THE Hing Ang Association of Miri is a learning organisation.
Its chairman Datuk David Goh believes this is especially true in helping fellow clan members learn and improve themselves.
“For example, this evening’s master of ceremony (MC) was trained last year in public speaking and you can see he is already an excellent compere for our event tonight. He is very confident and fluent in Mandarin,” he said.
Goh made these observations when approached by guests and reporters during a recent Moon Cake Festival Dinner organised by the Association in Miri.
He went on to say: “Most people would think that joining a society or an association is a waste of time because they don’t like F and B (eating and drinking), long meetings and perhaps even differences of opinions that often lead to arguments with their clansmen. But I would really like to assure that our organisation benefits many members in terms of learning, personal growth and development, and, of course perpetuation of our culture.”
The Hing Ang Association is not a very big organisation in Miri. The small number of members moved here mainly from Sungei Teku in Sibu in the 1960’s and 70’s although a few came directly from China (to Miri) just before the Second World War. So, all together they are still considered a small group of people.
Chinese clan associations or societies usually started when some enterprising members of the community sought to forge unity and work together for the benefit of clan members because of shared dialect and origin.
From such humble beginnings, they persevered to find a niche in the local business and social milieu. Most soon established themselves in the transport business such as by operating taxis, driving commercial buses and trading in tyres and other vehicular paraphernalia. And in no time, some became big shots in their chosen businesses.
The first Chinese association in Miri is the Hainan Association as the Hainans were the first to set foot on the shores of the Division in 1900’s. Other clan associations soon followed as more and more Chinese emigrants arrived – the latest perhaps were the Foochows in the 1960’s.
Passing on cultural heritage
According to an elderly but still avid Heng Hua clan member, one of the best ways to pass cultural heritage on to the next generation is through events such as the Moon Cake Festival.
“Every year, we hold special activities, led by the elders, especially the clanswomen. This is how we impart our knowledge to the next generation,” said Toh Tian Dee who spoke confidently in front of an enthusiastic audience like a good language teacher.
Assisted by Tay Mee Kiew, she also conducted the teaching of Heng Hua poems via LCD at the function.
Tian Dee is a favourite member of the association. Her good friend remarked: “Sister Tian Dee has many children whom she has brought up well. She started out as a hair dresser in Miri – with only a pair of scissors. She came from a very poor family.”
Tian Dee completed her six years of primary school in Sungei Teku. In fact, with the school’s permission, she actually studied for only one term per year and worked during the other months. But her results were so good that the teachers allowed her to move on to the next class.
Today, at 77, she is still very fluent in Mandarin and reads her Bible everyday. She has set a very good example to her Heng Hua community to emulate.
A happy Cecilia Liew exclaimed: “This evening, we see many children with us and even the teenagers are here too. Our buffet dinner menu includes Heng Hua bee hoon, special Heng Hua cakes and many different types of dishes. This is a good way to ensure our culture is preserved. My family and I are very happy to be here with all the others.”
Training women leaders
Another way of perpetuating the Heng Hua culture is through training the women members to become leaders. In Miri, whenever there are civic functions such as food sales, the Hing Ang Association women’s group will prepare their home-cooked specials such as Heng Hua bee hoon and zhongzi (dumplings) to help raise funds for the community.
By participating in events like these, the women gain confidence and pick up leadership skills like public speaking, organising events and such like.
Tay Mee Kiaw, well trained as a woman leader, has plenty to offer her sisters of the clan. She is a good dancer and a dancing teacher and as leading dance personality, has brought many fellow women members to dancing functions in Kuching and even West Malaysia.
She said this was one way a woman could contribute to society – by passing on social grace, poise and artistic skills.
When the Hing Ang Association gets members together for festivals, the sharing of food, especially traditional food, encourages the next generation to appreciate what their forebears had brought to Sarawak.
An old uncle used to say: “In many households, some of the traditional dishes are not cooked at all because the mother or grandmother may be too busy working. So the only way for the younger generation to get to know more about their traditional cuisine is by joining cooking activities organised by the association.
