January 22, 2011

Breakfast in Kanowit : Kampua Mee and Kopi-0

Kanowit occupies a special place in my heart.

My first thoughts -
There is a popular Foochow saying which goes "Round also can. Flat also can." This refers to a person who is very malleable and congenial. He does not really have a mind of his own and he does what is asked. Go with the flow. Even if it is not just. In fact many people belong to this category. Men and women without a strong mind of their own. But to the leaders they are good people.

I am often reminded of this saying whenever I eat my Foochow kampua noodles. Each time I order a bowl of kampua mee the stall owner would ask me "round or flat'? I would always order round noodles. Why would I never order flat noodles?

 I would say "I always order round noodles."
Now thoughts about Kanowit

It is a lovely riverine town with a beautiful Brooke Fort (Fort Emma) and was home to me for a whole year. I loved the way I had to cross the Rajang each evening for a lovely cup of kopi-o in the bazaar. I loved the way my colleagues and I paid special attention to the little food stuff we could buy in the few small shops (e.g. Hock Tong Seng ) and the coffee shop we frequented as a group.

I loved the way our SEDAYA boat man(Tinggal) would take us across the fast flowing river right on the dot at 4:30 each evening of the week days. I love the way my friends continue to be my friends until today. We still call each other and remember the happy days we had in Sedaya (acronym for Sekolah Datuk Abdul Rahman Yakub) and not KSS (Kanowit Secondary School) as founded by the Colombo Plan and New Zealand Government way back in the 1950's.

I died a few hundred deaths when my young husband had to send emergency cases (students with appendicitis) down the river in the school speedboat in the middle of the night. I would imagine how a log would hit his boat and he would drown or the speed boat would jump onto a sandbank where a crocodile would have him and the boatman for a midnight feast . The night would be spent waiting for him to return and another day would start with all the students having breakfast and he (without any sleep at all) announcing that the student was in good hands in the Lau King Howe Hospital.

So in this article I remember with fondness the ever faithful Tinggal the boatman who could sling a 40 horsepower outboard engine across his shoulders like an Olympian. My family and I have been wondering what he is doing now after his retirement. Did he go back to his kampong? Did the government treat him well? He gave almost all his life to the government as a boatman of a government secondary school. His rewards would not be a BBS or an AMN.....but I am sure all the teachers and students would rmember him well and "belanja" (give him a treat) in Kanowit.

And 35 years later I would come here again to sit in a new Kanowit coffee shop and enjoy a breakfast (for the first time in my life) of Foochow kampua mee and kopi-o with my young Sibu Foochow friends. We staff in those days would never cross the river to have breakfast in Kanowit. It would have been a great crime.
Pulut Panggang (look just like all those years ago)
Slightly different in taste now.
Iban men using chopsticks

A group of Foochow men sharing a nice breakfast (there were very few Foochows then in Kanowit) And most of the Foochows from Kanowit speak good Iban which is the lingua franca here.
An Iban family enjoying a nice breakfast - Kampua mee is a food which is borderless.
The ubiquitous Kampua Mee - this is Kampua mee Black (ie with black soy sauce)
Is Kampua Mee the domain of the Foochows? You are right - the stall owner is a Foochow after we interviewed him.
It is a small world afterall.
Now that I am retired I look at the place and think what would have happened if I have stayed on in Kanowit all these years.

And then I look at the noodles and kopi-o in front of me and my friends - how much have really changed. Not one in the town recognised me....And I only recognise the names of the shops and remember the things they are selling. Most of the shop keepers are new or they were children when I was here. The very old ones are very very old.

Shadows fade away as the sun rises above our heads.

There is a special bitter sweet taste in my coffee.


Anonymous said...

Many Chinese stayed in the rural area and made a lot of money. I always wondered if their kids were able to get the best education like their counterparts in Sibu, Miri and Kuching. For sure, their kids would not return to the rural area once they have a life in the big towns.

In the future, would kampua be 'buak' (foochow, but am not sure if it originated from buat in malay...) by the Ibans?

Jean said...

elderly citizens having good times together

Daniel Yiek said...

Kanowit was important in the history of Sarawak but seems like development has left it behind. Just like Bintangor.

Ah Ngao said...

pulut panggang one of my fav early morning i combination with my kopi-o. sometime roti toast gu yui with a small splintering of sugar( lau cheng hu roti)

Jay said...

