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THE EARLY RUBBER TAPPING DAYS OF THE FOOCHOWS

By Chang Yi

       My cousins had to tap rubber before going to school in the 50's and 60's, and I was in the peripheral scenes as I was a town girl, visiting the village during my holidays. Until today, I can still remember the fresh formic acid smell, the stale smell of the ugly rubber sheets hanging in the sun, and the wonderful smell of the rubber sheets coming out from my grandmother's rubber smoke house.

      On "sale " day, we kids would jump up and down in the motor launch, looking forward to a good price, and the rubber sheets then smelled so good. If money smells, then those rubber sheets smelled even better...the aroma haunts me to this day. It made me feel alive..knowing that we would live better, that grandmother would be generous with her purchases and I would get more buns in the evenings for supper....her earnings would mean that she would come home with several sacks of flour, sunkist oranges, apples, sugar, condensed milk ( such a wonderful invention), Beck's key beer for my uncles, dried squid for our babi soups, and even shark's fins...I remember we had three smoking seasons a year and they coincided with our three term holidays. I was always there (sent to grandma because mum was sickly and another brother or sister was on the way) That place is now known as Paradom, opposite Rantau Panjang and what was "home" on my mother's side was sold in the 80's at the height of the exodus from the villages ( caused by communist surrender). Today it is a water filled lowland as the shore had caved in and part of our padi land just the bank of the river now...when I went there two years ago, I really felt that part of my past was gone and it was no longer recognisable. I wish I can turn all these feelings into some poetic expressions.

      One scene I would never forget from those days. Logs (batang) would float down the river and we would shout for joy as they were to become firewood for our smoke house (not cigar smoke house) We would always post some one at the jetty to give us warning that a log was sighted...

      Then there was this day, when we thought we we saw some black marks in the river. We got into our two prahus (small boats)...what we had were about 20 pigs swimming across the river!! We managed to get two as we were only children then and we were not prepared . We had no guns, no parangs, but we had ropes (for the logs) and some nails....By that time guns had been surrendered to the government (1963), we used the paddles to hit the pigs...I cannot remember how we shared the meat, but it was like a circus coming to town...and the whole smoke house area was full of people again, but this time it was for feasting.

      We used to say that my grandmother's kuali was big enough to cook me. It was the usual XXXXL size of 1 metre in diameter...Do you remember that type of Chinese kuali... One day I would like to have a model of the Chinese stove in a gazebo in my yard...


Rubber trees and rubber tales of Sibu 1903-1963

 By Chang Yi

        During the Rajah Brooke rule 1842-1946, rubber was enthusiastically planted by Chinese, Malays and any native interested in the crop. There was no restriction in land use, hence "land was a gift of the Rajah to the adventurous new settlers who were willing to clear the land. Hence land was cleared for the planting of rubber, the most exciting and lucrative commercial crop, in places like Ensurai, Sibu, and Binatang (now called Bintangor).

        Many of the Foochows and Henghuas who arrived between 1903 and 1913, the period before the First World War (1914-1918), were zealous agriculturalists who helped increase the revenue of the Rajah (Rutter,1991)

        These rubber farmers did not establish estates like their British counterparts in the then Malaya. The Rajah on the other hand, did not encourage any British to plant and develop rubber into huge plantations. Instead the Rajah Government was more interested in establish smallholdings, which were self-sufficient. Hence throughout most of the foothills of Sarawak appeared smallholdings of rubber in a scattered manner. This remained the scenario of the development of rubber growing until the end of the Second World War when Sarawak was handed over to the British Colonial Government.

 Smoke houses

         Smoke houses were established by the riverbanks conveniently by some of the wealthier rubber planters. A small Foochow village like Lower Ensurai with about 20 families would rally around the village leader's smoke house. The smoke house would smoke the rubber sheets by the tons twice a year at least and all the villagers would be notified before the smoking began.

        The smoking was done in a cooperative manner, as no charge in cash was demanded. All the able bodied men would chop the firewood taken from the collection of drift logs from the river. Once the fire was made, a man was nominated to tend the fire one day at a time. The smoking went on for a week. Meanwhile the rubber tapping was carried out.

        Once the smoking was completed, the rubber sheets smelled fragrant to the knowing nose. The better-treated rubber sheets would have a translucent sheen and a mathematically accurate rectangle shape and these would be classified as Grade A ("look very good").  The rubber sheets were then bundled and sent by a slow motor launch to Sibu.

