RETIREE Bujang Ong is a multi-lingual man with quite an unusual background. Able to speak in many languages, he can easily strike up a conversation with just about anybody.
The Foochow man, now well into his 80s, can converse in several Chinese dialects, but he admits to being more comfortable speaking in Iban.
Moreover, he can also speak Melanau, Mandarin, Bahasa Malaysia, as well as Sarawak Malay and Brunei Malay – all with ease.
In 1958, Ong left his native Ulu Mukah at the age of 18 in 1958 for Seria (Brunei) to seek fortune. It was throughout that path that he has experienced many events and incidents that have made him into a man that he is today.
Ulu Mukah upbringing
Through learning and being in close connection with the Ibans and the Melanaus for many years, Bujang is now regarded as among a handful of key reference sources when it comes to the culture, customs and folklores of the two communities.
Growing up in an Iban longhouse at Sungai Ampik in Ulu Mukah, Ong’s wife was a Melanau; hence, his close association with that community’s language, culture and history.
“Still, I was basically an Iban boy,” he chuckles.
Bujang’s mother gave birth to him at the longhouse and right after that, under the care of an Iban midwife, she went through full traditional Iban confinement with all its rituals and taboos.
“In a way, I was born into the Iban culture. We’re the only Chinese family at Sungai Ampik, with my parents’ house located very near the longhouse.
“Growing up, I attended rituals, wakes and festivals; took part in cockfights, the folks games and other communal activities.
“I can sing many modern Iban songs, and I can do the ‘ngajat’ (Iban traditional dance) quite well too – thanks to those years growing up in Sungai Ampik.”
Bujang has a very friendly and jovial demeanour, and this is very evident during his coffee time with fellow retirees at Miri Open Air Market, where he is a regular customer.
‘A Foochow with misspelt surname’
Bujang was born to the family of Wong Chai Soon, a migrant from Fujian, China.
Chai Soon’s first wife was from China too, Hii Moi Moi, who passed away not long after their arrival in Mukah.
He later married Bujang’s mother Yap Kim Jeok, whose mother was a Melanau.
“My father was a ‘juragan’ (boat operator), always travelling between Ulu Mukah and beyond Mukah.”
With his father surnamed Wong, surely Bujang would be a Wong as well.
Smiling, he recounts the anecdote of how his name became what it is today.
“When my father registered my birth in Mukah, he was asked about his ‘seh’ (surname), but he pronounced it in the Hokkien dialect – ‘Ong’.
“Thus, I was registered in the birth certificate as ‘Ong Teck Siong’. Bujang is my Iban given name.”
Bujang’s siblings are all surnamed Wong: Wong Sing Hiong, Wong Miew Hiong, Wong Chiong Hiong, and sister Evelyn Wong.
However, just like Bujang, their spouses are from non-Chinese communities.
The wives of Sing Hiong and Chiong Hiong are Ibans, and the brothers have their own Iban given names: ‘Nyanggau’ and ‘Ben’, respectively.
Miew Hiong also has a given name, ‘Ujang’, but from the Melanau community – his wife is a sister of Bujang’s wife.
Evelyn, a retired teacher, is married to a Bidayuh.
Living in Mukah
Bujang was born in 1942. In 1952, his father sent him to a Chinese school at Kampong Sekuyan, where the boy stayed with a Chinese family whose head of the household was a friend of his father. The two-hour river-travelling time between Sungai Ampik and Kampong Sekuyan was not feasible for Bujang’s father to send him to school every day. It was worth mentioning that at that time, his ‘juragan’ father was still paddling – it was only after many years later that he could afford to buy a small engine for his boat.
In 1954, Bujang entered the Sacred Heart School in Mukah, where he stayed on for the next three years. This school was later renamed St Patrick’s.
“Life in boarding school back then was tough. We had to collect water for drinking and bathing from a well.
“The students would be delegated for the chores of collecting firewood and cutting grass over the school compound. Grass-cutting was done in two ‘shifts’, in the morning and the afternoon.
“Breakfast was very simple – round or square biscuits, with coffee or tea.
“For lunch and dinner, we had rice with vegetables, plus salted fish or eggs.
“Weekends were very much looked forward to – it’s when we would have servings of sardines.”
Later on, Bujang and his family moved from Sugai Ampik to Mukah town, where they rented a house at Kampung Pinang.
Life in Brunei
After Primary 6, Bujang sat for a trade school test in Sibu, conducted by Brunei Shell Petroleum in 1958, followed by an interview.
“I was with a friend, Boniface Jubilee from Dalat. Both of us were overjoyed to receive a telegram from Brunei, confirming our acceptance to undergo a three-year course at the trade school.
“Boniface and I each received monthly pocket money of 30 dollars; meals and accommodation all provided. By the second year, the pocket money increased to 35 dollars, and to 40 dollars in the third year.
“There were several other Sarawakians in my batch. Upon graduation, one could either join Brunei Shell, or any other postings elsewhere of one’s choice.”
The admission to the school also meant Bujang was a paid apprentice of Shell Brunei based in Seria, with a starting salary of 148 dollars, with payday twice a month.
According to him, the first-year programme was considered ‘an all-rounder’, in which it covered mechanical engineering, blacksmith and electrical works.
“For the second-year, a trainee could choose either telecommunications, electrical or mechanical fields. Only in the third year could one choose a specialist field before landing a position in the company.”
Bujang later joined the Electrical Department, starting as a helper for his first three-month probation, followed by another three months of assessment before being upgraded to Grade 6; then to Grade 9; and followed by another assessment period to qualify for Grade 11.
After that, he became a chargehand – a clerical operations staff (COS) of the company (COS).
