October 22, 2021

Sibu Tales : Of Sandwiches and Men

I was a temporary teacher in a secondary school,in between University semesters, just to earn a bit of pocket money. I enjoyed learning and teaching at the same time, for after all I was going to take up a post graduate diploma in education soon.

Teaching included afternoon classes for the less able students whom I loved. I would sacrifice a good lunch at home by having my own simple packed lunch of peanut butter or just jam sandwiches and a hot flask of Nescafe. Sometimes I would spend some extra on a bowl of kampua ordered from a coffee shop. It would be a treat, and if only a few others were ordering, for the coffee boy would not deliver if the order was too few. The school clerk would do the ordering. 

There was only one telephone in the school at that time. So many of us had no telephone at home, thus ordering by phone was like magic. 

Photo of lovely sandwiches by Phyllis Wong

Among the more senior teachers (those who taught Forms Four and Five),was a new Maths graduate who came back from New Zealand. He was big headed and so full of himself. He even looked down upon local university graduates!!

One afternoon he came to look at my packed lunch of peanut butter sandwiches ...I cheekily offered him a sandwich.

He sneered,"I only eat Ham Sandwiches, not jam or peanut butter sandwich."

Well, such arrogance. A lot went through my head and I never spoke to him again. I really took the rebuff very seriously.

After that incident, whenever someone suggested a sandwich lunch in an expensive high end cafe, I would say that I preferred a kopi tiam kampua.

I was so traumatized that I hate men who like ham sandwiches, or expensive sandwiches. Now that sourdough sandwiches and other high end sandwiches are in the market, I still have that horrible stomach ache starting up. And I really have an aversion for them.

A young lady's emotional wounds are hard to cure. I have so many emotional scars!!

Although I continue to make lots of sandwiches in my life I don't think I would not offer them to arrogant men.

(P,S. I trained my son never to reject food offered by someone, take a small portion and accept with lots of grace, and praise God for the food. Bless the hands which prepare the food.)

October 19, 2021

Hairdressing during the Japanese Time

 Girls did not really keep long hair during the Japanese Occupation.

My mother and her sister had to cut their hair very short to look like boys. My maternal grandfather was a part time barber and he did most of the hair cutting for the families who lived around them. Mothers would bring their babies and little children for free hair cut. Perhaps that was how our eldest uncle Lau Pang Ping learned how to cut men;s hair and later he worked in a barber shop in sibu whenever there was nothing to do at the wharf after the war.

My father's siblings visiting the newly married Third sister Pearl in Ensurai 1939. Note their short hair cut which was already a fashion in those days.

On the other hand, most young ladies liked to keep a bit of long hair.

The coconut bob WW2 style.

But according to my cousin, Yew Ping, all of the girls in the family, including our younger aunts, had to sport short hair and the family barber was our second uncle Tiong Siew King.

He would all cut hair short, and above the ears!! The Foochows then called this hair cut Ngi Yang Geng. The height of the ears. No one dared to argue against him. He would clip their ears on purpose if they were rebellious.

And the girls would cry for days because they did not like to look like boys. For them as they were only teenagers, they did not know the dangers of being sighted by a Japanese soldier because they were living far away from Sibu.


The girls would call the styles coconut or mushroom hairstyle. It was still very clear to them that long hair meant elegance, but the men would have not allowed long hair for girls at all.

And I think my mother and her sister just hated girls  who had long hair throughout their lives. They associated long hair with witches. And long hair was also associated with lice.

Those who lived near Sibu had to cut their hair short and make their faces black by putting mud on their face as they went to do farm work.

Some became naturally dark or tanned when they worked under the sun. Some girls even cut their own hair very unevenly to look unsightly.

While those who did not want to do farm labourers' work, they got married and have a baby or two by the end of the Japanese Occupation when they were hardly 16 or 17 years old.

War time was definitely not a time for girls to think about beauty and hair care. They had to save their own lives and honour.

