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!!