Friday, May 30, 2008

An Essay : My Life as a Singer Sewing Machine

This picture from the American Heritage series has inspired me to write the story about Singer Machine. My grandfather Lau Kah Chui was a tailor who used a machine very well. Had he gone to America, he would have been one of these Chinese men who helped California garment to earn more than $3 million in the early 20th century in making garments alone.

One of my favourite movies is "Fiddler on the Roof", which has a very touching scene centred on a sewing machine. The setting of the movie was turn of the 20th century, before the then Russia turn Communist. Great musical. If you can see the actual musical, it will be even better.
A Singer Sewing Machine below - a very important and beloved household appliance.

This is the story of my Life as a Singer Sewing Machine

July 12th 1948 - My beautiful mistress was married as a post war bride when the economic situation was not even recovering yet. She wore a beautiful flowing white gown. Every one was dressed in colonial style and the two cute flower girls were enchanting in their white frocks.

The wedding was held in Sibu and many photos were taken in Hua Hong Ice Factory, owned by her new father in law.

Although I was not bought as part of a Foochow dowry for my owner it was nevertheless considered so because it was so lovingly bought by the happy bridegroom a few months later when I arrived in Sibu. He was handsome, tall, and purposeful in life. He wanted to make sure that his young bride would lack nothing. And one of the biggest gifts he bought her was me.

In fact I even considered myself an important part of the "dowry". Life had been hard for many after the war and rubber price had hit rock bottom.Sibu brides did not receive much dowry from their families, perhaps three pieces of the most essentials like a set of bedding, a wardrobe, and a dressing table. The more prosperous brides would get five or even seven items. For years, the married ladies would talk about how generous their parents were.

As I stood upright, glistening in the sunshine I was happy to be within the midst of this happy new family. My wooden panel was brown, polished to a great shine, my body was black, wrought iron, with lots of beautiful European designs. My needle was sharp, ready to eat into any material which came into my teeth and clamp.

I met many women and even men who came to have a look or a respectful touch all over my new body. In the days and years which followed , these men and women would be frequent visitors and supporters of this new family. There were many visitors to this new home. Grandmother Tiong Lien Tie was a frequent visitor who came to help out. I was glad I came to a good and happy Foochow home which was open to lots of visitors.

I was eager to serve my mistress because I knew she had lots of plans to use me.

She was a brilliant wife and housewife. She would use me to sew everything she and her husband needed:pillow cases, bolster cases, cotton underwear, curtains, and even handkerchiefs!! Anything. Friends would ask her to sew too and she would gladly and generously sew for them. She said, "What is a small seam? Nothing my sewing machine cannot do!!"

I was glad that she was expecting. And she made so many of those little tops and bottoms for her unborn child. Her mother came and helped her do some hand stitches. Mother and daughter formed such a good team.

Other children followed and she did the same. Sewing clothes, simple ones, without much pattern, made her happy.

I remember her eldest daughter, when she was in form One, making her first skirt following the pattern given to her by her home science teacher. She did not get an excellent mark though. The skirt was a patterned maroon pleated skirt. She made her pleats quite well. she wore this skirt until it was too old and too tight for her. It was quite a feat for a 12 year old to put a zip on for her skirt. Never mind the "B".

But great unhappiness came one day when she lost her beloved husband all too soon on the 16th year of their marriage. On that day, friends and relatives used me to make all the mourning clothes from thick muslin or belachu cloth, all the black patches that the children must wear for 100 days. Her hair turned white just overnight and it was hard for her to smile again from that day onwards.

Her second daughter took over the sewing. She made beautiful clothes for all her siblings, and her nieces. She made doll clothes from the scrap materials. She was very very intelligent and creative. The frugal life of the family continued and I was so glad that the family was together . They held on with their love and strong spirit.
Every one of her daughters and even sons, learned to use me and were fairly good at what things they made. I was an appliance that could not be "spoilt" because I was so well made. Luckily I did not have to be sent to a workshop for maintenance or overhaul. I was placed in the living room, with a fine window to look to. Just a little bit of Singer oil here and there would be enough for me to run beautifully and hum gently.

The years quickly passed, the children graduated, my mistress started to say that she could not see to sew and left me entirely to her daughters who sewed quilts, little things, and others, including baby clothes again!!

I continue to be well maintained and well oiled by her daughter. when the wood became frail, I was given a good formica top. But my mainframe is still as good as new!! My American factory had made me well.

And I continue to enjoy the presence of the grandchildren waiting expectantly by my side for the goodies that they can get from their aunt. "Aunty , please make me a doll dress. Aunty, please make me something. Aunty please patch this up for me." These were beautiful words that I love to hear.

And of course there has been a lot of mending and patching. I have served the family well and lovingly. They have been a great family to me. A garment is considered new for three years. It can still be worn for another three years with a little patching. A few more patches, the garment can still be worn for another three years. Finally, when the garment's life is all gone, the material will be taken apart and cut into patches to become part of a patch work. This has been the way the Chinese look after the cloth they have been given in the olden days.

In July last year, I was wondering if I had made my final journey ! They moved me to Kuching after I have stayed in Sibu for 59 years!! Almost sixty and I have moved house three times. Each move made me feel good because I was a treasure to the family. they would never sell me off.

There is still a lot of life in this old girl yet! Yeeeeeeeee Ha!!

Written by a 60 year old happy and grateful Singer Sewing Machine, 31st May 2008.

extra notes

Brand History The Early Years (1850 - 1899)

Isaac Merritt Singer, with US$40 in borrowed capital, develops the world's first practical lock stitch sewing machine at a machine shop in Boston.

Isaac Singer and a New York lawyer, Edward B. Clark, form I.M. SINGER & Company.

Factory moves to New York City. The first machines sell for US$100.

A SINGER sewing machine takes first prize at the World's Fair in Paris.

Edward Clark originates the hire-purchase plan, the prototype for installment selling. A new lightweight machine - the "Turtleback" - is introduced.

First SINGER showroom and headquarters is located in New York City.

The SINGER Manufacturing Company, holding 22 patents, is incorporated. Some 20,000 home sewing machines are sold annually.

The SINGER Manufacturing Company opened sales and distribution centers in England.Red "S" girl trademark made her debut-destined to become one of the best known emblems in the world.

SINGER introduced the first practical electric sewing machine.

To find out more about SINGER Corporation Limited, click

Mung Bean Cookies/Leh Tou Koh

These are mung bean cookie moulds from a well known food blog called "Roses' Kitchen". Not many Foochow housewives have them. A Foochow housewife who can make mung bean cookies often become the envy of the other housewives because it is an extremely tedious, difficult and dainty job.

These are green or mung beans and are used to make mung bean flour.

This photo was taken a few months after the Chinese New Year 2008. I "preserved" these mung bean cookies (at RM22 per jar) for my two daughters who are working outside Sarawak. The background is the book cover of Franz Kafka's "The Metamorphosis and Other Stories". The green of the cover highlight the beauty of the mung bean cookies .

Here's my tale of mung beans cookies :

I think i have two left feet - so I cannot dance like other girls. I have butter fingers - so I am not at all good with so many household chores. But I do admire those who are very skilful in making of small dainty Hokkien cakes like green bean cookies, which require the frying of the mung beans in a dry kuali and the careful shaking of the cookies from their moulds. Later when these cookies are dried in the sun, the cookie maker has to watch over the sun drying very carefully, otherwise any accident can occur. I suppose I am never meant to make these cookies.

But I have a lovely tale to retell .

