaha generator was invented then.

My aunt was a child bride and all her life she tried her best to please her in- laws. She did not have the luxury of having an education but instead she had to rear pigs, chickens, cook, tap rubber, carry water from the river, wash clothes by the river side, raise a huge family of two girls and six boys(without family planning) and get along well with a huge extended family.

She was a loving wife,mother, aunt and sister. Life was truly a challenge to her. But towards the last two decades of her life, her family was able to buy a good house in Sibu and they became town folks with all the amenities to make her life easier. Foochow women in the past were often classified into those who had good fate and those who had bad fate. And most would like to be in the category of having good fate towards the later part of their life. So many would say that my aunt fell into this category.

After many hours of steaming, the last batch was in the kuali for steaming.She unfortunately dosed off . A fire broke out in her kitchen but luckily someone was awake and saved the kitchen from being hurt by a Chinese New year fire. My poor aunt was fast asleep. AT that time, alarm clocks were only used for waking up to tap rubber, not in the kitchen for nien gao making!!!! Sixty years later,today we are blessed with Tefal steamers which have built in timer.

Also, if there had been a fire, the verandah would have been literally hacked off to save the main house from the fire. This was the safety valve.

Everyone took it humourously and we had lots of nien gao to eat. There was only a slight damage. No harm done!! Four families were living together in this house with my grandmother. One can imagine how horrifica it might have been. All was forgiven. All the more reason to celebrate because of the lucky escape!!

(I hope my cousins will forgive me for retelling the story here.)

Here's the recipe for nien gao

Ingredients: (Makes 4-5 10 cm nien gao)

Cooking time : 8 hours.

250 g glutinous rice flour, sieved
250 ml water
280 g brown sugar
A few bamboo or banana Leaves, run over flame to drive out the moisture (but not burnt)
4-5 10 cm-width round baking tins
Some hemp strings
Few layers of muslin cloths (or aluminium foil)

Mix glutinous rice flour and water into a smooth paste. Add in brown sugar and mix well till sugar is diluted. Leave aside while preparing the containers.
Line tins with bamboo or banana leaves (make sure it is cut to a size that has excess on the top and can be folded down to wrap around the edge of the tin). Secure the lining with the hemp strings.
Bring a large pot of water to the boil. Turn heat to low.
Pour the paste mixture into the tins, and steam over the boiling water in the pot on low heat for about 8 hours. Securely wrap the lid with muslin cloths so that the water condensation will not drip into the cakes.

The New Year Cake will turn into reddish brown colour when cooked. Alternatively, wait till it is cool to get it out of the tins.

The better stoves to use for making this nien gao are the simple Chinese kerosene stove, and the huge Foochow wood stove. The huge Foochow kuali, which is quite rare now, can contain 10 to 15 litres of water for steaming three layers of bamboo steamers. So at one go, you can make at least 24 nien gao.

This year the going price is RM 6 for a small round piece. The price has really gone up.

Tip : place a china spoon in the boiling water through the steaming process, so that you can tell that the water has not dried up (the spoon in the boiling water knocks against the inside of the pot and make continuous noise).

Bangka Island Massacre

Wars bring about many untoward and horrendous incidences, some are best forgotten, but some cannot be forgotten. And massacres are indeed horrific experiences. The Chinese would always remember the Nanking Massacre of 1937. But an incident quite near Sarawak, and very related to the Brooke Rule,was the Massacre at Bangka Island. I am writing about this because the massacre involved women and in particular, nurses. And it was related to Sarawak's last Rajah's coastal steamer, especially requisitioned for war effort. Wars also bring about greatness in men and women.

16th February 2007 will be 65th anniversary of the Bangka Island massacre.

Not many people today know of massacre. On 16 February 1942, Japanese soldiers machine gunned 22 Australian military nurses. There was only one survivor.

On 12 February 1942, the Vyner Brooke was requisitioned to help in the war effort. It left Singapore just before the city fell to the Imperial Japanese Army. The ship contained many injured service personnel and 64 Australian nurses of the 2/13th Australian General Hospital. The ship was shelled and sunk by the Japanese. Two nurses were killed in the bombing, nine were last seen drifting away from the ship on a raft and were never heard from again, and the rest reached shore at Bangka Island, in the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia).

These nurses joined up with a group of men and injured personnel from the ship. Once it was discovered that the Island was held by the Japanese, an officer went to surrender the group to the authorities in Muntok. A small group of women and children headed off after him. The Australian nurses stayed to care for the wounded. They set up a shelter with a large Red Cross sign on it.

Shortly afterwards, ten Japanese soldiers led by an officer appeared. They ordered all the wounded capable of walking to travel around a headland, where they were shot and bayonetted. The soldiers returned and ordered the remaining twenty two nurses to walk into the surf. A machine gun was set up on the beach and when the women were waist deep, they were machine-gunned. All but Sister Lt Vivian Bullwinkel were killed.

Shot in the diaphragm, Bullwinkel was unconscious when she washed up on the beach and was left for dead. She evaded capture for ten days, but was eventually caught and imprisoned. She survived the war and gave evidence of the massacre at a war crimes trial in Tokyo in 1947.

In addition to my research notes above, I am including an account by a Maritime Historian, Vincent Foo, dated dated 6/10/2001 :

"According to an article published on pages 278 to 279 in the 1 November 1927 issue of the Sarawak Gazette, the Vyner Brooke had cabins on the upper deck for 44 first class passengers. These cabins were situated amidships. In addition, on the shade deck were situated the deluxe cabins. It is safe to say that the Vyner Brooke could accommodate 50 first class passengers. I have not, so far, been able to ascertain how many deck passengers she could carry. However, as her tonnage was 1,679 and she carried lifeboats, rafts and lifebelts for 650 persons (according to the same Sarawak Gazette article), she probably carried at least 200 deck passengers. There are no records to show that between 1927 and 1942 that the Vyner Brooke had been renovated so that her carriage of first class passengers had been reduced to only 12."

Here's Vivian Bullwinkel's recollection:
Originally built to carry 12 passengers, the Vyner Brooke soon became terribly overcrowded with over 265 frightened men, women and children, plus the 65 AANS nurses. Short of food and water, the ship finally set sail just as darkness set in. It was to be a never-to-be-forgotten scene: huge fires were burning along the whole front of Singapore and a heavy pall of black smoke hung over the island. In the gathering darkness, the captain unwittingly steered the vessel into a minefield and was forced to stop for the night.

The next day (Friday the 13th February) was spent hiding behind islands and avoiding detection. The day was hazy and hot, the sea was calm and the captain knew that he would be foolish to attempt to breakout in these conditions. That night, the Vyner Brooke attempted to slip out to freedom, and eventually it reached the Bangka Strait. After dodging bombs from Japanese planes and machine gun fire which had left the starboard lifeboats holed, the ship eventually received three direct hits (it was 2pm on the 14th of February). One bomb went down the funnel, while another exploded on the bridge, the third hit the aft section injuring scores of civilians. The vessel began to pitch and soon the frightened passengers heard the sound of pouring water. The Vyner Brooke was sinking and the captain gave the order to abandon ship. The ship was to sink in approximately 15 minutes.

Some of the nurses helped to move the wounded topside, while others lent a hand getting everyone up on deck. The civilians were ordered to go over the side first, and Vivian Bullwinkel was later to recall that "…those that weren't too keen to leave, we gave a helping hand to!" They were no sooner in the water, than enemy pilots returned and began strafing the human flotsam. There was utter pandemonium, one lifeboat holding the elderly and children turned over and two empty lifeboats, with bullet holes in them , dropped into the sea.

