IN 1901, Rev Wong Nai Siong led the first batch of 72 Foochows to Sibu. Another two groups followed the next year, bringing the total number of pioneering immigrants to 1,118.
After three years in Sibu, Wong returned to China where he died in 1925. His replacement was Rev James Matthew Hoover.
Hoover was born to a poor family in Greenvillage, Pennsylvania, United States, on Aug 26, 1872.
He became a teacher, and at the age of 26, he offered himself to serve the Methodist Church in its foreign mission in India but was instead directed to Penang.
Sailing from New York on July 29, 1899, he arrived in Penang on Sept 9 where he taught at Penang Boys’ School before being transferred to Sibu four years later.
Hoover learned to speak Foochow – probably one of the hardest Chinese dialects to learn – and his ability and dedication to teach, organise and lead the community impressed the second White Rajah of Sarawak, Sir Charles Brooke.
He was appointed the head of all Sarawak Foochows the following year, making him their official representative in all dealings with the Government.
The young missionary was affectionately referred to as “Tuan Hoover of Borneo.”
He devoted the rest of his life to providing the Foochow community with spiritual guidance, education for their children and introducing innovative ideas and technology for their advancement.
In 1904, he married Mary Young, a British teacher in Penang who joined him in Sibu.
When Hoover took over from Wong, half of the pioneering migrants had either died of diseases or injuries or had returned to China as they could not cope with the miserable life of opening up the dense tropical forests for rice cultivation.
During the first few years, harvests were poor not only due to the lack of experience in farming in a tropical climate, but also due to natural disasters like floods and pests.
Hoover aided the immigrants in improving their agricultural endeavours, helped them to apply for more land from Brooke and introducing new crops like pepper and rubber.
The first batch of 2,000 rubber seedlings was brought in to Sibu in 1904. A few years later, many farmers were able to plant and manage many acres of paddy and pepper fields as well as several hundred rubber trees.
The first batch of raw rubber was exported in 1912, making it the most significant cash crop of that time.
With the abundant paddy harvests, Hoover decided to set up a rice mill by the Rajang River in Sibu town.
A two-ton, 10-horsepower rice-huller donated by a Pennsylvania woman began operating in 1907. It created history by being the first rice mill in Sibu. Owned and operated by the church, it charged 30 cents a bag to remove the rice husks for the farmers.
In 1913, Hoover established the first agricultural school near Sibu to provide new and modern training for the farmers. He also introduced other machines to Sibu, including the bicycle, circular saw, steam boat, ice-making machine, wireless telegraph machine and electric generator.
Income from providing the services of these machines was used to buy more and better machines and also to finance the missionary work.
With higher income came a better and easier life for the farmers. Their success stories spread to China and drew more immigrants to Sibu.
Greatly influenced by the Hoovers, who made regular visits to their homes scattered in six settlements on the lower Rajang, the settlers were made aware of the importance of educating their children.
They began sending their children to boarding schools established by the Hoovers. The Hoovers taught them in English and the Foochow dialect. Extra classes were conducted for girls to learn singing, knitting, nursing and cooking.
Hoover died in Kuching on Feb 11, 1935, at the age of 63, reportedly of malaria. He was buried at the Christian cemetery behind St Thomas Secondary School.
Brooke ordered flags in Sarawak to fly at half-mast in honour of the great missionary and all schools closed on the day of the funeral.
A copper tablet was later erected in remembrance of him.
Mary Hoover left Sibu shortly after the death of her husband to work as headmistress of a Methodist kindergarten in Singapore.
In 1941 she moved to Australia to stay with her brother. She died in 1962, aged 80.
The Hoovers, who were childless, fostered a four-year-old Foochow boy who was born in Sibu in 1921.
They took him in as his father was an opium addict. His mother was in such poor health that she soon died.
The adopted son, Ding Lik Kiu, was sent to study in Singapore and the United States where he graduated as a medical doctor.
In 1957, after more than two decades overseas, Dr Ding returned to Sibu with his Hong Kong wife, also a doctor, to serve at Methodist Christ Hospital in Kapit.
After three years, they moved to Hong Kong before finally settling down in the United States. Dr Ding died in 2008.
In 32 years of serving Sibu and its surrounding areas, the Hoovers helped establish 41 churches and 40 schools, thus laying a strong foundation in education and Christianity among the settlers.
The town’s population of a mere 600 people in 1903 rose to 10,000 in 1935 and more than half of them were Christians.
The student population was only 18 in 1903, and by the time of Rev Hoover’s death, the figure was 2,500.