Minqing — a homecoming

Wong Meng Lei and Ting Mee Chung at the entrance to the Chieh Siong Chong.

TWO or three generations ago in 1903, the Lau Clan pioneers left Fujian in China to seek their fortunes in the South Seas or Nanyang.

They were, in a way, pushed out by impoverishment and hardship in a famine-stricken land. But over time, changes came about in the most unimaginable way — as a group from the Sarawak Pan-Chen Lau Clan Association in Sibu discovered during a visit  to Minqing recently.

While in this county of Fujian Province, the group, led by association chairman Albert Lau Pek Kii, came face to face with many progressive agro-preneurs, including an enterprising young Malaysian called Lau Hing Soon.

One of the visiting Lau Clan members remarked: “Now, I’m sure many people are feeling the ‘pull’ of Minqing. The development opportunities are there, the facilities are excellent and some people may even ponder about coming here to retire.”

According to a newspaper report, the value of agro-product exports from Fujian Province in East China reached $9.1 billion in 2017, ranking third among all provinces and regions in the country.”

Agro farm and resort

The modern Yang Soon Agro Resort in Minqing’s Er Lu (Lau Village) is a multi-million yuan undertaking, covering a few hundred acres. This government-approved venture is still in the earlier stages of development.

It was borne out of an idea mooted three years ago by Lau Hing Soon who had studied and worked in Taiwan and the Agro-Resort is his life’s dream.

According to one of his partners and relatives, Ms Lau, an entrepreneur and a local people’s representative, the Fujian government has been introducing reforms to improve agriculture in the Province.

She said the government is firmly committed to helping locals diversify their agriculture and create a big market for different modern agro products.

The Fujian government and the national government support seven important industries, including the cultivation of tea, fruits, vegetables and edible mushrooms. From these industries, Fujian alone has amassed a revenue amounting to US$170.8 billion.

Ms Lau said human resources were also being developed and the government hoped to turn out 500,000 skilled farmers by 2020.

Apart from a garden producing the top grade vegetables such as cauliflowers, spring onions, leeks, tomatoes and other crops, which are sold in nearby towns, the Agro-Resort has also allocated a huge area for multi-span greenhouses.

Growing cangkok manis

With a keen interest in experimental farming, Hing Soon has successfully grown sayur manis (cangkok manis) in the greenhouses.

He will introduce this vegetable to local restaurants. And his uncles from Sarawak Pan-Chen Lau Clan Association are really proud of what he has accomplished.

Another visiting Lau Clan member noted: “Cangkok manis was the most important staple of the Foochow pioneers when they first arrived in Sarawak.”

The multi-span plastic film greenhouses at the Resort are Hing Soon’s major investments. Several varieties of tomatoes are grown here.

According to him, Minqing is the largest tomato production base in Fujian Province and the Minqing locals have an ‘excellent tradition’ of planting tomatoes.

So far in Minqing, the tomato planting area is 100,000mu (ancient unit of land area), producing around 250,000 tonnes per year.

Tomatoes are sold to Guangzhou, Shenzen, Fuzhou City and Shanghai.

The Er Lu is accessible to highway traffic and, therefore, very convenient for the production and transportation of tomatoes and other fresh vegetables.

Rose garden

The rose garden of Yang Soon Agro-Resort is already in production. The cut flower business is labour-intensive with the roses grown in open fields.

The buds are wrapped in a special netting, which is a new technology, and “each bloom will be perfect” when delivered to consumers, opening withall the desired qualities for floral arrangements.

There are thousands of rose bushes with a variety of colours at the Agro-Resort — pink, peach, yellow and different shades of red.

Shielded by hills on both sides in a small valley, the garden will eventually double up as a roseate spot for wedding photography.

Already, the business partners are working on their expansion plans.

Pomelo orchard

The pomelo orchard is also in production.

The 8,000 pomelo trees took Ms Lau more than five years to cultivate with the support of the local government and their employees.

Pomelo trees dot almost every hill, planted systematically on terraces.

“I have spent quite a bit of money to get this project off the ground and each month, Hing Soon and I have to pay quite a bit on staff salaries.

“We’ve been able to employ good workers which is very important. The organic fruits and vegetables do fetch good prices too,” Ms Lau said.

Exciting experience

Lunch at an organic restaurant was an exciting experience.

Hing Soon and Ms Lau treated the group to a hot pot and plates of fresh prawns, sliced beef and mutton with plenty of freshly grown vegetables from the farm.