My Indonesian grand aunt told me this story a long time ago, as she thought I must be given this story to be motivated and initiated into an aggressive world. She wanted to bless me with the tale so that I won't give up life as a girl.

In Indonesia there were two girls , Kim Neo and Gin Neo,who were well sought after for marriage because they were so beautiful. The eldest, Kim Neo, was married to a good family and she was well accepted and blessed by a lot of wealth and children.

The second daughter , Gin Neo, was married into a big family but she was not so blessed because the family had many other daughters-in-law who were just as beautiful and just a skilled.

One day, during Chinese New Year,Gin Neo's family had a competition to select the best mung bean cookies. The daughter in law or daughter who made the best one would be given a gold bracelet. The price was high. However mung bean cookies was the only cookie that Gin Neo could not make because she had big hands unknown to many.

So she did all the preparation and she was not successful in making the nice patterns on the cookies as this was quite skilful. But surprisingly, in the very chauvinistic society, Gin Neo's husband, who truly loved her, woke up in the middle of the night to redo all the cookies for her. Early in the morning, Gin Neo woke up to find that her cookies were perfect and she took the almost perfect cookies out to dry in the sun deck to the surprise of her sisters-in-law and mother-in-law.

By then, the mother-in-law realised that her second son truly loved his wife Gin Neo and she was very proud of him. So she kept the secret. In fact, she suddenly remembered that her second son had always hovered around her whenever she made mung bean cookies and in fact she had allowed him to help her make her cookies all those years ago. No one knew about this as the making ofmung bean cookies was a very secretive and individual work.

Gin Neo was given the gold bracelet but because she was so good natured, after she gave birth to a boy, she secretly gave the gold bracelet to her mother in law as a token of appreciation.

Many years later, when Gin Neo and her husband had to leave Indonesia for a better future elsewhere, they brought only the moulds of the mung bean cookies and other cookies. Thus,they survived the upheavals of Indonesia's early history and had a very good and fortunate family life.

This little story reminds us that in a marriage, the husband must always cherish his wife and keep his vows and the heavens will bless the family until eternity.

Do you have a green bean story to tell?

Barefoot Dentist of Sibu

In parts ofChina far away from the big cities of Beijing, Shanghai and Guanzhou,street dentists like this man still performs teeth extraction. . this picture was taken in Youlou.

This is a very old picture taken of the street dentist or barefoot dentist of Sibu. He had attended even my grandfather and my grandmother. Many children had their milk teeth taken out by him too. when he had no business, he would sit in a coffee shop or visit Hock Chiong, a very popular import-exporter of cigarettes. I was too young to know him. My first dentist was Tiong Teck King who was famous for giving the Foochows their good teeth capping. (Read a forthcoming story)
Ouch!! that's painful!! (English)

Oy Yo Lo!!!!! Ching Tiang Yoh!! (Foochow)

Adui!! Alamak! (Bahasa Malaysia)

Akai ngngai!! Apo!! Pedius amat! (Iban)

wow! How Tung!! (Mandarin)
Ai yo!! Chin tiah oh!! (Hokkien)
Oi. How tungh ngoh. Um how yi sii. (Ouch, that's painful. Embarrassing - Cantonese)

Going to the dentist increases our heart beats by more than 50 beats. Our stomach will growl as if we were hungry. Even the most qualified dentist would send us shivering in our chair and we would wish that the earth would swallow us up when we heard the sound of the drill.

So how did our ancestors feel when they were given treatment by this street or barefoot dentist in Sibu? The pain that they were having would propel them to undergo the rough treatment and final extraction of a troublesome teeth. As dentures were not yet the style in Sibu in the 40's or 50's, most older people had a choice - poorly treated teeth which were blackened and part rotten, or complete lose of teeth by the age of 70. Many were toothless ah moo and ah pek.

I was told that this dentist would sit on the shoulders of his patients if they gave a struggle! Can you believe that?

Watch out for my next posting on Dr. Tiong Teck King, the famous dentist of Channel Road who started his business in the late 50's. Yes, his clinic is still there. It has become a sort of tourist spot now.

Miss Chieng Chung Hua

I am wondering if any one has actually done a research on the forerunners of "women politicians and brave leaders" who took official posts in the Sibu District Council in the early 60's after the departure of British Colonialists. Where there were many who were leaders in the Women's Institute, there was one strong woman who was fearless, thoughtful and selfless. She was Miss Chieng Chung Hua. She was the first Foochow woman leader of Sibu.

She led the Chinese men and women in political thoughts by speaking out to both the public and students. She helped many people to become aware of their social rights. And she went every where riding on her bicycle. In a way she was an early people's leader.

One of her greatest contributions was organizing gotong royong to help the needy and the helpless.

And just as if to punish her her suspected crime, she was arrested and put under custody in Kuching New Village for several years.

Apart from being a clear thinking and a good reader, she was recognised as a young lady who knew what she was doing. Her support of the SUPP was very clear and obvious. And she was really a very good hearted person. She was compassionate as a person. She was daring to speak up against any injustice. She was truthful as well as hardworking.

What ever the police thought of her, it did not really matter to me. She was just a good person, who happened to be able to speak her mind during a very chaotic period of Sibu history.

Her sincerity is also shown today in the fact that she never "made a lot of money" out of her contacts with political leaders and her stint in police custody for years did not make her a bitter person. She has no regret serving the people.

It is good that we do have selfless, sincere and helpful, honest and hardworking women leaders who were like her during those days. She definitely has a good thinking head on her shoulders. It is a pity very few people remember her sacrifice.

Toilets on the River in the 50's and 60's

If you remember your air travel with MAS nowadays - when you flush, the blue and refreshing liquid comes out. You feel good in Malaysia because MAS air travel can be so pleasant. You won't feel as if you were cattle being herded from one point to another. But the popular no frills air travel is beginning to make one feel that they are perhaps just animals. Hopefully the toilets will remember clean and pleasant.

This is a very modern toilet in a new train. Exceellent and comfortable for a traveller who is tired from a very long long journey. Respect for other users also contribute to pleasantness of travelling and hospitality in this country.

India is beginning to train the local people against indiscriminating defacating in open grounds. This is a toilet built especially for the country side.

About fifty years ago, I travelled in these boats up and down theRejang River, very often to accompany my grandmother for a town visit, or go alone to visit my relatives about two hours slow journey away from Sibu. A very remarkable feature of these motor launches which could seat at least 80 people and some more on the roof, was the hanging toilet at the back. These were roofless, box like rooms which just stick out precariously at the back of the launch. A hole is made in the middle of the floor for your convenience. It could be a very unnerving experience for the uninitiated because of the churning water below and the moving clouds above. And accompanied by the din of the engines,your screams remember, could not be heard by anyone. This was a great stuff for 007.

We were not aware then of the possibilities of our polluting the river water with our human waste. We were not even aware that the water we used for washing our vegetables could be contaminated. Life was simple and no hazards had come into our lives.

Each journey would demand at least one toilet break. And the churning river water below the toilet would frighten me to say the least. If I was travelling with grandmother, she would be waiting for me just outside the hanging toilet. I would always be thinking that the toilet would break away and I would be floating down the Rejang, with my underwear half way up my thighs!! Such a childlike thought!! But it got stuck in my head.

I often wonder how these hanging toilets would stay so well fitted to the back of the motor launch. Huge Foochow men would go in and be seemingly comfortable in side answering nature's call. Sometimes when they stand up, their heads could be seen above the low walls. And we would all know who went to the toilet!!

