Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The Night Soil Man

A Sprague photo from China showing a lady carrying two pails of night soil with a bian dan to her vegetable garden. Of course this is no longer a "done" thing in Sarawak. But in the 50's and 60's, public sanitation was not yet standardised and very little was known about Preventive Medicine.

Drawing of Night Soil Men, taken from State of Large Towns in South Staffordshire, page 18

I am wondering how many people of Sibu who are now in their 50's and above can remember the most undignified and lowly, humble occupation of " night soil man " - a man who took away human waste in the most unholy hours of three or four in the morning.

Any man who went home late would have met a man carrying pails of night soil on his bian dan (bamboo pole). Any murderer would have him as a witness. I am sure many a night soil man had kept mum on what he saw in the early hours of the day. If they had kept a diary, they would have lots of stories to tell us.

There were very few night soil men who helped keep Sibu clean of human waste. They definitely did not have gloves to wear or any vehicle to help them. They were paid, I remember by each house or shop owner. they brought their own corrugated steel pails (tiak turn) and poured the human waste from the basin into their pails and had "it" carried away. It was definitely as "smelly" job. We also paid him for new basins when our old ones got worn out. Thus we did not even have to handle the new night soil basins.

And definitely they,were never accorded any thanks properly. they were men of the night and kept away from any lime light.

It would be good at least to remember that Sibu had once some people who were willing to do the dirty job of removing human waste. Sibu for that matter did not suffer greatly from cholera epidemics and other sicknesses. It was indeed a wonder.

We used to recognise one man whom we called "Dan Sei Apek",or the "Apek who carried Shit" and each month he would come around to collect only a few miserable dollars for all his solitary and night labour.

And of course if we woke up very early to study, we could "smell" the apek coming and going. We should not have complained so much at that time about him, who kept Sibu clean.

Our special outhouse in Kung Ping Road, was demolished in the early 60's when Sibu District Council called for all houses and shops to use flush toilets.

Do you remember all these?

5 memories:

Arani Jantok said...

very interesting. it's always a wonder how the waste disposal system worked before the sewage system ever came in.

i wonder wht people would ever do without their handy septic tanks.

Yan said...

I stayed in Sarikei in the 70s. Yes, I remember the man who came almost everyday to the toilet just outside our wooden house to clear the pot. There was not a time that I don't watch what he was doing if I could.

And at that young age, I remember my heart was filled with thanks and appreciation for what he was doing.

When I close my eyes today, I could still "see" the pair of crippled legs, struggling with a "bian-dang" and a pair of "night soil" walking along the small road that led to our toilet.

And I am still thankful to him for giving us a "decent" place to answer our nature's calls during those days!

CY, thanks so much for the memories.

Sarawakiana said...

Thanks for visiting my blog ! Haven't heard from you for sometime.

Aren't we lucky that we have such men to do those things!!

Hope that everything in Sibu is well.

God bless.

Thimbuktu said...

Thanks to my Sarawakian Stephanie Wong to link this blog about the 'nightsoil man' in Sarawak. Pls share a similar topic at

Thank you.

Thimbuktu said...

Thanks to my Sarawakian Stephanie Wong to link this blog about the 'nightsoil man' in Sarawak. Pls share a similar topic at

Thank you.


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