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.
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. )