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A take on the Foochows

By: Llew-Ann Phang (Sat, 28 Aug 2004)

Known as 'Soldiers of Axes' and sometimes 'Soldiers of Cangkuls' the Foochow people were cajoled to set up home in Malaya by the British at the turn of the last century.

IF YOU ARE in Sitiawan, Perak you may come across some local Chinese speaking a language that sounds almost like Korean or Japanese.

This foreign-sounding language is in fact a dialect spoken by the Chinese clan called the Foochows. When the Foochows migrated here, they first settled in Sitiawan.

Sounding rather different from the typical Mandarin, Hokkien or Cantonese, the Foochow dialect comes across as somewhat slurred and gentler than the other tongues.

The Foochow community is also found in Yong Peng and Batu Pahat in Johor and in Kuching, Sarawak.

Aiming to help Malaysians become more familiar with his community, Shih Toong Siong (left),  an educationist, set out on a mission to collect bits and pieces of data on the community.

Shih, 65, who is vice-principal of the Jalan Sentul Wesley Methodist School, started gathering the information 20 years ago.

His efforts culminated in six months of writing which resulted in a book entitled The Foochows of Sitiawan: A Historical Perspective.

Shih recounts that he endured two heart attacks, several heart surgeries and a lot of "agony" to complete this pet project.

Described as a "labour of love" by Professor Emeritus Datuk Dr Khoo Kay Kim of the Universiti Malaya History Department, the 340-page book penetrates deep into the lives and times of the Foochow community who were called "Soldiers of Axes" and "Soldiers of Cangkuls" as they pitched into working the land on the "invitation" of the British.

Embarking on his journey with hardly any written records for reference, Shih drew inspiration and encouragement from Khoo who told him to take the first step and to look at his work as research.

"I am thankful for managing to get some information from here and there. I sometimes had to slash my way through graveyards with a parang and a camera in search of my ancestral history.

"My mother called me mad but I merely told her I was looking for my roots," Shih said. He feels grateful that in the 1980s, he had the opportunity to interview some octogenarians and nanogenarians over a cup of kopi-o, because they passed on not long after he met them.

It was Shih's father who had prompted him to write the book, lamenting the lack of records on the Foochows' roots in this country.

"He threw me a challenge to research the roots of our clan and I responded. I hope the book serves as an anchor and adds flavour to the cultural melting pot of Malaysia," he said.

Shih pays tribute to his wife of 40 years Ching Hia Kong, a retired teacher, for bearing with him through his labour.

"She stood by me through all my weaknesses and shortcomings. I would not have any other to lean on."

Although he faced tricky financial moments while writing the book, he pushed on, travelling around Malaysia and abroad in search of information about the Foochow clan.

In Malaysia, famous Foochows include former Transport Minister and MCA head Tun Dr Ling Liong Sik, deputy Science, Technology and Innovation Minister Datuk Kong Cho Ha and also Communist Party of Malaya secretary-general Ong Boon Hua, better known as Chin Peng.

Rice-planting pioneers keep the faith

The Pioneer Church is the flagship of the Chinese Methodist Mission in Sitiawan. It was built in 1927 and is the fourth building. The first was a thatched-roof hut built in 1903. The second church which was built in 1905 was burnt down in a bush fire and the third was demolished in the sixties. It was replaced by the current Sunday School Complex (pix). The tower was added in 1905. 

THE FOOCHOWS had emigrated in a "population transplant" from China to Sitiawan in 1903.

Travelling to Malaya, a place they called the "promised land" they hoped to return to China rich.

The Methodist Episcopal Mission was selected and commissioned to undertake this project which the British colonial administration financed.

In his book, Shih explained that the Foochows were identified as the rice-growing community and the land alienated for this purpose was in Sitiawan.

In 1901, a similar group from Foochow settled in Sibu, Sarawak, led by Wong Nai Siong. They called Sibu "Sin Hockchew" or New Foochow.

In China, Foochow has 10 sub-districts -- Pingnan, Kutian, Minqing, Yungtai, Minhow, Futzing, Mashu, Cheng le, Lianjiang and Luoyuan.

The clan were fervent Methodist Christians and had held up through thick and thin during their stay in Malaya. They established schools and the Pioneer Methodist Church in 1927.

The original intention of establishing a Chinese settlement in Sitiawan was to grow rice. The settlers did not have the slightest idea of planting rubber. With hardly any rice planted, they survived on cash crops and pig farming.

Three persons played a significant role in getting the Foochow settlers to start rubber planting in Sitiawan -- Perak Chinese Affairs Officer W. Cowan, Guarantor of Perak-MEMO Agreement Foo Choo Choon and Rev W. E. Horley.

"The Methodist Mission acquired some 200 acres (80.94ha) styled under the Sitiawan Mission Plantation in addition to the 10 acre church lot (4.047ha) and the 50-acre (20.23ha) orphanage acquired in 1905.

"The rubber trees were in full production by 1915, the prosperity of the Foochow rubber smallholders were described as most remarkable," said Shih in his book.

He said the Foochows then went on to build a new Anglo-Chinese school and a seven acre (2.833ha) plot of land was even acquired for a hospital.

"Today, Sitiawan is considered a Methodist stronghold with churches in almost every village.

"Kampung China, the Methodist Mission Concession, remains the rock of Methodist Christiandom - there is yet a non-Christian temple to breach the Christian fortress at this locality as Sitiawan continues to support the Mehodist church in producing outstanding leaders, pastors and even Bishops in the Methodist hierarchy.

"In the field of education the number of schools dotting the district reflects the priorities of these earlier pioneers.

"Likewise, teachers also tapped rubber before donning respectable clothes and cycling to school.

"Even going to both English and Chinese schools on the same day, one in the morning and one in the afternoon just as Chin Peng did -- such was their lifestyle.

"Despite the limited opportunities in Sitiawan, many made good through sheer hard work and a fighting spirit to become successful educationists, businessmen and politicians in both Malaysia and Singapore," said Shih.

"The pioneering spirit of the forefathers lives on. The younger generation must learn about the past to appreciate the hard work of their people and the spirit that propelled them forward.

"The contributions of the Foochow to this country are tremendous. They have given so much to this country and yet so little is known about them."

Shih's book is priced at RM49 and is available through the office of another popular Foochow businessman, Tan Sri Ngan Ching Wen, president of the Manjung District Kutien Association. He can be contacted at 05-672 2003

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