Thursday, October 30, 2008

Sunderlands and Catalinas: "Flying Boats" or Buoi Sung of Sibu 1945-1952

My Fourth Aunt escaped from an arranged and forced marriage by going on a slow boat to Kuching and then Singapore just before the Japanese arrived. She went on to be one of the best senior nurses in Singapore after a very lonely and courageous personal fight against all odds. Her first plane ride was very much later in her life. My Goo Poh (Tiong Yuk Ging) came back from China after the fall of the Japanese by a very slow boat, the first one out of Foochow City in 1945. Again her first plane ride was very much later in life. Today none of us could even need to go on a slow boat to Singapore. We just click on the internet and get a ticket to fly to any place in the world. Now everyone can fly according to Airasia. And one can fly to Timbuktoo within very reasonable time.

In the 50's most people travelled by coastal boats from one town to another in Sarawak or by the regular steam ships to Singapore and Europe. One could however fly from Singapore then.

The first plane over Sibu was in 1930's which took aerial photos of the town. There was a hangar in Sibu too but it was soon forgotten. Later the Japanese planes came and then the Allied Australian Forces arrived to defeat the Japanese.

The intermediate years of 1945 and 1952 saw frequent landings of the Sunderlands and Catalinas. Today not many people remember those days and not much has been written about them. Then the Dakotas and the Twin Otters started to fly all over Borneo in the 60's.

A Sunderland Model

Sunderland (Museum in New Zealand)


A beautiful painting of a Catalina

Another Sunderland

These flying boats were seen landing with a big splash in the Rejang between 1945 and 1952 . In fact there are several interesting facts related to the Sunderland and the Catalina Flying Boats in Sarawak . Indeed they were actually very famous planes which dominated the skies in the 1930's to 1950's. They made a very significant mark in world aviation history. Aviation museums all over the world have models of them on display. Many paintings of them are lovingly kept by former air force personnel who were involved in flying them. Many paintings were also seen in museums the world over. In fact many documents also record the thousands of lives they saved.

Perhaps not many people today can remember seeing them in Sarawak. My mother and her siblings were teenagers then and they have recollection of the Flying Boats. In Foochow dialect they are called Bui Soon . Exactly - Flying Boats.

Because the Sibu Airport was damaged by the war these flying boats came in handy and at the right time. While the Sunderland were huge RAF four-engined flying boats the Catalinas were twin-engined. Both were used to transport many especially the POW who required urgent medical attention to Labuan after the war.

The Foochows from the villages and the town people crowded on the bank of the Rejang when a Sunderland flew in with the Rajah Sir Charles Vyner Booke and Ranee Sylvia for their last farewell visit to Sibu. Right after the war the people were still quite numbed and they probably did not realise that it was a monumental event which ended 100 years of Brooke Rule.

A Sunderland also brought Rt Hon Malcolm MacDonald in his first visit to Sibu. This was quite an event for many especially the headmen of Sibu. the Malay and Iban leaders lined up to greet him. So did the Foochow headmen. There were a lot of hands being shaken and much English was spoken that day to the delight of MacDonald. He wrote very positively about the local people whom he grew to love.

And sadly Duncan Stewart the second British Governor of Sarawak who was fatally hurt in Sibu by Rosli Dhoby and his friends was flown out of Sibu by a Sunderland to Singapore for treatment. He did not recover from his wound.

When the old Sibu airport was repaired and completed in 1952 these Flying Boats were not seen again in the Rejang River.

Today we can still see Sunderlands in aviation museums in New Zealand for example. The newer versions of Catalinas are still being flown in many islands for transport and tourism purposes.

Sources : 1. Tan Gabriel : Japanese Occupation : Sarawak - a Passing Glimpse
3. http ://

9 memories:

天鵝江畔 said...

According The Dictionary of the Foochow Dialect,1929,fly = buoi, but aeroplane =hi-gi, I think flying boat only talk in Sibu - buoi-sung

sarawakiana said...

Thanks ML for the explanation.

These flying boats are very interesting. I am sure there are a lot of stories related to them in Sibu.

Bengbeng said...

amazing post. is all new to me. fantastic recollections of the past.

sarawakiana said...

Thank you. I am still trying to get stories from older people about these planes.

May be you could be of help too. Old people like small talk about the past. But some are seriously defensive. So getting inside stories can be difficult. I have often be given some leads but then the telephone slammed down rudely. I do appreciate handphones on the other hand. The clicking off is gentler on the ears than the slamming of the fixed phones!!

Keep our history real and alive!!

Bengbeng said...

the thing abt older folks is we mus do things at a slower pace. :) good luck!

sarawakiana said...

Dear Beng Beng

Thanks for your encouragement. Sometimes collecting oral tradition can be such an uphill task especially when I have to use different languages (Mandarin Foochow etc) Translation is tough because we have to be so careful too. And sometimes I do wish I am back in Sibu.

It is quite a lonely kind of hobby for me. But every day I do a one day jadi bukit a way I am telling mother's stories to my children. So that is the true upside of the whole game.

Free Bird said...

Flying boats is a rarity. We can only see them in movies now. I didn't know we had those in Sarawak! One day I hope I can buy an antique one and bring my paretns for a ride in one.

sarawakiana said...

It is nice to hear from you!

Catalinas are still flying all over the world especially in the islands of the Pacific.

It is wonderful to know that young people have dreams which include their parents. You are a rarity too.

scott davidson said...

Wow. Fantastic monster there. The urbanity monster striding forth, as it does in most cities of the world. Nice hand-drawn banner too. Something like this image, , by French painter Fernand Léger, maybe effective painted large on a wall too, acknowledged as a copy of course. It can be seen at and a canvas print of it can be ordered from there.


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