GROWING UP CHINESE – Chapter Two

stevesingapore
First year in Singapore, after high school in Malaysia

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CHAPTER TWO

About a thousand poor souls speaking various dialects from the region around Fuzhou, heard the clarion call but, because of the unpredictability of the shipping schedules and the impossibility of gathering everybody together in one spot and feeding them while awaiting the arrival of a ship, fewer than five hundred, after a few false starts and delays, were able to leave with the Methodist missionary and his Chinese cohort—a local Hokchia preacher who had escorted and worked with another Fuzhou contingent two years earlier—to the Promised Land, Malaya.

It was not smooth sailing for the four hundred and eighty four “colonists” out in the turbulent seas. Five never did reach St. John’s Island, Singapore, where the rest were quarantined. During the seventeen days or so of detention on the island, men were forced to work like coolies without pay. Only three hundred and sixty three men, women and children arrived in Sitiawan, the Promised Land, by sea. Twelve died under quarantine and over a hundred disappeared—probably hoaxed or ensnared by the hustle and bustle of Singapore while waiting for a boat to take them on the last leg of the long journey.

From a small jetty through a jungle path to the mission concession, the Promised Land, the colonists were surprised to hear the promised two thousand five hundred acres for the mission concession had not been surveyed and the lots for them were not ready for settlement. Instead they were divided into groups of over fifty people in seven longhouses for the next six months, testing their faith, resolve, belief and patience—and whether they did the right thing to follow their Moses and his Hockchia cohort to the Promised Land.

I wonder how many of the colonists—some Christians, like grandfather and some who promised to become Christians—knew that the biblical Moses and his gang from Egypt did not have it easy. But eventually through trials and temptations, according to the Bible, they reached the Promised Land and built a mighty nation because of their faith in their God.

Grandfather and his fellow colonists were now going through their own trials, tribulations, and temptations. The colonial government had chosen this remote piece of land close to the ocean to keep the new arrivals geographically distant from their countrymen—speaking different dialects—who had abandoned their agricultural roots and pursued non-agricultural occupations in tin mines and businesses in urban areas when they first came to this country. The colonial government invited the new colonists for a specific task: grow rice to feed a growing population. And physical contact with the outside world—other prosperous Chinese—would undermine the current agricultural endeavor and be

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detrimental to the colony’s future. Segregation from other Chinese was the government’s stringent policy. A remote location, in their determination, would achieve their purpose.

Unfortunately growing rice wasn’t the first priority for grandfather and the men with him. Each day, different groups of men had to clear the jungle to build houses for different families. And formal education for their children was also foremost in their minds in a new land. The Fuzhou School—using the Fuzhou dialect was started January of the following year. Within a short time, the three clans of the Fuzhou immigrants were able to move to their settlements: The Kutian settlement, the Hokchiew settlement and the Hokchia settlement. Each spoke a different dialect from the same region in China. The colonial government promised them a teacher if the people would build their own school building. Grandfather and another man built the first Hokchia School on grandfather’s section of the Hokchia settlement. And each clan established its own clan school—using its own dialect—until 1918 when radical political and cultural events in China influenced them to adopt Baihua—literally translated “plain language,” a new common language for all China, replacing the classical language of the elite and the imperial administration. Thus the birth of Uk Ing Primary School, replacing the Hokchia School, using Baihua, a universal Chinese language for all Chinese-speaking people then.

In time, the Kutian and Hokchiew clans moved away, forming their own dialect communities—the Hokchiew, contiguous to us, in a town called Kampong Koh, the Kutian less than five miles away, leaving their vacant settlements to the Hokchia people.

For some unknown reasons, the colonial government did not execute their part of the deal and instead the Methodist concession, with the acres of land from the government, and the Fuzhou colonists, were now encouraged to plant rubber trees because rubber was becoming a valuable commodity in the surging world markets, fetching enormous profits for people who cultivated the trees. The British, who owned thousands of acres of land, abandoned coffee experimentation and devoted their vast resources to pursuing rubber trees, using laborers from India on their mammoth plantations. Rice became less important.

Rubber wealth gave grandfather the opportunity to build his dream house, a tile-roofed, cement-floored, spacious, two-story building for his growing family, like the ones he had longed for and envied in China. Grandfather generously allowed newcomers from China to build their thatch-roofed houses on his land—at least seven houses sat on grandfather’s land. Years later I became curious who these squatters were, and why, during certain Chinese festivals, they would bring gifts of fresh fish, eggs, chickens and longevity noodles to our family. Maybe they gave my parents “hong bao”—literally it means red envelope, a traditional Chinese custom of giving money using a red envelope. I never understood why these squatters would expand their houses without consulting our family

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or paying rent. They built their first houses on grandfather’s land because of grandfather’s magnanimity, like one beggar sharing his good fortune with other beggars who were new in Malaya. And also the Hokchia School he helped build on his land. And what other deeds of kindness, now lost in the past and we would never know.

My ancestors, the Hokchia people, were not indigenous to this exotic land. We were natives from the southeast corner of mainland China, from the province of Fujian. Once outsiders, strangers encroaching on a new place, we pursued a vigorous dream. It was not a political ghetto. More of a language ghetto. Where people spoke easily and understandably the same language, observed the same traditions—from birth till death, practiced the same customs from mainland China, made the same Chinese New Year rice cake, raised the children the way you were taught, went to the same Methodist church, and lived a life of simplicity and frugality.

We were a homogeneous community.

I am a proud product of this rich Chinese heritage and proud of grandfather from Fuqing, Fujian Province, China.

 

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