THREE Rivers is not the official name of any geographical area in Sarawak. It’s locally known as the area covered by the river basins of Balingian, Mukah, and Oya.
The term is closely associated with the premier school of Mukah – the Three Rivers Government Secondary School – set up before Malaysia and drawing students mainly from these river valleys.
The term Three Rivers evokes a strong spirit and motivation for many people in the region from the 60s onwards.
The early Chinese settlers probably had in mind to explain the history of the three biggest Chinese settlements in the middle of Sarawak – between the Rajang and Bintulu. Hence the catchphrase, San He, for many Chinese in the region.
A seminar on the history of the Chinese in Three Rivers held at Kingwood Hotel Mukah was a first for the community in the division.
Organised by the Sarawak Chinese Cultural Association, under president Lau Pek Kii, it attracted over 50 participants throughout Sarawak.
Lau, in his welcoming address, said the legacy handed down to the community by their ancestors in Sarawak must not be forgotten.
“Much of the history of the early Chinese migrants in many towns and villages of Sarawak has been neglected by progress and lost over time.
“The history of many early settlers has disappeared. It’s time for researchers and local historians to make a better effort to recover what has been lost and find out more.”
He appealed to the people of Mukah, in particular, and Sarawak, in general, to share their photographs, newspaper cuttings, and old books to make recording Chinese history in Sarawak more comprehensive.
Lau sponsored the seminar and chartered a private coach to bring the participants from Sibu to Mukah.
Mukah-born Wan Kong Ang, who recently graduated with a PhD from Xiamen University, presented the first paper on the ‘History of the Chinese of Mukah: Social Structure and Network’.
Wan’s great grandfather came from China, settled in Mukah, and set up one of the earliest local wooden shophouses. It was later burnt down. And today, the row of shophouses have become the town’s car park.
The Wan family originated from Lung Hai, one of the centres from which the Nanyang Minnan (Hokkien) migrants originated.
In his presentation, Wan touched on the significant contributions of the early Chinese pioneers in Mukah who set up a Chinese temple, a Chinese school, charitable organisations, and the Mukah Chinese Chamber of Commerce.
It was through cooperation that the early Chinese continued to progress and make a mark in the local history. Their fellowship and enterprising spirit continued to help them move forward.
Wan hopes the new generation would remember the contributions of the past generations and value the local Chinese history in Mukah.
Kang Siew Hai, a local researcher and Chinese historian in Mukah, gave an impressive presentation based on old photographs his father had taken.
He brought a refreshing perspective of the history of the Chinese in Mukah. He held the attention of the audience with his systematic and comprehensive approach, comparing old and new photos, and using interesting anecdotes.
Kang taught in SMK Three Rivers and throughout his life has been involved in many important social activities. He was secretary of the Chong Boon Primary School board of management and is a member of many Chinese associations in Mukah.
Having a great interest in history and a strong desire to acquire knowledge, he is known to the locals as a “living library”.
The old photos taken by his father, who migrated from Fujian, are especially valuable as evidence of the early history of Mukah town.
All are well preserved by the family.
Kang said he was proud of the old camera his father left him. He also owns a family photo studio, an inheritance from his father.
Based on many years of field studies and investigations, photo-journalist Steve Ling presented a clear account of the Foochow migration to Balingian and Kuala Lemai.
To some, the migration to Balingian was considered a new migration or late migration as it took place only in the 1950s.
According to Ling, in 1959, Datuk Hii Yii Chong set up the Hua Lee Timber Company and later a sawmill in Balingian to begin the timber industry in Three Rivers.
“It was an economic catalyst which helped open up the Three Rivers area. As most of the logging was done manually, many timber workers were needed. Ramin was king. Cash was flowing freely and everyone enjoyed the economic boom,” he recounted.
However, with the rapid decline of the timber industry in 2003, Balingian became “a very quiet town”.
Ling recalled interviewing the pioneer timber manager of Hua Lee Company Datuk Tie Chi Ping, who said he had to travel around by small boats in those early days.
