Saturday, May 12, 2012

Business and politics: The Foochow characteristics of Sibu

THE headline ‘Team A wins battle to head Sibu Foochow Association’, in the March 26 2012 issue of The Borneo Post caught my attention as I found the story quite intriguing and fascinating.

From the report, it was certainly a tense, dramatic and bruising election all rolled into one. There were heavyweights involved with a prominent Datuk defeated and ‘badly wounded’ in the aftermath, receiving only half the number of votes against his challenger for the leadership of the association.
The election last Sunday was also described as a ‘life and death’ battle. Up to this point, I was not sure why as I do not consider being in control of a clan association that big a deal. Isn’t it all about voluntary work? So I can only speculate, I suppose.

But there’s one thing I do know about the Foochows of Sibu. They are hard working, intelligent folk and extremely business and political savvy. To them, politics and business do mix – business is politics and politics is also business.

In the late 70s and early 80s, I held a job in Sibu and that began my association with the Foochows in the Rajang basin. In the three years I worked and played politics among them, I found the clan members just to be what I heard about them – no pushovers, very bold, very resilient and exuding great strength of character.

It does not matter what job they hold – hawkers, taxi drivers, business people, politicians or even gangsters – they are very focused in their work and are shrewd and even cruel if they have to be.
One newspaper vendor once told me that he had to sell all the newspapers supplied to him every day, rain or shine, because it would be bad business if he could not do so. The five sen commission for every copy sold was his target and it was his business to achieve this daily.

Sibu people will probably remember this popular newspaper vendor, nicknamed ‘Cha Gong’, who used to ply his trade at the Pulau Babi express wharf.

As I recall the traits of ‘Cha Gong’, it somehow epitomises what I see in a typical Foochow. A person who is not ashamed to make the most of everything to get through life.

You see, ‘Cha Gong’, was far from stupid. Just because one is not born pretty or handsome does not make one a fool. To me, ‘Cha Gong’ is what I would describe as a smart ass. The term is meant as a compliment.

Our newspaper vendor friend knew almost everyone in Sibu by name. I believe I met him for only the second time in a Sibu kopitiam when he approached me, asking for my name and occupation as he could see that I was a new kid on the block then. After that, he would greet me by name or even call for me from afar whenever we met on the streets.

I also found ‘Cha Gong’ to be a good source of information and I have been told that many politicians in Sibu actually depended on him for their daily updates on happenings in the town.
‘Cha Gong’ may not have had an opportunity to receive an education, may never have had a girlfriend, may never have married, may not have owned a car, may never have even gone to a dentist, may have been frowned upon by certain sectors of society or even by his own siblings but he was never a failure to me.

The times when he was cruelly mocked or chided by others on the streets, ‘Cha Gong’ would calmly walk away. The next time he met his adversaries, he would act friendly with them again. How many of us could actually do that?

‘Cha Gong’ was indeed very street-smart. Deep inside, he was a smart guy and I also feel that he was a caring and compassionate character as well.

I was glad to know ‘Cha Gong’ as a friend during my sojourn in Sibu 30 years ago. He was one character who added spice and colour to the Foochow character of Sibu.

He was not known as the second most popular man in Sibu, after Dr Wong Soon Kai then, for nothing. ‘Cha Gong’ reminded me of William Hung, American Idol’s most successful reject of the 2004 season, who turned into an accidental star because of his desire and ambition to make the most of life. I wonder whether William Hung is Foochow.

Another personal experience worth reminiscing here with the Sibu Foochows was my involvement in a political party with them. I would not mention names here as I did not have the time to get the permission of the personalities involved for the purpose of this article.

I joined the party at a time when two groups were embroiled in an internal power struggle in the Sibu branch. The leaders of both camps were Foochow, of course. I could say that they fought hard, mean and rough, hitting below the belt at times when necessary. That was my baptism of fire in politics and there was no better place to learn politics than in Sibu from the Foochows.

Perhaps now, I can sense what happened at last Sunday’s election of the Sibu Foochow Association. There must be powerful, unseen hands at work behind the newly elected leadership. I think I can also speculate that the clan association has somehow turned into a very powerful political force in Sibu. Those keen on a political career or desire to climb up the political ladder would be advised to be friendly with whoever helms the Sibu Foochow Association.

I did not stay long in the political party as I felt that my involvement in politics had interfered in my professional career at that time. Also, I was not keen to be involved in the constant quarrels and backbiting that were going on in the branch. I was young then and did not harbour any political ambition.

I remember one occasion when I questioned why the minutes of the branch’s meetings were only printed and circulated in Chinese. I had wanted the minutes to be translated into English and Malay too for the benefit of those who do not read Chinese, like the ‘bananas’ (me included), and the Dayak members.

However, my poser was never taken in good faith. Instead I was rudely told off with “What sort of a Chinese are you if you do not understand Chinese?” by one branch leader. I can’t recall what my response was but I believe there was a heated exchange at that meeting over the matter.

After serving one term as a committee member of the branch, I resigned from the party. A few months later, I ended my tour of duty in Sibu and said goodbye to Sibu and Foochow politics.
This is just a quick reminiscing of my personal association with the Foochow community. It would not do justice to the achievements and glories of the Sibu Foochows and their more than 100 years of history in building Sibu to what it is today.

Perhaps the best compliments for the Foochows should come from a non-Chinese.
One Indian friend, born and bred in Sibu, has this to say. “The Foochows are a special breed of Chinese. What is truly remarkable about them is that they seem to excel in almost everything they do. What others find impossible to handle, they could do it. It seems that everything they touch could turn into gold.”

Indeed, Wong Nai Siong should be very proud of the special breed he brought from Ming Ching District in Foo Chow City, China to Sibu in 1901 to seek their fortunes in Borneo.

Paul Sir
Borneo post March 31, 2012, Saturday

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