Later, Bullwinkel helped to see to the casualties and eventually evacuated the ship by climbing down a rope ladder. She was able to get ashore by hanging onto the side of one of the life boats. Though the lifeboat was overcrowded, they were able to reach Bangka Island by late afternoon. Earlier survivors, including Matron Drummond (one of the senior nurses), had lit a fire on the beach and it was this fire that acted as a beacon for the others still in the water.

Here is a write up on her life's contribution to Australia, and Malaysia.

In 1941, at the age of 26, Bullwinkel enlisted in the Australian Army Nursing Service (AANS), Australian Imperial Force (AIF). She reported for duty in May and in September embarked for Singapore as a staff nurse with the newly-raised 2/13th Australian General Hospital (AGH).

Bullwinkel served in Singapore from September 1941 until she was evacuated with 64 other Australian Army nursing sisters aboard a small coastal steamer, the Vyner Brooke. It was 12 February 1942, only three days before Singapore fell to the Japanese. On 14 February, heading for Sumatra via Banka Strait, the ship was sunk by Japanese bombers. She was with a group of survivors on Banka Island when a Japanese patrol arrived and ordered the 22 women in the group to walk into the sea. They were machine-gunned from behind. All except Bullwinkel were killed.

After two weeks in the jungle caring for a wounded British soldier, Bullwinkel gave herself up and rejoined 31 other nurses who had made it to shore. The surviving 32 nurses spent the next three and a half years as prisoners of war on Banka Island and Sumatra. Of the original 65 nurses evacuated from Singapore on the Vyner Brooke only 24, including Sr Bullwinkel, returned to Australia. During their internment eight nurses died as a result of malnutrition and other easily treated diseases; tragically this occurred in the last seven months of their captivity.

Among Bullwinkel's papers (recently donated to the Australian War Memorial) is the only postcard she was allowed to send home, in March 1943. Exemplifying the courage of the nurses, she made light of her situation. Bullwinkel wrote to her mother with a great sense of humour, "My roving spirit has been somewhat checked."

Bullwinkel gave evidence before the Tokyo war trials in December 1946 and was described a model witness. After the war, she could not face working in Japan with the British Commonwealth Occupation Force (BCOF), and so she decided to become a civilian nurse. She retained her position at Heidelberg Military Hospital when it was taken over by Repatriation, and as assistant matron continued to care for Australian servicemen. From 1955 to 1970, Bullwinkel served as a lieutenant colonel in 3 Royal Australian Nursing Corps Training Unit (CMF).

On retirement in 1977, she was Director of Nursing, Fairfield Infectious Diseases Hospital, Victoria. While at Fairfield, she organised a rescue mission to evacuate Vietnamese war orphans from Saigon and supervised their convalescence before adoption to Australian families. She worked tirelessly for the Red Cross, ex-service, nursing and other voluntary organizations. An achievement close to her heart was the instigation of nursing scholarships so that Malaysian nurses could finish training in Australia.

Bullwinkel received many honours and awards and was selected by the National Heritage 200 Committee for inclusion in the bicentennial publication The people who made Australia.

Bullwinkel married Colonel Francis West Statham OBE, ED in September 1977. She returned to Banka Island with Frank in 1992 to select a site for a memorial, and found herself once more standing on Radji beach, struggling to understand why such dedicated young women had so ruthlessly lost their lives.

In 1993, with the dedication of the memorial on Banka, she fulfilled a long-held ambition to make a fitting tribute to her colleagues. Vivian and Frank came to Canberra in October 1999 for the dedication of the Australian Service Nurses Memorial. Sadly, Frank died on 3 December 1999.

Bullwinkel was a great supporter of the work of the Australian War Memorial. From 1964 to 1969 she was the first woman trustee. On display in the Second World War gallery, her white nurse's uniform with the trace of a bullet hole above the hip gives testimony to the loss of life on Banka Island. To coincide with the dedication of the Australian Service Nurses National memorial, she donated diaries with entries dated from August 1941 to February 1942 to the Memorial. These describe her life in Singapore before it fell and the desperate evacuation aboard the Vyner Brooke. Then in April 2000, she donated her collection of personal papers, a rich source of material for historians and a significant heritage acquisition for the Memorial.

Vivian Bullwinkel died on July 3, 2000 and the whole of the Australian nation went into mourning. In the end, this naturally reserved woman, with the gentle smile, had helped her friends achieve a measure of immortality.

Malaysian nurses,in particular, have lost a great friend and a role model.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Traditional Foochow Method of Ear Piercing

Earrings have been one of the most popular types of ancient and modern Chinese jewelry. And ear piercing amongst the Foochows in the past had always been done at home but a mother, or an aunt or a neighbour.

Although historical records in China were full of descriptions of scientific, cultural, engineering and architectural advances of the Chinese people, fashion and textile advancement had been pushed to the background. Much of the knowledge about Chinese wearing of earrings come from the artistic portrayal of great beauties and social and cultural customs. One of the most famous Chinese paintings from ancient times is the painting depicting a Hundred Beauties.

The Chinese women in history had worn drop-shaped earrings,rings,and studs, whereas men would only one earring.

The diversity of material used to make earrings suggest that earrings were a popular adornment in all levels of society, therefore archaeologists are able to uncover not only gold and silver earrings, but also bronze, brass, iron and copper.

For example, in Tulkhar burial earrings that resemble a bird in their shape were found alongside an earring with an amphora shaped pendant. The handles of the amphora are shaped as bent stylized dolphins. This once again notes the diversity of images used in adornments, especially earrings. The appearance of amphora and dolphins indicate the presence of Greek influence that spread on to the territory of Central Asia during II BC-I AD. These motifs became widely used in the first centuries AD. In a Ksirov’s burial (II BC), for example we’ll see the cockerel-shaped earrings with moonlike pendants were discovered, the other ones were “pepper”-shaped with pendant and gold disk.

Thus although our Chinese history is so rich in the culture of adorning the ears, the Foochows who immigrated to Sibu were very simple folks who had embraced Methodism. In their simplicity, they did not encourage their women to put on too much adornment on their hair, their face, ears and neck.

A simple token gold necklace would perhaps be enough.

Thus when we were just little girls we were told not to have our ears pierced for some unknown reasons. But my maternal grandmother did wear a lovely pair of earrings!

It took me several years to pursuade my mother to get my ears pierced. Finally my neighbour, and in fact a tenant of my mother's, decided to give me the traditional method of ear piercing.

Our Ah Mo had been a frequent visitor and each visit would be a sort of interactive session between my mother and her. I felt that this kind of visitation was very therapeutic for my mother who never went out of the house very much. Ah Moo, in her sixties, would remind us girls that if we did not have our ears pierced, we would turn into pigs when we died. She was definitely an atheist. She had no altar in her flat and she did not go to the temple. But in her simple ways, she would regale us with stories of ghosts, strange beliefs and even stranger incidences.

I was about 16 years old and on the day of the ear piercing, Ah Moo prepared slices of fresh ginger and placed my right ear lobe between two slices of ginger and slowly rubbed the lobe until it was very were very thin. I thought that the rubbing was very interesting because indeed my ear lobe became very thin, as if by miracle. When she found that the lobe was thin enough, she burnt a needle with a candle, to sterilize it and then simply poke through my lobe. I felt a little prick and then it was done. I had a red thread through my right lobe. The left lobe was pierced without any problem. The whole process of ear piercing must have taken about one and half hours. My heart was beating very fast throughout the process and my mother was nagging and complaining that I should not be vain "like other girls".