Just outside the toilet was the open area. This was where the boat men who dip their bucket, attached to a long rope, into the river and then pull up the bucket full of water to bathe. They would wear their little red cotton sarong around their waist when they bathe. It was just so natural for them to bathe in this way. then they would soap themselves from head to toe and then wash themselves with three or four buckets of water again. They felt no danger at all, dropping their pail into the churning water, as the boat moves up and down the river.

Actually if the engine was running, and if one of them dropped into the river, no one could hear them. They would only be missed when their slippers or wooden clogs were seen standing there at the back of the boat, so lonely and so unclaimed for sometime. But these drowning cases were fortunately very rare. the risks were however there.

Cooking was also done in the same way. A little stove was at the side of the boat. And simple cooking was done at a suitable time. Again, a bucket would be thrown into the river and water pulled up and the food washed, chopped and ready for stir frying or boiling. The cook was so good that he could even steam a good fish just as they were travelling from one village to another!!

A meal could easily be cooked an served at the back of the motor launch.

At one time, before the motor launches disappeared into the pages of our economic development I was wondering how nice it would be to organise a river motor launch trip for tourists, with a or even two meals served and cooked right on the boat. This would show how skillful our boat people were. But it was just another famous day dream of mine.

A point has come to my mind at this moment. With white water rafting becoming very popular as another progressive tourist activity for Sarawak, I have taken a good article on clean camping practices are we going to dispose of the human wastes? Here, read on.........

Clean camping practices and river rafting regulations dictate that white water rafting groups carry all solid human waste with them, and out of the river corridor at the end of the trip. That means we all use portable toilets and pack out the contents. Personally, I really enjoy a dramatic view!
River toilets are referred to by many river runners as 'groovers'. As the story goes, the name 'groover' is due to the fact that back in the day, river runners used surplus ammunition containers called 'rocket boxes' as their toilets. Users would obtain 'grooves' in their cheeks from trying to sit on the sharp edges of the box. Some still use rocket boxes, but usually have adapted them with regular toilet seats!
There are several other types of toilets and each has their advocates and detractors. I'll skip that religious war. But if you'll be handling the groover, be sure to remember to take a supply of rubber gloves. They sure help when dealing with the toilets on the river and when things get out of hand during the dump process after the trip.
It is absolutely imperative that nothing but human waste and toilet paper goes into a groover. If you have never taken a rafting trip, you need to know that this IS A HUGE DEAL! We use devices called 'scat machines' to clean river toilets. Think of them as giant dish washers for your toilet. Anything besides poop and toilet paper plugs them up. Anything. Too many times I've had to dig toilet paper tubes, feminine products, fabric, and sticks out of a full groover tank before emptying it in a scat machine. These items can clog scat machines with nasty consequences and make me liable for big repair bills. While the machine is out of service for days or weeks at a time, every other group coming off that river needs to go search for another way to dump their tanks. I'm a pretty thick-skinned guy. But this is one offense that really sets me off. I expect it does the same for others who must deal with river toilets after a trip.
Urine Goes in the River
Regulations on most rivers require that urine goes into the river itself. Deal with it. This rule does a great job of keeping campsites from becoming stinky. And don't worry about the hundreds of people peeing upstream from you. The dilution factor is so great that you shouldn't worry about swimming in contaminated water. And some biologists even think that adding urine may actually improve the subsurface river environment.
Hand Washing
Be sure to set up a hand washing station. There are several ways to rig up a means to apply water to hands without touching anything. Some are as simple as a tank of water with a spigot that sits on the edge of a table. Others use a foot pump, and there are even battery powered electric models. Make sure the soapy water from your hands drains into a container. Make the hand washing station one of the first items to set up when you make camp, and that last to pack away when you break camp.
Keep a bottle of hand sanitizer on the kitchen counter or a camp table. Also, keep a box of alcohol baby wipes handy. They're great to clean surfaces and hands, and can be used in a pinch to clean a piece of silverware or a kitchen knife.
Strain Your Dish Water
All liquids from cooking and dish washing must be strained. We do so over our infamous 'ca-ca bucket', a special bucket clearly labeled for waste water. We then discard the water according to the regulations for that river.
Waste Water Disposal
Know the local regulations for disposal of soapy or contaminated water. Use a catch-bucket and then cast the water above the high water line or into the main current of the river, depending on the regulations for the river you are floating. Spit your toothpaste into the waste water bucket. Dump all your soapy, strained dishwater and your bleached rinse water into the waste water bucket. Strain and left-over soups and liquid foods, and dump empty left over beer or soda pop in there too. Strain all liquids as necessary, and then dispose of it all properly.
We keep three garbage bags open at all times for burnable, non-burnable, and recyclable items. Also, discard cooking greases and oils in a container in the trash or burn in the fire pan.
Taking baths and showers
Sun showers are great little devices, but soap should not be used anywhere near the river or in any hot springs. Use sun showers according to the regulations for disposal of waste water, that is, either capture and cast soapy water into the current or shower above the high water line.
Handling Fresh Water Containers
Procuring fresh potable water is sometimes a challenge. But more challenging is making sure that people handling the water jugs don't contaminate your precious supply and the containers you carry it in. So be sure to wash hands before working with water jugs and handling spouts and spigots. Bad hygiene around the water jugs puts the entire trip at risk.
Water Filtration
Potable water is available at the put-in for many of the most popular western rivers. Also, with a little research you can find sources at ranches, river stores, and springs to allow you to restock your water supply midway through the trip. If you plan properly, you can make due with these sources. But be sure to carry filters. Personally, I will drink out of a spring or side stream if I can get a good read on the source of that water. If it's coming crashing down a steep hillside and there is zero chance of creatures living in it upstream, and if I need to, I'll drink it. But mostly we filter from side streams to refill our jugs. The same precautions for handling water jugs apply to handling the filtration equipment.

Sibu's Oldest Mosque

A twin set of minarets adorn an ancient mosque.

An unique wooden (belian) roof distinguishes the Sibu Mosque fromothers. The Wooden three storeyed minaret was equally unique but it was unfortunately demolished for road expansion. I often wonder if any one could rebuild such a unique minaret again. The old Malay craftsmen and their craftsmanship are probably gone.

As a young child I would enjoy walking along the unpaved Kampong Nyabor Road and having a look at the nice wooden minaret . the call for prayers was so comforting and gave one a peaceful feeling.
I like looking at buildings. The other building in Sibu I liked to look was the old Masland Church which held its own beauty with its coloured windows, the solid black timber pews and the lovely low fans. The church gave cool comfort.
The Mosque at Kampong Nyabor was not a place for non Muslims to visit. But from outside I could see that the minaret was beautiful and unique. There was a bathing place for the Muslims to wash before they prayed.
although most mosques inthe world had round domes for their roofs, the Sibu Mosque is rather unique because it has a square roof made from belian tiles. This could be the only one in the world with this kind of roof and Sibu should be very proud of it.
According to Wikipedia, in 630C.E. the Prophet Muhammad's army reconquered the city of Mecca from the Banu Quraish tribe. The sanctuary of Ka'ba was rebuilt and re-dedicated to Islam, the reconstruction being carried out before the prophet Muhammad's death in 632C.E. by a shipwrecked Abyssinian carpenter in his native style. This sanctuary was amongst the first major works of Islamic architecture. Later doctrines of Islam dating from the eighth century and originating from the Hadith, forbade the use of humans and animals.[1] in architectural design,in order to obey God's command (and thou shalt not make for thyself an image or idol of God..)and also (thou shalt have no god before me)From ten commandments and similar Islamic teachings.For jews and muslims veneration violates these commandments.They read these commandments as prohibiting the use of idols and images during worship in any way.
In the 7th century, Muslim armies conquered a huge expanse of land. Once the Muslims had taken control of a region, their first need was for somewhere to worship - a mosque. The simple layout provided elements that were to be incorporated into all mosques and the early Muslims put up simple buildings based on the model of the Prophet's house or adapted existing buildings for their own use.
Recently discoveries have shown that quasicrystal patterns were first employed in the girih tiles found in medieval Islamic architecture dating back over five centuries ago. In 2007, Professor Peter Lu of Harvard University and Professor Paul Steinhardt of Princeton University published a paper in the journal Science suggesting that girih tilings possessed properties consistent with self-similar fractal quasicrystalline tilings such as the Penrose tilings, predating them by five centuries
Influences and styles

