January 29, 2014

Sungei Merah Tales : The Wong Mansion

Growing up in Sibu has blessed me with a huge collection of stories from my extended family and friends who came from families close to my paternal grandfather and my father.

One of the experiences I had was related to a very delightful class mate, Catherine Wong whose roots were from Sungei Merah. Although she stayed with her mother and sisters in Sibu town, she gave me the opportunity to visit her grandmother in Sungei Merah with her It was quite convenient as during the holidays I ofen I stayed with my grandfather. Next door to her grandmother was Wong Chii Hui, another one of our classmates.When her mother was transferred to Kuching, she left to study in St. Mary's kuching.

Catherine and I continued to keep in touch over the years but we were reunited in MU. She was a brilliant science student and was good in music. Once while we were still undergraduates, we visited her grandmother's mansion in Sungei Merah. By then the once glorious mansion was a little "worn out by age".

Years later,she visited me twice in Miri on her way to the Mulu and KK. Old friends are like gold I would always say.




As kids we were very curious especially because our Headmaster was Mr. Wong Kie Mee, also lived along the same road.  Perhaps that was the main reason that we wanted to play along the foot path there!! It was fun hanging out in Sg. Merah and trying to find out what Mr. Wong was like outside the school. Wong Chii Hui was Mr. Wong's nephew and as a boy he was quite a gentleman already, leaving us to our whims and fancies. Wong Chii Hui's sister later married my father's cousin, also from Sungei Merah. How our families are intertwined and our stories have more and more threads.
Vivien Huang, the wife of Wong Cheng Ping and her sister in law.

During our visits to Sungei Merah we had several kinds of activities. We had time for each other without the interference of TV or even radio. We  went fishing like Huckleberry Fin and Tom Sawyer, and we played badminton. With just two rackets, Catherine and I could play for a long time, even though the shuttlecock was already beyond playworthy. But it was just fun chasing the shuttlecock.

Catherine's uncle was also my father's childhood friend. Both my father and Wong Cheng Ang went to study in China, and they were amongst the first to gain "overseas education". Both were fluent in English because of Mrs. JB Chong, my grand aunt.

 Wong Cheng Ang, owned a soy sauce factory which was sited below the hill where my grandfather's house was built. I remember seeing him many times. He was rather fair and a little stout. I remember him showing the huge earthern jars to my father and uncles during one of our visits. Of course in those days I was not interested in the production of soy sauce. The smell was not very attractive to my nose.

 I made friends with his naughty sons who were almost my age. My other companions were my young uncle and aunt, the 19th and 20th children of my grandfather!!

Wong Cheng Ang came from a very illustrious family headed by matriarch ,Mu Mu , or Cheng Ang Mu, Cheng Ang being the eldest. She had bound feet and was a determined woman to do all the right things for her children, like sending them to school, to learn English, and to employ workers to tap her rubber. She personally saw to the sale of her smoked rubber sheets in Sibu. In fact when I first met her, it did not appear to me that she had bound feet because she was so agile, so capable.

She single-handedly managed her properties by herself when her sons were away for their education. Her capabilities were legendary. Here is one : A lorry would send the smoked rubber sheets to Sibu and she would later arrive in Sibu to collect the cash. A relative once remarked, "She would slowly walk from Sungei Merah to Sibu...it could also be due to the fact that she suffered from motion sickness, or she did not want to pay the fare." Mu Mu was always very frugal like most Foochow pioneers. She made a fortune for her sons .

She owned 8000 rubber trees  and huge parcel of land from the time of Wong Nai Siong and she brought up her four boys and  several adopted girls (Her husband passed away very early). And to fullfill her dreams of having a beautiful house, she saw to the construction of one of the biggest modern and stately mansion in Sungei Merah before the Japanese Occupation. Two other houses were also remarkable - The Ting Mansion in Sg. Sadit and the Lau Mansion in Ensurai. Hence she was truly amongst the Top Ten Foochows of Sibu in the first half of the 20th Century.

It was fortunate that many of her grandchildren lived with her for a while or visited her from time to time. Towards the end of her life she saw many drastic changes in the social and political environment in Sibu.

This piece of land is now called the Nang Sang (Western Mountains) and has been developed into a huge residential area, next to the river.

Upon his return from China, as one of the first Foochow university graduates, Wong Cheng Ang , her eldest son, was made Principal of Tung Hua School (both primary and secondary) in 1938 -1939. This must have given her a lot of pride, Her heart must be almost bursting!! But when the Japanese came and she like all the other women faced many challenges because the Japanese were all out to "punish" the Chinese. Cheng Ang, like all the other young Chinese were made to build roads, and especially the Sibu Airport. The Japanese carried out searches in homes, destroying musical records, books, photos of any of the residents taken with the European officers. (That is the reason why there is a dirth of records in Sibu in particular and in Sarawak in general) (ref ; Japanese Occupation, Tan, Gabriel)

According to family stories, Wong Cheng Ang,a highly educated man, a graduate from Yen Ching University,Beijing, spent many years in Shanghai too attending Senior Secondary school. (To be verified by proper documents) In those days, the local Sibu boys were sent to Singapore and then Shanghai  even for secondary school education if the family could afford it. And definitely Mu Mu could afford it. She actually did send all her boys for higher education and tertiary education in China.

