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