Sarawak: Tracing The Roots - The Chinese

SARAWAK is a society like no other with its unique amalgamated culture.

We have traced and uncovered the footsteps of a few dominant Chinese’s dialects in Sarawak, namely Hakka, Hokkien, Teochew and Foochow. Some of it, you may know from your upbringing; some from your history lessons in school; some of which you probably never knew; but most of all, they are a part of the community.

The Chinese are generally known to be prominent in commerce and are tremendously sharp in the business of business. The Chinese practice their centuries-old traditions, customs, and beliefs with such religious precision, and they are unrivalled when it comes to mental arithmetic.

TRACING THE ROOTS

The Mandarin and Cantonese languages typically characterise and define Chinese identity in the world today. However, the average Sarawakian is no stranger to a multitude of globally-lesser-known Chinese dialects so commonly spoken throughout the state. So common in fact, that many non-Chinese Sarawakians are fluent in one dialect, or three! The fact that these dialects are still prominently spoken in Sarawak today is a testament to a story which can be traced back some 200 years ago, beginning in the 19th century.

The roots of the Sarawak Chinese story begin from the southern provinces of Guangdong (Kwang Tung) and Fujian (Fukien) in China, as well as the island of Hainan. Attractive opportunities in a developing 19th century Sarawak particularly in the industries of commodities, natural resources and international trade led to the push-pull factor of Chinese migration.

Early Chinese migrants worked as labourers, but over time progressed on to business, trade and commerce. Not all dialect groups arrived at the same time. The migration patterns can be generalised and segmented into three distinct waves over a linear timeline, and this factor plays a pivotal role in the history and developments that unfold for the communities of each dialect.

FIRST WAVE - THE HAKKA(s) - THE BOLD AND BRAVE VISITORS

The Malaysian Hakka trace their origins to Han Chinese who were fleeing from war and hardship in Northern China and migrated south to the provinces of Guangdong (Kwangtung) and Fujian (Fukien) between the 4th and 18th centuries. The indigenous people of these southern provinces referred to the Hakka’s as Khek Lang which means “guests” in Hokkien and Teochew languages.

The first Hakka’s in Sarawak settled in Bau, where they were involved in gold mining and plantation. This group of Hakkas is mainly from the Ka Ying state in China and crossed over into Sarawak from West Kalimantan. When their numbers grew in urban areas, they ventured into business and other industries, opening up Kuching’s earliest grocery stores, Chinese drug stores, and tin-smith shops. Even until today, the diligent working Hakka population dominates the agriculture and economy sectors in the rural areas of Sarawak.

PROMINENT HAKKA HISTORICAL FIGURES IN SARAWAK

LIU SHAN BANG 

He was credited for bringing over a large group of Hakka refugees from Kalimantan to escape the Ta-Kong Kongsi during Dutch war of 1850. He was the pioneer who opened up Bau where the mining of antimony and gold were the main industries.

HERITAGE

Common surnames: Liew, Chong, Lee.

Language: Dialects about original locality - Tai Pu, Ho Poh, Ka Ying, and Xin Onn (Each language variants has their own phonological distinction. The Ho Poh population makes up the largest Hakka group in Sarawak.)

Distinguishing Arts: Hakka Hill Songs (A medium of expression reflecting the land, work and life)

NOTABLE HAKKA FIGURES

Hakka Figure

 

FOOD

Hakka Food

SECOND WAVE - THE HOKKIEN(s) - THE KANG TAO

The Hokkien’s in Sarawak (also referred to as Minnan), quickly settled early on in urban areas and proceeded to be very active in enterprise and business. In the period before the Second World War, they dominated trading companies in Kuching thanks to their close business ties with Singapore. Their primary involvement was in local produce trading, running grocery stores, money changers, banking, as well as other financial institutions.

As the early settlers were too preoccupied with the struggle to survive, they found it challenging to prioritise education for their children. Early successful Hokkien businessmen emphasised the importance of education and proceeded to establish schools to facilitate and develop Chinese's education. Thus, in 1911 the earliest primary education in Kuching was launched known as the Hokkien Free School (currently known as Chung Hua Primary School No. 1). Other recognisable contributions from the Hokkiens are Kuek Seng Ong Temple and the Green Hill Temple.

PROMINENT HOKKIEN HISTORICAL FIGURES IN SARAWAK

ONG TIANG SWEE

He was the eldest son of Ong Ewe Hai, locally born Sarawakian. He was the first to take up rubber planting in Sarawak when rubber seeds were first introduced by the Rajah and became the first wealthy Chinese in Kuching to be fluent in English. He also served as the first Kapitan Cina General - a representative spokesperson for the Chinese community throughout Sarawak.

