AFTER arriving at Changle International Airport, we made a dash to our waiting privately-hired coach as the temperature had dipped to about 12 degrees Celsius.
Miraculously, the next few days, the temperature rose as if to welcome us to a warm, but delightfully mild Fujian for a pleasant stay.
‘Selamat Jalan’ from KLIA seemed to be a good wish.
We had to exit Changle city to travel further north to our seaside retreat, booked online. WiFi is available throughout most of the urbane and tourist spots in this district of eastern Fujian Province.
Interestingly, in the late sunny afternoon, the taciturn but careful coach driver got a bit lost in the rambling old suburb where roads are barely big enough for our 19-seater coach, prompting someone sitting at the back to comment, “Dangerously narrow and almost touching the balcony.”
The winding roads without any sense of modern spatial planning, are archaic, to say the least. In the past, people built and extended living abodes as and when they could.
When an old lady walked just by the side of our coach, our driver instinctively blared the horn. She nonchalantly carried on – without batting an eyelid, I was sure.
Then there was also the motorcyclist, carrying about five cartons of drinking water slowly moving ahead of us. We finally got to our seaside resort after only retracing our path as the driver looked really lost. A delay of only two hours – he was really a cool driver!
It was cold for the evening at about six but the air was crisp and fresh. Even though there was no lift in our building, we managed to scramble up the three flights of stairs, hauling up our own suitcases, and freshening up with some brown water from the tap.
The late spring air was cold enough to refresh us actually.
Changle is one of the 10 sub-districts in Fujian Province, China, from which the Foochows of Sarawak originated. Many ‘Tiong Lok’ Foochows in Sarawak today continue to speak with a very strong Changle accent and use some special Changle words, which other groups might not even understand.
But we were glad everywhere we went we could communicate in Mandarin and our own Minqing dialect or Minhou dialect. That’s the beauty of being in Fujian.
We were to find out Changle is a foodie heaven in the next two days. Our first night’s dinner, hosted by our team leader Lau, consisted of 14 dishes, introduced by the captain of the restaurant and endorsed by our Foochow-speaking coach driver who had, up till that point, been very reserved.
He had full concentration on the road – very professionally. But when it came to food and delicacies, he was a gourmet. We ate eels, clams, oysters, pancakes, two pork dishes, ducks, mussels, three different vegetables, three soups (chicken, fish balls, and tofu) and bamboo shoots.
The next day, we had a special noodle for breakfast when we arrived at our destination to conduct some Lau Clan genealogical research.
The bian sik and noodle were fantastic. Shar Jeng people are very good cooks and they operate all over China, including in small eateries with two or three tables. Their secret lies in using fresh pork from the slaughter-house and their very open attitude towards customers.
In the afternoon, the village main committee treated us to a two-table grand banquet with lots of different dishes, some of which we could not finish. They were all fresh and exquisitely presented. The small dishes were equally nice and appetising.
Spirit of Zheng He
The Lau Clan team from Sibu, led by its chairman, Lau Pek Gii, spent a week doing special historical research in Fujian on the life history of Lau King Howe, the Foochow philanthropist who donated a large sum of money to build the first modern hospital in Sibu.
Changle is where many writers and historians believe King Howe was born as he did not leave behind any documents regarding his family’s lineage.
The research team found many heart-warming stories, even surprises and made connections.
Changle is famous for many historical figures. Foremost and most popular is Zheng He (1371–1433 or 1435) whom most Malaysian students would know as Admiral Cheng Ho.
He was a Chinese mariner, explorer, diplomat, fleet admiral, and court eunuch during China’s early Ming Dynasty. Malaysians admire him because he was originally born as Ma He in a Muslim family. He was given the surname Zheng by Emperor Yongle.
Zheng He is well remembered and venerated in Malaysia. A well, known as Zheng He well, can be found in Melaka and a temple there is also named after him. There is even a Sam Poh Footprint for everyone to see. It shows he was a large person.
According to historical accounts, he was, indeed, more than seven feet tall. He led a mighty fleet of several hundred ships and sailed seven times to the Western Ocean from China from 1405 to 1433, a record not many westerners could break.
In Terengganu, the Chinese settled at Nerus River not long after 1414. They named the river Sampokang (or Zheng He’s River) and built a temple at Kampung Jeram, Sampokong Keramat Zheng He.
He is also venerated in Kuching where there is a Malaysia-China Friendship Park. A huge 20-foot statue of him is prominently placed at the centre.
The Yunnan-inspired lake with a zigzag bridge, pavilions, a wishing well, a plaza for community activities, a walking path and garden have become a favourite family and health recreational place in the city.
A Kuching road is also named after him – Jalan Laksamana Cheng Ho.
Although not a native of Changle, Zheng He played a very significant role in this district which he adopted as his second home. He repaired the Longfeng Academy, established by a Confucian Scholar, a Changle native, and supported the growth of temples and schools in Changle.
He transformed the Majian River Basin into Taiping Port. Today, it’s very appropriate a Maritime Museum is named after him in Changle, serving as an iconic testimony to a world pioneer in maritime expedition. There are many other places which honour his memory in Changle.
Changle and King Howe
One of the places King Howe could have originated from is Er Liu Chuen – meaning Village of the Two Laus.
The name Er Liu Chuen originated from the two Lau Brothers who were very famous during the Qing Dynasty. At just 11 and 14 years old, they passed the Civic Examinations and were made top advisors to the Emperor. Whenever the Emperor wanted to seek advice, he could not remember which brother he wanted, so he just summoned both.
Hence the term – Er Liu Chuen – was given to the village where they hailed from. This village has a huge ancestral shrine to showcase Lau Surname Ancestry and a huge community hall, which can easily seat 2,000 people in a single banquet.
Life there is all at once modern with all the modern technology. Many of the elders have children living in the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
The Senior Citizens Committee is well served by members who had good standing in the army and the academics. They are concerned about the cultural development of the community. Being very aware their district has a total population of 680,000 and is the hometown of more than 700,000 overseas Chinese, they were very open and helpful to our group when we wrote to ask for their help.
The group was brought to meet the village’s senior citizens at the centre for their morning session, and for a walk around the village, which is continually being developed and renovated, mainly with government funding.
Big and beautiful buildings are coming up as children from overseas have been sending back money. Funds collected are very carefully written in stone! In fact, one small memorial hall was entirely funded by a group of sisters.
Green mountains, blue seas
In tandem with cultural and social development, the agricultural sector continues to grow. Mandarin oranges, vegetables and fruits such as persimmons are grown on land not used for road and other infrastructural development.
Every small open space between buildings and roads is used to grow vegetables.
Every garden has one happy gardener tending to it in the morning.
A shopkeeper commented, “We are very well endowed in this village. For centuries, we have been producing our own needs. Only in the past we had rice paddies. But now, we have enough cash to buy, so we just grow fruits, vegetables and even flowers. These make our village very pretty.”
Er Liu Chuen continues to develop to face global challenges. The village committee and the villagers have good relations with overseas relatives and are very encouraging and welcoming to anyone doing historical research, especially about Changle connections with overseas Chinese.
As we left the village in the evening, we did so feeling very touched by the warm-hearted gesture of the village committee in welcoming us like long lost relatives. We will always cherish their warm welcome.
Although it had been a quest of a just few hours to rekindle more than 100 years of Foochow-Sibu connection in Changle, the experience we took home from the visit is, indeed, memorable and special – one we certainly aren’t going to forget anytime soon.