|Photo by Sarawakiana|
When a Foochow baby was on the way, both the maternal and paternal Foochow grandmothers in Nang Chong would start raising a brood of chickens for the forthcoming confinement.
The whole village would thus be indirectly informed of the good news. The grapevine would have heavy news traffic and even a few letters would be sent to China via Hock Chiong to announce the good news to relatives in Far Away Tong Sang.
I loved the "talk" surrounding the rearing of such chickens.
I remember grandma Lien Tie would say happily that the baby would be a boy on the account that the brood had more male birds than female birds!! A fortune could even be told about the sex of a child via the rearing of chickens! Amazing.
More chicken fencing would be bought from Uncle Wong's shop next to Moi Soung Coffee Shop in Sibu. Uncle Wong's children are Wong Lee Kee, Philip Wong and Tommy Wong who went to school with me. My grandmother was from the Tiong Clan and was very closely related to Lee Kee's mother who was also a Tiong. She would return home to Nang Chong with a small roll of Tiek Siang Bi or wire mesh or chicken fencing. This tell tale sign would bring those passengers in the boat to exclaim, "Going to have a new grand child?" And every one would be beaming away.
A new baby would always bring a lot of warm comrade-ly conversation in the boat. And grandmother would of course be very excited about the whole situation.
It would be tragic if a brood met with a sudden "chicken plague" or Buok Cheong in Foochow. This chicken sickness /viral attack would spread along all the villages in the Rajang Valley like wild fire. Chickens would just die over night. A plague like this would send a few Agricultural Officers from Sibu down to the riverine villages to check the health of other animals too. This kind of tragic animal plague was quite a frequent occurrence. And the farmers would just be so devastated and of course there would be a real dent in their savings. Sometimes a festival would go without a chicken or two.( I believe that the Agricultural Office later advised all farmers to have their chickens inoculated. )
If a brood of chicken died in this way, the grandmothers would have to make other plans and extra money had to be spent. This would therefore be extra burden on the new parents and the in laws.
However a saving Foochow gotong royong practice would be the rallying around of kind aunties and uncles who would bring a chicken when they visited to "see" their new born relative. This kind gift of a country bred free range chicken or "sending peace" Serng Ang was indeed a great Foochow gesture. Some even brought a whole cage of chickens to repay a kindness or just to indicate good relationship or show respect.
My father had helped many people in many ways as he was a kind man and a good negotiator and so my mum was blessed by gifts of live chickens when she had her confinements. My maternal grandmother too reared chickens in Nang Chong for my mother. While we were living in Kerto, my father also reared chickens but on several occasions the snakes came and literally "swallowed" several chickens each time. The guilty python would be in a dazed mood for a while and that was the time my father would take his gun and make a killing. The Hua Hong employees would have a feast that evening. But it did end my father's endeavour to rear chickens for the family and we depended on chickens from Nang Chong.
Some expectant mothers could also get a few of their relatives to rear their confinement chickens. They called this "bok" . They would buy 30 chicks and send these chicks down river. Corn meal would also be sent to their relatives for the chickens. After eight months, the chickens would be ready for slaughter.
For a good Foochow confinement, every day, one chicken would be slaughtered for the new mother. If relatives came to see the new born, another one would be slaughtered for the mee sua and chicken in wine. I remember an egg would be also added to the mee sua. A red egg would indicate a male child and an uncoloured egg was for a baby girl. In those days, no visitors would leave the home without a mee sua treat.
This was the normal practice for relatives to bring life chickens as gifts. Some generous relatives would even bring a few katis of mee sua, some biscuits (Jacobs), a dozen or two eggs.
This cycle of Foochow Goodwill seems to have stopped with the abandonment of Foochow village life, but it has evolved into other forms of goodwill and good neighbourliness.
However the art of Foochow gift giving will continue and gifts of chickens would always be such a good memory in our minds.