        The "packing" day was an exciting day for all the families involved. Food would be cooked in large quantities and it was a merry time. When the loading was completed, the motor launch would sail off from the jetty by a boisterious group of women and children. The men would accompany the rubber sheets to Sibu. All the loading and unloading were done by manual labour. Not a single machine was used to help the strong and muscular Foochow men.  A few Foochow men were well known for their strength. Had they been sent to represent Malaysia in weightlifting today, they would have broken a few Olympic records! Such was their strength that Lau Pang Sing, an uncle of mine, for example,at the height of his adult years, was able to throw one tan (the measurement of weight of that time, equivalent to 100 lbs) of rubber sheets on to his back and walk many yards to the trolley which he would then pull to the godown.

 Selling and Buying of Rubber

        The selling and buying of the rubber sheets was done in Sibu and it was carried out in the most gentlemanly way possible. The agent who was responsible for shipping the rubbers sheets to Singapore fixed the prices of the three grades of rubbers sheets. These prices were in turn based on the prices fixed by the Singapore exporter. A good example of the rubber shipping agent would be Hock Chiong of Sibu.

        When the rubber sheets were ready to be exported to Singapore by Straits Steam Shipping cargo boats, Sibu was a hive of activity. And everyone would be so extraordinarily happy.

        P/S: Dear readers, if this little account help to stir up memories of rubber days, please write in to me and Dr. Sia would be most happy to upload your memories on our pages...changyi


 

                                           A FOOCHOW GRANDMOTHERíS RUBBER TALE

Recorded by Chang Yi

     I remember that we had plenty to eat during our childhood days.

     My father planted 300 acres of rubber trees. This was before the Second World War. All these rubber trees were planted on land that my father "opened" up as a Foochow pioneer who came in the same boat as Wong Nai Siong.

     According to my father life was difficult as a pioneer. He had to adjust to the hot climate and the mosquitoes which almost drove him mad!! My father was a very fair man, in fact not that strong. But he was so determined that he did not stop chopping down trees every day until he was exhausted.

     Coming from Min Chiang in the Foochow province in China he was used to hardwork and very little food. But in the new pioneer village of Lower Nan Chong, then called New Foochow, he worked like a mad man. In a few short years, when the land that was cleared by him was measured to be three hundred acres, he sat down and cried....

     Most of the pioneers who came at that time were young boys and young men. The women came one or two years later. My father's older brother "bought" a five year old child bride for my father who was then already 20 years old (and that's another story).

     My uncle had a very successful life as a rubber tycoon (if that word could be used), a community leader and as a father. (but that's in itself is another story)

     My father was a "workaholic", a man who was only interested in work. He was illiterate and perhaps because of that he did not even know how much rubber he sold to the agent! He had a smoke house that processed the rubber sheets once every two months and he would accompany the motor launch to Sibu with some of the coolies that he employed.

      There were four families of "coolie" labourers. They lived in their coolie quarters constructed by my father located within the rubber garden (300 acres!) These families were large. I remember them having 8 or 9 children and as they grew up, they were able to help more and more. Thus more and more rubber sheets were produced.

      The producers of rubber were very honest and trusting folks. Being illiterate, they trusted the clerk (a relative) to record what they sold to the company. They took food, necessities, building materials and other luxuries against the cash value. The clerk kept the balance of the money. The clerk also kept their accounts up to date.

     At that time there was no bank. My father sold his rubber to Tai Tung Company that was actually set up by his own brother. His brother was the then Community leader appointed by the Rajah. The business was actually based on trust. I believe my father did not even know how much he was worth. He only knew that he could bring back a lot of goods, food and other supplies each time he sold his rubber. This he would share with his family and the coolie families. He would also bring back enough cash to pay the coolies. The rest of the money that he did not need would be left with the "accounts" in the account books.

     Such was the business transaction then. As a child I could not know very much. In my innocence I would not know that perhaps accounts could be tempered with.

     I only knew that I had plenty to eat and that my father was very provident and my mother was very resouceful, as were all the other relatives I had in the village. We had clothes to wear, food on the table and lots of happiness. Life was quite simple but wonderful.

     Then we thought of going to a school. The villagers put their heads together and decided to set up a school for all the children who were born very quickly to the new families. Our teacher was a young and educated Mr. Hii who later married one of my cousins. I remember he was paid 30 dollars a month for teaching.

     All of us went to school without shoes and we had to walk all the way. It was fun going to school with all the siblings and we all sat in the one room school, learning how to recognise and say the words in Mandarin.

     Let me rest....now my memories are there...and they are lovely ones...I will talk more later...

