July 31, 2009

Paper Bags - Bitter Sweet Memories of Childhood

I have always looked at paper bags all my life with respect and awe and enjoy using or reusing them.I have a few very good ones in my collection as "souvenirs". You must think that it is unusual.

When we were young and having just lost our dear father my siblings and I had to help our mother make ends meet. My mother was just 40 and I was barely 16. And worst of all my youngest brother was only ll months old.

And one of the money earning means which all of us could easily do was gluing or makihg paper bags for a family friend's sundry shop - Chop Chai Hong - just near by and within walking distance. We kids would collect use-able paper (which included the reccyle-able hard parchment paper used to make cement paper bags)from the towkay or just any one who would not mind giving us useable paper. Luckily we did not have to go to a rubbish tip to collect the paper!

Mum would boil the glue (using tapioca flour) over the wood fire in our traditional Foochow stove. To this day I can recognise the sourish smell from boiling starch. In fact later on in life I used to make my own glue for my children when they had to "cut and paste" for their art work. (This is different from "cut and paste" of our computer age.)I taught my children that if we could make it ourselves we did not have to buy it.

And I remember how the whole brood of my siblings would be at the "home assembly line" making paper bags! From the parchment paper we glued together perhaps many tons of paper bags in exchange for rice and corn. Paper bags made from newspapers were used by the shop keepr to hold lighter sundry goods like green beans and red beans or peanuts. the strong paper bags we made were used to fill rice and corn kernels. Some were used to fill broken pieces of charcoal.

These were days before plastic bags or raffia strings in the 60's. Each paper bag of sundry goods would be tied together by a gunny or hemp string or just a kiam chow (natural straw). The straw or gunny string would come from a tin hung overhead. It was amazing how innovative Mr. Chiong was. (Mr. Chiong who was the owner of Chop Chai Hong was a typical Foochow shop keeper who on hot days never even wore s shirt! But later on in life he wore very well ironed Dacron shirt most probably from Ngui Kee.)

Mr. Chiong would use a felt pen to write the weight and the price of the good. So it was very easy to calculate how much the customer bought. This was also a very practical way of learning maths! I learned to calculate mentally in this way. We all had to calculate well because we did not want to be cheated of our precious money.

In retrospect we had a wonderful and memorable childhood albeit with a touch of great sadness and loss of a loved one - the gluing bonded us and we learned great economic and domestic lessons. Furthermore we learned to treasure time and would not waste it by lazing around.

In fact I am so glad that we "survived" and kept ourselves well above poverty line. Some selfish relatives would only have been happy to see us in the dumps. Sometimes whenever I think of the past experiences I am very tempted to write a TV drama including these childhood experiences as they would be just the right ingredients.

This is a paper bag used by Body Shop and I really like the social touch the company has.

I am glad that many school teachers are still teaching their students how to make paper bags as part of their English lessons. (Listening to instructions).

But for me paper bags always remind me of hardship and growing up without a father. But on the other hand they too remind me of my mother's selfless sacrifices and how the family worked hard but struggling in harmony and unity.

Some one said this to me a long time ago in Chinese : "Little weeds can only grow up strong when nurtured by strong winds and rain".


pennylane said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
pennylane said...

I know a story my mother told me once about a snobbish cousin of hers. she asked if mother knew what english tea was... she's a bitter old lady... horrigible relatives.

Anonymous said...

for me,glueing paper bags reminds me of the time when my parents brought home a lot of this small plastic trophy cups to assemble-1 trophy cup done for 5cents.well,those were the days - the "hard" times,hehe.. Ngaochai

Uncle Lee said...

Hello Sarawakiana, very interesting posting. Regret to read of your dad.
Your mentioned of relatives, in some ways I am happy to be oceans and mountains apart from relatives.

Wow, this is the first time I read of home made paper bags.
Toronto has very recently got all shops, supermarkets to stop giving out paper or plastic bags....the usual hoo haa about environment and landfills.

But you can still get them if forget to bring your own bag to market.
5 cents per bag.
Thus my car now has 4 cloth bags for our marketing and shopping.
But I love being cheeky and carry my wife's La Vie En Rose bag....everyone knows what that store sells, ha ha.
You have a beautiful Sunday, best regards, Lee.

Sarawakiana@2 said...

Dear Pennylane
(I still do not have the comma key) . Many snobbish ladies have their own special quirks and are stuff for novels and general fiction.
There are ladies who only ONLY drink Earl Grey. Some ONLY drink Green Tea...the list goes on....We just have to be tolerant and smile. I drink any thing offered by a good friend.
Graciousness goes a long long long way.
Have a good heart...and good days will be yours.

Sarawakiana@2 said...

May be I am too old for trophy cups - and you got 5 cents for each one...that was good money!!
We were paid very little but in exchange we obtained several katis of corn for our chickens and also some sugar and flour if we chose.
This was good experience for us .
Thanks for dropping by.

Sarawakiana@2 said...

Dear Uncle Lee
Nice of you to visit. This is Sunday evening - 4:24 p.m and many are getting ready to go for their Sunday walks/jog.
Miri supermarkets have started to use cloth bags...but after a month or so the cloth bags just disintegrate.
I have bought my own very good cloth bag which also doubles as the bag to hold my purse etc.
Many of us are thinking of going back to the rattan basket days...those used in Penang and Malacca.
Le Vie En Rose? Hahaha...we don't have that up scale shop yet...Well no harm having a man who appreciates good stuff....
Have a good Sunday!

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