Monday, September 29, 2008

Catapults and Kids' targets of dogs,tins,birds and others

You can buy a catapult like this in pasar malam or Tamu Muhibbah of Miri.

Some advertisement for catapults.

Another advert

This is a great modern high tech sling shot or catapult used by hunters and for the strong housewife who may need protection from burglars. Available in better sports equipment shops in Sarawak and Brunei!!

Last year I read an article about a 9 year old Chinese boy who used a catapult to taunt a crocodile. The croc turned around and ate him!!

The human rights groups in China was in an uproar!!(Source :

This brought me to think about how we as children used the catapult or "lastic" as we lovingly called it,for many purposes. We were innocent kids then. Below are examples of what we did with our catapults:

The boys in my neighbourhood would collect beautiful Y shaped guava tree wood to make their catapults and they did sell them for a good sum. We girls helped them collect the best rubber bands available. We never did buy the rubber bands. We went around picking them up from the streets and from any purchases our parents bought.

My neighbours used the catapults to chase away dogs which disturbed their rubbish bins. Late into the night I used to hear the stones hitting the rubbish bins and the yelping of dogs. I knew then someone was doing his job to keep the dogs at bay.

Kids used the catapults to shoot the swallows which sat like music notes on the overhead electric wires. After a heavy down pour especially in the evenings it was great to hear the beautiful bird song in the air. And then these swallows would sit on the wires for a restive moment. And all of a sudden a stone or two would shoot through the air and the birds would fly away leaving behind a few feathers which floated slowly and then landed on the pavements. The boys were not very good shots but they did hit a few birds.

I remember once a very angry neighour used his son's catapult to hit a motor bike which sped along our road. Years later this was not necessary as the traffic got heavier.

My father and brother used the catapult to chase away squirrels which tried to eat our yellow skinned and very "kopek" rambutans (the flesh could leave the seed easily when we bit into the crunchy fruit) and sweet juicy mangoes.

And finally the little boys liked to practise their sharp shooting by hitting tins at a distance.

This innocent home made and humble catapult may no longer be a toy which is good enough for present day boys. The creativity of making such a slingshot is disappearing.

And in the movie "The Kite Runner" the catapult was used by Hassan's son Sohrab to damage Assef's eye. Assef was the man (the bad guy) who was instrumental in causing all the hurts and sufferings to their families(the good guys) in Afghanistan. I thought it was brilliant. It reminded me of the story of David and Goliath.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Safes through the ages in Sibu

The first safe I remember seeing was the one in Hua Hong Ice Factory and my father had the key to it and so did the accountant. It was very old and worn out as it was probably first bought in the 1910's. The next safe I saw was the one in Hock Hua Bank when it was first started. It was newer and prettier. There might have been another vault but it must have been very well hidden.

Ever since I was a child I learned well that money was very important and that the Foochow men would work very hard for their money. They loved their money. I saw a lot of money changed hands in Chop Ching Cheong and the shop had two safes. But what was even more important was who held the key to the safe.

Another safe that was quite obvious to the public was the one in the Dentist Tiong Teck King's clinic. It is still there today. This safe must have seen tons of cash at the prime of its life.

I suppose during those days it was okay to have the safe seen by customers and relatives. After all it was a strong box and no one could break into it.

The Google Images supply me with these images:

This is a safe you can find in most hotels and perhaps even in some homes.

This is a fairly old safe but still in used by many.

Chubb is a famous name for safe. And at the present moment they make some of the biggest safes in the world.


This is the safe in Dentist Tiong Teck King's Clinic in Sibu in Channel Road. I took the photo a few months ago. It is old but still very sturdy and most probably it can still be used.

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I remember my grandfather having a very old safe and he would gently open the safe to check his cash and other personal items. He would carefully keep his many keys on his body. I suppose he never left them around . I have never seen him being careless with his own personal things. He was a very meticulous man. All certificates land titles and gold items of course were kept in the safe by most of the men who owned safes. It was their filing system in the olden days.

After he passed away and my grandmother moved to her new house we do not know what happened to that safe. Perhaps it was kept by grandmother at the back of one of her rooms. She was also a person who kept things well as she was a very neat and tidy person.

Do we still need a personal safe today?

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Ireland Tobacco Company and Wedding Feasts

I came across this on E-Bay and my memories brought me back to the Foochow wedding feasts of the 60's. Yes indeed my cousin and I tried to pinch one of these. And the banquet steward gave us a wink. (I am wondering if he still has it). Much later I obtained one from Ban Chuang Coffee Shop when I asked for one from the "Coffee Hand" ,the man who made the coffee. But I have lost mine.

F and N was a favourite label for us as it conjured up imported stuff which was better than Ta Fong Aerated Water. (F and N drinks were made in Singapore!!)

All these hard liquor were placed on the tables for guests to enjoy. This was to show how generous and happy the host was.


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The Ireland Tobacco Company was owned by a family who used to live in Brooke Drive (beginning of the Oya Road). The house is still there and is used as a car show room today. Next door to it is the property belong to the Yew family. Ms. Yew Jen Kie's father owned the first and most famous Tien Pian Hoo Shop in Sibu.

The towkay neo was a big lady who drove an equally big car,probably one of the biggest cars in Sibu in the 1960's . Their house was huge too with a big garden and many fruit trees. Whenever we passed by their house on our way to school via Hose Lane we would look at the fruit trees which were heavy with fruits.

The cigarettes produced by this company were sold in the smaller towns like Mukah,Bintangor and Sarikei,Kapit and Kanowit. They were appealing enough to the financially challenged communities. Each small packet of 10 was 25 cents!!! The bigger packet of 20 were sold at 50 cents. As the price was not that prohibitive the number of smokers must have multiplied.

