Historical pocket in Kemena Valley


Photo shows SK Labang, which will soon have a new three-storey building on a land gifted by Kapitan Ngui.

WHEN Ngui Kwang Oh arrived in Sarawak from his faraway homeland Fujian, he only had with him the proverbial shirt on his back.

He expected as much that he would have to work hard to make something of himself, but never ever did he imagine settling down, marrying a local woman and establishing his family in this foreign land.

It was a fulfilling life that he would never have imagined if he were to still be living in China.

“He was so young, barely a teenager, when he set out to board that junk, bound for ‘Nanyang’ – that’s what they call the regions around the South China Sea.

“Other men on the ship saw him as a boy. Nevertheless, they all were drawn by the story of many of fellow Fuzhou men who had found opportunities in a valley of a river called ‘Rajang’.

“One particular name was on their lips at the time – Wong Nai Siong,” Kapitan Ngui Ing Kiong recounted the story of his father to the writer.

“He said when he arrived, he did not expect to never return to China. But he never regretted it one bit,” he added.

The down-to-earth Kapitan Ngui, who always welcomes visitors to his shop at the old Chinese bazaar in Labang.

Story of pioneer

It is a necessity for the writer to tell the story of Kapitan Ngui’s father by first providing a little bit of background of Wong Nai Siong, among the most recognisable names when it comes to the history of Sibu.

Born on July 25, 1849 in Fujian Province in China, Wong came to the Rajang Basin in the years after the first Sino-Japanese War broke out in 1894.

It was in the early 1900s and the second Rajah of Sarawak at the time, Sir Charles Anthony Brooke, was looking for Chinese migrant workers to clear the jungles and open up lands for the cultivation of cash crops. It was recorded that the first group of the Chinese settlers had arrived in 1898 under the care of the Basel Mission Society.

It was Wong who, in May 1900, made an agreement with Brooke to bring in 1,000 Fuzhou Chinese to establish an agricultural colony within the Rajang Basin.

He scouted for the best location for a settlement during a 13-day trip upriver and finally, he chose Sibu in view of it having the distinct advantage of a nearby river, Sungai Merah, which could provide fresh water for drinking and irrigation.

A loan from Brooke of 30,000 dollars (old Sarawak currency) was secured to cover the transportation cost of bringing the workers from China, as well as to build houses and roads in the new settlement.

Back in Fujian, Wong’s recruitment exercise was focused on the Fuzhou Christians of the Methodist Episcopal Church, with which he had strong connections.

In this respect, it is notable to mention that in 1866, missionaries from the United States belonging to the Methodist Episcopal Mission came to Wong’s village in Fujian, and he was among the earliest converts and was baptised at the age of 17 on Dec 16 that same year.

The following year, Wong was accepted as an assistant under the mentorship of Reverend Xu Yang Mei, and within two years, Wong became proficient in English by reading the Bible in that language.

In 1869, he was appointed a preacher of the East Street Chapel of Fujian after receiving a probationary preacher’s licence from the Methodist Episcopal Church.

Back to the recruitment drive commissioned by Wong, many of the potential settlers viewed it as an opportunity to escape the ongoing Boxer Rebellion and also drought hitting their hometown. These Fuzhou men came to Sibu, then called the ‘New Foochow’.

The exercise led by Wong is hailed as having left a huge and lasting impact in Sibu, and till this day, the Fuzhou community continues to play significant roles in the development of Sarawak’s economy.

Wong passed away on Sept 22, 1924, at the age of 75. In Sibu, his legacy is commemorated through the Wong Nai Siong Memorial Garden, a school and road.

For further reading of Wong Nai Siong, the writer suggests the Dictionary of Christian Biography in Asia site via https://dcbasia.org/biography/wong-nai-siong-huangnaishang-huang-naishang.

Solid unity

Kapitan Ngui, 76, said his father was brought to Labang in the Kemena Valley, where the Brooke government at the time had established a new Chinese bazaar for trading.

“He was tasked with seeking timber, especially the ‘belian’ (local ironwood), the most valuable product of the Labang indigenous folks.

“He and other Chinese traders arranged for the direct delivery of ‘belian’ shingles and other timber products to Kuching.

“Throughout his life here, though, my father had never set foot in Sibu,” he said.

“That said, he loved Labang and his neighbours here. Never once did he ever think about going back to China,” he said.

Life in the olden days was very peaceful, said Kapitan Ngui, and business was thriving.

The Chinese bazaar housed 18 shoplots, with his father’s unit being the end-corner of one of two rows.

“Our shop was often full of people, some would stay a night or two, which was very normal.

“I grew up in a community where people treated one another like family, regardless of race.

“Those from the ‘ulu’ (upriver) would stay with us, share our kitchen, cook their own rice, and make themselves very much at home.

“And it’s not just my father; every shopkeeper in Labang was doing the same. We all got along very well,” he said.

The corner shoplot, seen at right, owned by Kapitan Ngui, inherited from his father. The other end is the popular KL Café.

One of Ngui’s family friends was Badar Bandan, who hailed from Sungai Labang.

“During the Japanese Occupation in the early 1940s, my grandfather and my father arranged for the Labang Ibans to defend the bazaar and the longhouses.

“When the Japanese came up the Kemena River, the Ibans had their guns, ready to fight against the invaders. For this, the British government gave my grandfather a letter of commendation after the war,” said Badar’s grandson Alfred Manai.

Alfred said many of their relatives in Sebauh, Sera, Ulu Labang had taken in many Chinese and Malay families during the Japanese Occupation.