 

                                                          AN IBAN RUBBER TAPPER TALE

By Christoper Sawan

     1959 Medamit. I was just a small boy then but I learnt that with a little bit of hard work, my father could earn a few dollars. It was called tapping rubber. The rubber tree was something new and to a small Iban boy it was quite unusual. My father just had to make a cut in the tree, and milk would flow out. My father would do that every morning and I would tag along.

     My father told me that if I grew up and could tap the tree on my own, I would be able to earn a lot of hard cash. So I had to learn the tricks from him. First the knife had to be sharp and the cut must be perfect. And in the early hours of the morning, I had to learn how to cut the tree bark very carefully and lovingly so as not to hurt the inner bark. Milk or latex would ooze out, and that was money.

     The latex would drip into a small cup, poised precariously about two or three feet above the root system and about ten in the morning, my father and I would collect the fairly well congealed latex. Each day my father being a very hard working man, would tap more than 40 trees and he would be able to collect enough latex to make 5 sheets of rubber.

     I would look forward to the rain. That would mean that I did not have to get up as early as four. I could have a lazy morning, fish a little in the river or collect some fruits just before lunch.

     For a small boy, the work was dirty, smelly and even dangerous as my father and I would encounter snakes, scorpions and wild animals. The rubber garden was not well maintained as my father was working alone, and the undergrowth was beyond his control. Later on when I furthered my studies in West Malaysia, I was very impressed by the well-kept rubber estates over there. Everything was well trimmed. There was no undergrowth. One could even cycle between the rubber trees!! How wonderful.

     But then in 1959 Medamit in Limbang was really extremely far away from any major town in Sarawak. It would take me three days to reach Limbang, the nearest town. I had to walk, to paddled a small boat and then to board a big boat to reach the town.

     The headman one day told my father that I could go to school. I did not know what going to school was all about. My father told me that going to school was to learn how to read, and do sums. A teacher would teach me. The headman was advised to collect a few boys from the area. Thus 6 of us were selected and our ages ranged from 7 to 11.

     My father gave me a small rice pot, a sack of rice, a small bit of salt, a small pillow, a mat, a small knife, and some fishing hooks. I remember him telling me to be strong and not to miss home. I was 9 at that time. My weight was not more than 20 kg. He told me not to cry, because that could be the beginning of a better life, and that was what the government wanted. I don't even remember today, if he did give me some sugar. I don't even remember whether he touched me as a loving gesture from a father. He stood so lonely at the end of the jetty and our small boat pulled away. Thus my small band of desperadoes went to school for the first time in Medamit.

     Our school was just one room, with a little kitchen for all of us to do our cooking together. Fish was caught in the river and vegetables were collected from the forest nearby. But our little group, made up of uncles and cousins, survived for several years. I remember everything very well. I was quick to learn maths, English spelling and reading. My handwriting was pretty good. All my mates worked hard to learn well and we pleased the teacher. In turn we were all transferred out to the secondary schools in Miri!! Miri seemed to be a million mile away then.

     All the while, my father would drop by the school to check on me. He would bring down several sheets of rubber to be sold to the Chinese shopkeeper. From the sale of rubber, I would get some short pants, some sugar, some salt and even some sweets, which were mainly made from gula apong at that time. Until today I have a longing for this old fashion sweet. I never had a blanket during those years. None of us had.

     When I was 11, I was handpicked to study in Tajong Lobang School in Miri. Again, my father was delighted by the news and he again sold some more rubber sheets to fund my first trip away from Medamit.

     Until today, I still feel very grateful that the dark brown, rancid smelling rubber sheets came handy for my father. With that small amount of cash, which was in fact, all that he had, I managed to buy my first shirt on my back, when I arrived in Miri. All this while I had only worn a singlet, which was already very civilized.

     In the years that followed, I picture my father bringing down some rubber sheets to exchange for cash so that I could have a bit of pocket money. What if at that time there was no cash crop? Rubber has indeed played a significant part in my life. It gave me a chance to be someone better.

     I am glad I have made it first as a graduate teacher and then as a lawyer. And I have so many people to thank for in my life. But as for rubber, I think it has helped not only me, but also a lot of other people.


 

Another Grandmother's Tale

Recorded by Chang Yi

   Even though I was young but since I was the eldest daughter of the family, I had to tap rubber for the whole family. My work partner was my mother who was totally abused by my father, a scholarly, fine boned and ne'ertodo well type from China.

   When I was young, I often thought of escaping from the miserable life I had with my father. First I will describe my life as a child in the family as well as my family in general. Then I will describe my life as a rubber-tapper, from the moment I was tall enough to put the rubber-tapping knife on the bark of the rubber trees.