Arabic Calligraphy on large pishtaq of the Taj Mahal
A specifically recognisable Islamic architectural style developed soon after the time of the Prophet Muhammad, developing from Roman, Egyptian, Byzantine, and Persian/Sassanid models. An early example may be identified as early as 691 AD with the completion of the Dome of the Rock (Qubbat al-Sakhrah) in Jerusalem. It featured interior vaulted spaces, a circular dome, and the use of stylized repeating decorative patterns (arabesque).
The Great Mosque of Samarra in Iraq, completed in 847 AD, combined the hypostyle architecture of rows of columns supporting a flat base above which a huge spiraling minaret was constructed.
The Hagia Sophia in Istanbul also influenced Islamic architecture. When the Ottomans captured the city from the Byzantines, they converted the basilica to a mosque (now a museum) and incorporated Byzantine architectural elements into their own work (e.g. domes). The Hagia Sophia also served as model for many of the Ottoman mosques such as the Shehzade Mosque, the Suleiman Mosque, and the Rüstem Pasha Mosque.
Distinguishing motifs of Islamic architecture have always been ordered repetition, radiating structures, and rhythmic, metric patterns. In this respect, fractal geometry has been a key utility, especially for mosques and palaces. Other significant features employed as motifs include columns, piers and arches, organized and interwoven with alternating sequences of niches and colonnettes.The role of domes in Islamic architecture has been considerable. Its usage spans centuries, first appearing in 691 with the construction of the Dome of the Rock mosque, and recurring even up until the 17th century with the Taj Mahal. And as late as the 19th century, Islamic domes had been incorporated into Western architecture
Minarets or towers (these were originally used as torch-lit watchtowers, as seen in the Great Mosque of Damascus; hence the derivation of the word from the Arabic nur, meaning "light").
A four-iwan plan, with three subordinate halls and one principal one that faces toward Mecca
Mihrab or prayer niche on an inside wall indicating the direction to Mecca. This may have been derived from previous uses of niches for the setting of the torah scrolls in Jewish synagogues or the haikal of Coptic churches.
Domes and Cupolas.
Iwans to intermediate between different sections.
The use of geometric shapes and repetitive art (arabesque).
The use of decorative Islamic calligraphy instead of pictures which were haram (forbidden) in mosque architecture. Note that in secular architecture, human and animal representation was indeed present.
Central fountains used for ablutions (once used as a wudu area for Muslims).
The use of bright color.
Focus both on the interior space of a building and the exterior.
One of the most beautiful mosques in the world has recently been built and has attracted thousands of tourists. Do you know what it is? Where it is?

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

When did Chinese Women Start to Wear Trousers?


My grandmother looked a little like the lady in the picture. She wore the same kind of clothes. However, as my grandmother had straightened her feet and let them grow, she did not have those three-inch brocade shoes.

We were young and full of questions.

One question we asked grandmother was "When did Chinese women start to wear trousers?" Of course at that time we were asking only in the literal sense. (When we grew older, we understood from family tales that our grandmother wore the trousers /pants, metaphorically as well as literally)

Grandmother said, "As far as I remember, we Chinese women have always worn trousers. Only the very educated would wear Western clothes , that is, blouse and skirt. So you understand why I don't wear dresses. I am not educated." Although my grandmother never went to school, as she was "bought" by our grand uncle Lau Kah Tii in Fuzhou , China, as a child bride, she was smart enough to listen to school children reading aloud. She could memorise the lessons read out. And furthermore, she had a wonderful memory of all the Foochow verses and phrases, proverbs and sayings often quoted by people. We used to be very entertained by her during the TV-less days and asked for "encore" all the time. She was in a way very educated to all of us.

She was a good tailor like my grandfather, Lau Kah Chui. She would lay out the material and properly measure the material, and then had everything cut very properly and neatly. Then she would hand stitch her trousers and blouse. One would never know that her clothes were handsewn. Her stitches would never break and each seam would stay neatly in place. Her cutting was so emaculate that some modern designers would be envious.

We were very curious about trousers then because we children had nice European dresses with frills and ribbons and nice materials like viole. We were so impressed by her brocade that we set out on the discovery of how the trousers came about in China.

While most of my aunts occasionally wear modern well cut trousers, only one did wear samfoo and cheongsam until she passed away. She was our Second Aunt, wife of our second uncle, Siew King. Other aunts who have been living overseas naturally wear dresses with great style. Two of our aunts who live in Hong Kong are exceptionally beautiful and youthful. They wear modern Chinese styled samfoo, or a great samfoo top with embroidered skirt for parties.

However there were not many books to give us the answers during our younger days.

But for modern day children, if you are interested, below is an excellent article from Wikipedia

A painting of Emperor Zhenzong of Song, showing the long robes and official headgear of the emperor. This type of headgear, along with the headgear of officials and merchants, was made of black-colored silk.There were many types of clothing and different clothing trends in the Song period, yet clothes in China were always modeled after the seasons and as outward symbols of one's social class.

Coal used for heating one's home was scarce and often expensive, so people often wore clothing with extra silk-floss and fur-lined coats in the winter. The clothing material preferred by the rich was silk, and for special occasions they had silk robes with gold brocade. The clothing material used by the poor was often hempen cloth, but cotton clothes were also used, the latter being most widely available in the south. The types of clothes worn by peasants and commoners were largely uniform in appearance (with color standard of black and white), and so was the case for the upper class and elite. In fact, wealthy and leading members of society followed accepted guidelines and ritual requirements for clothing. In the upper class, each stratified grade in the social hierarchy was distinguished by the color and specific ornamentation of robes, the shape and type of headgear, and even the style of girdle worn. This rigid order was especially so during the beginning of the dynasty. However, the lines of hierarchy slowly began to blur as the color purple, once reserved solely for the attire of third rank officials or higher, began to diffuse amongst all ranks of officials who bore the color indiscriminately. Along with lower grade civil officials in the government protesting the rigid regulations for attire, the wealthy members of the merchant class also contributed to the disintegration of rules for ceremonial attire worn only by certain members of society. Yet there were still visible distinctions between civil officials and the class of rich merchants and business owners; the officials were distinguished by their long robes reaching to the ground, while merchants often wore a blouse that came down below the waist with trousers. Pants and trousers were introduced to China during the Warring States in the 4th century BC, and were not exclusive to merchants; every soldier wore trousers as part of his uniform, while trousers were also worn by the common people. Although most men were cleanshaven, soldiers, military officers, and professional boxing champions preferred side-whiskers and goatee beards, as they were a sign of virility.

A painting of court ladies and one man on horseback, dressed in upper class outing apparel, a 12th century painting by Li Gonglin, as well as a remake of an 8th century original by Tang artist Zhang Xuan.The attire of Song women was distinguished from men's clothing by being fastened on the left, not on the right.