“Many Chinese folks from Bintulu, Pandan and Sebauh were saved from the Japanese who did not go further up after Labang.

“They all remain friends until today, and continue to visit one another.

“They have stories to tell their descendants.”

‘A quaint place’

Over the years, things have changed a lot in Labang.

Only six of the 18 shoplots at the Chinese bazaar are still open, including Kapitan Ngui’s unit.

According to him, others were destroyed in a fire many years ago and just could not be rebuilt.

“Travelling to Labang Bazaar was not easy in the past,” he added.

“Back in those days, the only way to reach Labang was by boat from Sebauh.

“However, it did seem very vibrant back then, most likely because of the timber boom.

“Then the lustre of good business disappeared when almost all the forests were cleared in the 1990s.”

The Chinese community in Labang comprised many clans such as the Foochows like the Nguis, the Teochews, the Hokkiens, and the Hakkas.

All of them, however, were united and their respective leaders were very far-sighted, said Kapitan Ngui.

“Before World War II, I’d say in 1941, they gathered all their resources together to set up a Chinese primary school.

“A board of management was established, of which my father was a member. They bought a piece of land for 500 dollars from a local man, where the school was built.

“It was operational for about six years before a fire destroyed the whole block, in 1947.

“Efforts had been put in to rebuild the school, but it seemed like the fire had ‘doused’ all that energy and enthusiasm; in 1952, the whole community eventually decided that it was best to close down the school.”

The construction of Bakun hydroelectric dam in the 1990s had somewhat brought the boom back to the Labang and Tubau areas.

Kapitan Ngui said at the time, many foreign engineers rented rooms at his shop.

“My shoplot became sort of their resthouse. At the time, apart from selling supplies, I also ran a small ‘tempat makan’ (eatery) for the workers in Bakun whenever they made a stop at Labang.

“It was a good time for everyone,” he smiled.

The 1990s also witnessed the construction of the second Kemena bridge and another across Sungai Labang, as well as improvement of the Miri-Bintulu Road, said Kapitan Ngui, adding that all of these facilities had uplifted the socio-economy of many areas within the Kemena Valley.

He also said during the decade, the government had built a primary school, SK Labang, next to the site where the old Chinese school used to be.

“With better-trained teachers and better administration, the children of Labang are able to get good education.”

Recently, Kapitan Ngui gave away some donations to help cover the construction of a multi-storey building at the school. He said the new building should reach completion by next year and SK Labang should look ‘more modern’ by then.

“For now Labang, as quaint as it is, is still lively. However, it does get a bit quiet during the school holidays, when the children go back to their home villages in Sebauh and Bintulu.”

The new building at SK Labang, still under construction.

‘Giving back’

Kapitan Ngui no longer operates his ‘tempat makan’ these days, but there is a coffee shop at the other end of the building.

Interestingly, the small eatery’s name is ‘KL Café’.

“It’s not ‘Kuala Lumpur’, though; the ‘KL’ stands for ‘Kuala Labang’,” he chuckled as he led the writer to the café, which is operated by two Melanau women.

KL Café seemed to be a very popular spot in Labang, serving quite a number of customers comprising visitors like the writer and her team, oil palm estate workers, government servants, and also the pupils and their parents.

Visitors arriving at the jetty of a Muslim village across the river from Kampung Labang, greeted by Ketua Kampung Mustafa Chin, a cousin of Kapitan Ngui.

“The Melanau ladies are great cooks. Their dishes use prawns freshly caught from the river. Their fried ‘bihun’ (rice vermicelli) is simply delectable.

“They also serve burgers, a popular one among the teachers and the schoolchildren,” said Kapitan Ngui.

“Did I tell you that my mother was a Melanau?” he blurted.

He said his mother passed away in 2018, at age 103.

“She lived a very long life and throughout it all, she had seen so many historical events like the arrival and occupation of the Japanese, and the British colonial rule.

“She had seen how Labang folks used to depend on longboats to ply for hours along the Kemena River to reach Sebauh, from where they would take the local express boat to go to Bintulu, which took a couple of hours more.

“She got to see how from owning oil palm estates, they could earn good incomes and afford good pick-up trucks to travel to and from Bintulu within an hour from Sebauh.”

Kapitan Ngui’s wife, Kho Kiaw Ling, hailed from Mukah. He said she would drive up to Bintulu to see their children at any time of the week.

“Life is pleasant and serene for us two 70-somethings. We have lots of friends and our neighbours are good; we have many cousins staying in Labang and in Bintulu.”

Future of Labang

Kapitan Ngui added: “Like my father, I love Labang and I am very happy here.

“I am very happy to give back to the people and to our government.

“Every year, I donate prizes to outstanding pupils of SK Labang because I want to encourage them to do well. I really hope that sometime in the future, we would have scientists, doctors, engineers and good teachers coming from SK Labang.”

Asked about the possibility of making his shoplot a homestay in Labang, Kapitan Ngui expressed his enthusiasm.

“That’s a good idea, actually. I did rent out the rooms to the engineers and architects during the early years of Bakun dam’s construction, didn’t I?

“With the Pan Borneo Highway nearly reaching completion now, small rural towns like Labang could be rejuvenated like Siniawan in Bau District and Sungai Merah in Sibu.

“I guess a good local tourist attraction would be the KL Café; the prawns and fish from the river are excellent,” he smiled.

These shoplots are the remaining ones of the only still-standing wooden building of the Chinese bazaar in Labang.