But Ah Moo was very comforting. She said that with outpain there would be no beauty. And furthermore it would not make us any less Christian.

After having both my ear lobes pierced, she rubbed them with a little mashed garlic and cooking oil. No blood was let and I was told to be careful not to eat prawns and belacan. I felt prettier after getting my ears pierced and each day I would wait for the new wound to heal. The best part was when my mother took me to see an uncle for a pair of personal earrings. My self esteem was really good on that day. Mother and daughter truly bonded.

Today, whenever I am sad I would just go out and buy a new pair of earrings. It is just such a good therapy for me. Each pair of earrings brings me a lot of happiness.

All my sisters later had their ears pierced by Ah Moo in the same traditional method.

When I had my own daughters, I took them to the ear piercing experts. No I did not threaten them with the belief that they would turn into pigs when they died if they did not have their ears pierced! But of course they knew the myth.

In retrospect, we must have neighbours like Ah Moo who was a convenient helper, sounding board,and care giver and someone who provided good company to a lonely widow. Modern day housewives would not have the time to entertain a lonely and poor lady like her. She would have been considered a nuisance even. But again, how much do we value neighbourliness today? Or what do we mean by neighbourliness today?

Monday, January 28, 2008

A Good Man - Lau Pang Hung

Elsewhere I have written about Lau Kah Tii who arrived in Sibu in 1901 with the first batch of Foochow settlers. He later became the Foochow Kang Chu after Wong Nai Siong left. He lived in Ensurai or Wong Shu Lai and acquired a large fortune. He eventually built the largest mansion ever built by a Foochow in his time : three storey tall and equivalent to about 10 modern shophosues in width.

  Lau Pang Hung is the youngest son of Lau Kah Tii, and that makes the former one of my uncles as he is my mother's first cousin.

It is very interesting to know that a second generation immigrant can be so softspoken, kind and generous like Lau Pang Hung. Every one who knows him would regard him as an admirable person as he spent many years as a teacher in Sarikei and has been a good Church leader all his life.

Uncle Pang Hung is very appreciated by many as an examplary husband too. Recently he celebrated his 80th birthday together with his lovely wife, Ting Ching Yu, a very pleasant, quiet and humble Foochow lady. She is one of the happiest and quietest women I have ever met. And deep down in my heart, I understand that it has been the loving relationship between she and my uncle that has contributed to her inner beauty and exceptional character.

As a father, my uncle has been very examplary too. We the younger generation have to learn from the two of them how they have been able to bring up a good Christian family, how they have kept their own faith and their children's faith strong.

My mother Lau Hung Chuo and her siblings have always regarded him and his wife as very close relatives. The couple have always been patient, kind and caring through the hard times and the good times. They have never been the bullies that some people have known to become. My mother has always said that this cousin of hers is always respectful of all the older relatives. He is generous and magninamous to the younger ones especially the less well to do.

Perhaps it is because of his innate nature and his wisdom that this good Christian uncle has been able to teach well. His large number of students from Sarikei will vouch that he is one of the best men they have ever met.

In a way, the Foochow community is very blessed by such a good man - hor nen. And as an immigrant, my uncle has definitely contributed a great deal to the state of Sarawak in his quiet ways - as a person, as a teacher, as a social leader and as a father.

(Note: There are not many second generation of the Foochows early immigrants left as they are all in their seventies and eighties now. And the third and fourth generations have probably moved away to other parts of Malaysia and even overseas like Australia, New Zealand and Canada. The history of this immigrant group would be harder to write in my opinion.)

(Note : you can also read a Chinese account, which is accompanied by photographs in

Task Force to Defend Faith before the Japanese Imperial Army

This is a story my family and I are very proud of. I might not be totally accurate in relating the story but whatever is related here has been checked with some reference books written by authors like Lau Chii Cheng and others.

The Second World War could have left Sarawak out of the whole war experience, since it was situated in a large island, far away from Singapore and the Asian mainland. But the Japanese did not leave any of the South East Asian islands in peace. It had its grandiose plan to conquer all Asia and place its flags of the Rising Sun in every probably spot. Japan was a small country , short of natural resources but with a big and growing population. It had military plans to become a world power and was adamant about bring China and the whole western world to their knees.

Its greatest triumph in the war was the complete and sudden destruction of the Pearl Harbour in the American state of Hawaii. This brought the Americans into the Pacific War. Japan by then had a three-prong attack on the world: the Pacific Front, the Asian Mainland Front and the Southeast Asian Front. It was definitely a super hero by then. The Japanese flag was flying in almost half the world.

Before the arrival of the Japanese Imperial Army personnel in Sibu in January 1942, and after the Japanese dropped their bombs in Kuching and Sibu, the Brooke Government had abandoned the town, deserting the Chinese, Malays and Ibans. According to any aunt, she heard that when the local population realised that they had been abandoned, they quickly broke into the go downs and the store houses of various companies like Sime Darby and Borneo Company to take as much food stuff and other necessities as possible. There was complete chaos. People were snatching things every where. The stronger ones grabbed more stuff, whereas the weaker ones did not get anything. Some women also went to grab some foodstuff with some success but most of the Christians remained in their homes, hiding from such unnecesary unrest and possible hurt.

After the Japanese Army arrived, many were relieved that discipline and control took over the town. But , some six months later, on October 19th of the same year, the Japanese decided to prohibit Christian worship, and the operation of the Methodist School.

This instigated our very responsible Foochow Methodist elders to come together and plan how to overcome the problem of worship.

They set up a task force with Wong King Huo as Chairman, Ling Kai Cheng as deputy chairman, Yao Siew King as secretary, and Luk Sung Seng as deputy secretary. The Treasury sub committee was made up of Lau Kai Tii, Kiu Nai Ding, Tiong Kung Ping (my paternal grandfather), Chee Ching Nang and Wong Yiw Tik. The Evangelical sub committee was manned by Ting Siew Chii,Ho Siew Leong, Ling Kie Nang and Wong Ching Chung.

The task force worked careful and presented their petition to the Japanese Commandant to set aside their prohibition of Sunday worship. They promised that they would preach only the word of God and would not talk about politics. The Japanese commandant was impressed and conceded to their demands, observing that these Foochows were very sincere and humble.

Successful in their petiton,these Methodists started their Sunday worship again. For two years the Foochows worshipped and evangelised very peacefully.

It was indeed a very trying time for them. But because they prayed incessantly and remained faithful to God, they were spared all the unnecessary hardships and atrocities of war. The Japanese military personnel also kept their respectful distance.

In 1945 March 9th, the Allied Army blocked the airspace and dropped bombs on the Rejang River, as well as sent several naval boats up the river Rejang. A lot of damages were caused to the properties of the Methodist Churches as well as the people in Sungei Merah, Bukit Assek, Queensway, the Sibu town itself, Sunger Teku, Kwang Hua, Binatang, Sarikei, Kapit etc.

But by August 11th, after the dropping of the atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Japanese surrendered unconditionally.

The war finally ended and the Japanese Army retreated. The Allied Army came down from Kapit on September 17th. The people were excited and completely happy that finally after three years and eight months, the Japanese Army was defeated and gone forever from Sibu.

It was through prayers and the courage of our elders that very few incidents did happen.