Women wore long dresses or blouses that came down almost to the knee. They also wore skirts and jackets with short or long sleeves. When strolling about outside and along the road, women of wealthy means chose to wear square purple scarves around their shoulders. Ladies also wore hairpins and combs in their hair, while princesses, imperial concubines, and the wives of officials and wealthy merchants wore head ornaments of gold and silver that were shaped in the form of phoenixes and flowers.

People in the Song Dynasty never left their homes barefoot, and always had some sort of headgear on.Shops in the city specialized in certain types of hats and headgear, including caps with pointed tails, as well as belts and waistwraps.Only Buddhist monks shaved their heads and strolled about with no headgear or hat of any sort to cover their heads. For footwear, people could purchase leather shoes called 'oiled footwear', wooden sandals, hempen sandals, and the more expensive satin slippers.

In many ways we were thankful that Grandmother was wise enough to allow her feet to grow into normal size (not too big actually) and she could walk normally. This was indeed a big blessing because she had to do so much in her life for her children and grandchildren. But in retrospect, we were glad that her children and her grandchildren later blessed her with good materials for her blouses and trousers. She was always very appreciative of such feminine gifts.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

My Grand Mother's Foochow Lacquerware Pillow

This picture is of the famous bodiless Fuzhou lacquerware

My maternal grandmother, Tiong Lien Tie, always used a hard pillow and could not enjoy any of those plush, soft feather pillows. She left a special hard pillow (similar to the one in the picture) to me. A real treasure, it has always been a kept well by me in my house (wherever I moved to)for the last 20 years. This pillow must be more than 70 years old now. My beloved grandmother passed away in 1984 at the ripe old age of 84

Unknown to many, this is a Fuzhou Lacquerware Pillow. In fact many Foochow grandmothers who were China-born would have used such a pillow. It was always amazing to me to see my own grandmother sleeping on such a hard pillow like Yang Kwei Fei or any other famous beauties we could see in the movies.

My grandmother used to tell me that this pillow was very handy. She could bring it every where she went and she did not have to wash it, or even sun dry it. And the most beautiful benefit of this pillow was that the bed and the pillow would never smell bad. My grandmother's fragrance often lingered on, in the rooms and places she had been to. Today I can still catch that fragrance when i think of her. She would always carry that scent of bai yu lan (or magnolia) with her.

So I am just so very happy to be able to share with you some information on this special product , made especially easier by information provided on the net. You are always welcome to visit me and see this lacquerware pillow or take pictures of it.

Here goes:

Source :

Lacquer is a natural substance obtained from the lacquer tree which has its home in China, a country still leading the world in lacquer resources. Much of the country is suitable for growing the tree, but most of the output comes from five provinces-Shaanxi, Hubei, Sichuan, Guizhou and Yunnan.

Raw lacquer is the sap of the lacquer tree, which hardens in contact with air. A tree becomes productive 3-5 years after planting, and entails hard work on the part of the tapper. He can only get the latex in June and July each year and must tap it in the predawn hours before the cock's crow and sunrise. For the sun would reduce the moisture in the air, stopping the flow of the latex.

Lacquerware has a long history which extends back to the remote ages in China. From the neolithic remains at Tuanjie Village and Meiyan Township (both in Wujiang County, Jiangsu Province) were unearthed in 1955 a number of lacquer-painted black pottery objects, two of which, a cup and a pot, were discovered intact and found to bear patterns painted in lacquer after the objects had been fired. They are the earliest lacquered articles ever discovered in China and are now kept in the Museum of Nanjing.

Before the invention of the Chinese ink, lacquer had been used for writing. Twenty-eight bamboo clips found in a Warring States (475-221 B. C. ) tomb at Changtaiguan, Xinyang, Henan Province, bear a list of the burial objects with the characters written in lacquer.

Lacquerware is moisture-proof, resistant to heat, acid and alkali, and its colour and lustre are highly durable, adding beauty to its practical use. Beijing, Fuzhou and Yangzhou are the cities leading in the production of Chinese lacquerware.

The making of Beijing lacquerware starts with a brass or wooden body. After preparation and polishing, it is coated with several dozen up to hundreds of layers of lacquer, reaching a total thickness of 5 to 18 millimetres. Then, gravers will cut into the hardened lacquer, creating "carved paintings" of landscapes, human figures, flowers and birds. It is then finished by drying and polishing. Traditional Beijing lacquer objects are in the forms of chairs, screens, tea tables, vases, etc. Emperor Qianlong of the Qing Dynasty, an enthusiast for lacquerware, had his coffin decorated with carved lacquer.

Yangzhou lacquer articles are distinguished not only by carvings in relief but by exquisite patterns inlaid with gems, gold, ivory and mother of pearl. The products are normally screens, cabinets, tables, chairs, vases, trays, cups, boxes and ashtrays.

Fuzhou is well-known for the "bodiless lacquerware", one of the "Three Treasures" of Chinese arts and crafts (the other two being Beijing cloisonne and Jingdezhen porcelain).

The bodiless lacquerware starts with a body of clay, plaster or wood. Grass linen or silk is pasted onto it, layer after layer, with lacquer as the binder. The original body is removed after the outer cloth shell has dried in the shade. This is then smoothed with putty, polished, and coated with layers of lacquer. After being carved with colourful patterns, it becomes the bodiless lacquerware of extremely light weight and exquisite finish. Fuzhou bodiless lacquerware is moisture-proof, resistant to heat, acid and alkali, and its colour and luster are highly durable, adding beauty to its practical use.

Fuzhou bodiless lacquerware was created by Shen Shao'an during the Qing Dynasty. He was inspired in restoring the inscribed boards at temples and invented the technique. The bodiless red lacquered bowl Shen presented to the Qing measured 10cm in height, 10.8cm in diameter, with a thickness of less than 1mm. Emperor Qianlong was so delighted that he wrote a poem inside the bowl.

The technique of manufacturing bodiless lacquerware was passed down from generation to generation in the Shen family. After Shen Shao'an, the most successful lacquerware craftsmen were were Shen Zhenggao (1866 ~1928) and Shen Zhengxun, the fifth generation after Shen Shao'an. The bodiless lacqueware they made was sent to an international commodity exhibition in Paris in 1898, and won a golden medal. In the following years, their work won many awards from international exhibitions, as well as the approval of Empress Dowager Cixi. Fuzhou bodiless lacquerware thus became a favorite gift among royalty, government officials and foreign guests. Nowadays, bodiless lacquerware can be found in many famous museums around the world

Source :
Constructed by
Copyright © 2003 Ministry of Culture, P.R.China. All rights reserved

Wood Chopping and Wooden Windows

One of the luxuries I remember having during my childhood was the moments I shared with my siblings and mother in the backyard of our house in Kung Ping Road. And indeed we had to carry one very important chores as children and that was to was to chop or splice the ramin wood pieces into smaller pieces for the Foochow stove. My father bought the ramin wood pieces by the lorry. So there was plenty of work to do.

I remember that most evenings were lovely, under the shade of the rubber trees. We could often hear the explosion of the rubber seeds when they ripen for dispersion and germination.

Our mother would be seated on a stool, usually doing some other chores like picking the bits out of rice, or washing the vegetables in the metal basin.

Chopping the wood was such a wonderful chore actually. My sister would pile the wood up neatly in the wood rack inside the house,as she was always the neat one. We had a shed for the bigger pieces of ramin, our chickens and rabbits and the small pieces of wood would be stacked neatly in the rack next to our stove in the house.