   As I was first born (eldest child), I had to be responsible for everything. I had to carry water from the stream for cooking, washing and cleaning. I washed clothes by the riverside regardless of whether it was sunny or raining. I had six brothers and sisters who came very closely into this world. My mother never had a day of rest and had to suffer physical blows dealt out by my father who was lazy, greedy and nasty. Very few people would believe me whenever I talk about my father in this way. My mother would never say anything bad about my father because to her, she was fated to marry such a man, and she had to be married to him until death parted them. She had no other options.

   The rubber trees that my family tapped were not ours. It was my father's intention to tap rubber as a means of making a living in Sarawak. He left China in the 1930's when he heard that Sibu was a thriving town. He married a strong and capable young woman and brought her to Sarawak. As the Rajah Brooke by then had stopped giving away free land to immigrants, my father had to rent a rubber garden from an Iban man. My mother had to do all rubber tapping while my father was never had a proper job. He rested for far more days than he worked.

   Each day, my mother and I would go to the rubber garden early in the morning. We used a simple kerosene lamp to light the way. My greatest fear was to step on a snake or a scorpion. But for my mum, she was only happy when she was away from the house for the few hours when she tapped rubber. It was during all those rubber-tapping mornings that we would talk to each other without fear of being overheard. It was also the time that my mother would not have to fear that a fist was about to land on her head. It was also during those hours that I learned from my mother on how to be a proper and decent human being. I called those days as learning from the roots of rubber trees. Those were really our good times and no sufferings could obliterate our appreciation of those moments.

   My family managed to earned just enough for our daily needs and there was very little to spare at first. My father was in control of our lives and we dreaded his abusive ways. However, through my mother's pleadings my siblings and I went to school for a few years. Subsequently, the Japanese occupation interrupted our education.

   After the Japanese occupation my mother and I continued to tap rubber and the price of rubber was fairly good then. Soon it was time for me to get married. A young man approached my father for my hand. But my father only agreed if he had a piece of land. My father claimed that his daughters were very valuable and in great demand as brides for the young able men in the village. The young man was very determined to marry me and in a few years he had earned enough money to buy a piece of land. He also borrowed some money to buy a little extra piece of land to impress my father.

   Before we got married, my father added another condition to our marriage. The young man had to bring up my siblings as well. My future husband was so delighted that he said yes to the condition. Hence he gained a young and hardworking bride as well as a set of young in laws whom he had to feed as well.

   After I got married, I moved away from my parents' home.  I felt sad but at the same time, I felt happy. In a way, my marriage also ended my rubber tapping days. Today I can say that I have a very happy marriage and my husband had treated me very well.

   Whenever I see a rubber tree today, I would have tears in my eyes.  The tears are for my mother who loved me and who suffered so much as wife of a good for nothing man. The tears are also for my husband who "bought" me with a little rubber garden and for treating me very well.

 


                          My Rubber Tapping Days (1953-1961)


I was born into a so-so family. My parents were not educated but they tapped their own rubber trees and this made them quite wealthy according to the standard of that time.

My father came from a decent family. He was God-fearing and he would walk 5 miles to go to church every Sunday together with his mother and siblings. My mother on the other hand did not have much religion in her mind, as she was a "child bride" bought for a price from China. My grandmother made a few journeys to China to bring out child brides for decent Foochow young men before the Second World War. My mother "came out" to Sarawak in 1930 when she was just three years old. She carried with her a photo of her own mother and father. As she was unable to read at that time, she did not even know the characters of her parents' names.

She was never sent to school in Sarawak. In 1943, she was properly married in church to my father and I was born the following year. My grandmother was very disappointed because I was not a boy.

The war was raging at that time and I was lucky in a sense that I was not born in China. Had I been born in China, I would have been thrown into the river, as I was a female child. My grandmother said that I was very, very lucky.

In 1953, the rubber price was extremely high and our village went wild with efforts to tap more and more rubber trees every day. By this time I was 10 years old I was able to hold a rubber tapper's knife very well.

But the conditions were not romantic or magical for us. My mother's toes by then were quite "rotten" because she had to step on the rubber sheets, which were full of formic acid. Sometimes I saw blood coming out of her toes. A few of her toes had no nails. Most of her toes were very swollen and tender to the touch.