October 16, 2021

Sibu Tales : Flannelette Pajamas

 My mother's second sister in law (Ting Ing Nga) was Fresh off the Boat (FOB) from Fuzhou city, a young college educated pretty lady who wore make up, cheongsam, full stockings (all her life) and was very well spoken. She was always well groomed from top to bottom all her working life. She was  a very good Chinese literature teacher (guo wen).

Her life has always been known to be a good one, with a most loving and obedient husband, obedient and professional sons and two beautiful daughters ( with datin titles). She was the envy of the villagers of downriver Sibu. Each time she took a boat ride to Sibu, people would crowd around her to listen to her speak (Fuzhou city accent) and to seek her advice. Some just admired her beauty.

It was her determination at a young age to get a job for herself and my uncle which made her a popular legend in those days. At first she was teaching in Tiing Nang Primary School and my uncle was in Sarikei Chinese Primary school after they arrived from China. One day she heard that there were two openings for teachers in Tien Ching Primary School, in Bukit Lan, about half an hour by motor launch from my grandmother's house and may be a little longer by a rowing boat. 

In her own words, "I walked barefooted on the hot mud road, and left the river bank house by the last boat to Bukit Lan. I knew my uncle was there and I had to get word to him saying that both of us needed the jobs in the primary school, so that we could be together, as a couple and with our baby daughter. I could not live apart from him. It was unthinkable (absurd) we had to write letters to each other every day and send them by motor launch. Furthermore it was not even easy to see each other every weekend."

It was unthinkable in those days for the local born to think of this Fuzhou City girl  walking barefoot on a hot earth road for 40 minutes to catch a motor launch. Even today, it is difficult to imagine it. She said she was so determined that she did not care what my grandmother would say. She just left her baby with her and waited for the boat to come. She did not even care where she would spend the night as she had to take the morning motor launch home, the next available boat. She was so determined to change her fate.

All the events led to a happy ending for by the end of term, my aunt and uncle were reunited by the good will and recommendations of Uncle Ting. Thus they taught in the same school for the rest of their lives and raised a family. They also left the family mansion, renting their unit to a tenant. They were never to move back to the extended family home.

Thus she set up her own independent home in the school. First in her mind, she was to buy a sewing machine and make clothes for her children.

When she received her salary, she would make a boat journey of 2 hours to Sibu and buy materials to make clothes for her children. She was a provident mother who wanted her children to wear long sleeves to protect themselves from the marauding mosquitoes which she hated so much!!.

Today her children remember how she chose the best of flannelette ( mien hua buoh) for pajamas. Those materials were pretty, floral for the girls and checks for the boys. She bought the material from Tai Loong, a leading textile shop in High Street in Sibu. Tai Loong in those days imported the best of textiles from England and Japan , via Singapore.


Flannelette pajama top.


This shop called Tai Loong is still operating in Sibu.


Because she was the only lady teacher (from China), she was very well respected by the villages and pupils. They often came by to see what she was doing. We all thought that she was quite a celebrity.

But what her children remember was the fact that every villager would say how beautiful their pajamas were. Not every one could afford flannelette pajamas. But my aunt then insisted that her children must wear the soft,  thick material to sleep in.

When her two sons went to Taiwan to study, she made many flannelette pajamas for them to bring along. They were soon to realize how wise their mother was. The warm pajamas helped them endure the cold winter in Taiwan. My aunt of course knew what cold winters could be like because she was born in Fuzhou City, Fujian.

Today, when my cousins and I get together we still talk about how our mothers sewed our pajamas, using Singer Sewing machine. My aunt's sewing machine is still with her in Sibu, while my mother's sewing machine is in Kuching.

October 15, 2021

Planting Padi during Japanese Occupation

Bintangor was further away from Sibu and the resourceful Foochows who owned land there brought a lot of the the swamp areas under padi cultivation during the Japanese Occupation.