I remember attending a few Foochow wedding banquets fondly. On each table would be an unopened bottle of XO or Black Label,a packet of Ireland Tobacco Cigarette,a box of matches,three or four bottles of fizzy drinks made by Ta Fong, and a few bottles of bear.

When guests filled up a table they would take the cigarettes and opened the fizzy drinks for the children. A few ladies would try their very best to force the host to take the XO away from the table,saying that it was a waste to open such an expensive bottle of liquor and they did not drink any way. There would be a lot of pushing and pulling and of course adding to the merriment. We would wait to see who ended up with the bottle of XO. I would sometimes pray that the bottle would stay with our table and then we could have a few sips and redden our faces. It was popular to pour a peck or two of brandy into fizzy drinks,the Foochow way. Very few would drink brandy or whiskey on the rocks.

At the end of the wedding feast any left over cigarettes would be pocketed by the smokers after they say loudly,"Don't waste,don't waste." This statement was the prelude of taking something they like. Sometimes they would offer one or two sticks to the little boys who would laughingly shake their heads. The invariably the adult would rub their heads and say"Good boy!!"

I must confess that I once took half a packet of the cigarettes when no one was looking and gave it to the trishaw driver. Another time when attending a wedding banquet of a close relative I managed to wrap up more than 6 siew mai or meat dumpling for the deaf mute . My mother would also ask for a bag to take away the extra sweet and sour pork chops for our next door neighbour,the height challenged Ah Moo. If I could get a packet of cigarettes (unopened)our Ah Moo would also have that. (I found it very difficult to stomach the fact that she would save her cents and then buy only one stick of cigarette from the corner little shop.) Even at that time we were very conscious of the benefits of getting freebies.

The men who loved a drink would gather at a table where XO bottles were opened. They would be the ones who make the banquet more merry and very loud indeed. In those days we did not say Yam Seng the way we do it now. There were lots of real laughter,slapping of backs, pushing each other and pouring of drinks into glasses. The host would go around picking up food to offer to his guests with chopsticks to ensure that they had a lot of food. A wedding would then be considered well celebrated. there was no karaoke of course!

This was the way Foochow men and women behave at a feast in the 60's.

I cannot remember when the Ireland Tobacco closed down. But I will have all these memories to savour and share with others.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The First Foochow Baby Boy Born in Sibu

This is James Wong and his family making them the fourth and fifth generation from the couple who became the proud parents of the First Foochow Baby Boy Born in Sibu. James' great grand father is Wong Kah Yu and like any family, one can gather a lot of oral history from them. But there is a lot more from this particular family of Sibu.

I am honoured to be able to do a some research and write this little posting. I only wish that there are more old photos to share with you.

Unfortunately I also do not have a photo of Mr. and Mrs. Wong Kah Yu. But what I have here is an old photo from 1950. The second Mrs. Wong Kah Yu is third from left. She was respectfully called Ting Hook Moo (Mother of Ting Hook). (Back Row from left Mr. Luk Sung Seng,Mr.Cheng Wan Ju,Rev Ho Siew Liong,Mr. Ling Siew Tieh. Front : Rev Ling Chii Tzu,Miss Ling Yu Kwong,Mrs Wong,Mr. Lau Kah Tii)

This is an early photo of the children in Mrs. Mary Hoover's kindergarten circa
1913. I assume that the three brothers must be amongst them.

The Foochow Pioneers came in three batches to Sibu . The first batch came in 20th Feb1901 with 72 pioneers. They recognised Rev Ting Kwong Tou and Wong Ching Choon as leaders.

The second batch with 5 leaders (Ting Hing Choon,Lau Kah Tii,Wong King Huo,Lau Tieu Foo,and Ling Woon Choon) and 30 others. They arrived on 16th March 1901. I often wonder why this is the date the Foochows of Sibu recognise as The Date of Arrival of the Foochows. Amongst them was Mr. Wong Kah Yu and his wife.

The third batch was made up of the largest group of 511 including several women with good leadership skills. They arrived on 7th June 1902. Amongst them was my grandfather.

Each pioneer was allocated 5 acres of land for personal development and cultivation. Life was terribly hard then. And they were supposed to pay the Foochow leader a small sum of money every year in the agreement they had with him. Unfortunately according to the records the climate was against them and their hardwork did not pay off. Mr. Wong Nai Siong was very frustrated and left Sibu soon,and never came back. It was a divine act of God which brought Rev James Hoover and his wife Mary to Sibu during this time too. And the over 1000 souls started to prosper. And as they say the rest is history.

Mr. Wong Kah Yu was one of the pioneer agriculturalists. He had become a Christian when foreign missionaries had gone to Fuzhou to spread the faith. When Wong Nai Siong came to Fuzhou to recruit another batch of pioneers for Sibu he and his pregnant wife agree to join him. When they arrived they were alloted Hostel No.6 which was one of the first kajang or attap buildings constructed by the Foochow pioneers in Sungei Merah.

A few months later Mrs.Wong Kah Yu became the first Foochow woman to give birth to the First Foochow Baby Boy. The parents called the baby boy Wong Ting Sing. (Sing is New in Foochow)

Later they had two other boys called Wong Ting Hook(Hook in Foochow means Blessing ) and Wong Ting Chew ( Chew in Foochow means State or country).

Thus the three boys' names together mean New Foochow State or Sing Hook Chew.

Actually they already had a daughter whom they left behind in China. Her name was Lu Tei, which is Ruth in Chinese. They had named her after Ruth in the Bible because of their recent conversion to Christianity. They later had a second daughter called Liang.