All the windows in our kitchen were the Foochow style wooden vertical panels which we could slide and then these planks would close all the fixed plank openings.This was an ingenious wooden window, not seen today in modern houses in view of our insecurity today. Not a single metal was used, except the very basic nails of course. My grandfather and his carpenters actually were very frugal in the use of wood and metal.

I am still searching for this kind of window to photograph. Somehow I don't seem to be able to forget them. We demolished our dear eight bedroomed house in 1978. This house had a lot of memories for me, some sad (when my father died suddenly), but mainly happy. I do hope that if I cannot get a photo of this kind of window, a cousin, or a relative could draw a picture. My grandfather's house in Sungei Merah also had a set of this kind of window in the kitchen.

The windows in our living were the coloured glass panels - brown, green and red, very typical of the 40's in South East Asia. On the first floor living room,we had these big long windows which opened out. Fresh air would flow freely because they were big. All the other windows were wooden ones which opened out and fixed with good solid brass hinges. The ground floor windows had simple iron bars. Glass and aluminium were not yet introduced to Sibu then.

One of my favourite duties as the eldest in the family was to slide the vertical planks each evening. And then it would be up the stairs for the night - a time of rest and or lots of studying.

I read that chopping wood is therapeutic -----here goes one of the articles:

Added reference:The Many Benefits of Chopping Your Own Firewood
By Alana Tanner

If you're still one of the millions of people who have real wood burning fireplaces you may be buying your wood precut. But there are still several of you who are doing it the old fashioned way and chopping your wood supply every year. For some people this is a nuisance, for others it's therapeutic. Here are several reasons why you should consider chopping your own.

1. Exercise. Obviously swinging an axe over and over again against a piece of wood is hard physical labor, especially after a long time. You will definitely feel this in your muscles. But if you do it regularly you can build up a rhythm and a swing pattern that will become a single fluid motion. Much like a golfer has a perfect swing, you need a perfect swing to cleanly cut a piece of wood, especially if you want to accomplish a full cut in a single pass.

2. Relaxation. This may seem like a contradiction to the exercise point above, but while your body is working your mind can relax. There isn't much thought required when chopping wood, other than to pay attention and not cut off a body part. Many people have expressed a sense a calm and peace, the repetitive motion reminds them of a simpler time and gives them a chance to appreciate an honest days work and think of other pleasures in life they enjoy.

3. Stimulation. In addition to relaxing your mind you will often find that you think more clearly and can come up with answers to a variety of problems just because of the physical stimulation and exercise you experienced. Those who exercise regularly often agree that it clears the fog in their mind and gets their blood pumping through those sleepy brain cells.

4. Save money and maintain a healthy stock of wood. The basic purpose is, of course, to have enough wood to keep the fire warm through the winter. If you have the time it's easier to do your chopping in the cooler spring and summer months so you aren't baking or freezing as you perform this chore. By chopping it yourself you won't have to buy the wood or pay someone to chop it for you. This is especially beneficial if you have more time than money.

5. Education and bonding. If you have preteen or teenage children it can be of great benefit for them if you have them help with this activity. They need a chance to learn what it feels like to swing an axe like their ancestors did. This moment of bonding can also help bring your family closer without the use of a television. Use this opportunity to teach your kids the benefit of hard work, the satisfaction of a job well done, and to appreciate what money is able to buy.

If you're storing firewood every year consider one of our homemade firewood racks or read our steps on how to build a firewood rack.

Article Source:

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Strong Foochow Men

These gunny sacks or jute sacks were once common sights in Sibu. Strong wharf labourers could just lift them easily on their backs and walk on the planks up to the ship for loading or from the ship to the waiting trolley for unloading. Because wharf labourers at that time did not have a strong union, their wages were often questionable and topics of hot arguments.

This picture is an example of gunny sacks for keeping corn in the shop. Corn was an important commodity for rearing of domestic animals. Today, corn fed chickens are still highly valued. Wharf labourers carried sacks of corn and rice from ships to the waiting trolleys or lorries and then hopped on to them. When they reached the grocery shops, they carried the sacks full of corn and rice to the shops. They never seemed to be tired. I really admired their forebearance and stoical attitude towards life.

This is a very old photo from a pictorial book by the Chinese Cultural Association of Sibu. It reminds me of the many Foochow men in Sibu who were extremely strong . The Sibu wharf labourers for example did not have machines to help them. They used their brute strength to lift gunny sacks of rice, to carry bales of smoked rubber from the shops to the lorries, or 100 pikuls of charcoal from the trolley to the motor launch. when moving houses, a group of men would be called and they literally carried all the cupboards and tables and beds. Many men were employed just to carry the bakau for piling in the construction company.

A livelihood for a man for example in the picture depended on his strength and no resume was needed from him to get his job. By word of mouth, he would have been employed easily because he was strong and trustworthy.

I can never erase the sad moment when my third uncle, Pang Sing, had to carry my grandmother from the motor launch to the waiting car parked near the Sibu jetty,which was quite a distance, for her last journey to the Lau King Howe Hospital. My uncle was in tears as he lifted her to his back and carried her up the steps of the jetty. In his hurry and distress, he even forgot to wear his shoes!

As far as I am concerned in those days,there has never been greater love between mother and son than this pair - my grandmother and her third son, Pang Sing. The whole Rejang Basin was in the know, as we used to say. Though uneducated because of the Japanese war interruption, poor in terms of a good income, my uncle managed to bring up a good family and look after my grandmother in her old days extremely well. It was an extremely happy old age for her. That we all remember. He made sure that she was short of nothing, especially when she became more and more weak in her eyesight. Finally in the last four years of her life, she was totally blind.

Gone are the days now for men who could earn a living through their strength.

Foochow Desserts

One of my favourite Foochow desserts is Peanut Soup. It can be eaten warm or cold. In the 50's there were not many shops offering this dessert as a cold dessert. It was sold mainly by women like Ni Mui to the construction workers or other labourers from their bicycles or tri-cycles.

Then in the 60's and 70's peanut soup was sold in some coffee shops or some special shopes which specialised in it and other cold desserts like green bean soup, chendol and ice kacang. Today in the Food Court on the first floor of the Central Market in Sibu a huge bowl of peanut soup with some sago pearls can be your dessert of the day, especially on a hot hazy day.

Peanut soup is actually very simple to make.

First, carefully selected peanuts are dipped in boiling water for deshelling.

Then they are stewed with mild flame until they totally soften. Last add sugar and some washed sago pearls and continue stewing the soup for half an hour.

Older folks usually prefer this peanut soup hot as they find it nutritional and more "yang" for their constitution.

What are the benefits of taking peanut soup? It is commonly known that this soup is good for general health. It can take away one's cough if one is suffering from a heaty cough. Besides peanuts is full of protein. A large number of people also believe that peanut soup helps to improve one's appetite and can help someone who is weak to become strong again. It is good also for detoxing every now and then.

Sarongs for the Foochow Women

This is a treasure from the past. 1950's Methodist Secondary School Chinese Department girl students swimming in Sg. Maaw, Sibu, near Chung Cheng School. Photo from Reunion Booklet of Class of 1958 MSS,Sibu. Did they wear swimming suits? Were they sarong-clad? Only they can tell us now.

I think this painting by Liew Choong Ching ( an will remind many of us how we were brought up in Sibu and how we were kept quiet and asleep in a sarong, how we were carried around by our busy mothers and later how we kept our own children quiet and howe ourselves have carried our own babies around.
The photo of a mother carrying a baby in a sarong sling is actually an advertisement from e-bay. I am wondering if our next generation will do the same , using a sarong this way. Many westerners have found the sarong sling an amazing useful gadget. (

The group photo of women enjoying a good bath wearing sarongs may be a thing of the past. But sweet memories for me. I thank Kevin Song of Sibu for this picture. This is from his book, The Impending Storm. Thanks Kevin and Phyllis.