Many of the original Foochow pioneers who were led there by Ling Ming Lok, Rev Yao Shao King and my grandfather Tiong Kung Ping, were given 10 acres each by the Rajah, by agreement to start a Foochow settlement there. There were already Cantonese and Hokkiens in the area. The agreement was signed in 1922. Binatang town at that time had only one row of wooden and simple shops, probably numbering about 5 units.

Within 20 years the Foochows prospered and a few more wooden shops were built. My grandfather started the Mee Ann Rice Mill and Sawmill, while Ling Ming Lok planted rubber and fruit trees. Rev Yao was more into starting a school and church. My grandfather acquired more land for his rubber, and padi. More Foochows had also arrived from Fujian during those 20 years and villages like Tulai, Mang Kwong, Boleh Gerng,etc began to grow.

By 1942, it was remarkable that away from the prying eyes of the Japanese, the Foochows and Ibans were able to plant and harvest rice, thus supporting the population to a certain extent. 

In fact according to Foochow historian, Lau Tze Cheng, the Japanese had a padi programme, which required the Chinese to grow rice. They exacted a heavy tax on the harvest. In retaliation many Foochows managed to smuggle a part of their produce by sending  small bags of padi by boat at night. A few oral accounts were recorded, including one from my maternal uncle, Lau Pang Hung who risked his life to transport grains to a hidden storage house by boat. He was only 15 years old at that time.

Those who planted rice without suppression especially the Ibans from the Japanese had enough rice to eat. Those with bigger families and lived nearer Sibu, suffered from lack of rice. The various rice mills which were operating then had to pay a rice tax to the Occupation army. Many Ibans came to mill their rice in Binatang and sold their rice to the Japanese who were quite willing to pay good money.

The resulting shortage of rice was the order the of the day. Many families had to supplement their diet with  tapioca, wild yams, sago and what ever food they could forage from the jungle. The Japanese however did not suppress the Malays and the Ibans.

This photo was taken in the UK. My father visited his 4th brother who
was studying in the UK.
                         My 4th uncle was the tallest of the Chang brothers,almost 6 foot tall.                                                         He worked the hardest during the Japanese Occupation, planting rice.


My grandfather was very resilient and was able to feed his family well. He continued to run his rice milling business in Binatang and had labourers to plant rice, on a share basis.

My uncles planted padi and experienced the hard life of rice planters. Their legs soaked in mud for hours throughout the planting season caused severe swelling and pain. My 4th uncle expecially suffered from swollen legs because he was just a teenager then. The long hours he had to spend on planting wet padi gave him a lot of health problems. But luckily after the war, he was able to further his studies in Singapore and the UK and finally becoming an engineer.

How he must have suffered during the 3 years 8 months of Japanese Occupation. 

But Grandfather was farsighted because he made sure that his family was away from the watchful eyes of the Japanese. During the planting season, the daughters and sons lived in the rice farm house along the Meradong River. 

The girls reared chickens and ducks and cooked for the boys and some workers. Their Chinese New Year in Binatang saw quite a big feast!! My aunt said that during the Japanese Occupation all of them became extremely dark due to the long hours they had to work under the sun.

My aunt remembers that they had three good crops of rice and they were never short of white rice to eat. But it was hard for them. They were in the sun and rain most of the time. They had to look for vegetables in the jungle and they had to paddle their small boat to obtain rice husk from the rice meal for the farm animals.

Another aunt said that life in those days made the siblings bond extremely well.

October 13, 2021

Memories : Japanese Language School and Transport Company

 In 1942 when the Japanese started to run all the businesses in Sibu, the local Foochows, Malays and Ibans were strictly forbidden to do any free trade. As all existing trade relations were stopped and only Japanese could do any transaction regarding importing of goods and selling items, Foochow traders who dealt with Singapore trading houses felt the strain and stress of Japanese monopoly. In fact many had to over come the situation by going back to barter trading. 

Furthermore only Japanese ships could ply between Singapore and Sibu.

A coupon system was started to the dismay of the locals.

It was a very restrictive kind of economy and civil society was very much affected.

