Thursday, February 28, 2008

Fuzhou Paper Umbrella

In the days gone by one of the most important items one should carry in Sibu was not a handbag or a wallet. It was a lacquered paper umbrella which cost about 2 dollars. There were two types: one type for men and one very obviously for ladies. Any one going "outside" would not fail to carry such an humble oriental umbrella,to protect oneself from the hot sun, and from the sudden torrential tropical downpour.

I loved carrying an umbrella myself. The umbrella could be placed across the handlebars of one's bicycle, or it could be clipped at the back of the bicycle on the metal carrier tray. Likewise,all trishaws would have an umbrella permanently fixed to an upright rod to give the trishaw driver shade in the hot sun or protection during an afternoon downpour. And in a very thick traffic jam, one could see a familiar opened umbrella trembling in the heat of the mid day sun. Sometimes we could recognise our favourite trishaw driver by his umbrella even.

Besides for giving us shade from the sun and protecting us from the rain, it was a useful weapon against any attacker. It was also a very useful piece of artillery for a woman to use if or when she wanted to beat up her philandering husband, should she meet up with him at the wrong places. An umbrella was always a good piece of prop to help someone to disappear from an embarrassing scene. Sometimes two women could be found gossiping under an umbrella!! I also remember that many mothers had chased their children with raised umbrellas along the streets of Sibu.

I was once witness to an extremely sad and unforgettable scene of one funeral which was carried out in the rain. The organizers provided every mourner with an umbrella each. The funeral procession moved slowly as the rain pelted down,however because of the traditional stoical ritual and respect for the dead the bereaved family was not allowed umbrellas. thus subsequently they were completely wet from the downpour. The poor widow's skinny white hands held tightly to the coffin as the lorry moved slowly ahead.

I cannot remember when the paper umbrella went out of fashion. But perhaps 1980's would be the last decade when Foochows used them on the road. After that period, the Foochows became increasingly affluent and cars and airconditioning became the norm of the day. The humble paper umbrella thus took its place in some obscure corners of one's mind and perhaps even in some dark corners of houses and never taken out for use again.

The history of this lacquer paper umbrella actually went back more than 1000 years in Fuzhou,China!! And very few people realise that.

However, today (see picture)most of the paper umbrellas produced in Fuzhou are sold to the overseas markets, though less popular in the local daily use in China.

And for remembering the good old times, it would be nice to remember the role of the paper umbrella in the 60's in Sibu and during our parents' times. A match maker would carry one such umbrella. And naturally, I still remember one Chinese traditional sin seh who on his rounds to see his patients would carry one too. All missionaries would hold on to their umbrellas as they might have to sit in the front part of a Chinese motor launch should it be overly full. It was a very exciting sight too to catch a glimpse of a lady sitting pillion on a Honda Cub and yet trying to shade herself with a trembling paper umbrella. It was almost a circus feat to be able to balance well in this act. Incidentally it was a traffic offence in those days to ride a motorcycle and carry an umbrella at the same time.

Later all motorcyled icecream vendors who have a huge plastic umbrella (with the word Magnolia written over it) fixed to their bikes!!

I love the smell of the lacquer in the sun. It really invoked a lot of happiness and sense of belonging.

I am sure you can still buy a good man's lacquered paper umbrella in Bintulu. Give it a try.

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