The sea was treacherous at times, putting the timber workers in great danger. The trip to from Sibu to Balingian depended on the weather. And they had to wait for the right time to travel.
Back then, Kuala Lemai (Balingian) had five shophouses with four owned by the Foochows and one by the Minnangs (Hokkien). They traded in sago, rice, pepper, timber, rubber, engkabang, and other products.
After a fire razed the shophouses, the two communities moved inland to Selangau to restart their business.
Selangau boomed as an inland bazaar with the construction of roads – from Sibu to Bintulu and on to Miri.
Foochow Kongsi house
The Foochows who came to Balingian found it quite challenging at first. So they pooled their money to buy a wooden shop lot and turned it into a hostel for Foochow workers.
The Foochow Association of Balingian was formed in 1948 and housed in that shop lot known as the Kongsi house.
The property was later sold and the funds used to buy a shop lot in Selangau to house the new Foochow Association Building.
The spirit of solidarity, brotherhood, and fellowship of the Foochow Kongsi House continues in Selangau to this day.
Chinese history in Oya
Sarawak Chinese Cultural Association spokesman and executive secretary Chua Cheng Choon said in 1998 their members came to Mukah for the first time to research Chinese history in the division.
“It was a very fruitful visit, especially when so many local Chinese, like Mr Kang Siew Hai, came forward to help.
“Since then, we have collected documents, photographs, met many other researchers and also conducted fieldworks in Oya, and Balingian besides Mukah.
“We’re making a concerted effort to fill the gaps of history and put many stories into the right perspective,” he said.
Chua said sago had been a very attractive export commodity in the area from ancient times to the Brooke Dynasty and the present day.
The Chinese migrants traded in sago in Oya and have become part of the historical and social tapestry of the area today, he added.
They are also given local titles such as kapitan and pemancha by the government to lead and serve their community.
The Chinese presence in Oya was recognised after 1861 through publications such as the Sarawak Gazette, the works of Sir Hugh Low and the book titled ‘History of Sarawak under Its Two White Rajahs (1839-1908)’ by S Baring-Gould and CA Bampfylde.
According to Chua, Oya was not a good place to settle in at the time because, during a certain time of the year, floods, heavy rain and strong winds would wreak havoc in the area.
The deluge caused by the landas season (November to March) brought a lot of suffering to the people. Fishermen stopped putting out to sea, farmers tilled the land under the constant threat of flooding, and economic life came to a standstill as a result.
Despite these adversities, the Chinese migrants settled in Medong and Dalat along the Oya River, eking out a living by trading in sago.
In 1891, seven wooden shophouses, built by the settlers, were gutted by fire. Soon, new ones were constructed but burnt down again in 1914. It was a big blow to Chinese enterprise in the area. Sago, rice, timber, boats, and even coffins were turned to ashes. The total loss was $2,700 – a big sum back then.
The 20th century saw a small development of Chinese enterprise in Oya.
In 1951, the colonial governor, Sir Anthony Abell, visited Oya and was warmly welcomed by all the communities.
He presented a special Australian award to Teo King Hao for “rendering brave services” to the Australian forces during the Second World War.
At night, Oya town was lit up to mark the governor’s visit. The Chinese built the Tua Pek Kong Sam Ann Temple in Oya in 1911. It was reconstructed further inland in 1980 and has become a tourist attraction in Oya town.
The Chinese community also set up a primary school – Yik Tee – in 1913. The Kwang Foo Chinese Cemetery can be found a little outside Oya town, indicating the Chinese have been living in Oya for more than 100 years.
Every Ching Ming Festival, the descendants of the early pioneers would return to pay their respects to their ancestors. Traditions are kept alive and the footprints of the pioneers are not forgotten.
The organisers appreciated the attendance of representatives from the local Mukah Chinese associations and schools at the Ching Ming Festival, hoping it would spark interest in local history and encourage the local Chinese to share old photos and documents as a record of their history in Three Rivers.