Thus by defending their faith, God saw them through the Japanese Occupation. And they were triumphant.So my family and I are very proud of these leaders, and especially of our grandfather, Tiong Kung Ping, who remained so faithful to God with the rest of the group. So many things could have happened to them. They could have been buried alive. They could have been executed. They could have been inprisoned. They could have been betrayed by the many traitors at that time. And most importantly the committee could have been abandoned by their own people.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Fire Crackers and Fire Works

During the Colonial government, no one really paid a great deal of attention to the frequent usage of fire crackers and fire works by the Chinese in Sarawak, and in Sibu in particular. It was no big deal actually.And if the Chinese did let off some fire crackers it was because they had a significant occasion to announce. Life was pretty smooth and traditional.

The control of the usage of these two quintessential exuberant items of celebration came slowly but surely as the Malaysian Government realized the volatile nature of the presence of a little gun powder in them. Firecrackers and fireworks became known as dangerous substances. Perhaps the Chinese were also going overboard in the gargantuan importation of the items. And furthermore the situation was made worst by the huge smuggling activities involving these two items. With political instability and a great deal of suspicion of communist activities in the country it was not surprising that the two items were banned after 1991.

The earliest written information on fireworks in the world dates back to 12th century China. However, it was reported that around 200 BC during the Han Dynasty that they were already used to frighten away evil spirits with their loud sound ("bian pao") and also to pray for happiness and prosperity. How our Chinese ancestors developed fire crackers was not documented but it was a well known fact that Chinese alchemists had long experimented with sulphur, salt petr and charcoal to bring about sudden bursts of bright sparks. Later when they pushed the powder into bamboo , a bang was produced. Thus began the culture of fire crackers.

It was also recorded in Western history that Marco Polo brought back gunpowder, fire crackers and fireworks from China, to Europe and the use of this wonderful "fire chemical" (huo yeok)spread far and wide. Roger Bacon (1214-1294), the famous English thinker wrote about this in code and in fact was afraid that if this knowledge fell into the wrong hands, it could be too dangerous. Hence gun powder was used in European warfare only in 1560's.

As our Chinese ancestors celebrated each new year with a lot of bang, it was no wonder that firework-masters of pyrotechnicians were well-respected for their knowledge and skill to mount dazzling displays of light and sound. A few movies have been made in China featuring some pyrotechnicians.

Every birth, death, wedding, coronation, New year's eve celebration, opening of a business require the lighting of fire-crackers to fend off evil spirits in China and later in Chinese populated areas.

The Chinese use two words, Hot and Noisy, Nouw Yek, to describe a resounding success of a great party. Thus fire crackers and fire works can only help to increase the Heat and the Noise.

Every family during my childhood would prepare a small bundle of fire crackers to be lit at the crack of dawn on the first day of Chinese New Year in the 1950's. This would announce the arrival of the New Year and all children would wake up to don on their new clothes and eagerly await the huge breakfast. And then later, when children were taken to visit their grandparents they would scream with delight when they received their red packets, which were also called "money to bless the new age of the child" (da pui chien).

Somehow the idea of letting off firecrackers at midnight did not appear until the later part of the 1970's. Nowadays, fireworks and firecrackers would be let off at midnight, early in the morning, at the grand dinner time, and at the arrival of VIPS for open houses. So there is really no rule or ritual about when firecrackers are let off. Thus a great deal of its significance and meaningfulness to each individual has been obliviated.

Fire crackers are known as "fire" "canon" (hui pow) whereas fire works are known as "fire" "flower" (hui hua). Thus fireworks have always been used as part of entertainment in China. They do add to the merriment of the occasion.

It was good growing up with the idea that the significant Chinese New Year firecrackers were to be lit by the males of the family and that fireworks at night would add to the family's entertainment. Apart from that, the average Foochows did not really bother about spending a lot of money on these two items.

Keeping up with the Joneses? Definitely not. In those days, most families humbly had only a basic standard packet of firecrackers to let off. The very basic one was called "suo chong" or one set in the traditional standar red wrapping of about a foot long.

So a father would gladly left off suo chong's worth of firecrackers at the birth of a son. When a daughter was born, no fire cracker was let off. Thus sons were greeted at birth and daughters not. Thus, according to my mother, my birth was not greeted.

When dragon and lion dances were performed on the streets, and men and women walked on stilts, bystanders would throw a few pieces of fire crackers at them to add in the merriment. Nothing dangerous would happen then. Because all was for the common good of the celebrants. Well respected and very proper police men would stand at the end of a street on the five foot way and smile. We did not even have crowd control problem!!

Kids played with simple stick fireworks and simple but bigger fireworks were on sale every where. It was fun actually when we enjoyed our freedom in this simple way.

Over indulgence was never part of an ordinary Foochow family in those days. Methodism had indeed trained the early Foochows in the practice of temperance.

(Note: I am indeed saddened to note that fire crackers and fire works have caused a great deal of fires in Sarawak, and children have been badly injured by various explosions. Dangerous substances are available today but it really depends on careful intelligent control and usage. On a serious note, in Malaysia, playing with firecrackers is now illegal as stated from Malaysian Explosive Act which was revised in 1991 as a result of the increasing injuries among children (especially Malay) during Hari Raya festive season. Ironically, the injury cases caused by playing firecrackers continue to increase every year since Malay children turned to home-made firecrackers such as bamboo cannons as alternatives to commercial fireworks)

(Please also note that the pin yin I am using is Foochow, Ming Chiang Pin Yin, my version)

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Engkabang and Chop Ching Chiong

A very lucrative crop of the 50's and 60's was engkabang or ellipe nuts. When the engkabang started to drop from the trees in upper Rejang, almost all the the Ibans and able bodied, adventurous Foochows became wild with anticipation. The motor launches from Kapit, Kanowit, Julau, Durin and Song became heavy with the wild jungle harvest and one shop in Sibu, Chop Ching Chiong, owned by Mr.Sia Tiew Kie and his only son Mr. Sia Kie Ming, became full with gunny sacks of engkabang which is called just tree seed or chiew ji in Foochow. Chop Ching Chiong was the best sole exporter of engkabang as it had branch offices in Sngapore.

The actual, or real Illipe nuts come from a genus with about eighty-five members, including the mamey sapote and other delicious fruits. There are two crops of nuts per year, one large and the other smaller. Native to India, the tree produces a nut that is long, oval, and smooth, covering coffee-coloured seeds. The nut contains saponin, which has a destructive action on the blood. The oil extracted is similar to lard. Madhuca is certainly the most important genus as the fat produced from the seeds is often used to extend ghee and coconut butter.

What is known as False Illipe nut, Engkebang nuts (Shorea macrophylla -- Family Dipterocarpaceae)were the ones harvested by the Ibans and Chinese in Sarawak.These false illipe nut comes from another group of trees in a genus that has about 180 members, from Ceylon to Malaysia and south China. Many of them are valued for their timber. The species found in Malaysia and three others in Borneo supply the nuts often mistaken for the illipe nut, and thus its name. From these nuts comes a substitute for cocoa butter in the manufacture of chocolates.

The late Mr. Sia Kie Ming was a student of the old Methodist School and at a very young age, he was already the classmate of my seventh aunt, Tiong Chiew Sieng. It was match made in heaven. Both were fair and good looking. Upon graduation, she went to Singapore to study and he too went for further education. He was very good in business and more than tripled his father's fortunes.

when they got married in the modern style, in western costumes in Singapore, my grandfather was exceptionally happy and proud. Bride and groom could not be happier. Their first two children, Pick Sing and Belinda were born in Singapore. And I remember when they had to move back to Sibu to carry on old towkay Sia's business, the two kids complained of the heat as there was no air conditioning in the shop house. Their grandmother loved them as if they were precious diamonds . Later a younger son, David Sia, was born in Sibu.