How nice if I could have an opportunity to join you in kanowit. My last trip to kanowit was somewhere in the middle of 2009.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, kanowit is a historical place!!

Jason said...

Kanowit, I remember this town very well. If one ride the express boat from Sibu to Kapit during the 80s, all boats must stop in Kanowit. Then the packed kampua mee seller and packed drink seller would rush to the boat hoping to sell a pack or two, they would shout mee, mee to the passengers. Wonder if they are still around waiting for the boat to come.
Kanowit a town just cannot wait

Sarawakiana@2 said...

dear Anonymous 1
The Chinese parents who made a lot of money in the rural areas via their Bandung Boat or conventional tuck shop or even shops like in Lubok Antu remain behind and allow their children to expand outside the rural areas in Sarawak. However not all had gone off. Some children do remain as they could make a living out of their birth places. However many like in Limbang have prospered overseas like those from Sibu and Kuching. So it really depends on the pockets of the parents and the intelligence of the children. Chinese diaspora. But I am very impressed by many Lubok Antu and Sri Aman Chinese who have assimilated into the local culture.
Many Malays and Ibans have learnt to "buak" kampua. No doubt about it. Chefs who are keen to learn can do anything from other cultures. It is part and parcel of learning and interest. Thanks for dropping by.

Sarawakiana@2 said...

Jean...thanks for dropping by. It is always a joy to see senior citizens enjoying their breakfast no matter how simple it is...but again simple food is perhaps the greatest joy in life.

Sarawakiana@2 said...

Kanowit is indeed a historic town but changes are definitely coming to the place. I can see that it is thriving indeed and this will depend more on the people who are resilient and determined to succeed!

Sarawakiana@2 said...

Dear Ah Ngao...nice to hear from you!! This is the first time I hear the term "lau cheng hu roti". I know a place in Seria selling toasted bread with lots of butter and sprinkling of sugar...and half boiled eggs...Colonial breakfast!!
I remember that this kind of breakfast was on the menu in Government Rest Houses....and it would be served by a Chinese or Malay "houseboy" or cook. That was a long long time ago...
ah the charcoal toasted sandwich bread slices!! How aromatic and nostalgic!!

Sarawakiana@2 said...

Jay...you must always go back to visit Kanowit before it changes too much!!

Sarawakiana@2 said...

Anonymous 2
Kanowit is also one of the earliest places to be settled by the Hokkiens in Sarawak. The Hokkiens must have written a lot about their settlement here. Some of the earliest rubber and pepper estates were grown here by the Hokkiens and Cantonese too. And I also have heard that many Chinese baby girls were "given" away to the Ibans and Malays here before the Japanese arrived. Now there would be many wonderful stories to tell.....cheers.

Ann said...


For my CNY present, please sent me a ticket back to Sarawak. I really miss the kam pua, and the pulook pangang.

Whic house did you stay in Govt Sec School. Won't be be uncanny if you stayed in the house I lived in when I was 4 years old. We lived for one year in the first house. Learned from TV today, it is called Quantum Entanglment.

Sarawakiana@2 said...

Jason...yes there is another story of a Colonial Officer who called out "Wait! Wait!" to a boatman who "cannot wait"....there are many versions of this story....thanks for dropping by.

Sarawakiana@2 said...

Hi Ann...
Wish you can come back to Sarawak...and have all the kampua you can have...and also all the pulut pangang...Because C was Principal we had Father's House....on the hilll...but by then almost all the furniture and utilities were all gone.

I like that Quantum Entanglement. Must learn more about it...I am dreaming of a dream visit to NZ too....

Ah Ngao said...

dear CY,you like my expression - "lau cheng hu..",eh? well,here goes(a bit off topic,i know).
may be Sarawak will much better(possibly better than S'pore) under British colony rule, at least under the Queen's order just like autonomous rule Australia or New Zealand. We all assured to enjoy: Excellent education system, we speak real London English daily, very efficient modern public administration, regional ASEAN investment and shipping hub, perhaps the last of crown jewel of the Queen, very topnotch highways, very international airports and public transport...and etc,etc

Sarawakiana@2 said...

Hi Ah Ngao...yes..lau cheng e kah hor...bor pian lan....ka patut...bor tang hu....but it was sad that at that time the British Government felt that it was too bankrupt after the war...if only they knew that Sarawak had more oil to gather and more timber to exploit!!

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