HERITAGE

Common surnames: Ong, Ng.

Language: Sarawak’s Hokkien language originates from Amoy (city of Fujian now known as Xiamen), is widely spoken throughout Sarawak, particularly in Kuching.

Distinguishing Arts: Hokkien Opera Puppetry

NOTABLE HOKKIEN FIGURES

Hokkien Figure

 

FOOD

Hokkien Food

 

TOGETHER WITH THE HOKKIEN - SECOND WAVE - THE TEOCHEW(s) - THE KANG TAO

The Teochews originate from the seaport of Shantou (Swatow) and nearby districts of Teo Ann, Kit Yan, Teo Yan, Theng Hai, Pho Leng, Yiaw Pheng, Hui Lai, Nam Ow and Hong Soon, all within the south-eastern Guangdong Province. Historical records show a Teochew presence in Sarawak as early as the 19th century, but their most significant major wave of migration took place during the Rajah James Brooke era.

Some Teochews from Kuching dispersed to Lundu and Bako, while others to Batang Lupar (Sri Aman), Saribas (Betong), Sebuyau, Sepauh, Debak, Kemena and Tatau (Bintulu). They are mainly business owners - running grocery stores, trading local produce and the growing of pepper and gambier. They also involved in roles covering politics, commerce, education, and the social-development of Sarawak.

The establishment of Min Teck Junior Middle School (now known as SMK Kuching High) in 1916 by Kuching Teochew Association is a testimony that is still evident today as one of Teochew’s significant contributions to the local community. It was among the first Chinese schools to emphasise English as an essential language medium next to Mandarin.

PROMINENT TEOCHEW HISTORICAL FIGURES IN SARAWAK

LAW KIAN HUAT

His involvement in the community started with the planting of gambier and pepper along Penrisssen Road, Batu Kawa, and Bako. Later in 1854, he established an import-export firm called, Ghee Soon & Co. and also engaged in the refining of raw sago for export. He is one of Kuching’s wealthiest 'towkays' at the time and a close friend of Rajah Charles Brooke.

HERITAGE

Common surnames: Tay, Sim, Yeo.

Language: Teochew dialect.

Distinguishing Arts: Teochew Woodcarving (A form of Chinese woodcarving that can be found in ancient Teochew’s buildings originating from the Tang Dynasty.)

NOTABLE TEOCHEW FIGURES

Teochew figure

 

FOOD

Teochew

 

THIRD WAVE - THE FOOCHOWS(s) - THE FUZHOU DYNASTY

The Foochow population originated from the Fuzhou region in the Fujian province and came to Sarawak to open up new farmland along the Rejang River basin under the offer of Rajah Charles Brooke. They arrived during the early part of the 20th century and settled in Sibu, Sarikei, and Bintangor.

With farming being their main involvement, they planted rubber and pepper along the Rejang and Baram rivers. After the Second World War, the price of pepper increased, and the timber industry developed rapidly. This rapid growth and development brought tremendous prosperity for the Foochows thus allowing them to set up banks, and offer financial assistance to their community in starting up new business ventures and trades such as hardware and grocery stores, coffee shops and more.

Within a span of one hundred years, they achieved great prominence in politics, commerce, as well as other professional fields. Being one of the later waves of migrants to Sarawak, their prominence is still very much felt today. 

PROMINENT FOOCHOWS HISTORICAL FIGURES IN SARAWAK

WONG NAI SIONG

A Methodist Minister born in Fuzhou, he was the key person to answer to Rajah Charles Brooke’s invitation for the Chinese to open up new farmland along the Rejang River. He brought in the first wave of one thousand Foochow adult men and women, and three hundred children to Sarawak.

HERITAGE

Common surnames: Wong, Ting, Ling, Lau.

Language: Fuzhou dialect widely spoken particularly in Sibu.

Distinguishing Arts: Fuzhou cork paintings (Unique folk art handicraft carved out of the bark of cork oaks)

NOTABLE FOOCHOW FIGURES

Foochow figure

 

FOOD

Foochow food

 

From / An Original WADD’s (previously Happenings in Sarawak) Publication / Article 

In collaboration with Jeremy Baxter

References:

  • Chinese History Museum, Waterfront Kuching.
  • Kuching in Pictures 1841-1946 by Ho Ah Chon
  • Yann-Yann Puah and Associate Professor Dr Su-Hie Ting (2013) “Home ground notions influencing Foochow and Hokkien speakers’ language use in Kuching, Sarawak, Malaysia.” Centre for Language Studies, Universiti Malaysia Sarawak


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