I remember that when we went to Sibu town, she had to carry her shoes in her hands and she would spend quite a long time putting on her shoes. Those shoes were often too tight fitting. She would walk with a limp. After a day in town, selling her rubber sheets and buying necessities for the family, she could not wait to take off her shoes before getting into the motor launch. Even in the 1950's we women were quite concerned about our looks, what we wore and how we "made" our hair. Of course lipsticks were unheard of at that time.

My mother had her hair permed once a year before Chinese New Year. In the 1950's and 1960's we wore samfoo. Skirts and blouses, and dresses were only for the western educated and one of my aunts even wore high heels bought in Singapore!!

My siblings and I went to school in Nanchong. The school was called Chung Cheng School and it is now a huge secondary school, ever so modern and pretty. Cars can reach the school today.

Each day before I went to school I had to go with my mother to tap rubber and between the two of us, we made quite a bit of money. By the time I was fifteen, my feet were swollen and tender to the touch and I had problems with my toe nails.

Sometimes my hair was stuck together by the latex and I had to cut off some of my hair. We could not keep long hair because it would be too hazardous. We were also told that girls with very long hair were bad girls. My hairstyle was very much like a boy's hairstyle actually.

On rainy days, we did not tap rubber. My mother would plant vegetables and slaughter a chicken for our meals. Sometimes she would slaughter a pig and sell the meat from door to door. I could rest and stay in bed until it was time to go to school.

My father meanwhile was the village boat repairer and a part time barber. My brother inherited the barber set and went to live in Sibu town, away from us. He married a town girl and both of them never knew the life of rubber tappers.

During my days, we girls were not even allowed to speak to boys while at school. Any whiff of a relationship would be scandulous. So I waited for my time to get married at 18...In those days, when one was ready for marriage one would be called up by the match maker who had been making her rounds in the villages. It was her way of making a living.

I had three proposals but I chose the one who had a good family, a large house and a good job in a company. Before we actually met, I went with my mother and grandmother to meet my future in laws and the match maker in a coffee shop in Sibu. I remember not being able to eat the fish balls, which was ordered for me, as I was anxious to know exactly how tall my husband was. I was a tall girl in fact.

My bride price (dowry) was $3000 because I had a good reputation as a hardworking girl, able to tap rubber and wash clothes. Another strong feature that I had was the fact that I could carry two full tins of water from the river to the house. I was also a good pig rearer. Hence my price (dowry) was good.

Once my mother obtained the bride price, she bought for me a Singer sewing machine, a bicycle, a bed and mattress set, a wardrobe, and a dressing table. All these were carried to my in-law's house on bamboo poles. My parents hired a brass band to send me off. It was a real racket on my wedding day. Many people came out to watch the procession. They clapped their hands and gave me the thumbs up because I had "five wedding presents". I felt very blessed.

In fact I believe that my mother really appreciated me very much because I helped the family to bring in a large income from rubber.

I married at 18 because I was not good in my studies. How could I? I had to be up by 4 a.m. in the morning and had to run all the way to school to be in time. By ten o'clock in the morning I was nodding away. School ended at 2. The moment I arrived home I had to wash all the clothes by the river side while my other sister fed the pigs, chickens and tended to the vegetable garden. My brothers would all be playing in the padi fields, looking for crabs and fish.

After I got married I left rubber tapping behind and concentrated on bringing up my own children. My husband was provident enough and my in-laws were very happy that I was a good worker and a great help.

Although life in the 21st century is affluent and my grandchildren now cannot even recognise the rubber tree, I still feel that my growing up days helped me to be the tough woman that I am today.

The marks of formic acid and the scars I had from those long ago days remain with me and remind me each day to be grateful for what I have.

(Recorded and compiled by Chang Yi, July 2004)
 
                             An Iban Rubber Tapper from Skrang

S. Kusoh as told to Chang Yi

Skrang River is home to my people (Ibans) for generations. In fact, many Ibans believe that Skrang is the cradle of our civilization. However, the Ibans of Saratok and Betong would oppose to this opinion.

Home is a beautiful river, shimmering, clear and provident waters. The valley is rich in soil, and the forest teeming with birds and animals. Cultivation and hunting are the main domestic activities.

Today after more than 25 years of school development in the area, many of the Iban youths have become urbane, moved away and some have even detached themselves from their roots.

However if I am asked about my memories of my early childhood and young adulthood, I would definitely talk about rubber tapping in the 60's and 70's.

Skrang has good rubber trees cultivated in 1954, 1958 and 1964, under the Sarawak Government's Rubber Planting Schemes.

When I was a teenager, rubber tapping was my main means of income when I went home for the school holidays. At the height of my rubber tapping skills, I was able to tap 400 trees a day! I believe that is a record.