Life for the women ,and the first Mrs. Wong in particular, must have been even tougher as they had to nurse their babies and farm at the same time. They had to fight against diseases and the hot climatic conditions. In the first few years they were living in fear as the mortality rate was high. In fact according to records in the first year the Foochows were dying like "flies" falling down at the rate of at least 3 or 4 people every day!!How they managed to contain this was indeed a miracle. Many younger men went back to China too and never came back.

Tragically Mrs. Wong's life was cut short. And eventually Wong Kah Yu took a second wife. They did not have any children. It was legendary that the second Mrs. Wong was a very good step mother,,capable,hardworking and God fearing. She was very active in church work in the Methodist Church . The photo (albeit blurry) is a very old photo taken in 1950. The second Mrs. Wong is the third from the left. She was one of the two ladies in the Central Committee of the Methodist Church in Sibu.

Wong Kah Yu and his children and grandchildren built a lovely mansion in Sungei Merah situated fairly near the river and the point where the pioneers first stepped on. I once visited this mansion,as a child, to pay respects to Mrs. Wong Kah Yu with my grandmother as she wanted to see how orchids were grown. And another memory I have of the house was the lovely sitting room they had. Today you can visit the memorial to Wong Nai Siong and the First Pioneers. I think this might be part of Wong Kah Yu's land.

When we got connected through email ,Ruth Wong (therefore the second Ruth in the Wong Family) was happy to share some extra information and a funny anecdote regarding her great grandfather.

There is a lovely anecdote about her great-grandfather's name, Kah Yu, which sounds the same as "kayu" (wood) in the Malay language. Apparently, one day, when her great-grandfather was taking a walk in the jungles, he overheard someone asking a local Malay carrying an axe where he was going.

The local Malay man replied, "Potong kayu."

Thus her great grandfather, with his limited Malay at that time, and in a new country reputed to be the "land of the headhunters", ran for his life because he thought the Malay man was out to kill him!

I totally agree with her that many old people in Sibu can still recall this incident.

Actually I am very impressed by the naming of the three boys. They had so much hope in them at such a time of tribulation and hardship...New ...Hope..prosperity, blessing,and land....Remarkable. Remarkable.

The Wong family continues to be a very prominent part of the Sibu society today. Johnny Wong Sie Lee, the owner of the Sarawak Hotel,Sibu ,is one of the grandsons of Wong Kah Yu. Ruth and James' father is the late Wong Sie Kong,owner of the Far East Supermarket, who was another grandson.

My other famous friend's father is also one of the grandsons of Wong Kah Yu and therefore he is cousin to James and Ruth .

In retrospect as I write this article I remember the lovely and friendly sisters of Johnny Wong who went to the Methodist School with me in the early days. Recently I met up with one of them. And James' brother Wong Diong Sing was my classmate from Primary one until Form Three!!

It is well known that almost all the descendants of this particular family are very fair,good looking and highly intelligent. Good gene pool!! Look at the coloured photo of James and family again!

More interest should be paid to our Oral History which will not only give more meaning to our culture and social development but also help to consolidate our Foochow community.


For more details you can ask me personally if you wish .

I would like to thank Ruth for being so forthcoming in the sharing of her precious documentation and historical records. And of course I also like to thank James and family for not only providing academic help but also spiritual strength and good food always. He and his wife Roselind are ever ready to spend time with a sister in need.

Other sources:
1) The Sibu Chinese Historical and Pictorial Collection by Sarawak Chinese Cultural Association,1992.
2) Wong Nai Siong and the New Foochow,, Lau Tze Cheng.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Tribute to Road Construction Workers of Yesteryears


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(Source : 1962 Sarawak Report)

In the early days of road construction in Sibu and especially the building of the Oya Road which took more than ten years,the people of Sibu were very excited with expectations. They considered it as the most important development of the town and even Sarawak. The folks would be aware of what was happening and how it was being constructed from the frequent news reports in the local papers and even radio news.

However life of the road construction workers was tough.

They lived in the makeshift wooden houses and suffered from shortage of water and even food.

However it was good that a few Iban workers had guns and they were able to go hunting for wild boar and other animals.

I remember an uncle , employed by the Public Works Department, who depended sometimes on his wife to send him some food supplies to make his working days better. His loving wife who had to take the motor launch from downriver,had cooked some angchow duck and prepared some salted pork for him. In those days they could only meet in Sibu once a month. But provisions could be sent through the PWD trucks if they made enquiries.

A fortnight later when he managed to come out of the jungle fully sun burnt and teary in the eyes. He was suffering from an eye infection and had to see a private doctor for immediate treatment. He told another one of my aunts that he did receive the goodies but because of the heat and the lack of refrigeration the angchow duck was spoilt the next day! He was very disappointed that he could not enjoy he duck which his loving wife had cooked. How bad was his fate!! Pitiful times. And in Foochow terms,"he had eaten too much of the dust." It was dust dust dust every where.

Finally after three years of hard work and hardship and days of eating dust and very little savings,he decided to return to his village to plant pepper. He prospered because he and his wife worked very hard. But he did not managed to live a long and full life. Today his wife continues to mourn his early passing.

I met up with one of the early Tanjong Lobang students William P (1950-1966) when I first came to Miri. He and his wife were associated with the construction of the Oya Road. They too told me of the hardship he suffered as a PWD employee. Life as a construction worker in the rural areas of Sarawak was lonely and lacking in the basic amenities. Their salaries were only $180.00 at that time. The daily paid workers received even less. Literally some of them had to eat grass if they did not get supplies from home. They survived on tinned food because there was so much dust around.

When we drive along the good roads today we have to remember that many early Sarawakians contributed to this development.

