Sunday, January 13, 2008

Sibu's Five Footway

The five foot ways in Sibu provide fond memories to all of us who grew up in Sibu in the pre-independent(Malaysia) days and these walkways are similar to all the other five foot ways in Singapore and West Malaysia. They are actually raised walkways which are part of the shoplots, with the overhanging upper floors providing a cover to shield pedestrians from the sun and rain.

This feature is also ubiquitous in office buildings in Sibu, Kuching, Miri, Marudi,Bintangor and Sarikei,etc(e.g. those Federal Buildings in Sibu). However, all shophouses in Sibu have five foot ways or Ngu Ka Ki, or Ngo Kah Kee, or Kaki Lima. These five foot ways can also function as a corridor for people to window-shop or stop by for some refreshments.

In my opinion the five foot way in Sibu in those days was very well used. And furthermore,the town council enforcement officers did not have to make special by laws to prevent illegal display and sale of goods. Sometimes a kind shop keeper would even place a wooden bench on his five foot way for the village folks to sit on. Children were fed along the cool five foot way by their amahs or nannies. And sometimes committee meetings were held informally just along this corridor.

My favourite five foot way was the one outside Wan Hin Kompia Shop situated quite near the Masland Church and it was along Blacksmith Road. We would hang out there while waiting for the Kampia to come out of the hot ovens. I remember I paid twelve for a dollar then. And that was just enough for the whole family. Opposite the Wan Hin Kompia Shop was my relative's shop called Nang Kwong which belonged to my grandfather's cousins. This was a popular gathering place for our relatives and messages would be placed in the shop.

We have Sir Stamford Raffles to thank for. He had been very far sighted and was determined to guide his Planning Committee. His remarkable instructions included a description of Singapore Town generally, the ground reserved by the government, the European town and principal mercantile establishments and the native divisions and "campongs". These included areas for Bugis, Arabs, Marine Yard, Chulias, Malays, Markets and Chinese Campong, the present-day Chinatown. Thus his instructions and his guidelines became the blueprint which determined the urban structure of all subsequent development. The "five-foot way", for example, the continuous covered passage on either side of the street, was one of the public requirements.

In Singapore's history,five-foot-way traders were "craftsmen who conducted their business along shophouse walk-ways which were five feet wide". These traders were immigrants from various races who came to early Singapore and were found in areas such as Chinatown.

The five-foot-way thus became a unique feature of Malaya's and Sarawak's shophouses. It was stipulated that shophouses (Raffles) must have a covered walkway of about five feet along its street front. These walkways were meant to protect pedestrians from the hot tropical sun and rain.

With the influx of immigrants,when work increasingly became difficult to find,many of the old and the unemployed thus began using these corridors to set up small businesses instead. The Hokkiens began calling these trades the gho kha ki trades or the "five-foot-way" trades and thus the name came to define these particular trades. Sibu did have similar tradesmen. A few traders sold watches for example from fixed positions in several five foot ways. Two fortune tellers were positioned along Market Road and Channel Road. I remember a man with his bird was also telling fortunes for many years along Island Road.

According to research,"the five-foot-way trades provided inexpensive commodities and services. They required little capital investment and had flexible working hours. They operated wherever space was available and could shift easily to other places. Five-foot-way traders include knife sharpeners, streetside barbers, mask makers and fortune tellers. Trades were either brought over from their homelands such as Chinese calligraphy or were acquired locally. Other interesting five-foot-way traders were locksmiths, letter writers, traditional "medicine men" or bomoh, newspaper vendors, storytellers, tinsmiths, hair-bun makers, stool makers, garland makers, stamp dealers and food vendors".

In the past fifty or so years, the five foot way was always above the road level by probably at least two feet. The new shop houses continue to have five foot way but the street level has been raised due to sewers and other utilities being laid beneath the streets and the repavement of the roads. Hence one can tell the age of the shophouses in Sibu. Those shophouses built in Kampong Nyabour Road, Mission Road and Raminway are definitely recently built.

4 memories:

FrancisN said...

I remember people used the five footways to park their bicycles and sometimes walking around these bicycles would be a squeeze. In later years, people would park their motor scooters or motor bikes there.

Ever tried to walk along a shop house selling bicycles or motor bikes? New bikes would be displayed on the five footway and repairs are also carried out on the five footway. Either walked around the man repairing the bike or walked on to the road to the next shop house.

I remember the old man with the little sparrow. As a young teenager, I always watched in awe on how well the little bird was trained. The old man would open the little cage door and the bird would hop out and pick up a "fortune card" with its beak, the old man has laid out. I never understook what the old man said to his customers, for he only spoke Cantonese, a dialect I only learnt when I came to Australia.

The five footways also pose a problem, especially if they are different levels from one shop house to the next. I have seen many falls when people walked along the shop houses and were unaware of the steps, up or down, to the next shop houses.

Some shop houses are judged by the tidiness and attractiveness of their five footways, for they are an extension of their premises.

However, it is still a brilliant concept.

pck said...

Yes, the five-foot-ways always bring back many fond memories of our childhood days. As little kids, we used to play many different games on the kaki lima, and one of our favourite ngo-kah-kee games was ‘Aeroplane’ or better known as 'Hopscotch’ in other parts of the world. Even to these days, I still wonder why the little girl next door, who was younger than me, could always beat me in this game.
When I was in Guangzhou and Xiamen a few years ago, I was surprised to find that in the old parts of these two ancient cities, they have shophouses with five-foot-ways exactly similar to we have in Malaysia and Singapore. In Malaysia and Singapore, these shophouses are called 店屋, but in China they are known as 騎楼. Since the cities of Guangzhou and Xiamen are much older than most, if not all, of the cities in Southeast Asia, I was always under the impression that the shophouse design with its unique five-foot-way must have originated from southern China. It is indeed quite a surprise to learn that it was actually the brainchild of Sir Stamford Raffles, the founder of Singapore!

I Am Sarawakiana said...

Dear Ikan Sembilan,

Thank you for sharing your knowledge with this blog. I am delighted to read the comparisons with Chinese cities.

Thank you for sharing your memories too. Little girls can be very good at hopscotch. Jump the aeroplane.


I Am Sarawakiana said...

Francis,Most people were quite irritated by the bicycles and motorbikes parked along the five foot ways. But I really liked the idea of neighbourliness along the five foot ways of those days. Perhaps today many people have become more selfish.

It must have been the same foretune teller with the bird who gave me a very good future!! It was a bit eerie actually when my mum and I went to see him. And that was the night before I went to Uni.


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