“Zhongzi are seldom made at home nowadays and some children may not even like eating them – they may prefer KFC! But if they see their peers enjoying zhongzi, they may also learn to like them. I feel very sad when I hear some children say they don’t even like noodles (pah mee) so loved by their grandparents.
“We must encourage the making of noodles by hand, and the preparation of other traditional dishes. I feel strongly these dishes must continue to be preserved for many generations to come.”
A young Heng Hua woman, speaking on condition of anonymity, said: “It’s sad for me to hear mothers saying my children don’t know how to eat this or that food prepared by our community. Why should this happen? Our next generation cannot just eat KFC. We are not Americans!”
Chance to dress up
A gathering like the Moon Cake Festival provides an occasion for Heng Hua women to dress up in their traditional costumes and celebrate with clans-members. Although some men may come in batik shirts, others continue to wear Chinese front-buttoned shirts, a popular traditional apparel worn by Jackie Chan in his movies. Today, the action actor wears this traditional Chinese suit everyday – and especially during international events.
One of the younger clan members noted: “Clan associations like to help provide basic necessities for the emigrants and settle disputes among the various dialect groups and occupations in the olden days.
They even helped seek employment for their members.
“A popular way was to allow newcomers – for example from Sibu – to board with a Heng Hua family until they were more stable in their jobs. A few young men from this group who are now established business people in Miri, started life in this manner. They were worked really hard and after less than 10 years, could buy houses and bring their parents over.”
Most Chinese associations have helped destitute members and arranged for funerals and burials.
But one very trendy function today is to act as intermediaries between the associations and the government. In fact, several government projects have
been sourced through such associations in Sibu, Kuching and Miri.
In the past, many problems were also settled by the clan leaders after negotiating with the District Office or the Resident or heads of government department. And because of such helpful and selfless gestures, many grateful widows, for example, did not lose their land and manage to receive government welfare via the associations.
Awards and bonding
Today, many organisations such as the Hing Ang Association of Miri also present awards to members’ children who excel in SPM and STPM exams. Such annual assistance, usually in the form of finance and scholarships, encourages the children to do well in their studies.
Elderly Heng Hua women in Miri who have known each other for more than 60 years, have fostered great bonding and friendship and provided moral support for each other. This is one of the positive results of their families joining the clan association as evidenced by a recent fellowship in Miri to prepare hand-made noodles (pah mee) or dar pak mee (hand beaten noodles) – which are quite similar to Xian (China) la mien or hand-pulled noodles.
There is a theory that the Heng Huas might have originated in South Eastern China where they used more wheat flour, hence the pah mee or wheat noodles.
Because the Heng Huas are a smaller group, they do not operate many restaurants or kopitiam in Sarawak, serving their own cuisine. Most of them can only have their own cooking at home.
Due to modern lifestyle influences, some Heng Hua children grew up, not knowing anything about pak mee, which requires a lot of time and effort to prepare. Kneading the dough and cooking the soup base are time-consuming.
Heng Hua womenfolk usually gather for a happy morning of making the noodles and having two bowls of pah mee each. Some have not had such a treat for more than 10 years. And it was with a grateful heart that they sat around the marble table for a hearty meal – plus conversation about the good old days.
Those were the days
China-born aunty Ling, in her seventies, enthused: “It’s good we friends can gather in this way. I think of the days in Sungei Teku when we had either to walk or ride a bicycle from the rubber garden to another friend’s house nearer the Sibu old Airport.
“For me, it was a good half-hour cycling. We had to do everything in those days. We were trained as early as six years of age to help with the making of pak mee. Now eating this noodle here in Miri, I feel God is really blessing us mightily.”
While bigger events in clan houses bring men together, it’s simple activities like noodle-making from scratch that warm the cockles of the women’s hearts and help them remember past hardships and life’s long journey and struggles to reach this senior stage of life.
And while enjoying their pah mee, the women uttered in unison: “Eat the bitter first and then the sweet later.”
A simple truth enshrined in the clan’s philosophy of life – that without hard work, success remains an illusion.