The photo I am showing looks comfortable though. But there are lots of stories behind it like deaths from accidents and heat stroke and even murders, mysterious deaths in the jungle when looking for food,etc. But definitely they suffered days of hardship and tribulations like any pioneers of the olden days.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Three Legs Brand or San Kar Bew


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The Three Legs Brand has been around for a long long time. It can be taken without prescription and is sold over the counter in Sibu since the beginning of the Foochow settlement. It is also a popular medicine in Malaysia.

Three groups of people generally like to take them. Firstly the older men and women seem to be very fond of this brand whenever they suffer from mild pains or tooth aches or headaches. An uncle of mine once pour two packets of the medicine into his gaping wound on his leg when he was cutting trees in his farm. He almost fainted from the bleeding but it worked for him and he limped home. It was only the next day that he was able to take the motor launch to go to Sibu to see a doctor. This was before the days of aloe vera and over the counter iodine.

Iban men and women of longhouses buy this brand by the dozens as they live far away from doctors and hospitals. I was told by a lady once that this "ubat" really worked for her when she worked on her padi fields. It was too far away for her and also too expensive to visit a "doktor bayar" (Private practitioner). I thought that she was quite addicted to this medication when I saw her pouring out the medicine into her drinks every now and then. She looked quite normal and healthy to me. Perhaps she was just very fond of the powder.

Another group of people who are fond of this medicine are those who work in the sun. They would always have them ready whenever they feel hot and tired. They would just pour the white powder from the paper packet into their drinking water and in a little while they would feel better.

A sign board for Cap Kaki Tiga in Kota Bahru attracting the public to buy the brand.
(sourced from bus_wrecker at Flickr)

This Chap Tiga Kaki or Three Legs Brand is therefore a boon to the rural hardworking folks. And if you ask any of the Chinese drugs store proprietors you would be informed that the rural population do indeed buy this particular brand. They like this as much as Panadol, a convenient cure for headaches and mild ailments.

But I think it is not so advisable to add this white powder to one's tea or coffee every day for a long period of time.

What is your experience with Chap Tiga Kaki?

If you take a closer look at the packet you can see three men . One man is covering his ears,the second man is covering his head with his hands and the last man covering his chin . Looks like the proverbial three wise monkeys of Japanese folk lore who "say no evil,see no evil and hear no evil" or "mizaru,kiazaru,iwazaru" (literally don't see,don't hear and don't speak".

there is also a Chinese phrase in the analects of Confucius: "Look not at what is contrary to propriety;listen not to what is contrary to propriety;speak not what is contrary to propreity;make no movement which is contrary to propriety." There is a lot to chew in this idealistic philosophical phrase.

I am wondering if the man who designed the package was thinking of the three monkeys. Just a thought. And what's the story behind this brand?

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Hui Bah (bundles of fire) and Papa Hemingway


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The biscuits or fried dough or even plait pastry in the photo are called Hui Bah in Foochow (Fuzhou dialect) and according to my grandmother it is called so by the Foochows because it looks like a bundle of fire starter. Whenever the Foochows ,during the pioneering days and even until the 1950's ,needed to light a wood fire they had to twist some twigs or dried grass together to make a fire starter.

To me this biscuit does look like a bundle of twisted twines or twigs.

It is made from a very simple flour and egg dough. The baker would roll out two long pieces of dough and then cut them into smaller pieces. He would then twist two small pieces together and deep fry them . Finally he would roll them in icing sugar or crystalised sugar syrup. The shop made ones last a long time actually because they are fried until very brittle. Home made ones are less hard or brittle especially if butter and more eggs are added to the dough. Today they are packed in small plastic bags and sold at a fairly good price of RM2.00. In olden days our parents would buy them from the shops in big quantities and then keep them in biscuit tins so that they did not become soft.

We bought quite a lot in the olden days and we usually had them when we did our homework at night. Perhaps this was because chewing the hard biscuits helped us to keep awake. On the other hand the sugar coating was sweet and in the days when chocolates and good sweets were not so readily available,these hui bah were the closest to sweets and desserts. It was also a very good exercise in chewing and biting.

Recently I chewed a few bundles of fire when I re-read Hemingway and like in the olden days, I did not fall asleep while reading. Brought back the good old days when we enjoyed doing our homework.

I* was sure on fire for good literature.

A Recipe for Hui Bah or something similar called Plait biscuits (this you can make at home)

Source :

Ingredients for the plaits:

300 gm. plain flour
2 Tbsp. rice flour
50 gm. cornoil
140 gm. water
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. Instant yeast
1/2 tsp. baking powder
20 gm. sesame seeds

Sugar syrup:

120 gm. coarse sugar
85 gm. water
20 gm. plain flour


(1) Mix all the ingredients for the plaits together and rest for 20 mins.
(2) Roll into long rope and then twist it into plaits.
(3) Fry the twisted plaits in oil until golden brown. Dish out and set aside.
(4) Cook the sugar and water till thick and then pour in the fried plaits.
(5) Fry till sugar almost crystalise and then sieve plain flour onto the plaits and fry till sugar crystalised.
(6) Dish up, leave to cool and keep in air tight containers.

Please tell me if it works for you!!

or you can just go down to the nearest supermarket and buy a packet.

Moi Soung Cafe

Photo by Wong Meng Lei - home made Foochow meatballs served as soup to accompany the Kam Pua in Moi Soong Coffee Shop.

(Photo by Sarawakiana) The old shop sign board and an old clock. Need to read from right to left.

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(Photo by Sarawakiana) The sign board at the front of the shop along Channel Road.

Three things I would associate with Moi Soung Cafe.

It was the earliest Coffee Shop of Sibu and has been there since the 1900's. It belonged to a Wong family which prospered over the years. The family has contributed towards the social development of Sibu.

