Sunday, August 12, 2007

History - Sarikei Chinese Migrants Part 1

Sarawak Map drawing.
Find Sarikei, Sibu, Kanowit and Kapit.

To understand Sarikei's Chinese migrant history, one has to study Sarikei's and its neighbouring towns' history due to the spillover impact.

James Brooke built forts in Kanowit (1851) and Sarikei (1856) to protect against pirates in the Rajang river. By 1859, Charles Brooke noted that some Chinese have settled in Kanowit. Kanowit was a more important town than Sibu in the 1850s-early 1870s because it was a government base to monitor the Kanowit River mouth against the Ibans. Hokkiens started coming from Singapore to set up shops in Kanowit in early 1870s. Hokkiens moved up Rejang River and by 1877, Kapit had 20 Chinese shops. In 1871, Sibu had 60 shops. Belaga had 36 shops by 1902. (Source: 1)

In 1858, Betong, on the Saribas River, was established. By 1895, Betong had 26 shops owned by mainly Teochews and Hakkas. Saratok on the Krian River had 18 shops by 1895 and 47 shops by 1916. Roban had 18 shops by 1907. Betong, Saratok and Roban depended on trade and cultivation of the Ibans. (Source: 1)

Chinese Immigration and Society in Sarawak 1868-1917 (Craig A Lockard). Sarawak Chinese Cultural Association.

In the late 1860s to early 1870s, Charles Brooke gave $40 (British dollar?) to a Cantonese, Kong San, to cultivate bilian timber at Binatang's hinterland. Kong San married an Iban lady (inter marriages was common then for Chinese migrants working in the rural areas) and settled near a Malay kampung (village). After that, several Cantonese went there to plant coffee and cultivate bilian. In 1878, a Cantonese, Ah Poon, (Siong Poon Chiew) started business in 3 shophouses with attap roofs. In 1879, a Hainanese and Luichow built 1 shophouse each. By 1908, Binatang had 7 shophouses and a Foochow bought a garden near downtown. In 1910, Foochows from Sibu move to Binatang to make it a predominately Foochow town. (Sources: 1 & 2)

Pioneer Cantonese settlers in Sarikei in the 1880s cultivated timber for export to Hong Kong. (Source: 3). Later the Cantonese also planted pepper as a cash crop. The Cantonese originally settled in Sare (or Sari) 20km from the current Sarikei downtown. Sare can be reached via Merudong road of Jakar. (source: Reader Chan)

Chinese migrants had settled in Sarikei and Binatang in the late 1800s but (surprise!) it was the town of Rejang, at the Rejang River mouth, which was the most important town in the Lower Rejang. Rejang town was the HQ of the Government Resident of the Lower Rejang. A famous towkay, Ah Fong, lived in Rejang and he owned shipyards, sawmills and ice machines.

In 1880, Sarikei was a "lonely looking place, 25 miles from the mouth, consisting of 4 or 5 tumbled down Malay houses on a mud bank." (Source 5).

Sarikei was then just a "small and exceedingly dirty Chinese bazaar and Malay kampung". (Sources: 1 & 4)

Exceedingly dirty? Let's dig out more dirt in the next post.

(1) Chinese Immigration and Society in Sarawak 1868-1917 (Craig A Lockard)
(2) Chiang Liu, Chinese Pioneers, pp 542-544; Sarawak Gazette, 1 Nov, 1948 and 1 Dec, 1948.
(3) Sarawak Gazette, 24 Jan 1871, p. 38 and 2 Dec 1889, p. 164
(4) Sarawak Gazette, 1 April, 1914; Chiang Liu, Chinese Pioneers, pp 544-546; Ling Hew-Kiang, "The Growth of Sarikei", Hua Chiew Warrior (printed by Hua Chiew High School, Sarikei )1966, 5-6. (note: now known as SMK Tinggi Sarikei)
(5) On the Equator, Harry De Windt, 1880, p.64


Daniel Yiek said...

Would be very interesting to get hold of a copy of source (4), the Growth of Sarikei printed by Sekolah Tinggi in 1966.

Kanga said...

Very good job and well done in digging out these histories. This explained to me as I always wondered why Hokkien is so commonly spoken in Kanowit for so long and all the friends I knew in Betong & Saratok are Hakka & Teochiew.

Lidasar said...

“Charles Brooke gave $40 (British dollar?) to a Cantonese, Kong San, to cultivate bilian timber at Binatang's hinterland.”

I cannot agree on such an observation because Bilian timber cannot be cultivated in a generation, is not viable to cultivate Bilian because it took years for the tree to grow and mature. In the early days Bilian is available in abundance and the demand then was limited. The timber is so strong and hard that it is easier and better to pick up death Bilian wood from the forest than to cut a Bilian tree down.
Furthermore Bilian is also not the best wood for furniture because it is simply too hard to work on and further more it can crack when one works on details. The wood is best used as support such as building a jetty, it stay forever strong under water.

Is far as I know the Hakka are the biggest Chinese group in Kanowit.
Hakka started migrating much earlier especially to Dutch Indo.

Daniel Yiek said...

Good catch. I checked my notes. The book used the words "to work bilian". "To cultivate bilian" were my own words. I tried to use my own words as much as possible to avoid a cut and paste from the book.

Hokkiens went to Kanowit first in 1870s according to the book. The Hakkas you mentioned may be later waves of inter division migration.

The Chinese migration from Dutch Kalimantan settled mainly in 1st Division. The old 3rd division's Rajang Basin (3rd, 6th and 7th divisons) was settled by a different migration path. I will try to cover that in the next post.

All, pls join in the discussion. This is an exciting topic. Thanks to those who sent me private notes. The next post will cover the early 1900s migration too.

Daniel Yiek said...

“Charles Brooke gave $40 (British dollar?) to a Cantonese, Kong San, to cultivate bilian timber at Binatang's hinterland.”

I found that on 1.7.1889 the
Sarawak dollar was worth two shillings and ten pence.

What Charles Brooke gave was Sarawak $.

tuan lokong said...

Hi, guys me first time here and from Sare' Sarikei.

Great Blog this sarikei time capsule.Just read it this morning from a firend. I will look back when I am back in Malaysia. Cos' remember even have a book that describe how Sarikei was formed. Sabar lah...Just like to contribute.

Daniel Yiek said...

Tuan Lokong,
Welcome! I'm looking forward to your book on Sarikei reveals. Pls also send pictures to

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