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.

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