Uncle Sia Kie Ming was a very unusual but astute businessman. He would ride his tall 22inch bicycle to his old shop in Island Road from his High Street shop. He liked to wear slippers as far as I could remember.

His office from which thousands of dollars of business would be transacted was very simple and it was typical of a Chinese shophouse office. It was what we called in the "stomach" of the ground floor of the shop. One Chai Koo or clerk helped to do the accounts. And Uncle was the manager who sat in front of the old fashion wrought iron safe, which at almost any time contained a few thousand dollars of hard cash. almost all Foochow businessmen operated like this. Hard cash was a sign of good business sense and calibre.

It was in this office that records of how much engkabang was sent to Singapore by ships in the old fashioned way, and money would be remitted via the banks, making the Sia family so wealthy. And only two desks , two abacuses, one telephone , some thick crocodile files were the office equipment to help two men do all the paper work and make that huge fortune. Amazing!!

The front part of the shop was a textile outlet, which was controlled by Uncle Sia's mother. She sat at the cashier compartment and counted every cent and dollar earned from the sale of materials, simple items like scissors,buttons, lace,etc.

What was very interesting was the fact that almost all the employees were surnamed Sia. One was a very old cousin of the grandfather Sia. And two shop assistants were also Sia. So they got on very well with each other.

They treated my family members very well and had a lot of respect for my grandmother Siew whenever she dropped by to do her shopping.

the relationship between in laws in Sibu at that time was always very serious, courteous and respectful. Words were carefully chosen so as not to offend anyone. No jokes were supposed to be told.

Old grandmother Sia was a very serious person who did not smile easily.

So none of us dared to upset her or act in any way impolitely to her. After all, she was a person of authority and wealth.

I remember that my aunt had to ask her for permission even to just go next door to buy some herbs. that was the correct or proper behaviour of a daughter in law.

But any way, I found that if all of us have the courtesy to tell each other where we were going, it would save a lot of trouble later on. I did not like to be interrogated if I came back late for dinner. In Foochow, the word "han" is very valuable in our life style.

What ever one does, or where ever one goes, we have to "han" or tell mother or father first. It was not like asking for permission to go somewhere.

Witnessing a business grow and wane, witnessing a street change, and how life became different,has thus become a very significant part of my life. I really feel that they are worth remembering and passing on to others.

Good Wishes Calligraphy during Chinese New Year

Chinese New Year would always be very meaningful to me . And it would always remind me of many beautiful things of the past.

I have this very special vivid memory of Sibu when it celebrated Chinese New year.

The Chinese New Year season arrived,and every Foochow family would be busy preparing for the festival and a few interesting figures would appear in Sibu, going from office to office, bank to bank and coffee shop to coffee shop. Sometimes they even strolled up to a wedding dinner guest!! They would be promoting their chun lian (or Spring Festival Couplets) for the door posts. These couplets were very auspicious words which will bless the family members, the business and individuals throughout the year. It originates from the ancient days when the Chinese paid very special attention to nature, fate and particularly agricultural fortunes.

Perhaps it was only in Sibu that calligraphers and other enterprising people could earn money from their calligraphy. And upon reflection I thought the Foochows in particular were so kind and generous. After 1980 and especially after moving to Miri I never saw such door to door sales people again.

They would carry a business bag, a brief case, or just a cotton bag containing their special ware : chun lian. These special goods were long red strips of Chinese season's greetings specially calligraphed on paper for sale. Some had very good calligraphy some were just simple ones. Usually they were in this usual traditional red paper made in China, and they stained your clothes and anything that touched it if it got wet.

One person I remember in particular was Lau Mang. His calligraphy was very good and stylish and as far as I remember my father did buy one pair from him. But I cannot remember what those particular couplets were.

Most of the shops would buy from these artists or calligraphists, probably three or four pairs, and they would chase away those they did not like. Yes, sometimes, even shooed them away impolitely, commenting that they were very obnoxious.

I am glad, in those days, no stickers like NO SALESPERSON ALLOWED were stuck on the doors of the shops.

I was very sorry for one particular Foochow lady who came around to sell a few. I wondered if she herself had written them. Most probably she asked her son, or someone else to help write them. She would take out a bundle of red long strips from her rotan basket and showed them to my uncle Lau Pang Kwong in his office in 26 Central Road.

Some were not really in good condition, as not all goods come in good condition.

And furthermore those red script paper in those days were actually of quite poor quality.

So my uncle Lau Pang Kwong would look at them and grumble. But he would sort of pay one or two dollars for them only.

I believe Lau Mang's writing fetched more. My father used to say that artists did not have much money and so it was good for the society to support them in different ways. But when people came around to cheat their own community for their own dubious ulterior motives we just had to be careful and must not be cheated.

Today, you can buy these strips of season's greetings in the supermarket - plastic ones, velvet ones, and even metal ones to hang on the door posts, or across the huge main hall mirror.

But these Sibu calligraphers are forever gone from our community now. In their place we have people who sell homemade biscuits, and the sticky red sugar glutinous cake or nien kao, all nicely wrapped up in plastic paper with a red square piece of paper for good luck or "ee lick".

It is difficult to tell who is in need of extra money or who is just a business person trying to cash in during the season. My money still goes to the poor lady who needs to buy a chicken for her New Year Eve dinner.

Chinese New Year Reflections

A Tale of Six Fishes

River fish has always been a source of free food for the Foochows and the Ibans of Third Division. For just home consumption, a Foochow man like any Iban man would just put down a line and a fish could be caught. This was very common in the early 50's when I lived across the river at the Hua Hong Ice Factory. My father would happily come home with one fish. He would not continue to fish until he had two or three. One fish was good enough for the family's evening meal.

Occasionally an enterprising Iban man would row his little sampan to the jetty and he would show us his still wriggling fish at the bottom of his boat. My father would choose one for dinner and our neighbours, the Wong family would choose theirs. Only a small little fee would be charged. Sometimes he would say that he charged a a little higher for his fish because he wanted to see a "doctor bayar" (private doctor) to get an injesyen (injection). My father would gladly parted with his money. And the Iban fisherman would then happily row on.

In this way we children learned to eat really fresh red eyed fish,tapah and patin. We looked forward to fresh fish all the time. And we really loved to see our father getting ready his fishing rod, or his jala, or even his own invented wooden trap to take to his fishing by the river side. We were told that these fish were plentiful in the Rejang River and we would never be short of them. We never predicted then that over population and over fishing would eventually make these three fish almost extinct.

While the people of Sibu valued river fish found in the Rejang at the lower reaches, the timber workers started to enjoy the great fish from Kapit and Belaga. Empurau , semah and tengadak became much sought after in the 60's. Prices were a little low at the beginning but when they were made know to Singapore restaurants, prices of these two fish skyrocketed and the exporters like Sarawak Cold Storage made a huge profit.

In fact as I grew up, I learned that many people would also go to Kapit for a good trip. Kapit was already a local tourist destination then. Going up to Kapit on a double decker motor launch would take two days and a night. And one of the objectives of going to Kapit was to eat good fresh fish.

