WHO actually founded Sibu? Was it the Foochows, the Hokkiens or some other communities? A million dollar question indeed!
The debate about Sibu’s founding fathers was re-opened recently when former Sibu Chiang Chuan Association adviser Chew Peng Cheng challenged the accepted idea that it was the Foochows.
Chew argued that the Hokkiens arrived in Sibu from China 40 years earlier than Wong Nai Siong, a Foochow patriach widely recognised as the founder of Sibu.
Over the years, many books and magazines including local leaders claimed that Wong is Sibu’s founder and have even placed a bust of him at the Sibu Heritage Centre.
There hasn’t been any disputes on who founded Sibu until Chew brought up his point.
To delve into the issue, it is important to look into the history of Sibu.
According to historical facts, Sibu was known as Maling before June 1, 1873. It was named after the winding portion of a river in Tanjung Maling located at the other side of Rejang River. Maling was a small village with a few small and simple shophouses.
The Malays formed the majority of the population while Chinese was a minority group. Sarawak was then under the White Rajah James Brooke.
On June 1, 1873, the third division was created and it was named after the native fruit called Buah Sibau (in Iban) as the division had a lot of these sour and hairy fruit.
In 1901, the late Wong Nai Siong led the first batch of Foochows from China to Sibu to open up the fertile lands of Sibu for cultivation.
It was a massive undertaking. Therefore, it was a landmark year in the history of the development of Sibu.
Wong arrived in Singapore in September 1899. From there, he proceeded to Peninsular Malaysia, Sumatra and the Dutch East Indies.
For six months, he explored these places but failed to find a suitable place for the migration and settlement of his folk from China.
In April 1900, he came to Sarawak and got the approval of the Sarawak Rajah to look for a suitable site for Chinese immigrants. Wong explored the lower valley and upper reaches of the Rejang River.
He soon discovered that the Rejang Delta was very fertile and suitable for cultivation. So he decided to choose the area for cultivation. With that decision, he went to see the second Rajah of Sarawak Charles Brooke, with his plans. In the days of the Rajahs, Sarawak was sparsely populated with vast undeveloped land, thus Wong’s plan was timely and very much welcomed.
So, when Wong met Charles Brooke and explained to him his plan to lead large groups of Foochows to open up Sibu for cultivation, the Rajah immediately agreed.
Craig A. Lockard, a professor of History in the Department of Social Change and Development at the University of Wisonsin-Green Bay in his research entitled Chinese Immigration and Society in Sarawak published in 2003 also touched on the history of this timber town.
In his research, Lockard stated that in 1883 there were only 28 Hokkiens and two Teochews in Sibu.
Charles Brooke had initially wanted Wong Nai Siong’s colony at Kanowit but Wong was against the idea as he said Kanowit was too far from the sea. Wong chose Sibu.
Thus in July 1900, a contract was signed between Charles Brooke, Wong Nai Siong and Wong’s partner, Lek Chiong, allowing Wong to bring in 1,000 Foochows into the Rajang area.
Charles’ government paid their passage and provided not less than three acres of land for each adult, free of rent for 20 years, then at a quit rent of 10 sen per acre. The land was for the immigrants to grow and produce crops which they opted for rubber.
The first batch of 73 Foochows came to Sibu in January 1901 with 530 others a few days later. These initial settlers, according to Lockard, were given land at Sungai Merah. They were also provided with attap houses.
From Sungai Merah, the settlers moved to other areas such as Ensurai, Sadit, and Sungei Nawang in search of more land.
Wong had then obtained a loan of $30,000 from the Rajah for the passage of recruited colonists. With that agreement, Wong was appointed ‘Kangchew’ or headman of the Foochow colony.
The loan was to be paid in installments over a five-year period, while excess farm produce acted as a guarantee of the loan.
He obtained a further loan of $10,000 from the Rajah at the end of 1901.
The money was for Lek Chiong to recruit more settlers to come to Sibu. Lek, however, ran away with the money, leaving Wong in a precarious financial position.
Brooke gave Wong two alternatives: itemise on how the loan was spent and leave the country or remain and repay the loan when he could. Wong chose the former and left for China in 1904.
Sibu Chiang Chuan Association in its 150th anniversary celebration magazine, published in 2005, noted that Chinese immigrants from the states of Zhang Zhou and Quan Zhou had settled along the Rajang Basin in the 1850s onwards.
These towns included Kanowit, Sarikei, Sibu, Kapit, Song, Belaga, Dalat, Oya, Mukah, Matu Daro, Rajang and Belawai.
The magazine chronicled that after the construction of Fort Brooke in 1862, the Chiang Chuan clansmen began to build up their businesses in Sibu.
In 1871, the clan built the first Tua Peh Kong Temple in the town which is still at its present site at the river front.
In all these three research articles, there was not even a mere mention of who founded Sibu.
A local think-tank, Johnny Wong asserted that it is difficult to say who had founded Sibu as the localnatives were already there and so were the Rajah Brooke’s government when the Chinese from China came.
However, Wong Nai Siong was the one who helped to coordinate the influx of immigrants from China to Sibu. He had the ability to gather 1,118 people from Fuzhou, China, to come to Sarawak with the consent of the Rajah.
“Prestige must also be given to him as he could foresee the importance of Sibu. But other clans such as the Hokkien and Cantonese are equally important as they have helped to develop places they migrated into such as Kanowit and those upriver,” he said. Johnny,
Wong however, said it was not important who founded Sibu. He said the town’s people especially its leaders should have better things to do than arguing about this.
“It is more important to think of how to develop Sibu. We need to find ways of creating more jobs for the youths in the town as most of them have gone to other places far and near to look for jobs as Sibu can’t offer them employment.”
The tourism sector in another critical area which we should develop so as to attract more tourists to the town. Somebody especially leaders of the town should sit down to discuss and deliberate on ways to bring more development to Sibu, he added.
Secretary of Sibu Consumer Association Edmund Wong concurred, saying that there were only mentions of the coming of the Chinese from the different clans from China in the period before and shortly after 1900 and nothing official on who founded Sibu.