The scanned photo from Kevin Song's book again is so full of rich memories for me. It is a very poignant photo and valuable as a historic photo. A sarong clad mother having a morning bath with her son. Peaceful,harmonious with nature and blessed by the Almighty God.

The Sarong is a great invention indeed!!
Here I will recount the many uses of the ubiquitous,perennially fashionable, relevant garment of indomitable spirit. What a wonderful belonging. We must own more than one in fact.

Firstly, I remember my mother using the baby sling. It was a very important part of her role as a mother and homemaker. How much she had put on her shoulders to bring us all up.
The advertisement describes a baby sling in this way:
They are worn the same way as rebozo baby slings, tied over one shoulder, except that many people move the knot around to the back, as in the picture above. Also like the rebozo, the selendang can be worn without baby, as a skirt, dress, or several other ways (not to mention all the household uses - they are so beautiful!).

These particular selendang baby slings are printed on 100% cotton, with a traditional batik look. The colors are vivid and just gorgeous. They are very soft and light-weight. 40" X 90"

In the olden days, Foochow women wore sarongs when we went swimming in the Rejang River. So they were used as our bathing suits. Sorry no photo of that era, and all of us, my cousins and I would scream with joy, jumping into the river, without fear of drowning. And yes, then the water was clean.

The sarong would be used for keeping the babies quiet, or napping in the hot afternoons. We call this spring and sarong, "neaw" or "nyut". A mother or baby sitter would hang a rope and a spring from the ceiling. A sarong would then be hooked onto the spring. The baby would sleep for hours in the sarong. What an intelligent contraption. Today, Toys 'r' Us has also "invented" a very expensive baby comforting swing "bed" at a huge price tage of RM399.00. for many, a rope, a spring and a sarong will do the trick. Go to any longhouse, or any Foochow or Malay home, one can find this very traditional use of the sarong.

The sarong can be used as a bed cover,pillow cover/case, food cover, table cloth, temporary makeshift curtain,headwear, sunshade,body cover, and at night, as a cover from mosquitoes,and of course for wrapping up your beloved baby when you travel.It is a thing of beauty and a joy forever. It is the best wear for sleeping in a hot Sarawak night!

One can find so many hundreds of uses for the humble sarong.

Never leave home without a sarong.

Dato Ling Beng Siong vs Dato James Wong in Council Negri

A very interesting anecdote happened about forty years ago when Dato James Wong (SNAP)was the Limbang member of the Council Negri and Dato Ling Beng Siong, Bawang Assan Member was the Minister of Social Welfare.

If my friend's recollection was accurate (he was there as legal observer), they were having a debate on the expenditure of the Nazaruddin WAlk in the Museum grounds, Kuching. The Honorable Member Dato James Wong asked whether the Minister of the concerned Ministry was aware of how much money had been spent on the Nazaruddin Walk and if the money spent had been deliberated carefully, without causing much distress on the budget of the state.

The Speaker of the Council Negri was Dr. Sockalingam and Sidi Munan was a translator of Iban to English in case some one could not understand Iban.

The following exchange took place in the Iban language. Dato Ling Beng Siong did not speak much English but was fluent in Iban, and Dato James Wong could speak English, Malay and Iban. The two were extremely fluent in Iban as they were timber merchants. This explained the very unusual debate in the Council Negri which conducted its affairs in English, Bahasa Malaysia and Iban. This language policy still remains to this day.

Dato James Wong to the following effect in Iban : Kati nya udah sukat? (Have you measured the area?)

Dato Ling Beng Siong fluently answered in Iban : Udah. Nuan uleh meda kediri kian.(You can go there and see for yourself.)

The exchange which took place in Iban could be understood by most of the members of the Council Negri and created a great deal of laughter. Only Dr. Sockalingam could not understand Iban and he was very much in the dark. He asked for a translation. But Sidi Munan replied, "Mr. Speaker, Sir, the two Honorable Members of the Council Negri could understand each other perfectly, so there is no necessity for any translation."

That brought the August House down.

This can only happen in Sarawak, our beloved state. I have no intention to defame any one. But it remains an interesting fact that our honorable members of the Council Negri then were very humourous and were carrying out their work cordially.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

The Faithful Dogs in My Life

This is an advertisement picture of a yellow Labrador. I was glad we spent some money to buy one which lived with us for 14 years and I called him Sultan. He was my children's and my faithful friend, our companion and our joy.

At one time we had two dogs - Sultan and Sheba. She looked like dog in this advertisement . She was an exceptional dog who was brave and at the same time kind. We had a lot of fun with her. We made a lot of friends because people would come and chat with us whenever we brought her out.

We also had Cocker Spaniels in Sibu. We called them Toby and Alpha. We had to give Toby away and someone stole our beloved Alpha. Alpha was just so beautiful that you could cry when you saw her running towards you. She was just so loveable.

For a while we could not look at an expensive dog in the eye because some one stole Alpha. We kept mongrels instead. But we derived a lot of joy from them too. Here is a picture of Miro when she was young.

I have a personal memory of one of the best teachers in Sarawak who wrote this on the blackboard one day, "Dogs are more faithful than men. Therefore I love dogs . Discuss."

What's your response?

Over the years I have taken photos of my dogs. I wished I had taken more and the digital camera was already around when I was younger.

Apam Balik/Ban Chang Kuih

Ban Chang Kuih from

This morning I am feeling nostalgic for street food from kindly urban old men who spoke in welcoming gentle tones to get respectable old ladies who came from the villages to buy a few pieces of their breakfast cakes. They did not have to pull their customers' arms like in Petaling Street, KL. They would just sit there,fanning themselves with a small palm leaf fan in their rough cotton shirts and loose pants.

I cry out for the fragrant smell of old time soy bean milk. It was the type that was really thick, undiluted, unadulterated soy bean milk, rich with all the second class protein only a simple soy bean could produce. And I long for a whiff of the peanut-y , sugary and roasted aroma of a special Chinese peanut and soy bean spread sandwiched between two nice slices of thick ," dunlop pillow texture" of an one inch apam balik.

Ah, my vivid memories of forty years ago Sibu breakfast, either sitting on a low stool next to a low table,al fresco style, or a bundled breakfast spread brought back by a loving grandmother, just arrived from Sg. Maaw after travelling two hours by a slow motor launch from six in the morning when the eerie mist was still heavy on the Rejang River.

Do you still remember the man who had a small box stall along the alley behind Mr. Louis Wong's shop (Chop Yu Chiong, No 10 Island Road) at the end of Market Street, and just opposite the block was Hock Soon whose proprietor never had any other hair cut except a crew cut? The breakfast man operated in a space which was less than five by three. An almost impossible outlet but he was there for many years, throughout my childhood and even my early twenties. After I moved away from Sibu, I did not see him any more. He must have passed on but at a very old age.

This man had only one table beside his box stall and he sold soy bean milk, two types of cakes - apam balik, thick, full of nuts and sugar and nine layer cake, beautifully pink and white, fragrant, soft and in very accurate clear layers. He served his bean milk in the famous green floral Chinese ceramic cups. And he had no stove with him. If we went early, the soy bean milk would be hot,and of course freshly made. Later in the early afternoon the milk would be just luke warm. The box stall was made up of a glass box with a lid which opened from the top, for his cakes at the top. This moveable glass portion sat on top of the waist high wooden box, if I remember, which was green in colour. Inside the wooden box he kept his many bottles of soy been milk.