The propretor of the coffee shop was indeed very kind to several five foot way vendors - the tangerine seller who came with two baskets on a bian dan (bamboo pole) over his shoulders and then plied his fruits and daching (hand scale) right at the fet corner of the coffee shop. In other places in the world this would not have been tolerated for even a single day. But the tangerine seller was soon recognised even a part of the shop. I used to buy fruits from him and asked "Are the tangerines sweet?""Where do they come from?" He must have been fed up with me. I have always been a nosey customer,asking too many perhaps obvious questions! He would shoo me off when he wrapped his fruits in the paper bags. (These paper bags were special then,during the era before plastic bags - You will read a posting on this soon)

At another corner there was a lady who sold her chickens and eggs. Many people would buy from her because she would ply her product with the comforting announcement : "These chickens are fed by me - very fleshy and still young and untainted. These eggs are from my own hens. Look at them they are the biggest you can find in Sibu." This lady was the forerunner of an organic chicken farmer and Grade A egg sellers. At that time I could see that she was a very honest trader and breeder.

At the rear end of the coffee shop was the vendor who sold soya bean milk and two or three different kuihs. He was a quiet man and operated alone like the other two. He sat on his wooden stool and waited for his customers who would pass by. Life was slow but I am sure he enjoyed watching life passing by him.

In the evenings Moi Soung Cafe had a night life. The Sibu Traditional foochow Orchestra would come alive. Five or six men who gather together with the proprietor to play their musical instruments like er hu,drums,etc. I often think that it is a pity that no one had made a CD or a video of their performance. Perhaps I am wrong there and I have not asked the right person.

This corner coffee shop has been meaningful to many travellers who went up and down the Rejang River. And visiting it recently I could still feel that any moment my grandmother would step on to the pontoon from the wooden motor launch called "Sing Hai Huong" which would arrive right on the dot at eight. I miss the sirens from the launches as they arrived. They would also blare the loud sirens to tell travellers that they were leaving for the afternoon trip home,downriver. I miss the Foochow cries " Kay mang Li Loh! Sung ai kian loh!" (Quick, hurry up,the boat is leaving!)

The sounds and sights are slowly disappearing from Old Sibu. Even the archaic Foochow (e.g. kay mang or kay kay li) is disappearing as the younger generation speak more Mandarin and other languages.

I can already see that the old coffee shop lifestyle is being phased out slowly and new fish and chips,KFC and Sugar Bun outlets are taking over like aliens intruding into a provincial town. Rural Italy or France would rise up in arms if an alien outlet would jar the milieu of the landscape. But perhaps I am too irrelevant or unrealistic here.People's tastes have changed over the last ten years or so. So that's it I suppose. No reason for nostalgia.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Lau Boon Leong Soap and Sauce Factory and washing clothes and swimming in Rejang River

This is the nearest I can get to remind myself and relatives of how a pontoon looks like all those years ago on the Rejang River. A soon to be gone scene from Bekenu, Sibuti. Photo by Sarawakiana 2008.

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Not many people can remember that Sibu and in fact Sungei Merah had a soap factory called Lau Boon Leong Soap and Sauce Factory established in 1937 . Three brands of soaps were produced by them : Lion Brand, Tiger Brand and Bicycle Brand.

I often wonder where this family is today.

This was before the Lever Brothers infiltrated our shops with OMO and other detergents when affluence gathered force towards the end of the twentieth century. And of course it was before the arrival of the washing machines in Sibu.

Women all over Asia at that time (or may be the whole world) used block soaps to wash their clothes and especially those living along the river banks of Sarawak. The pontoon jetties or floating jetties or tou tau along the Rejang teemed with women who brought their buckets of clothes to wash. In fact in some places some more important ladies had their special areas to wash. The floating platform would have special washing boards specially carved out and small square openings were cut to enable them to reach the river water more easily. These spots were the first class spots earmarked for them as they were the daughters-in-laws of the owners of the jetties. And no one else could use them first customarily.
I remember that some ladies from further in land had to wait for them to finish washing before they could take their turn to wash. this was the social pecking order of the day.
It was indeed quite remarkable to watch these women do their laundry - using the soap and getting their unmentionables,their smalls and the indescribables washed. Some of them from big families might even washed up to three huge buckets of clothes every evening.
I enjoyed watching them applying the solid bar on the clothes, punching and beating out the clothes and then flipping and flopping them in the water. It was some special kind of kung fu. Their arms were strong and the clothes soon became fragrant and clean.

My mother from this kind of background still thinks that washing clothes by hand is still much cleaner than using the washing machine.

My Foochow women relatives of that era were strong and patient. And they could indeed squat for a long long time until they completed their washing. A lot of women today would be able to do yoga really well but they cannot squat and do their washing by the river for hours. A difficult feat indeed.
And of course at the same time I enjoyed listening to their chat. It was warm and entertaining.

As the women washed their clothes we children would be swimming and jumping off the pontoon. I took my first swimming lesson in a rather dramatic way. My third uncle,bless his soul, simply threw me into the flowing river. I gave probably only three kicks and I was swimming away like a fish after gulping in three or four mouthfuls of water.

Most of my cousins learned to swim in that way. May be we were just born "into the river". From that day onwards we were not afraid of a river ,even if it was as big as the Rejang.

(P/s - the huge bars of soap came in wooden crates of 24 and they were cheaper too. Remember we used to say cheaper by the dozen? most of the women would cut up the soap bars into smaller pieces and dry them above the huge Foochow stove. We believed than that harder soaps go further and therefore more economical. Probably most families buy one crate of soap per year but I cannot remember correctly. )

Monday, September 15, 2008

The First Boys' Hostel of Methodist Secondary School Sibu


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This school hostel was a boon to many boys of the Rejang Basin. From its beginning in the 1950's until its demolition in the 1960's this was home to many leading young men of Sibu. Early boys' students of the Methodist School would include, to name a few,without their titles, Leonard Linggi Jugah (Kapit),James Jemut,Billy Abit Joo,Deng Lung Chii (Bintangor),Tiong Yi King,and many others.

