Usually when it comes to stories or tales from the past which involves History personally I would take a great deal of interests. In school I make sure to score high “A’s” especially when it comes to history. Of course not by CHEATING..hahaha. We do not want to get at the wrong side of History BUT there will be days when we just cannot ignore.
Sim Kwang Yang MP for Bandar Kuching from 1982 to 1995 took great efforts to posts and write his early History in Malaysiakini and I will do injustice to the man if I start giving negative comments on his pasts. My day said my grandfather was a great story teller to me yesterday and none of his siblings or his grand children can even match him. Sim Kwang Yang’s story http://www.malaysiakini.com/news/97091 is worth your efforts to read and impart it to our FUTURE GENERATIONS on how LUCKY and FORTUNATE they are living now in Sarawak,Malaysia. I extract in full for your reading pleasure. Happy reading…
On this yet another eve of another Chinese New Year, it is only appropriate to skip comments on the serious and often ugly business of politics, and reflect upon the most auspicious festival for the Chinese citizens in Malaysia.
Times are hard and the market is slow. The CNY goodies imported from China are not selling well. The Chinese people have a long and painful collective memory of their suffering in the past, and their knee jerk reaction to hard times is to tighten their belt, even if they have the money to spend.
I too have my personal memory of hard times in the past. I was born in the Year of the Rat, in an address at Jalan Padungan in Kuching, shortly after WW2. My birth was a bad omen for my family, for my father’s business failed.
Kuching was a two-horse town then, and right after the war, there was hardly any economic opportunity to speak of. In 1946, the last Brooke Rajah had ceded Sarawak to the British colonial office for a million Pound Sterling. He had escaped to Australia when the Japanese army poured into Kuching in 1941, leaving his people to suffer the long years of occupation. His departure that ended the 100-year Brooke rule in the Land of the Hornbill was not missed.
Our difficult situation compelled my family to move into a dilapidated rickety two-storey wooden house that accommodated 18 families, each to one room that served as living room, bedroom, and kitchen at the same time. If I remember correctly, the rental was 15 Sarawak dollars per month. Some tenants would miss payment for a few months at times. Money was a rare commodity indeed.
The tenants were mostly Teochew, because this property near the Sarawak General Hospital along the old rail road running from Kuching to the 7th Mile Bazaar was owned by the Teochew Association. This was how one Chinese association had played the critical role of providing welfare for its members in the form of relatively cheap housing, and the spiritual solace of a temple nearby.
The respected Mr Siaw
I still have varied memories of that over-crowded large house. Inevitably, there were spates of discord among the tenants, but by and large, there was a lively spirit of community solidarity. Deprived materially as they were, they tended to be generous in helping their neighbours.
The most respected figure was Mr Siaw, a Chinese primary school teacher. I was actually born as Sim Keng Soon. Before I was to start schooling, I had to have a school name, a custom practised in old China. My parents consulted Mr Siaw, and he named me Sim Kwang Yang. Years later, when I was studying in Canada, I was happy to play host to his daughter, who had gone to the Land of the Maple Leaf for further education.
Most of the children walked to school, the Chung Hua School Number 4 along Palm Road, since very few people owned a car in those days. The only chap in my neighbourhood who drove a car was a taxi-driver, one of the very few in town. Most of the cars were British models, the most popular among them being the miniscule Morris Minor. The Vauxhall was considered a prestigious sedan, and I think it is no longer in production. Japanese cars did not make it in a big way until the late 1970s.
We were used to walking to school on foot. Even a bicycle was a luxury that parents could ill afford. For school uniforms, we would just inherit those outworn by elder siblings. It was the same with text books. The school fee was a mere three dollars, and there were times when I had to be shamed in front of the class by a reminder of my lateness in payment.
On those days when there was money, my parents would give me five or 10 cents for pocket money. The small coin was so precious that I would tie it in the deepest corner of the pocket with a rubber band. With it, I could afford to buy a piece of kueh, to be washed down with water from the pipe during break time.
The biggest problem I can remember from those days was the lack of facility for decent sanitation. The toilet was an outhouse, a wooden structure with a hole on the floor overlooking an open drum. As I did my business, I tried not to look down to avoid staring at the maggots below. My other friends picked up the filthy habit of smoking at that young age; they said the smoke would relieve the stench in the toilet.
