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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.
rather different from the typical Mandarin, Hokkien
or Cantonese, the
The Foochow community is also found in Yong Peng
and Batu Pahat in Johor and in Kuching,
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.
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
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."
he faced tricky financial moments while writing the book, he pushed on, travelling around
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 FOOCHOWS had emigrated
in a "population transplant" from
Travelling to Malaya, a place they called the
"promised land" they hoped to return to
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.
a similar group from Foochow settled in Sibu,
The clan were fervent Methodist Christians and had held up
through thick and thin during their stay in
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.
Methodist Mission acquired some 200 acres (80.94ha) styled under the Sitiawan Mission
rubber trees were in full production by 1915, the prosperity of the
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.
contributions of the
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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