One of the Hostel Masters to remember is Mr. Ling How Kwong who taught many students to play good table tennis, a game that was played on the ground floor of the Boys' Hostel. He was a remarkably severe man who created a certain discipline amongst the players. Punctuality was revered and boys and girls played with very stern faces. This game continued to be very important to all students until today.

The building itself was wooden and I remember that it was rather dark and foreboding. It was absolutely out of bounds for girls and Mr. Ling saw to that. When I was a student I had the feeling that he thought all females were enemies number one of his boys.

Later when the tennis courts were constructed those who were trained to play tennis were often worried that they made too much noise as the boys were hard at work. Discipline was very much a part of the hostel boys' life that most day scholars did not understand. The boys' sole aim in life at that time was to pass the Senior Middle Three Examination or the Cambridge O Level Examination.

They played volley ball,basketball and football seriously. One or two boys would play the guitar. Some singing could be heard. Perhaps one of their few pastimes was to stroll to the edge of the football field and hope that durians would drop from the trees. May be some of them never went to the cinema!! There were absolutely no disciplinary problems.

Perhaps it was the inspiring school and the spartan boys' hostel which catapulted many of the young men towards their success of today.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

1871 -Fuzhou Church by Thomson

Lately,I seem to have taken on a liking for photographs of ancient days and ancient buildings.

And incidentally I met up with a 75 year old cousin and a second aunt (on my father's side ) for brunch. We got to tell tales and swap gossips. One of the topics covered was my Goo Poh's experiences in Fuzhou City during the Second World War.

Aunt Ling told us about an old European church in Fuzhou City which my grandfather and his brother must have seen. My grandaunt or Goo Poh Yuk Ging had gone to China to seek medical treatment for her ailing husband. Unfortunately he died in China leaving her a widow with three young children. The youngest was just born and she was brought up in China (under the care of another family) until the 60's when my Goo Poh was financially better off and it was politically safe to "redeem this daughter and bring her out to Sibu". That was just before Malaysia was formed.

My own maternal grandmother, Tiong Lien Tie, was stranded there too during the war. As a result she was fondly remembered by all the Sibu Foochow "overseas" students who were also stranded in Fuzhou City at that time.

When they came back to Sibu, they remembered themselves "coming back by the first boat,or the second boat or the third boat" from Fuzhou City . My Goo Poh (sister of my grandfather) came back to Sibu by the First Boat. She had always been grateful to people who visited her in China (she lived in a very remote village).

My mother's second brother brought back his Fuzhou City-born bride after the war. Both of them were teachers of Chinese language and they taught in bukit Lan for the greater part of their lives. They went on to become the illustrious in-laws of timber tycoons. This aunt of ours up to this day speaks Foochow with a very strong Fuzhou City accent.

Here is the photo of the church taken by Thomson and its related history.

'Foochow Church', about 1871

Picture Number:1992-5063_0017
Credit:National Museum of Photography, Film & Television/Science & Society Picture Library

A photograph of a European Church in Fuzhou, China, taken by John Thomson [1837-1921] in about 1871, published in 1873 in the book 'Foochow and the River Min'. As part of the unequal treaties following the Opium War of 1839 to 1842 China was forced to accept Christian missionaries. As early as 1847 three American Methodists built the first Protestant church in Fuzhou. They were soon followed by other missionary groups from Britain. Thomson travelled extensively in Fujian province, formerly Fukien, south east China, from late 1870 to early 1871. The book, 'Foochow and the River Min', records his journey up the River Min by boat from Fuzhou to Nanping, a distance of about 160 miles. Thomson was one of the most significant travel photographer-explorers of the nineteenth century. Born in Scotland, he studied chemistry at the University of Edinburgh, before taking up photography in the 1860s. Thomson travelled extensively throughout Asia, documenting the antiquities, landscapes and people of Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Macao and China. In the early 1870s he returned to England where he worked with the journalist Adolphe Smith on a project documenting the life of the urban poor. The resulting book, 'Street Life in London' was published in twelve parts between 1877 and 1878.

In Collection of: National Museum of Photography Film & Television

Transient Languages and Cultures

I would like to share with you a page from a very interesting blog which touches on Foochow as as dialect.

View the source when you are free :

Transient Languages & Cultures

Congratulations to Taiwan on saving languages big and small
by Hilario de Sousa
6 February, 2007I was thinking about tone-vowel and consonant sandhis in Fuzhou and I stumbled across this spectacular website from Matsu where they put up their primary school Fuzhou language textbooks with recordings of all the texts (and cutesy background music). There are also audio demonstrations of all the consonants, rhymes and tones. Apparently they are also working on putting up traditional kids stories on their website. All the Chinese characters are glossed with IPA and Zhuyin. (Sorry, no English.)

Fuzhou (Foochow/ Fuchow/ Hokchiew) is an Eastern Min language spoken primarily in Fuzhou, the capital of Fujian province. Overseas, the Fuzhou language is alive and kicking in places like Sibu in Sarawak. In Mainland China, Fuzhou has got to be the most endangered metropolitan Southern Sinitic language (despite there being at least 6 million people in greater Fuzhou; languages with even millions of speakers can be endangered: e.g. this post cut-and-pasted from China News Service mentions that few youngsters in Fuzhou can converse in Fuzhou:
and this post laments the non-transmission of traditional Fuzhou lullabies:

Schools are taught in Mandarin (like most other places in Mainland China), and it seems that most Fuzhou people have rather low esteem for the Fuzhou language. I have read reports of non-immigrants born as early as 1970s who cannot speak Fuzhou, and primary school kids scolding their parents for not speaking Mandarin at home. The Fujian Government has promised to do something about the decline in use of the Fuzhou language, but so far the promises remain just promises.