We boys would follow our father early in the morning and we would run from one tree to another in the light provided by kerosene head lamps, tied by strings to our head. We were energetic, eager and adventurous. We did not know that it was hardship. It was our way of life and we accepted it very stoically.

We boys would spend up to six hours every day tapping and processing rubber. We were quite experts by the time we were twelve or thirteen. Rubber tapping was both entertainment and occupation for us. We did enjoy our work thoroughly. I felt that it was a very important thing to be able to work with your father and relatives when you are maturing.

Being able to tap our own rubber tree was in fact a pride amongst us. At the end of the month we would be able to count our dollars and cents!! Our wounds, our formic acid soaked feet, our scars, and our breaking backs would all be forgotten because we would have food on our table (or mat for that matter).

We had great responsibilities when we were young. Growing up among the rubber trees made us aware of a lot of things. We grew to love the natural forest, the animals, the fish in the river, the clean air. Our ownership of the rubber garden also gave us a sense of pride. We had something that belonged to us.

Then, from the sale of the rubber sheets, we could have money to buy stuff. I remember my father buying the first transistor radio and it was amazing how batteries could help operate the radio...and we listened to the English songs on Saturday afternoons. I suppose that was how I learned most of my English. Today, the lyrics still come clearly in my mind. I can still remember all the words of songs like "Rhythm of the Falling Rain","Evergreen Tree","Love Me Tender", etc.
The radio remains a part of longhouse life. What a wonderful invention.

(Television by the way came only in the late 70's to us.)

Although many people stereotype the Ibans in the use of tuba for fishing, I have to categorically state here that my longhouse never used tuba for fishing. We were very environmentally conscious (even though we did not know the word then). We fished using nets and hooks. And we had plenty to eat!! Food was plentiful in the river and jungle.

We lived in an ecologically balanced environment then. It was only when "alien" hunters who came to hunt in our rubber gardens and forests that the animals diminished. And they too posed a danger to us when we went rubber tapping.

Today my relatives are still tapping rubber. We are very conscious of the rise and fall of rubber prices but we depend very much on the middlemen who keep our accounts when we sell our rubber sheets to them. They too give us our supplies of tinned food, chicken feed, fertilizers and other necessities like milk powder and baby food.

The middlemen because of the way they do business they are able to buy shophouses in Kuching and then move their families away from Skrang. the towkays today have a good life.

This is the way life evolves. Life style changes, people change too in their mindset...but I am glad that my childhood and young adulthood had toughened me up and that my parents had given us strong moral values and a sense of purpose in life. We are tough people.
That is good.

(S. Kusoh has a degree in Biology from Universiti Malaya and is today one of the few Iban Principals of Sekolah Teknik. He returns "home" to serve his people in Skrang.

An extra note: besides rubber, his family plants pepper, another successful crop, managed by his late mother and sisters who are still enjoying great pepper harvests)
 
                     A Short Gun and a Family of Rubber Tappers

When we were young we worked as a coolie family for a rich man in Sg. Seduan, Sibu.

There were five of us children. My mother took the rubber tapping job as our source of family income. My father was a boatman. He worked as a helper for a boatowner and would come home once every ten days or so.

We all lived in a small hut at the bottom of the hill. On top of the hill was the huge house of the rubber plantation owner. There were more than 100 acres of rubber trees for my family and our neighbours to tap.
Our family's income was about $100 a month. But we had the hut rent free, and we had a share of the rubber sale. My mother and sisters planted a lot of vegetables, which we sold to the town people in Sibu. My mother and sisters would walk all the seven miles to town every other day to sell the vegetables. That brought some extra income to our family.

All of us would go early in the morning to tap rubber. The land was undulating and not peat swamp like many of the land along the Seduan river. So we were very lucky indeed to work for this towkay.

But it was good, working together with your siblings. Collecting and carrying the latex, running the rubber sheets through the mangling machine and eating cold rice packed in our tins (there was no plastic container at that time) in the dirty, rubber-processing hut. The whole place was smelled of formic acid.

My brother and sisters never quarrelled and we were so supportive of each other. To me it was a very beautiful time with my mother as our leader.

When the rubber sheets came out of the mangling machine they were just so pure and white! That is a picture or vision that I carry in my heart all the time. White is so beautiful.

In the 50's we knew very little about a lot of things. We had no newspapers, and no radio. We had news of some kind in the church every Sunday. We went to the small primary school in the village. I felt that I was learning very little...the teachers hit us all the time with their canes. Actually I remember the beatings more than the teaching. I left school after Year Four because I was such a big boy by then and I continued to tap more rubber every day. Rubber by then fetched a good price.

