Saturday, February 02, 2008

Stories from Construction Sites

The 1960's saw a large surge in the construction industry. A new kind of labour force developed in Sibu, involving a large number of villagers from Sibu and its vicinity.

The housing and industrial development and urban sprawl resulted in a greater mobility of Foochows. Many moved their families from the villages to Sibu town itself, Oya Road,and even Brunei where the Brunei government was beginning to give out contracts to Sibu contractors to construct Shell offices and staff residences in Kuala Belait, Sg. Liang,etc.

In Sibu, these construction workers helped build up houses and shop houses in Chung Hua Road, Melian Road, Queensway, the Delta Estate, and Lanang Road. Sibu expanded very fast which resulted from both population expansion and communist insurgency.

Most of the Foochow labourers, ranging from very skilled carpenters to semi skilled piling labourers,cement workers,and steel rod binders brought their wives and very young children along with them. It was the only way for them.

They stayed in make shift huts called "mang nang" which in fact is a corruption of an Iban word, "Mangsang" meaning "arriving". These mang nang were flimsy makeshift huts which had no piped water supply, no electricity and no gas supply. Some times all the bachelors would stay in one huge room or hut. Families would be given what could only be called cubicles.

The women who had come along with their husbands made do with whatever they had. A pit toilet would be dug a little far away from the construction site and it would have not water supply. If there was a stream, it would have been a blessing. Sometimes water would be transported by a lorry for the labourers if the contractor was humane. Rain water would mostly be used, and a tank would be filled up with rain water. That would provide for most of the drinking , cooking, washing and bathing needs.

Lighting was from kerosene lamps and at best a pressure lamp. Generators were not yet introduced then. So it was rather dark at night and reading was definitely not possible.

A relative of mine went to two different places to work before her husband earned enough to settle down in Miri. They had moved from Maling, near Sg. Bidut, Sibu, when they were newly married. They first moved from one mang nang to another in Sibu. During her first pregnancy she did not have any one to help her go through her suffering. There were four other women in the mang sang and she learned to keep house in the temporary hut.

It was a tough time for all of them. Having to use kerosene stove to cook simple meals, and having to carry water from a stream when water was short in supply was just too challenging for a young bride. But she managed to bring up three of her young children in this way. She had very tough times in Brunei,the secod place her husband worked in, where the construction site was far away from the main town of Bandar Seri Begawan. Sometimes she and her family had to walk to do some shopping. But she was very fortunate because her husband was very provident and understanding.

Another blessing in this kind of work was the fact that her husband and his relatives formed a very good team of workers and they would get work as a team. So the women folks actually got to know each other very well and relied upon each other, after some years.

Bathing was very difficult for her because she had to learn how to use a sarong and bathe from a stream if there was no water from the tank. And then she had to do all the washing and have the clothes dried in a place next to the huts. Sometimes,dogs and even monkeys would come and create havoc. So she and her neighbours had to look out for these intruders.

In the small area available she was able to rear some chickens. Her husband as well as the other Foochow men grew vegetables like kang kong, changkok manis and sawi. A popular vegetable was Hern Chai or amaranth , (see the picture) which is very healthy and full of nutrients. They even grew enough to sell the fresh vegetables to the local people.

Sometimes intruders came to steal their stuff, including the chickens and vegetables. But they took all these in their stride and did not really get too bothered. According to her, she was just too busy looking after her children and her husband to be really bothered by trivial things and talk.

Whenever they moved to a new construction site, she would learn something new. Sometimes it was how to get along with women of another race, sometimes it was learning to cook a new dish. And at all times, she had to make sure that her children behaved well towards others, and especially their father. She was able to keep peace very well by not sticking her nose in other people's business she said.

When the children were older, they had already spent more than fifteen years moving from one mangsang to another and they were ready to live in a proper housing area. They rented a small place and continued to save money to their own home. By that time, her husband was able to buy a second hand car and he was also then a supervisor and part time sub contractor of two construction projects.

According to her, life was truly difficult but they were happy and that was an important ingredient in their lives. Their children also grew up to be obedient, studious and hard working. Lives with hard knocks only made better people out of them. For more than forty years, they had make their way home for the Chinese New Year reunion, even from Brunei.

Today the loving couple are retired and counting their blessings. They have travelled to China, Vietnam, and West Malaysia in their old age. And they continue to visit Sibu.

Perhaps their love story had extra meaning because their love had started in a mangsang.

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