Unknown to us,the upper reaches of the Rejang was a natural habitat to many indigenous fish species. Empurau is still a highly esteemed fish . Generally this fish lives in swift, clear, rocky-bottomed streams, in the upland zone of a river system. Small individuals may be found in shallow water, but adults live in deeper pools.

Furthermore,in Sarawak, empurau is found in most of the upper major rivers such as Rejang, Baram, Limbang and Batang Ai. In Rejang, three types of empurau are distinguished: empurau burak (white), empurau merah (red) and empurau chelum (black).

Its natural food consists of plant parts like leaves, fruits and flowers. Its natural population is rather small. Its popularity and environmental degradation have further contributed to a drastic decline in its population over the years. Empurau can attain a size of more than 20 kg in weight and fetches a market price of more than RM160 a kilogramme.

"A lot of confusion still exists as to what distinguishes empurau and semah, its close relative. The presence of a long median lobe on the lower lips in empurau and the lack of it in Semah, is a main distinguishing physical feature". Semah is often salted in the native style and is very delicious. When steamed it is even better than ikan duai or white pompfret, a long time favourite sea fish of the Foochows.

The tengadak is rather bony but it is very tasty when deep fried. The New Capitol Restaurant in Sibu used to serve this as its signature dish. And diners would oh and ah for days after eating a two kilo tengadak!!

I will end the description of my fish tale with a real life fish related story.

A very rich man, Mr. Hii had a fish bone stuck to this throat. After several years, he was thought to be stricken with cancer of the throat. He and his family spent a fair bit of their family wealth on helping him to overcome the deadly disease. It was to no avail. And his physician in Singapore gave up.

However, a friendly doctor, from another hospital asked him just one question. Did he ever have a fish bone stuck to his throat? He said yes.

Immediately this doctor suggested a simple operation. The old humourous man decided that it was no harm at all to take such an adventure at the last stage of his life.

During the operation the doctor found an almost fossilized fish bone in the old man's throat lining, had it removed and gave the man a new lease of life.

I was told that this dear old man lived another ten or more years!!

MV Pulau Kijang Tragedy

It was towards the end of the school holidays and families were rushing from Kuching towards home : Sarikei, Sibu, Kanowit,Bintangor, after spending a good holiday away from home. Travelling in Sarawak from town to town was possible only by the more expensive plane, a Twin Otter, or a Fokker, or by the rough, untarred road, or by the more traditional coastal steamer.

Personally I knew what it was like to travel by sea along the coast of Sarawak . In 1968 my Geography teacher Mr.David Watts,and his wife took my sixth Form class for a field trip to Kuchig and Bako National Park. It was a most memorable eye opening trip to study the coastal features and vegetation. I had my first taste of salty sea wind, and my first night experience at sea. there were beautiful stars in the dark sky, and the waves were just too gentle. It was a beautiful trip.

The Kuching-Sibu route was covered by MV Rajah Mas andMV Pulau Kijang, and for a long time, no mishap had happened. Sea vessels had always been very safe and the coastal waters of Sarawak never treacherous: no dangerous waves, no pirates,no dangerous spots. The coastal ship would leave Kuching or Sibu at about noon, and the passengers would spend a lovely night on board. The ship would arrive in Sarikei in the morning, and by noon in Sibu. So wharf labourers would have one whole afternoon to carry all the goods to the waiting lorries or simple trolleys. By evening the ship would be cleared and the next day, the ship would sail again to Kuching if there was nothing to hold it back with its cargo and new load of passengers. The route was so well charted and systematic.

On that fateful December day, hundreds of passengers bought tickets from Kuching and some had return tickets in their hands. Most were travelling as families, parents and their school going age children of different races - Chinese, Malay, Melanau,and Iban.

The MV Pulau Kijang was a handsome coastal boat which was built in the fifties and had plied the waters for sometime, carrying both cargoes and humans. The deck was usually full of passengers, and the cargo down below in the hull. There were a few cabins for the first class passengers and second class passengers. The ordinary passengers slept everywhere possible, and many just on top of the gunny sacks of rice, corn or boxes of tinned food in the hull. People were very simple and they were happy just to have a ticket and a place to lay their head for a night. They had brought their own food in a basket, some buns, some bottled water, and perhpas even a flask of hot water.

A relative who had already bought tickets for the fateful trip found his son to have very high fever and decided not to travel that day. He rushed his wife and child to the General Hospital in Kuching. He also told us that he felt that there were just too many passengers and that his child might be too sick on the sea journey. But again no one really paid any attention to sea safety then.

I heard another story that a woman had a bad dream and she decided to stay on in Kuching for the next ship or take the aeroplane. She sold her ticket at the wharf . She could not get any air ticket that day as it was the end of December and so she took a plane out of Kuching the next day, arriving in Sibu just to know there had been a terrible tragedy.

According to the newspaper report, a buoy marking the shifting and dangerous sandbars off Sarikei towards the sea had become adrift and in the darkness of the early morning the Captain could not see the direction. So when the ship went aground, chaos broke out. Then were huge waves coming upon them as the winds suddenly changed and Pulau Kijang started to sink.

So in the darkness, before dawn broke, a few hundred souls were lost.

The Police Personnel, the Navy and the Army came on hand to help but it was too late. The helicopters air lifted the dead bodies to Sarikei and the pilots said that they could sea bodies floating in every direction on the water. They made so many trips that they lost count. The Navy was called to help but they could only find dead bodies. They worked non stop for two days, and for a week they were still looking for dead bodies and survivors. the people of Sarikei had never seen such activity before. So many stayed at the wharf to wait for good news but they were disappointed.

The Sarikei hospital was extremely busy and a radiologist, Daisy Harry , from Sibu Lau King Howe Hospital was directed to Sarikei to x-ray dental identification. She must have had a terrible time during this exceptional call of servie. I learn from a friend that she is now in Gold Coast Australia. Many doctors, nurses and hospital staff had related horror stories of this tragedy. It was a horrific and unforgetable event.

this was the worst sea tragedy ever in Sarawak and that day, 26 December 1973 was indeed a dark day. So many kampongs, longhouses, and towns mourned their dead. Some said that there were more than 200 victims.Some families were completely wiped out leaving no descendants. Some said there were 150. But we would probably never know the real figure. How many actually did the Pulau Kikang carry on board on that fateful trip?

All the dead were buried together in a mass grave and later the government build a small memorial in Sarikei for the tragic victims.

Sea travel was never the same after this tragedy.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Standpipes and Kampong

One of the earliest memories of I have of Sibu was a number of very sturdy standpipes which supplied water to the kampong folks and they were placed at significant points along Kampong Nyabor, Kampong Datu, Kampong Hilir, Kampong Baru and Kampong Nangka. The Kampong Nyabor standpipe was the one I most remember because my house was just a few meters away.

There were two occasions during my childhood when water supply in Sibu broke down and the whole town and the nearby kampong had to obtain water from the River Lembangan and the bigger Rejang River. I could still remember my mother struggling with the washing of two alumium-pailfuls of clothes, and bathing all the four of us by the small jetty.

And I remember also that all the women who were also experiencing the shortage of water,were very friendly and kind. A few kids jumped into the darkish water which had lots of water hyacinth floating about. And my sisters and I had a good laugh when one of the women sportingly jumped into the water to wash her hair with the yellow China made soap. This was really before the Sunsilk shampoo came to Sibu.

We had to do this because our supplementary rainwater tank was completely dry and the Sibu Water Board could not supply us with water for about a week.