Then one day, one of the towkay's friends brought a short gun or rifle (I cannot remember) to the rubber garden to shoot some wild pigs. Unfortunately my mother and sisters were looking for bamboo shoots. Without realising that some people were around in the evening, the "town man" tried out his short gun very carelessly. He somehow managed to hit my mother.

What a horror to us...our hut was just perhaps 100 yards away from where the man was standing, we all heard the shot and rushed to the screaming pile of females! I was ready with my parang (I was aged 11 at that time). There was blood all over.

By the time I realised that my mother was hit in the stomach, the towkay and his other friends had arrived. The man with the gun had also run away because no one had thought of restraining him.

We carried our mother to Sungei Merah. It was about the longest journey I ever took and the Roman Catholic nun who happened to be around wrapped a towel around my mother's wound. A very kind shopkeeper put my mother in someone's car and we all went to see a government doctor in Sibu.

I did not remember what happened next because it was so blur and I actually vomitted when I heard that my mother was to be admitted to stay in the hospital for a few days. To stay in the hospital at that time meant death.

In actual fact, the bullet went through her stomach from the left side to the right side. The only open stomach I had ever seen in my short life by then was chicken stomach. So it was horrible to look at my mother's wounds.

But she was alive!!

Later on when my father came back, we went to see the towkay with the local headman, as my father did not know what to say, being illiterate and not good in speaking. There was no compensation at all, the friend had offered $100 and we had to take it or leave it. My mother was not able to work well from that day onwards.

I felt as if my mother had died and only her body was with us. She stopped telling stories. She stopped singing to us. And she was too scared to pull another bamboo shoot out of the ground. She was fearful that she would "eat another bullet".

We continued to tap rubber for another four years but we did not earn $100 any more. We earned only $75 as a smaller family. When I was old enough, I was taken by my father to work in a car workshop. I learned everything possible about cars. I worked and was paid in meals until I was 18. But I was extremely happy learning from my master.

My brother and sisters continued to tap rubber for $50 a month and went to school whenever they could. Poor people did not go to school everyday. It was tolerated at that time. We continued to live in the small hut in the rubber garden.

When I was given a hut next to the car workshop, I moved my frail mother to be with me. My younger sister who was 17 was married off to quite a good guy, My other younger siblings were sent to another school nearer the town because by then there was a bus service. We paid just a few cents because the bus driver knew about my mother's condition and I was the only person earning for the family besides my father.

My father was earning enough only to provide some food and clothes for the Chinese New Year and the different festivals. Once in a while he would bring back fish for the family to sell. But that did not happen every week. He was actually only given his meals on board the boat and not even a small salary. That was the kind of life in the early 50's.

It was a really hard life, having to tap rubber, earn a little bit of money and getting a small share from a towkay.

But it did start my family off, thanks to my mother and my father. My brother and sisters are very tough people. We are all able to take the bitterness of life and to struggle for the sake of our children. The early training in discipline, work ethics, honesty, the fear of God have really made us better people.

Although we are already in our sixties and fifties now, we are still very close as a family. My frail mother passed away many years ago. My father is still alive.

I have to thank my great mentor my master mechanic who inspired me to work hard and learn to read from the manuals. I really have to thank him for the luck that came my way. His hut was our home for many years. It was the home I brought my bright young bride to.

I continue to believe in God and his divine intervention.

If any one asks about my life, I would say I have been barefooted, I have had latex in my hair, I have smelly formic acid soaked toes, I have worn the famous rubber tappers' shirts made from the cotton flour sacks. I have all these experiences...

On my sixtieth birthday my son bought me a pair of Bally shoes...I looked at them and then my feet...it has been really a long long way from the rubber garden.

A lot is in my head. For example, sometimes I can still hear the exploding of rubber seeds from their pods in my head and it will bring a smile to my face.

Rubber tapping? It means a lot to me.

(This story was collected in bits and pieces over the last few months from a retired car workshop owner I know.....Chang Yi /July 23rd 2004)
 
                                   From Lebaan to London

A Tale from Wong Siew Ping of Lebaan, Sibu.

I was born into a poor family. My parents worked on five acres of land, which was gifted, to my grandfather by the Rajah. On this rubber land, they tapped rubber to support the family. When the family grew larger, they had to rent rubber trees from the Ibans. Besides in order to have rice they also had to rent payah (rice) land . For every acre of land, my parents had to pay rent in kind which amounted to l gunny sack of rice per acre.