For the record, a foreman is classified as a supervisory specialist staff (SSS) with a salary scale of Group 8 or 7; those under Group 6 pay scale are classified as senior staff.
Brunei Revolt 1962
Bujang got to live through the Brunei Revolt, and at the time, he got to learn how to handle firearms.
“The rebellion broke out on Dec 8, 1962, on a Saturday morning which, back then, was a half-day work schedule.
“I noticed only a few employees coming to work, and we heard gunshots not that far away.”
Bujang saw a new flag being hoisted at the compound of the workplace, and it was not the usual ‘two hands’ banner symbolising the Sultanate. It was not long after that when he found out about the rebels having captured the towns of Seria and Kuala Belait, and also the news about a number of Shell staff members, including some expatriates, being taken hostage.
Both police stations at Seria and Kuala Belait were outrun by rebels, who were members and supporters of Parti Rakyat (People’s Party) under the leadership of AM Azahari.
Only Lorong 14, where the Reserve Unit (Army) was stationed, was not taken.
“I managed to go back to my flat at the time. I was a member of trained Brunei Shell Volunteer Police Force, and there were rumours floating around about the rebels looking to recruit those under this volunteer police force.
“I later escaped to Lorong 4 Seria, seeking shelter at a Melanau family quarters because we ran out of food. I was hiding in the ceiling deck for several hours – going down only when I needed to drink, or to relieve myself.”
Meanwhile, the Gurkha troops from Hong Kong arrived in Brunei on Monday – Dec 10, 1962, via boats because planes could not land on Brunei Airport – the rebels had blocked the Shell Anduki airport using empty oil drums, said Bujang.
“Curfew was in force from 6pm to 6am. Unfortunately, many civilians did not understand much about the curfew – many were shot by the British (Patrol of the Queen’s Own Highlanders) or Gurkha troops as they looked out of the windows.
“On my way back to my flat at daybreak, I got the shock of my life when a British Highlander came out of the bush, pointing his gun at me.
“I raised my hands to surrender, telling him I was on the way back to my bachelor flat. That was one of the scariest moments of my life.
“Foo Chang Kiaw, a Singaporean who was the second-in-command of Brunei Shell Volunteer Police Force, was lucky to have jumped into a drain just when the Highlanders fired shots at the rebels,” he said.
Back in Brunei
Bujang resigned from Shell Brunei in March 1963, and later joined the then-Sarawak Electricity Supply Corporation, or Sesco (now the utility arm of Sarawak Energy Bhd) in Mukah as operator of the switch boards and engines.
A few months after that when he was on his way to Kuching, he made a stop in Sibu where he met Alfred Mayer, a representative of Sesco Sibu.
Then and there, Bujang was given a job interview – 10 days later, Sesco Sibu offered him the post of ‘Electric Technical Assistant 2’.
Bujang then proceeded to obtain Wireman’s Class 1 and Class 2 certifications and spent two years with Sesco Sibu.
Towards the end of that tenure, Bujang responded to a Brunei Shell advertisement published on the ‘Borneo Bulletin’ about a vacancy for a Grade 9 electrician.
Long story short: he applied, landed the job, and returned to work in Brunei for the second time.
While in Brunei, he joined the Shell Recreation Club, which consisted of sub-organisations, namely the Dayak Club, the Chinese Club, the Indian Club, and the Malay Club.
“The British were very good at separating their staff along racial lines, their ‘Divide and Rule’ policy. Perhaps, it was easier to control the staff that way, as no single group would become too big or too empowered.
“I was very much involved with the Dayak Club, where (first Chief Minister of Sarawak, the late Tan Sri Datuk Amar) Stephen Kalong Ningkan was its chairman at the time.
“Mr Ningkan, at that time, was a dresser at Shell Seria Clinic. He was studying law by correspondence under the guidance of an Indian by the name of Mr Menon, a British-trained lawyer who was the company secretary of Brunei Shell.
“I was very impressed. I almost joined Mr Ningkan and his group to go back to Sarawak and enter politics but then, at that time I felt that maintaining full employment was a prime goal.
“If I had joined him (Ningkan) and my fate had turned out well if I did, I could have been a Datuk now.
“That said, if my fate were to turn out to be not so good, I might just be selling satays or ‘pisang goreng’ (banana fritters) now.
“One just never knows when it comes to fate!” he laughs heartily.
During his tenure with the company, Bujang married Farida Utih Ellie on May 18, 1969. He was 27 at the time.
Back in Sarawak
Brunei proclaimed self-independence in 1984, with a government’s localisation policy. That was when Bujang decided to join Sarawak Shell Bhd in Lutong, after 26 years of service with Brunei Shell.
The years passed quickly and after 12 years with Sarawak Shell, he received the ‘golden handshake’ from the company about four months before his retirement.
By then, Bujang was already a SSS under the engineering technical support unit.
However, he continued post-retirement engagements with various Shell contractors such as Wahaya Engineering, BCOT, SMDS, ABF and MLNG in Bintulu, in the capacity as a consulting safety officer.
Nowadays, Bujang enjoys life in full retirement. He is often seen at Miri Open Market, enjoying the company of fellow retirees over breakfast or lunch at a coffee shop there.
He and Farida were blessed with eight children: Patricia, Steven, Suzanna, Christopher, Desmond, Sylvia, Bobby and Moses – all married, except Moses who was born in 1989.
“And yes, they are all surnamed Ong – in case you’re wondering!” he chuckles.
Bujang lost Farida on Oct 5, 2010 – she was 58.
“Still, I feel that I have led a complete life,” smiles Bujang.
“I am lucky to be able to enjoy my time with lots of friends, my children and all my 21 grandchildren.”