Schools were closed while Japanese classes were opened . My aunts and other school going age children had the options to go to Japanese language school run in Tung Hua Secondary School while Yuk Ing Girls School was completely closed. 

Only Tung Hua School was opened and those very few Chinese teachers who were selected to teach Japanese stayed on to teach. In fact some were forced to teach by the Japanese. (These teachers were forced to take up training for the teaching of Japanese language).

Classes were opened in the afternoon so many children were able to do farming or to forage for vegetables in the morning.

Mr. Tiang Kwong Poi was a an exceptional talented linguist and he was asked to teach the Japanese language in Tung Hua School. He held a degree from China and was actually a very learned man. He was to be a very good Chinese language teacher in the Methodist Secondary School from 1949 onwards.

Many (including my aunt) remember him as a very likable teacher who was kind and very knowledgeable. In fact he also taught Chinese literature and Chinese Calligraphy, besides Japanese handwriting and Oral Japanese. After three months, according to my aunt, most of the children were able to read, write and speak the Japanese language, because of the way Mr. Tiang taught them.


Students who had to board in Tung Hua School came with their own food and even kerosene stoves. Those who did not have kerosene stoves had to look for firewood at the back of the school. The students cooked their own food while studying Japanese. That was the kind of school life in those days.

My aunt remembers that they were very scared of getting sick as medical services were minimal. The Lau King Howe Hospital was taken over by the Japanese and services were given to the Japanese soldiers and personnel. Local people had to see Chinese sinseh like Methodist Pastor, Rev Yao Shao King privately and quietly.  Parents would bring their sick children to see Rev Yao who would pray for them and prescribe some medication, often free of charge. Several of my relatives were treated for fever especially. Another Chinese doctor was Dr. Chiu Nai Ding, also a Methodist.

My mother then living in the rural Nang Chong area, said that it was God's will that most children were healthy. From her, I learned that in those days, coughs were treated by herbs grown in the backyard, and fevers were treated by brews made from mugwort. Most women were able to help each other by giving traditional medical advice. Luckily there was no epidemic.

My aunt went to the Japanese School with my uncle who was much younger. They considered the Japanese language school some kind of holiday school. She said that quite a large number left after one year or even six months with the excuse that they were too poor and had to do farming. But the Japanese managed to get the school going for three years. Mr. Tiang helped many students to leave school with good excuses. My aunt and uncle left the Japanese Language school and went to plant padi in the rural area to help support the big family. They were quite glad to leave the school. Today very few of her peer group can hardly remember any of the Japanese language they learned.

At that time, students from around Sibu used the Japanese run transport company bus and had to pay a few cents for their bus fares. The made in Japan bus had a short body which could seat about 12 people. (My aunt said that when the Allied Forces came to Sibu, the Japanese burnt all their vehicles before they left Sibu by boat for Kuching.)

The bus driver was a local Foochow who was a bit arrogant because he had a gainful employment. Not may men had driving license in those days. He was one of them. The license was like a kind of international driving license.

The students resented taking the bus from Sibu town to the school but they had no other choice. That bus apparently was the only bus running in Sibu at that time. Almost all other vehicles like lorries, jeeps and saloon cars were Japanese owned.

October 10, 2021

Pulau Kerto : Mosquito Net

10,10,2021 is my mother's 96th lunar Birthday. The Lunar calendar date is 5th day of the 9th Moon which she kept as her REAL birthday throughout her life. So all of us must remember our Lunar dates and especially her Lunar birthday. She would chuckle and said that the Gregorian calendar was so inaccurate. 

In Pulau Kerto, Great Grandmother and my mother would have slaughtered a chicken and made the usual birthday soup for every one to enjoy, but in particular, to help mum passed her birthday. That was the Foochow traditional way. It was also the only time she would enjoy a drumstick in her mee sua. That was once a year. Normally my mother would let others have all the pieces of meat with their noodles.

Kerto is an old Malay word from Sibu meaning mosquito larva. I have fond memories of Pulau Kerto where I was born.