In spite of the family's efforts, we were still extremely poor. I did not wear shoes until I was in Form One. In fact all the primary school students who were at Kai Dee School at that time were barefooted.

When we worked in the rubber garden or padi field we wore clothes made from the cotton flour sacks.

I did not see any money until I was in Form One, when my parents put me in Chung Cheng Secondary School. But then I could not even bear to part with 5 cents to buy one meat bun at recess. I would look at the buns and swallowed my saliva.

This was part of life then. I worked as a rubber tapper from the age of 6. By 8 I was able to carry my own headlamp and tap an adult's share of rubber trees. I stopped tapping rubber when I went to University.

Naturally, when we were tapping rubber we were barefooted. We developed a wonderful grip on the rubber roots after a few years of tapping: none of us would slip from the roots, the ups and downs of the bumps. But we were often cut by the rubber seed pods which were very sharp or the rottan which crossed our paths. I cannot remember how much blood my siblings and I lost when we were cut accidentally. We just washed our wounds in the brown water from the stream, and carried on with our work. I don't remember having plaster, band aid or even cotton wool in the early stages of my life. Large gashes in the feet or legs would put us at home for a few days. We would then tie a piece of rag on the wound. Our only antiseptic then was a very cheap version of alcohol, which was sold in a beer bottle and stopped by a cork.

In the late 60's our parents would go to the Methodist Mission Clinic which was newly opened to get a bit of yellow lotion, iodine and a little bit of cotton wool.

Processing rubber sheets required quite a skill. First of all I had to step on the coagulated sheet promptly to ensure that the sheet was a true rectangular. I was really the champion rubber mangling machine expert in my district because I could turn the machine with one hand and feed the rubber sheet in with the other hand. I could do the work of three persons. This quickness of hands was a very important asset. It helped me throughout life, in my studies, in my training and in my teaching.

My mother gave birth at home, with the help of an untrained, traditional midwife. Till today I am still surprised how it was possible for my mother to give birth in such conditions, without any form of antiseptic and painkillers and amidst all the pain and suffering, she was able to give birth to a healthy bouncing baby.

Life was full of pain, suffering and disappointments most of the time but on the other hand I feel that it was a blessing because I learned early in life what was right, what was wrong, what was important to us as a family. My father taught us all the good values in life while we were working with him.

On the other hand, my mother taught us the value of money, frugality and simplicity. In order to make our dollar stretch further, my mother reared chickens, pigs, and ducks to supplement our income. We had a large vegetable plot too and every housewife in Lebaan had to do that. My father would fish in the river between works thus making it impossible for any relaxation whatsoever.

Our dinner was very watery porridge with a little bit of peanuts and salt. Eating porridge helped us because our rice would last longer. One condensed milk tin of rice can make enough porridge for 7 people. But to cook rice for 7 people, one would need at least 3 tins of rice, thus rice would run out more quickly.

One wonderful thing, which happened to us, was the fact that my parents forced us to go to school, which was in the afternoon. This timetable was tailored for all the children of rubber tappers. This was to enable us to help our parents in the rubber garden. By one o'clock all of us kids were in school, sometimes still with latex sticking to our hair and neck.
Today my feet are broad and tough, my toes all spread out which were almost unhuman. My shins still bear the cuts and wounds I suffered from both rubber tapping and rice planting.

Very few people today would believe that I had such a life when I was younger. But all of us born in Lebaan would nod in agreement that we suffered; that we survive and that we have been living an ethical and proper life one way or another.

When I boarded the plane for London, my first thought was my own village of Lebaan and my parents. How I wished I could bring them along. I was going to London to study! It was regarded as almost impossible for a rubber tapper's son. And this time, I would see Kew Gardens, and the showroom for rubber trees!!

(This write-up is a result of an interview I had with my ex-colleague, Mr. Wong Siew Ping. He taught in Methodist School Sibu from 1981-1985. He graduated with a science degree from the University of Science, Penang. Mr. Wong also holds a Masters Degree in Computer Science from the London University and is presently the Head of Department of Social Studies Department of the Rajang Teachers' Training College, Bintangor. He is married with three children. His wife is a teacher in Sarikei.)

Lebaan or Lo Ma Ang, which is situated near Bawang Assan is the home village of many well known Foochow leaders. Listed among the better known are Tan Sri Dr. Wong Soon Kai, Datuk Ling Beng Siew and Datuk Ling Beng Siong and Datuk Wong Tuong Kuang
 

                                                     

                                                                                                      Last Updated: Monday, 23 August 2004 12:18 AM