Monday, March 1

A Hainanese woman with an indomitable spirit

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Wong’s farm in Kampung Menjelin, Bekenu.

I HAVE never met a more caring and sincere woman than former kindergarten teacher-turned-farmer Wong Siew Yin.

She is so zestful that you wonder where her energy comes from. Her strong physique offers no hint that she was once a gentle preschool teacher.

Behind the kind face is a strong woman who puts more than the proverbial food on the table for the family.

Her story began in Hainan Island, China, before World War II.

Her late father, Wong Giok Chong, was born in a southern China province whose main land territory is coextensive with Hainan Island and a handful of nearby offshore islands. Although a soldier in the Chinese Army, he had his sights on the South Seas.

This granite pestle was made by Giok Chong 70 years ago.

Due to political unrest in China at the time, he emigrated to Sarawak. He learned to speak Malay and joined the local defence force to fight against the Japanese.

After the war, he met and married a Convent girl and brought her to Brunei to start a new life together.

Wong’s mother was Antonia Soo Moi Fah.

She said they spoke Malay at home because her mother was given to St Teresa’s Convent by her grandmother, who refused to accept her into the family after her twin sister died at birth.

“A deity said my mother couldn’t live with the family as she would bring bad luck. A few months later, she was thought to have died at the convent. The nuns prepared a box for her. When the last nail was about to be hammered into the casket, my mother gave out a cry.

“It was as if God wanted her to live and told her to tell the nuns. My mother was thus saved from being buried alive.”

According to Wong, her mother grew up speaking English and Malay with the nuns, learned to read and write, and also about European housekeeping at the convent. Her forte was cooking.

And after their marriage, her parents moved to Brunei where her father found work as a cook at a restaurant. Wong was born in Kuala Belait.

Wong is studying how to bring butterflies back to her farm. Photos shows a butterfly on a plant.

A few years later, when her father found he was stateless, he decided to return to Sarawak to find a way to become a subject of the then colonial government.

By sheer chance, her mother was given a job as a cook in the police commissioner’s household. From their conversations, the latter came to know about her father’s plight. The police commissioner was very gracious and with his help, her father got his Sarawak identity card.

As a Sarawakian, Giok Chong got a permanent job as a lorry driver with the Public Works Department. At that time, a troposcatter communications station was being implemented for Radio Sarawak on Gunung Serapi in Matang. Giok Chong drove from Mile 7, Kuching, every day with the team workers to carry out the project at the summit.

Wong said her father’s daily rations at work consisted of rice, dried fish, and, occasionally, some tinned food, which he brought with him in a tiffin. That was his diet for a few years.

She remembered he drove them up the narrow winding road to Gunung Serapi.

“We were car sick. But it was a great adventure, going up the road, surrounded by pristine wilderness. That was how I know a lot about Gunung Serapi and Radio Sarawak.”

During the communist insurgency, Wong said her family was almost wiped out. She believed God saved them and they were able to settle back in their Mile 7 home. Her father continued to work for PWD until he retired.

 

Determination and foresight

Wong studied hard in school and after Form 5, applied for a job with the government to support the family.

She started as a laundry assistant in Miri Hospital and held the post for 10 years but because she did not pass the government exam, she could not be confirmed.

Wong’s husband Chng is now a full-time farmer.

“We liked working with her so much that we didn’t want her to resign. We wanted her to give it another try but she was set on resigning. She had found her new calling in preschool education and was accepted as a kindergarten teacher,” a former colleague, who wished to remain anonymous, told thesundaypost.

“Over the next five years, she upgraded herself by doing a course in preschool education in Manila, the Philippines, at the end of each school year. She was so determined to do well.”

Wong said she never had a year-end holiday during those days as she had to study.

Her two children were growing up and she was worried about their future. It was her cherished wish to give her children a good education.

But she and her husband, a government clerk, known as Chng, from Marudi, knew at the time they could not afford to send their children overseas.

After receiving her preschool education certificate from the Philippines, Wong opened her own early learning centre.

At the peak of her career, she ran a kindergarten with 30 teachers and 300 pupils. But the young Hainanese woman was not one to rest on her laurels. She had to do more for her family.

 

Agropreneurship inroads

Wong started to learn about oil palm and farming, and enrolled for courses conducted by the Agriculture Department.

Giok Chong (seated left) was born in Hainan Island but worked with the Sarawak army during the Japanese occupation.

“I made friends with the staff of the Agriculture Department in Miri and soon I was hitting the books again. I grew up in a rural setting and I love to have a healthy life, eat organic vegetables, and breathe the fresh air. So I decided to be a farmer,” she recalled.

With her savings and a small bank loan, she bought a small piece of land to grow oil palm and vegetables. Together with her husband, she started their agro project. It was a leap of faith.

Wong said she prayed a lot while working the land. She was happy and did not regret her decision.

“I’m very positive and believe in God. My husband and I lead a simple healthy lifestyle. While planting our crops, I would crush the leaves and feel energised by their fragrance. I enjoyed the warmth of the soil. I felt the rain, and I thank God for his blessings.”

Soon, Wong and her husband bought another piece of farmland, which they developed and made a small profit from. She was finally able to fulfil her dream of giving her children a tertiary education by sending them to Australia to study engineering.

 

New farm

A few years ago, after her children had completed their education and found jobs, she bought a new property at Kampung Menjelin, Bekenu.

Her husband has also retired and is working full-time at the farm. With only one worker, they are indeed hands-on farmers.

Today, they raise ducks and chickens, and grow papayas, pineapples, lemons, ginger, and some herbs.

At the farm, Wong has a special kitchen she built herself. There is also a special chapel facing visitors as they arrive at the top of the hill. Two chalets have been added as living quarters.

“Believe it or not, I’m a plumber too. I don’t have a certificate but I have done all the plumbing myself,” she said.

Indeed, a lot of plumbing was needed at the farm. Had she engaged a private plumber, it would have cost her a few thousand ringgit, if not more.

With four greenhouses, the farm is expanding. There’s plenty for her to do with four acres to work on. Now, her priority crops are chilli padi and terung assam.

“The land is well-drained and the soil is very fertile. I have been working on this land for over three years now. God has provided well.”

Wong makes her cold-pressed oil from coconuts grown at her farm.

Natural food

Dr Uma Devi, who has known Wong since their days in Miri Hospital, told thesundaypost, “She is very committed to eating natural food. In the morning, she would be at her farm, plucking leaves from her fruit trees and herbs for breakfast.

“She can chew serai and enjoy the nutrients it produces. This is a healthy lifestyle and very admirable.

“Young people should learn farming like her. We must all work hard and try our best to give back to nature. Hard work pays as we can see from her achievements. We mustn’t just depend on government handouts.”

 

New orchard

Recently, Wong acquired a farm fully grown with fruit trees, across a huge piece of farmland belonging to a few families from her present farm.

“This orchard is under my daughter’s name but I’ll work on it myself. I’m thinking of buying a Kobelco machine and operate it myself.”

She is also thinking of getting a loan from the Agriculture Department next year. Her track record in the past 20 years has made her a formidable agropreneur. She deserves more than a huge bouquet for doing such good farm work.

Strong-willed, generous, and caring, Wong is an inspiration to not only her family but also to all who know her, especially her kampung friends.

We can’t wait to see her drive her tractor up the hill to develop her new orchard – a fitting parallel to her father driving up Gunung Serapi to set up the troposcatter communications station.