Each day he might be making only about twenty to thirty dollars but that seemed to be enough for him. It could have been his past time, it could have been his only livelihood. I often wondered about his welfare. In today's world, full of MBAs, this man might have created a franchise and spread to San Francisco or Melbourne. But alas, in those days, simple folks were only thinking of what they could earn in a day.

My grandmother liked his apam balik and she would always buy a dollar's worth which fetched six pieces in those days. For good measure my grandmother would also buy another dollar of the nine layer cake (six pieces also) and a bottle of soy bean . The bottle was recycled soy bean sauce bottle or beer bottle. The top was the cheap cork which one could buy by the dozens in those days for a few cents.

It was unbelieveable that a man could spend his whole life earning a little from just selling kuih and soy bean out of a box stall.

This box stall probably was kept in Mr. Louis Wong's shop when he went back in the mid afternoon as I did not notice that he had a tri-cycle or a trolley to pull his stall away. He would start his stall as early as five in the morning and then finish or what we call, "fold up the shop" by noon. He was another memorable "breakfast" person of Sibu.

I must say that he should be recognized as one of the earliest micro-credit ,health food hawkers of Sibu. He was a nice person with a kind word for old ladies and children. He never shoo-ed me away whenever I was a bother, asking lots of questions.

Here is a recipe for modern Apam Balik:

200g Plain Flour
60g Rice Flour
110g Brown Sugar
1 Tsp Baking Powder
1/2 Tsp Bicarbonate of Soda
1/2 Tsp Salt
240ml Milk with 1 Tsp Apple Cider Vinegar
80ml Carbonated Water

4 tablespoons dry roasted peanuts and crushed roughly
more brown sugar
some roasted soy bean and rushed too

10-inch non-stick Crepe Pan
peanut Oil or margarine

This is a very traditional breakfast kuih and I am sure it is not Foochow in origin. So I continue to wonder how this hawker /Apek became an apam balik man of our childhood.

(NOte : The coffee cups are still available. If you are lucky, they can be found in the nice little supermarket run by the Wong family quite near Hock Peng's Hotel and Apam Balik is available in most of the pasar malam stalls in Sibu. But the apam balik of today is a very thin version. It will not have the thickness and the texture of the old days...I think there is a secret in its making. Or else why would we go back again and again to chomp on a slice or two, perhaps every day!!! Good memories often come with a slice of warm good heartedness heartedness. Cheers.)

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Charcoal and its Uses in Sibu

According to Philip Hii these two men were charcoal businessmen of Sibu. Look at their white shirts and short hair.

This is an unusual but collectible photo by Philip Hii. This unusual structure was the "store" for charcoal. Charcoal would be unloaded from the river boats and sales would then begin. All the unsold charcoal would be placed in this store for sale every day until new charcoal arrived by boat again.

Photo by Wong Meng Lei (Rejang Basin) What a luxury -a 60 year old charcoal stove!!

The Foochows in particular and the people of Sibu in general continue make use of charcoal for many purposes and for many different reasons today. In my own case, cooking over charcoal fires still gives me the satisfaction of producing the best tasting food one can ever get.

If you visit Sibu any time now, you can find many coffee shops still toasting their bread over charocal fires to make their famous roti kahwin. Kaya, the famous coconut milk and egg sweet sauce is still being prepared slowly over a low charcoal stove. And coffee beans are still being roasted in a homemade roaster placed over a simple charcoal fire perhaps right at the back of a coffee shop in the small lane.

Charcoal is still the best fuel for roasting the local banana leaf fish,pulut pangang and mutton,beef or chicken satay. Its fire can easily be controlled and just a small stove is enough to cook a few hundred satays. It is the only way to cook good traditional Malay satay and pulut.

Besides,if you can remember, charcoal was used to heat up the old fashioned brass irons ,for ironing clothes made of cotton and linen,to boil huge tanks of water for laundry and in some shops, the charcoal fire continued to burn for the whole day so that the porridge was warm . In some shops the coffee pots were kept hot for customers and towkays and their family members.

I remember how my late father deftly helped my mother prepare the charcoal fire, whether in the big Foochow stove or the smaller clay charcoal stove. I felt that at those times my father left his "personality of a business man "behind and played the role of a life partner, helping around the house, giving a helping had and emjoying the slow paced family life. He was showing his less chauvinistic side and enjoying it.

The two of them alawys talked in very soft and gentle tones, very different from the normal voice levels of husband and wife today. Perhaps it was because my father was a very soft spoken man. Sometimes I could hear them share a little joke and laugh, the way only very understanding couples laugh.

And sure and soon enough, the crackling of the charcoal would be heard and I could smell that unique and marvellous fragrance of a glowing organic charcoal fire.

I still have a charcoal stove which I use as a standby when gas runs out. But sometimes, when I need to use some of the traditional pots I trust my charcoal fire to burn properly and surely for me. From now on too I must make sure that I have a box of charcoal ever ready for any emergency. Talk about keeping the hearth warm!!

For modern day uses, most youngsters and young married couples also use charcoal for their b-b-q fires. But probably they will buy the smokeless charcoal bricks from the supermarkets. Although there are lots of high-tech gadgets around, the simple charcoal barbeque pit will beat them all.

Although there is no longer a real charcoal factory in Sibu, I can still refer to a good charcoal factory in Kuala Sepetang, located in North Peninsular Malaysia, to relate how charcoal is made today. So read on.......

The mangrove forest around Kuala Sepetang is a vital factor for charcoal making in this part. The Chuah's charcoal factory has been in existence since the 1930's.

Mangrove trees which are over 30 years old are harvested, and new ones planted in order to replenish the supply. That area is not to be tocuhed for another 30 years.

The trees are then transported with the high tide into the factory. Trees are then stripped off their bark and then sent to the igloo like cones where the baking process starts.

These cones are all handmade without any architecture drawing design. The master building simply builds them still "out of memory and experience".

A cone is used for around 15 years. Once the cone is finished, the logs are brought inside and heated. The process is in fact very simple and complicated at the same time.

It's all about the right temperature, so the process have to be monitored 24 hours a day.

The logs are standing up inside the cone on stone. Then the cone is almost closed apart of a small hole where a fire is burning. This fire heats up the cone and water will start to vaporize from the logs. Inside the cone there is now a temperature of 220°C.

The first stage of this process takes around 8 to 10 days. The log condition inside the cone is determined by the feel of the smoke that comes out of the holes of the cone. Mr. Chuah and his workers have such an experience that they can tell on the feel of the vaporized water how the condition of the log is.

After 10 days the cone is completely shut off and the baking process continues on a temperature of around 83°C. This takes another 12 to 14 days. Then the cooling process starts, this takes another 8 days before the hole in the cone is opened.

All the water is now vaporized out of the wood and the charcoal should look shiny black. The workers now get the charcoal out of the still hot cone and it is sorted, put in bags or transported in a whole log. Most of the charcoal of Mr. Chuah's factory is exported to Japan. A minor part is used in Malaysia.

Producing charcoal is a time consuming process. Most of the process is manually done. People in Kuala Sepetang, Matang and other small villages in the area have a living from the mangrove charcoal factory.

Note : More later when I can get hold more information on charcoal making.

Source : My Island Penang HomePage

Another blog you should visit : if you are interested in his visit to a charcoal factory in Westmalaysia. Enjoy!


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