Friday, February 15, 2008

Of Wearing Buns and Black Trousers

The women of Sibu in the 50's and 60's wore mainly the samfoo, cheong sam (for festive seasons) and fairly rarely western frocks.

The younger ones would sport lovely floral cottons and the not so young would be wearing darker colours. The wealthier women would purchase more expensive materials imported from Europe or Japan. These women would sometimes be very gay and lively wearing their European style clothes too.

The collar of their every day samfoo was not too high. Most of these collars were not padded with a hard piece of cloth as we know from the Chinese movies or documentaries. I remember watching an aunt using a brush to brush the hard collars of her samfoos when she was doing her laundry.

So in a way these every day clothes could be seen every where in Sibu. And thus Chinese women were easily recogniseble, they were delightfully different from the Malay and European women when they appeared on the streets of Sibu.

However one special memory is very dear to me. I had seen my grandmother and her friends wearing only black brocade trousers. Besides, they all wore their hair in a tight bun just above their nape. And I asked her why.

She said that in China, all young married women would be able to sport colourful and creatively printed sam foos or cheong sams. But according to her when a woman "felt old", she should start wearing black trousers and a simple coloured (usually blue)top. In addition, she said that widows would also wear black trousers and a white samfoo top. The older samfoo top was made in such a way that the wearer did not look very sexy as the breasts were sort of suppressed and nothing much was shown. However, the "older" cut was also very elegant and serene. So by wearing a pair of black trousers and a simple , single coloured samfoo top, the elderly lady was indeed
a distinct class above the rest of the women folk.

By way of calling, those wearing black trousers would be called "Ah Moo" or Old Aunty. A younger married woman would be called "Ah Sing" or Aunty. So we were quite courteous as we could judge by way of the clothes our relatives wore.

Today, a 72 year old woman may be wearing a nice blouse with a pair of LEVI jeans and perhaps it would be most unwise to call her Ah Moo.

Then what about wearing a bun ?

Buns are lovely to look at today. But in those days, buns were only done up in just one or two ways, tied up, and bunned up in a net, or tied up and bunned up under a plastic looking cover, faily similar to what we have today. To make themselves smell wonderful, most of the senior ladies like my grandmother would slip one or two Bai Yu Lan or Ylang Ylang into their bun. Thus the fragrance of this flower would always bring back good memories of my wonderful grandmother.

Some of the older Foochow women had their hair cut rather short after they passed their child bearing age, while most of the others would have their hair permed in the western style.

I have a suspicion that when a Foochow woman passed her child bearing age, she would indicate by her clothes and hair style that she was passed the age of serving her husband in the bedroom. Perhaps this was putting it very delicately in a certain kind of language understood by the people of those days.

A bit of digression here as my thoughts go haywire. Perhaps no sane man would go and rape a woman wearing a pair of black trousers!! If we were to practice this today, I am wondering whether the rape rate would decrease.

Another point of interest I would like to raise is the fact that many of the Chinese women who were brought into Sarawak before the Second World War were actually Chinese nationals and they were given a Red Identity Card by the Sarawak Government.

I remember my Grandmother carrying her IC as if it was the most important part of her life. She kept it in a very neat purse and made sure that it was with her.

When she was in her death bed, she asked for it once or twice. It must have meant a lot to her.

Usually most of these Chinese nationals went on their ordinary lives without being very much bothered because whether they were nationals of Sarawak or not, it did not make any difference. They were mothers of Sarawakian children and they worked as hard as any one if not harder. The law did not go after them either, to chase them back to China.

But there was indeed some distinction between China born and Sarawak born Foochow women. That made it even more interesting and meaningful in our social life then.

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