In those days all Foochows were very frugal. We used pipe water for cooking and we stored rainwater in a cement tank for any washing or cleaning purposes. We had a huge cement tank in our house because my grandfather had intelligently constructed the house in such a way that we had gutters running into this tank and there was a beautiful open space and skylight above the tank. The tank therefore was open at the top and the sun shone on it. In the day time, we had rather warm water. So it was a very energy saving application. Our piped water bill was about 2 dollars.

It was also at about this time cholera broke out and there was a great deal of fear every where. We heard that many children died especially in the surrounding areas of Sibu. How many town people died I would not know.

Thereafter I realised how important it was to have clean water supplied to the house.

Kampong Nyabor was just along the fringe of Sibu town, which in the 50's and 60's were made up of probably twenty row of concrete shop houses. By then there were no more wooden shophouses.

There were about fifty wooden houses in Kampong Nyabor and the best looking one belonged to Tuanku Haji Bujang. Each house was a single detached buildingh and therefore different from any other in the same kampong. The majority of Malay kampong houses were built off the ground, and there were coconut trees and fruit trees surrounding them. At the end of this Malay kampong stood the biggest mosque in Sibu at that time. Next to this mosque is the huge Muslim cemetery, after which is the Methodist School.

The Kampong Nyabor Road was a very straight road, with Malay houses on both sides. The houses on the western side had long plank walks leading up to their door steps. What I liked very much was the way bicycles could be pedalled along them, making a very comforting tut, tut sound. It was quite a skill to negotiate a bike ride along the long plank walk.

There was no fence between the houses and every one kept their own space clean. When the tide came up, the water would give a nice feel to the kampong scene, and the sun set would make red and golden streaks on the water. Some times my father would take us (makin angin or siak hoong)just to watch the sunset and we would sit in the Landrover,mersmerized until the sun set completely and we went home in the dark.

The Kampong Nyabor standpipe was placed right near the Malay Union club, where the Art Friend Studio stands now.

These standpipes were installed by the government so that the residents could have clean water to use there or take back to their homes for their own purposes. In the evenings,people would begin to gather at these standpipes. Typically it stood in the middle of a concrete 3-metre square specially built with a low wall and decent drainage. There would be two taps on each side, much like your own outside garden tap, but with a bracket around it so that you could not attach a hosepipe to it. People would turn up with recycled kerosene tins or cooking oil tins or store bought buckets, fill them up and carry them home on a pole across their shoulders (pian dan). Young children would be bathed by their mothers. Men would wash their bikes there. In the morning, women washed their clothes.

A lot of gossips were exchanged at the standpipes. And I heard that one or two marriages were made there too. The older Malay ladies were very particular about getting their water at the right time. They would usually wait until almost every one had gone home before they came to collect some water.

Later when every family had their own government supply water, the standpipes lost their attraction. And somehow people just forgot how helpful they were.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

"Good Morning" Towels

In the beginning, there were towels. And in the beginning, there were only Good Morning towels made in China, found in Sibu.

These quintessential,white, cotton, very hygienic towels were seen everywhere. They were usded by doctors, midwives, barbers, hairdressers and school teachers. They were "boiled" or sterilized in hot boiling water for good measure and dried in the sun. One could see them everywhere, on the clothes lines in the backyards,on bamboo poles sticking out from the overhanging shophouses, at the back of motor launches, on lines coming from the coffee shops, on the shoulders of the wharf labourers and tied around the heads of rickshaw drivers.

I continue to buy them, as a habit and use them for everything in the house,especially as face towels.

A friend even claimed that her good skin has been due to her routine wiping of her face every morning with a Good Morning Towel.

Once I had an accident and my face was pretty damaged and a Malay guy came up to tell me that as my wound on the face healed, I could slowly wipe away the redness by using a towel smeared with a good measure of Lux soap. Yes, a Good Morning towel. And that was in 1971 in Kuala Lumpur. I am still grateful to him. I never knew his name but he was very sympathetic and as a fellow patient in the hospital, he was ever so attentive and observant. He had a Good Morning towel wrapped around his arm.

Another friend used Good Morning towels to wipe her new born babies all the time. As these towels are white, any dirt could be seen I suppose. And the sterilizing of the towels would be really good for new born babies.

I remember the pedlars who used to sell buns and eggs at the Sibu wharf. They would cover their buns and eggs with one or two of these Good Morning Towels. They would jump from one motor launch to another. Jumping was easy for them because they were barefooted and light weighted.

In coffee shops in Sibu, all the waiters would have a Good Morning towel placed neatly on their shoulers to wipe away any water mark or stain on the marble tables. When I think of this, I could imagine a whole chorus of these white Pagoda - t-shirted and black trousered waiters dancing and serving coffee with their white Good Morning towels to a good coffee time tune on stage. It would be lovely if someone could choreograph such a dance to commemorate the kopi tiam period.

And finally I would like to share this special scenario with you as it once brought tears to my eyes : a painted basin of hot water with a Good Morning towel on the rim, all ready for the morning washing of the face prepared by an elderly wife for her equally elderly and dearly beloved husband. The husband did not need to brush his teeth because his dentures were in a painted enamal cup waiting for him. The loving couple caught the flash of the morning sun and then disappeared from the sun lit corridor, on the first floor of a shop house. These kinds of scenes are no longer common as first floor open corridors have disappeared from Sibu forever.

Ask any one in Sibu about these towels and they would have a story associated with it.

Go buy a Good Morning Towel. Rub it against your face, and a lot of memories would come back to you. Cheers.

Sarawak Boys' Club and Basketball

Right next to the Sibu Recreation Club all those long ago days was the Sarawak Boys'Club, an institution probably set up by the Colonial Government to help disadvantaged boys to have a second chance in life. There were probably about ten of them. I rmemeber one of them was called Chin Tien. Whatever had happened to him, no one would really know. He would be sixty plus now.

Mr. Eu was the Master in charge. The boys went to school like everyone else. They were naughty.

I often wondered why this programme was not ever continued. Today, the valuable piece of land had been taken over by local businessmen. And Mr. Eu had been obliviated into the background. No one would know what happened to the boys. But it would be wonderful to know that they had been useful to the society.

The SBC building, however was useful for another purpose. It was a good venue for table tennis as it had a very big hall and basketball was played every day in a good court fronting the building with seats in several levels all around the court. Today the land has been used for the Sanyan Building. An important part of the social history of Sibu disappeared with the demolition of the SBC building which probably served the town for about 30 years.

I did not play any of these two games but I was quite a good cheerleader with all the other girls from my school whenever our school teams played.

After a while, I did not like to give support to table tennis because one of my seniors would always shut me up, as I could not stop talking and I get a headache looking left to right, right to left, following the ping pong.

Later when Nixon made a name with his ping pong diplomacy, I was not too thrilled.

After probably two years of supporting the game, and while most of the girls paired off with some of the boy players, I gave up watching the game altogether and stuck to my books and that coincided with my father's untimely demise. I thought if the players paired off and dreamed of getting married sooner or later,leaving their supposedly friends high and dry, I would not be in that kind of social world where only ping pong was talked about. How naive I was!!

But then,I spent quite a bit of time in the evenings, during the basketball season, cheering for the basketball teams of my school.The school at that time was not a big school and many of the girls adored their lady teachers. I was part of this group of girls who worshipped their teachers, especially, the American coach, Miss Fries. So together with a few other lady teachers my friends and I went too. I spent about two years watching and cheering for the games.