I hated going to the toilet so much that I developed haemorrhoid, which was to haunt me until I went to Canada for my college education.
Auntie lent rice to Mum
Money was in short supply, and so was food. My father had left to work in Brunei, and he would send some money back to my mother in Kuching. Sometimes the money would come late, and my mother had to borrow rice from our neighbour.
There was this kind auntie whose husband was working as one of those labourers at the Kuching wharf carrying sacks of rice or whatever goods consigned to him on his shoulders. They were both illiterate, and had many children, all of them girls, making the auntie very unhappy. Without my mother’s advice, she would have given the girls away for adoption.
This kind auntie would lend my mother a cigarette tin of rice a day, even though she was very hard up herself. With that small amount of rice, my mother would serve up two meals of porridge, sometimes mixed with sweet potatoes. My brothers and I would whoop down those meals in one minute flat, and feel hungry a few hours later.
Meat was hard to come by, and I could count the number of days when chicken or pork was served in a year.
That was why Chinese New Year was so special. There would be a whole chicken, produced as if by magic on CNY eve. There would be cakes and kueh, produced by the women in the neighbourhood collectively to save cost. We children would squat around the ladies in great anticipation, as they rolled the dough, and baked them over hot plates over charcoal fire, and then storing them in tins.
On New Year Day, we would receive an ang pao containing one dollar, if we are lucky. We would proceed to play poker with this small fortune. Gambling was always banned, except during CNY, during which time parents would never scold their children.
Our living conditions improved somewhat when I was 10. We moved to a one bedroom flat at the Kuching Municipal Council housing estate along Ban Hock Road. At least, there was a clean flush toilet. There, night and day, my mother taught me that life was an eternal struggle, a battlefield on which one could triumph only if one studies hard. I excelled as a student in school.
Our life took a turn for the better only when my second eldest brother went to study in the University of Nottingham in the UK on a generous Shell scholarship. He would send some of his English Pounds back, and even that was a great contribution to our livelihood.
My brother returned to Sarawak as a qualified electrical engineer in those days when there were very few university graduates in Sarawak. He served the Sarawak Telekom all his life, and was its Director and then General Manager upon privatisation. For that, he was awarded a Datukship by my political foe Abdul Taib Mahmud, the CM of Sarawak. His eldest son is a chartered accountant from London School of Economics, and the younger son, a doctor from Cambridge University. They remain my best friends in the best and worst of times.
Why I tell my personal story
Meanwhile, my childhood friends – those children of illiterate parents – had all gone on to become successful businessmen, professionals, academics, or technicians of various grades. They had all become affluent or middle-class; their children have repeated this success story by outdoing their parents. They are all Chinese, and have no need of the NEP.
As for the auntie who lent us rice everyday, she and her husband are still healthy and alive. Their children treat them very well, in accordance with the Confucian teaching on filial duty. They have many grandchildren and great grandchildren. I pray for them every year around this time.
Looking back, I realise the person at the centre of my childhood was my mother. She could read, and had great strength of character. For that, she was treated like an unofficial Tua Kampong in my neighbourhood. She was the one who held my family together. God only knows how much she had to sacrifice just to give her children a decent education and food on the table everyday.
My mother died in 1991, in the small hours of Christmas Day. I was by her bedside when she exhaled her last breath. I had never felt greater grief in my life.
I seldom get personal in these Malaysiakini essays. I tell my story on the eve of CNY this year, because I know many Chinese people of my generation throughout Malaysia have a similar story to tell their children. It is a story of hardship and struggle, of thrift and self-discipline, of perseverance in the face of adversities, of family bonds and neighbourly love, of studying hard and smart come what may, and of enjoyment of delayed reward.
For those of you readers whose parents are still alive, remember this commandment for all races: honour thy father and mother! That is the real meaning of CNY.
Happy Chinese New Year to you SKY and your families. May the year of the Earth Ox bring prosperity and good health to all our readers,supporters,allies,bloggers and all my divisional members in PRS.
LET US ALL WELCOME THE YEAR OF THE OX AND SAY THANK YOU TO THE RAT FOR A GREAT YEAR THAT HAS BEEN.