Wong Cheng Ang joined the Communist Movement in the 1960's and was later killed in Engkilo in 1971 (?) It was during this period of time that Sibu had to be placed under 24 hours of curfew for 72 days.

We often wondered in those days (when we were actually only children) why would a young and educated man like Wong leave the comfort of his family home to go into the jungle. Today we conditnue to ask," Was he so idealistic that he would give up all for his dreams?"

HOWEVER, I am reminded of a famous Chinese saying,"If you love money, you cannot bring about a revolution". Perhaps he was loyal to this ideal?
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P/s I would never dream that my association with this Wong family would bring me to cross path with an awesome new friend Prof Zhang Zhen who is now researching on a special period of Wong Cheng Ang's life, 1937 to 1942, in Sibu.

If you my dear readers have any knowledge of the Sibu history of that period, please let me know.

(Thank you Huang Lei and Dr, Zhang Zhen for the use of the photo)

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Did people call your Catherine Wong Poh Poh or Treasure? I remember Old Grandmother Wong bringing her around in Sg. Merah but I am not sure.

Anonymous said...

The communists in Sarawak were unlike the communists in Peninsular Msia. The Sarawak communists were trying to loiberate Sarawak in order to achieve independence for Sarawak. That is the reason when Peninsular Communist tried to ask Sarawak communist to unite with them, Sarawak communists refused as their objectives were different. Sarawak communists are more like a liberation movement caught in the cold world. When the British didnt support them by merging Sarawak into Msia, they have no choice by to cling to the left which of course is tragic taht is much like the Fretilin in East Timor and Papua mederka in West Papua. They, like Sarawak liberation movement, lean to the left. Lee kuan Yew was smarter. He, at first, lean towrd the communist but decided to purge the communists because he knew that it will not be acceptable to the British and will hinder Spore's future and with oit its 2 million people. had our Sarawak leader been more enlightened, it would be a different stoiries for everyone of us Sarawakians. I understand that the liberation movement even has a shadow cabinet- a mr ling is the foreign minister for Sarawak. Perhaps the libration movement has no choice but to obtain arms from Chian and therefre the communist ideology as well. And perhaps the liberation movement did not or was not given an opportunity to explain themselves..

Anonymous said...

Indeed, like Fretilin and West Papiua (once called Irian Jaya). Indonesian troops invaded West Papua dayas after Henry Kissinger visited Jakarta. The Americans were affriad that West Papu will go communists and their support was evident in Kissinger's visit. Similarly for East Timoer and te Fretilin. The American already lost the war in Indo CHina. It was aturbulent time when Laos, South Vietnam and Cambodia havr fallen to the communist faction. Myanmar was already a China ally. Imagine i the CIA did not manage to overthrow Sukarno and his communist Partai of Indonesia, then almost all of southeast Asia except Malaysia, brunei and Malaysia and also Thailand were communist. At that time Lee kuan Yew in Spore and Malaysian, Bruneian leaders were very afraid.

Anonymous said...

The writer C.H. Wong in using the example of a “Sarawak army” to reflect on the hudud debate has fortuitously sparked off an unintended and heated discussion by many readers in Free Malaysia Today web page.

The relevance of a Sarawak army existing legally is not a possibility as this may become a challenge to UMNO’s colonial authority and military occupation of Sarawak territory.

However for those who see that national independence from UMNO colonial rule cannot be achieved by peaceful means may consider a Sarawak army a necessity to free our country from foreign military occupation and rule.

There have been 2 home grown armies in Sarawak history.

The first was a small army the Sarawak Rangers formed with Dayak tribesmen by the Brooke government in 1862 to defend territory it seized from the Brunei Sultanate during Brooke territorial expansion over 150 years ago. They became the renown jungle fighters who in turn served British and Malayan UMNO colonialism in the post WW2 period.

The second army was that formed by the anti-Malaysia independence movement comprising the Sarawak People’s Guerrilla Forces (1965) and the People’s Army of North Kalimantan (PARAKU 1969).

This army was formed to defend and fight for Sarawak independence from 1965 to 1990. This continued the anti-Malaysia Brunei Uprising of Dec 8 1962 to 1965 by the Tentara Nasional Kalimantan Utara (TNKU) army (led by Brunei People’s Party) against the British idea to force Brunei Sabah and Sarawak into their new colonial creation “Malaysia”.

Sarawak Rangers instead of rising to fight for independence or even defend natives from land grabs had been used to fight TNKU and PARAKU independence fighters to secure Malayan colonial annexation and rule of Sarawak and Sabah.

History will judge as to who are the real Sarawak patriots.

Readers can follow the debate on the merits of a Sarawak Army on this link

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The Lau Clan of Sibu. Headed by Lau Kah Tii (Headman). 1933. Photo most probably taken by Rev. Hoover who was a good friend of the family....