The visitors, to their surprise, were served specially fried bee larvae at RM500 a platter. It was a delicacy to savour!

According to the chef, the restaurant has many walk-in customers or visitors coming for fresh vegetables, meat and sea food.

Hing Soon also plans to use the natural streams in the village to start fish ponds to attract more local tourists to the farm for meals of fresh fish and prawns.

Future development

According to Hing Soon, a mini dam is being built to provide water for irrigation and consumption. This will have long-term benefits for the villages in the area.

“In Spring, the land is fairly arid but the weather is ideal for cropping and tourism. The vegetables are already doing very well with small modern stream-fed irrigation canals and greenhouses,” he said.

Hing Soon’s uncle, Lau Tiong Kii, who was with the visiting group, was happy to note what Hing Soon has done would immensely help develop their ancestral village.

Er Lu Village has several still vacant shophouses while some of the buildings can be incorporated into the Agro-Resort setup.

In two years’ time, the project will be ready for local and foreign tourists alike.

A very apt tagline— Rural Tourism – resonates with locals as they can visit the farms of rural China to “breathe fresh air and be close to nature.”

Another watchword — Farm Tourism– is coined to attract visitors and travellers to the farming areas generally for educational and recreational purposes, besides encouraging economic activities to generate income for the farms and the community.

Lee family village

One of the group members Ting Mee Chung was delighted at the chance to visit her maternal grandfather’s village in Minqing — less than an hour by car from the city.

In the early days, Mee Chung’s grandfather and grand uncles had to walk more than four days across the mountains to reach Mawei,a district of Fuzhou in Fujian Province, to join Wong Nai Siong, leader of the Foochow pioneers who arrived in Sibu in 1901.

It was a delight to see the village thriving with well-tilled farm plots and good cement roads criss-crossing the village, Mee Chung said.

A nursery with only two or three children welcomes visitors at the entrance of the Jieh Siong Chong. Many new buildings are also coming up amidst old farm houses and ancestral homes.

Although many of the Lee ancestors were Christians during the time of Wong Nai Siong, a village church was never built due to the historical and political development of the country at the time.

Mee Chung’s maternal grandfather Lee Chung Kwong (and his two brothers) came with the third batch of Foochow pioneers to Sibu in 1903.

The whole village — Chie Siong  Chong — with a small exception, carries the surname Lee. Some of the villagers were curious when they saw the small visiting party of just three persons (all Lees). They were very forthcoming with information.

A farmer who was tilling the land, told Mee Chung: “Yes, it’s easy to find your grandfather’s house over there. The house is in disrepair but the tall gates and some of the bigger walls are still standing. There has been a lot of Lees from this village who have gone overseas.”

A friendly local known as Mr Lee came over to talk about his farm where he grows two types of vegetables, including the local yam. He rides a motorbike to his farm.

According to him, Sibu’s favourite ‘bilong wo’ is not favoured by locals in Minqing.

“We don’t like that purple streaked taro but prefer the white Chinese taro I grow,” he said.

Besides growing vegetables, he also rears chicken. And the rice he has planted over the years is enough to last probably two years, so he has left his rice plot to fallow.

He explained: “Most of the children who are well educated have moved elsewhere for good jobs like engineering, education and even medicine. Furthermore, most married couples have two incomes.

“Our children will send us money and we just enjoy our farming, which is more a habit than an occupation.

“The government party also encourages us to be resilient and make the village viable. If there is a resort here, it would be very good.”

The visiting group have gathered a deep insight into their ancestral land this trip and might contemplate another trip in the near future.

As Gary Locke, the 10th US ambassador to China, said: “We would be looking back at China’s history which has been marked by thousands of years of world changing innovations, from the compass to acupuncture and the printing press. And we are looking at a new China now that is emerging as an economic superpower.”

Special Minqing kampua, using tea oil (home pressed) and fresh spring onions.

Hing Soon and Ms Lau with Mr and Mrs Wong Meng Lei from Sibu.

Yang Soon Farm Resort, Er Lu.

Cut roses from Yang Soon Farm and Resort, Er Lu.

Relatives pray for Hing Soon and Ms Lau and their Agro-Resort.

A multi-span greenhouse.

Cultivation of cangkok manis in a greenhouse in Minqing.

A villager tilling the land at his farm at Chieh Siong Chong.

The village office of Chieh Siong Chong.

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