Across the Taiwan Strait from Fuzhou is Taiwan; Taiwanese Aborigines speak various Austronesian languages, and the ‘native’ Chinese population traditionally speak Southern Min (‘Taiwanese’) or Hakka. The language policy of Taiwan in the 1950s was ultra-repressive. The Chinese Nationalist Government lost Mainland China to the Communists in 1949; they 'retreated' to Taiwan, and was determined to re-conquer Mainland China. For this reason the Nationalist Government was eager to supplant a 'Chinese' identity to the Taiwanese people, and this involves everyone speaking Mandarin. (Similar to how a 'French' or 'Japanese' identity involve everyone speaking the same language.) The first thing the Nationalist government did when they ‘retreated’ to Taiwan was to wipe languages other than Mandarin out of the public domain. The use of native languages — and the selling of Taiwanese Cuisine, amongst other local things — were suppressed. Teachers used ‘dialect tags’ to humiliate students who spoke non-Mandarin languages at school (similar to how the Japanese government used hougen-fuda ‘dialect tags’ to wipe-out the Ryukyuan languages). The use of languages other than Mandarin at schools was banned until the 1990s in Taiwan.

The Taiwanese Government gradually realised that there is no hope of re-conquering Mainland China. Since the 1990s, the government has become more and more interested in building an identity distinct from that of Mainland China. The language policy in Taiwan has become more and more ‘localised’, so localised that it is now compulsory (?) to learn a ‘native’ Sinitic or Austronesian language at school (all the other subjects, including 'Chinese', are taught in Mandarin). After the Nationalist Government ‘retreated’ to Taiwan in 1949, the Nationalist Government managed to keep three groups of islands just off the coast of Mainland China, and one of these is the Matsu Islands, just east of Fuzhou. Because local languages have to be taught in schools, (theoretically) the Taiwanese Government has to create a complete curriculum even for the smallest local language, and this includes the Fuzhou language, spoken by less than 10,000 people on Matsu which is less than 20 km from Mainland China but more than 260 km away from Taiwan. (A language with less than 10,000 speakers is a very small language by Chinese standards; there are curricula for the larger Austronesian languages, but I don’t know whether there are curricula for the moribund ones.)

What pleasantly surprised me when I looked at the Taiwanese Fuzhou language textbooks was that it is actually Spoken-Fuzhou which is being taught to kids. In the Cantonese world, ‘Chinese’ classes are most usually taught in Cantonese, but what they teach is actually Modern Written Chinese (i.e. written Mandarin) pronounced in Cantonese, rather than spoken Cantonese. The writing of spoken Cantonese is the biggest no-no in schools, and written Cantonese is still stigmatised in the Cantonese world. (For example, to get an office job in Hong Kong you have to have competence in written English and written Mandarin; if you fill in your job application form using written Cantonese, you are unlikely to get the job.) In comparison, the Taiwanese Government is so determined at ‘localising’ the education language policy that they teach kids that Chinese characters can be used to write Sinitic languages other than Mandarin, and non-Mandarin Sinitic languages are not subordinate and not inferior to Mandarin. For this I congratulate the Taiwanese Government.

Compulsory teaching of an Austronesian or native Sinitic language?
If only the Australian government had as much respect for indigenous culture.

Posted by: Jangari | February 6, 2007 02:49 PM

I am a Foochow (Fuzhou aka North or Eastern Min language). I was born in Malaysia and fortunately because I was born in a community where spoken Foochow was alive (funnily enough much more alive than it is in Fuzhou, Fujian province in China). However Fuzhou/ Foochow is always regarded as inferior to Mandarin even by its native speakers. This is more evident amongst the younger generation who underwent Chinese (Mandarin) School Systems.

The Matsu initiative in Taiwan is commendable and I had been to the Foochow language website. Although the accent is somewhat different to the one I am used to, I could immediately recognise the similarity and the many features it shares with the Foochow I know. There are so many Foochow idioms that are not satisfactorily represented by contemporary Chinese writing based on Mandarin-grammar of the North.

If drastic actions are not taken, I fear Foochow language heritage will disappear eventually although it will be a very gradual process.

Foochow kids in Malaysia and Taiwan should not be made to feel their language is inferior to that of Mandarin and Mandarinization policy of China and Singapore should be carried out with care and thoughtfulness. I believe every so-called Chinese Regional Dialect has a right to exist and to be preserved for posterity apart from Mandarin.

It saddens me a lot that Foochow-speaking individuals make the conscious efforts of not wanting to converse in Foochow. This attitude should change!

Posted by: Oliver Loi | January 28, 2008 09:14 AM

The Authors
Amanda Harris
Aidan Wilson
Hilario de Sousa
Ian Smith
Joe Blythe
Jane Simpson (This is a multi-authored blog, and the views expressed are those of the authors, not of PARADISEC or the University of Sydney. If you'd like to contribute, please let us know!)
James McElvenny
Linda Barwick (PARADISEC)
Tom Honeyman
Bill Foley

About the Blog
The Transient Building, symbolising the impermanence of language, houses both the Linguistics Department at Sydney University and PARADISEC, a digital archive for endangered Pacific languages and music.

Indigenous Language SPEAK A forum for linguists, language speakers, educators and any other interested people to discuss any issues regarding language loss, language research, and fieldwork methodology within indigenous communities.