The good players then were Kong Kiong Ming, the Cheng Brothers, Tiong Su Ching (I believe he was called Mo Ngae - No Teeth) and a few others. They were the local heroes of that time and almost all the girls were in love with them. As I came from a family of many many girls, I did not know what it was like to have brothers who played basketball. The extremely good girls players were Wong Yuk Hee, King Eng, Siew Hua,and others.

There were other boys and girls who played well from the other schools in Sibu and made it to the Sarawak team. But I could only remember the boys and girls from my school.

Games were good training grounds for good character and leadership skills. Extra curricular activites were however not the most important aspect of our education at that time. To be able play good basketball at that time was probably accidental. A little bit of good coaching would bring a good team, but it would only last for the period that these boys and girls were in school, or the length of service of these coaches.

Whether in offensive or defensive the school team players did very well during my student days and they were a courageous lot indeed. They played to the best of their abilities, sweated out the whole hour or so and I felt that most of them were a terribly disciplined lot.

What I liked most was the big gong that sounded at the end of each game. That was when the winning team and their cheerleaders would jump for joy, and the losing team quietly walk away. In those days, losing was bad and coaches would not be too forgiving. But I was very proud of my school coaches like Miss Fries, Mr. Deng Wan Chiew and Mr. Ling How Kwong. With principals like Mr. Wilsthire and Mr. Lau later, our school teams and their coaches were kindly, magnanimous and very noble indeed.

Winning was not everything. Games and academic education were for the development of the whole person. And a school was not a factory which produced graduates with paper qualification.

For students and other adults then to have a basketball court with seating platforms like what SBC could provide was a great bonus. We had no airconditioning, no proper wooden flooring, not digital clock. Yet it was one of the best places that we had, and it was free!!

In a way, as Sibu grow with time,the present leaders should also look back at the small beginnings of the town and the wholesome albeit primitive infrastructure which provided so much invaluable training for the generation which has just become the grey generation.

How to make your own salted fermented soy beans

This is a very simple Foochow village style homemade fermented soy beans or tou churng.

Make a bag from white muslin material measuring 12 inches by 18 inches, or bigger if you are making a large amount.
Get a few good pieces of cotton cloth for bundling/layering.
Get a nice glass jar which can hold about 2 litres of cooked beans with a good cover.

1 kg soya heans of the best quality
water to fill the saucepan
good sea salt
some vitsin (aji no moto) if you like
garlic - 3-4 cloves (smashed, Foochow style)- very important


1. Wash and clean the soya beans
2. Boil the soya beans in a good saucepan filled with water until they are very soft (doubled the size)
3. Drain all the water and put the cooked soya beans in the clean, dry cotton bag. Wrap layers of cotton cloth (we used sarongs to do this a long time ago)
4. Store the wrapped up soya beans in a quiet cool place. (e.g. at the bottom of a cabinet, and place it in a basin as some liquid may filter through). The bundle often feels warm for many days. At this stage, you have to be very careful about cleanliness.
5. Wait for three or four days (if you are in a tropical country) and then check the beans. They are ready when they are sticky and giving a rather foul smell of decay)
6. Get a kuali or wok, heat it up and add two tablespoons of good cooking oil (not animal fat), stir fry the garlic and add the beans. Cook well, add a handful of sea salt (not too much), vitsin and some chilies (if you like).
7. Cool the cooked beans.
8. Store in your beautiful glass jar. Wait for a few days before you can use it.

Warning : The smell may be offensive to some people. But if the beans have moulds, you have not been successful. Accidents can happen. Experiment until you get the perfect taste of saltiness.

All the best.

Monday, January 21, 2008

30 cents for a bowl of char chu mien or Foochow Fried Noodle Soup

The Sibu poultry market was in the two storeyed concrete building specially built and maintained by the Sibu Urban District Council and later the sibu Municipal Council. Also known as the Chicken Market to the Foochows it was quite a landmark. Many dating couples had their rendezvous there and many students enjoyed a bowl of noodles or some chendol and rojak there. I would have my weekly ration of chendol there with some school mates. We did not eat much of the rojak though as it was quite a Hokkien thingy for Foochow taste buds. But later, when we acquired the taste for it, we loved it.

The poultry market was totally wet as the poultry sellers would always wash the floor with lots of water from their red rubber hose. They would also make a lot of noise with their char kiet or er kok or wooden clogs.

Situated by the river bank of River Lembangan, the building had an upstairs where noodles, rice with cooked dishes and some clothes were sold. Most of the men would sleep in the stalls on their makeshift beds, together with their kitchen ware and stoves at night. I used to wonder how it was possible for them to have quality life with their families. I had read my fill of books about David Copperfield, Oliver Twist, Tom Sawyer, Little Women,etc. and had dreamed of having the middle class European kind of family. I found it hard to accept a family life that was only functional. I could not understand why a husband needed to earn money and provide for household expenditure if he was good enough, and the rest of his own money he could squander it on gambling and other vices.

This two storeyed concrete building or the riverside market building is no longer in existence. This building, had to make way for a humongous central and open air market of Sibu, especially designed by the architect of the Sibu Municipal Council in the 90's.

As the years went by,slowly, little makeshift huts were constructed around this open building, and they even covered the stream which flowed alongside it.These makeshift stalls sold everything, from umbrellas to fruits, from plastic sunglasses to Hong Kong made trousers and fashion wear. It was a good place for frugal Foochows to buy stuff at a bargain. But later on when these were deemed "eyesores", it took the council years to clear them up.

Back my reminicences of the poultry market. Chickens were kept in the cages and housewives would select them . The selected chickens were then slaughtered in front of the purchasers by very skilful women who were paid like 50 cents per chicken to slaughter. All the hot water, the cold water and the plucking of feathers actually caused these ladies to have a lot of sores on their hands. A tell tale sign would be red hands and a very dirty and blood stained skirt worn by them. One lady I remember looked particularly forlorn and destitute with all those tell tale signs. It is sad to think that some women live their whole life slaughtering chicken, day in and day out, without fulfilling their dreams.

One of them I heard was cheated by her own husband of her savings. All we can say is "what a skunk!" Perhaps in her old age, a good son would come and lift her out of her misery.

The other good thing about this market was the wonderful Foochow Char Chu Mieng stall. In many cities in Malaysia, enterprising hawkers have tried to imitate this recipe. But the best of this noodle is still found in Sibu. It is called Fried Noodles in Soup, or Mee Goreng Sup. It is almost too difficult to name. The Chinese name is just so easy to say and write. "Fry, Cook, Noodlea".

First the yellow noodles must be fried really well in a hot and smokey kuali. In those days, the fire came from a specially made Mei Hua brand pressure stove that the cook had to pump several times before a fire could be started.

When the noodles are dried fried this way, they are especially fragrant.

The noodles would then be lifted up and placed in a bowl. Then the cook would start making the soup, which had fresh fish, pig intestines,pig stomach, liver, slices of pork, ginger,fish balls, spring onions, mushrooms,etc. To this soup, the cook would add some secret ingredients and Pearl River mushroom soy sauce and pepper.

When the soup is boiling hot, the cooked noodles would be thrown in. Now the soup must be roaringly hot before the noodles are ready to be served to the customer.

Such a bowl of noodles would only set one back 30 cents in the 1950's and 60-'s. It is difficult to get that wonderful nostalgic taste nowadays. Every customer then was served individually, as each bowl would have exactly the same amount of ingredients. No stall owner in Sibu would cook a big pot of noodles and then serve the customers as they came in. This was not the acceptable style.


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