During my childhood, before I started Primry school, my parents, my two siblings and I lived in the manager;s house of Hua Hong Ice Factory together with my great grandmother, who had bound feet. She walked slowly and was light footed but I could always hear her footsteps because we had wooden floors and I had a very strong sense of hearing.

It was a comforting sound, her gentle and slow foot steps.

One remarkable memory I have of living in the house over there, across the river, was how my mother would put the two of us girls on the bed, inside the mosquito net whenever guests came. We had to stay inside, and keep quiet while the elders talked and enjoyed their chit chat.

So we imagined the mosquito net as our "prison". We never thought of it as our safety net, in those days. But again, at night, I remember how my Ngie Mah or maternal grandmother, and my mother would come and kill some mosquitoes flying inside the net, before we went to sleep.

The mosquito net also kept us warm. Cold wind blowing on our bodies would make us sick.

We small kids must not hear what they were talking about.

The elders were always serious and I never heard them laughing.

Photo by Freda Chai, with thanks.

Great Grandmother would never encourage any one to bad mouth others, as that was part of her Methodist upbringing. My mother came from humble background and she would not dare laugh at any one. That was a trait she had all her life - never to laugh at others or to look down upon others.

Most of  the elders who came over to our island home, came by their little boat which they might have rowed themselves or by their husbands who came to mill rice and to speak to my father. Or they came with t he Ice Boat and if so, they would spend the night with us, and leave the earliest by the Ice Boat the next day.

For some, they would make the river crossing for my father's birthday, or for my great grandmother's birthday. They would bring with them a chicken which they have reared in their backyard.

Our Ice Boat delivered ice blocks to Sibu customers early in the morning and came back before lunch. The clerk would have done some business transactions by then.

October 8, 2021

Sibu Tales : Nan Fang Coffee Shop

 Beef Tripe Soup was part of many Sibu people's memories of their youth in Sibu. The most famous coffee shop run by a Hainanese family was called Nan Fang , situated at High Street Sibu, just opposite the wet market in those days. In fact, it was just opposite the Malay (Halal) beef stall.



In those days, frozen food was not part of the social scene so no one was selling frozen beef yet. So probably it was by a kind of political coincidence that frozen beef came to the  market when the Gurkhas and the British army came during the Confrontation period (1962). It was Kim Guan Siang which obtained the contract for food supplies and started to import frozen beef. Later several other Cold Storages were started.

The first generation of the Ngu Niik Mien family was lead by the hot tempered master noodle maker. He made the noodles from scratch and would start boiling the soup, beef and tripe as early as four am. By five thirty he had his first bowls of noodles (no tripe) ready. The best tripe noodle soup would be ordered at the tables by 8 according to an elderly aunt who used to live nearby. They also did delivery. In those days delivery by a young boy was the normal. Today the new normal is delivery by Grab or Food Panda.

By 11 the towkay would be quick in temper, scolding every assistant he had as he ran out of ingredients. But by then every one knew that it was a sold out moment and money had been made. It was a very obvious behaviour. Overt. Loud scolding and banging. But his staff laboured on. And of course his long suffering wife and children took every thing with patience and without question at all.

In family business, it was common for the head of the business to be hot tempered, loud, and even physical. Perhaps it was frustrating for him to see his assistants not quick in the foot, or not able to remember who to serve first, as he himself had to stand in front of the hot stove with very tired arms after 7 hours of hard work!!

Some of the family members are still in the beef tripe noodle soup business today.

Amazing name too. Southern Beef Tripe Noodle Soup. This brings a lot of memories of the past. But the flavours and tastes are not quite the same any more according to my elderly aunt. A few of my peers, now in our 70's also said the same

In Sibu a whole generation still smile when they think of beef noodle soup. And the name of the coffee shop would be Nan  Fang, second to none.

Sibu Tales : Of Sandwiches and Men

I was a temporary teacher in a secondary school,in between University semesters, just to earn a bit of pocket money. I enjoyed learning and ...