PARADISEC The Pacific And Regional Archive for Digital Sources in Endangered Cultures

© 2008 The University of Sydney, NSW 2006 Australia. Phone +61 2 9351 2222.
ABN: 15 211 513 464 CRICOS Number: 00026A
Authorised by: Project Co-ordinator, PARADISEC.
The views expressed on this blog are those of the respective authors and not those of the University of Sydney.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Reliving the First Foochow Pioneers' Planting of Rice in Sibu

Sept 7th 2008. I had the opportunity to start planting organic hill rice with my friends (Chemical Engineer husband and Accountant wife) in Sg. Rait. The two have acquired this wonderful piece of land a few years ago and would like to start planting rice this year before going into oil palm in the future. They thought that I should be part of their rice planting team. I have been over the moon by the invitation.

I have been acquiring the Iban traditional terminology regarding the ancient ways of padi or rice planting from them and other friends. This morning I was introduced to NUGAL and several other terms.

Early in the morning,when the skies were still dark by an impending storm we moved towards the farm land which has been already cleared a month ago. We saw the burnt logs and the soggy ground ready to receive the seeds. The rain came down in a small drizzle. But the awakening earth was giving out its warm moist air to create a misty humid though refreshing little world.

A small ikan keli was caught in one of the streams by T and we thought that it was a good omen which augured a pleasant and hopeful planting. A boy was sent back to the base to prepare the fresh fish to be cooked in banana leaves and aluminium foil over the fire which had already been started.

Two ladies had started cooking lunch at the base. A pig had already been slaughtered as a token of gratitude to those who have come to nugal. This is an age old practice - the pig is so symbolic in the Iban culture.

The small offering is called BERDERA which would consist of anything actually but this one consisted of feathers (taken from the chicken already slaughtered for its blood) and which would be later eat for lunch,rice leaves of vegetables as a "gift" for the "spiritual owner" of the land on which the rice would be grown.

Nugal is an ancient Iban practice to start the padi planting season off. T and another man paid tribute to the spirits of nature asking for protection and forgiveness that he was making an indent into the environment. It was also an opportunity for the farmers to say a prayer for a peaceful season and a bountiful harvest. The peace offering was made and we started to dig holes and put seeds into the holes.

No machinery was used for the seeding. Just plenty of helpful hands and the bending of backs.

Grandmother of Jemut (Enek Jemut) is slight in size with the body a Caucasian model would envy (she is by nature extremely slim and a size 6) and has been a farmer for all her life. Planting rice is very much a part of her every day chores. She goes in her natural and as a- matter- of- fact way of putting or rather shooting the seeds accurately in the holes already prepared for her. Very close to nature she does not ever say that life is a burden. It is a life to be celebrated with joy and one must be close to mother earth. She enveloped me into her space even though I am from another culture. I like her philosophy of life.

When fellow villagers or friends gather together to put the seeds into the soil it is called BERBENIH in the Iban language. The women are particularly skilled in holding the seeds between the fingers and shooting the seeds into the holes already poked by the men. So in a way the men would walk ahead of the women and the planting goes on, at times ever so silently.

The seeds are traditional species which have been carefully selected by T and his wife. Such a selection is important to ensure a good crop and harvest next year. We prayed that all factors ,including God the Almighty ,will be in favour of our planting.

This gathering of friends and fellow villagers to help would with the seeding is called BERDUROK- and the work is done in rotation. A group would start with friend A's farm and the following week Friend A would go with the group to Friend B's farm until every member's farm is seeded. No one would attempt to refuse to help another. The social shame of unwillingness to help will be carried for generations. This is BERDUROK, a communal affair from ages ago. One for all and all for one. And in this way the Iban farming culture has been sustained healthily for ages.

As I stood watching the fire smouldering in the light rain I was reminded of the tough life that my grandfather had when he first came to Sarawak. Did all the Foochow pioneers help each other in this way when they first landed in Sibu or did they work in small family units or did the man and wife work on the land as a pair or was it just the man only? I know for a fact that 40 years later most of the women worked on the land themselves with help from their children which was the case of my aunts and cousins.

By mid day I was already wet from the rain and my feet had been caked by the soggy mud. I had fallen into a puddle as the ground was slippery being an urban woman not used to farming from scratch. Farming has never been easy. I could feel that my mud caked hair was in need of shampooing and sweat was flowing furiously down my back. It was a good thing that the sun was not its usual strength by mid day. Hunger pangs were long forgotten as we breathed in the smoke and the misty air.

We just needed water!!

Jokes were cracked to make the work lighter towards the end of the morning and work was nearly accomplished. Anecdotes were related as the women made sure that all holes were filled with the seeds tenderly. With each throwing of seeds a prayer was sent up to heaven for a blessing that the harvest would be plentiful in a world where food supply was in crisis. We were not allowed to comment unnecessarily on the forthcoming crop. In case the gods are jealous.

These are the first leaves of a pumpkin plant already growing. To me nature has been kind and is already telling us that there is still plenty of hope for those of us who are willing to work the soil. I am looking forward to eating my favourite vegetable,pumpkin, soon.

It must have been tough for my grandfather and his brother to plant their first rice in Sibu with all the other pioneers when the Foochows first arrived .They had to acclimatise themselves to the hot equatorial climes. Besides they had to fight against malaria,other fevers,insects and mosquitoes,and unfathomable secrets of the new land. They could have been terrified of the local natives who luckily were more friendly than not.

It was a not- to- be -missed -opportunity for me to be able to relive this experience,sharing this significant day with my friends. Thank you for this hands-on experience. And I shall be praying for a bountiful harvest.

Stay tuned for the next step of rice growing.


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