Any mention of Sungei Merah would bring images of Wong Nai and the pioneering Foochows to one's mind. In 1903,Sungei Merah was a pioneering site, with attap houses (called Chiong or factories) all built hostel style for both families and singles. The river was very equatorial and there were tales of terror and great illnesses evoking again, sacrifices, suffering,pains beyond imagination and deaths. That was just the beginning of a settlement.
Sungei Merah is now a completely new township so to speak. Although the two rows of old shops built since the 20's are still there, the new shops built recently have given it a completely modern and Asian look. One would not know it was once a sleepy hollow and the spot where the Foochow Pioneers stepped on . It has become quite like any town in Malaysia. It used to be simple, and typically Sarawakian Chinese two-row shophouses type of roadway townlet, very fitting for a good made- in -Asia movie, where you can see Jackie Chan and Jet Li meeting over a cup of coffee before parting for a really good mission and evil busting.
The cemeteries in Sungei Merah and Sungei Teku were teeming with returning pilgrims, who have come from all over the world and Malaysia on 29th March 2oo8. Our family members numbering 60 made our way towards our first tomb - Grandfather Kung Ping's at about 9 in the morning. We used 2 luxury air conditioned buses arranged by Peter Lau. This was comfort beyond one's imagination.
As this was quite near the Ching Ming Festival, Sungei Merah once again was awaken to the annual flood of pilgrims who had come for tomb sweeping. Although the day was five days ahead of the actual Ching Ming Day,these filial descendants came in all modes of transport - buses, luxury cars, motorcycles, bicycles, and some even on foot. The coffee shops once again were filled to their brim. In the historical records of Sibu, it has been known that Sungei Merah only had flourishing business during the Tomb Festival. The long 3- mile(10 kilometres roughly) journey from Sibu by an old rickety wooden topped bus, bicycle or by foot was too much for most people those days. Today it is a flourishing suburb every day and it continues to peak in business during the Tomb Festival.
A remarkable change was the presence of florists and drink vendors lining up the roads to the cemeteries. Years ago, we had to buy all the floral arrangements from Sibu. Today we have more choice, with the floral arrangements in five, ten and more ringgit. We used to buy by the sprays, each stalk carefully selected from the pails. That would have taken time to bundle up, and the bargaining would take even longer.A lot of Foochow women would always end the purchase with " Oh so expensive....make it cheaper?" And sometimes they would get a little discount, Sibu style. (whisper : always mark up the price a bit because some one would always ask for discount!)
I have very pleasant memories of buying flowers from the various florists but Mrs.Ho Ka Muo was given my vote as the best florist in town then. She had the best orchid garden in Sibu, just outside my beloved school, the Methodist Secondary School. Just be walking along the hundreds of rows of orchids in her garden would uplift my heavily burdened spirit. My wedding bouquet of white Borneo orchids was made by her circa 1974. White orchids are now the most treasured flowers amongst the rich and famous and one can frequently catch sight of a bride from the rich and famous strata with a bouquet of white Borneo orchids. No bad for Sibu, eh?
The temperature outside must have been a 100 degrees F or 39 degrees Celcius. Sweat poured out of every pore of our skin, running into all the folds and crevices and especially the eyes. As usual all of us had to walk part of the way . This all important walk was spiritual to me because we needed to clear our minds and prepare for the worship and prayers at the tomb. Along the way, as in the past years, we would bump into other pilgrims. During the Ching Ming Festival, we would all be equal, whoever we are , be it YB or not, doctor or teacher, engineer or senior citizen, and we would give a good greeting of Peace. Ping Ang. Very closely knit community feel.
Incredibly, our communication with any one we met face to face, along the paths, and then amongst the very haphazardly organised tombstones, was very cordial, low keyed and humbling. Those we recognised we said a hello. Even those we did not recognise or know, we would give a warm nod. In paying respects to our dead we were all in the same brotherhood and sisterhood.
Many would bring a brand new broom to sweep the tombs. An old Iban parang would be a very useful tool and for once a Foochow would sling one with a wooden sheath from his belt. Because we were visiting Christian cemeteries, we would only occasionally come across people who burn paper money and paper replicas of Mercedes, or boats. A floral presentation is not a must. I saw a few bringing state of the art detergents.
One great difference this time round - I did not hear the loud wailing of a widow at the tombside. When I was younger, and visiting my father's tomb, one particular widow would wail out her history of grief and people could hear her sad rendering of her love for her dearly departed. I was very sorry for her and her family of young children. She must have passed on. Another "neighbour" had a large family and each year, I saw the number growing (grandchildren). The proud mother (widow) would line them up to bow three times when they had completed their ritual of cleaning and clearing. She was a masterful personality. Upon having done that, she would collapse into a heap and start her wailing for a few minutes before she was led her by flock out of the tomb. Her children would also say gently, " Enough,enough...take care of your health...don't cry so much."
In those long gone days, I felt that this was a very good setting,even an admirable one, for a Ching Ming Visit. It was so full of tradition. Would our forefathers hear us better this way?
Our visit to our grandfather's tomb was a complete Christian ceremony of Psalm Reading, Hymn Singing and a Prayer,complete with our very own family member who is a Reverend. Our Grandfather would have liked it very much because he was a good Church goer himself. He often reminded us never to be late for church. Go early to Church because then, when you ask a favour from God, you would be granted the blessings. Most of the early Foochows practised that .
In spite of the heat, the glaring sun, our day with our ancestors was a very meaningful one. We were definitely united in spirit.
(The early bird gets the worm.)
Tuesday, April 01, 2008
Memoir by I Am Sarawakiana at 6:34 AM