Saturday, March 15, 2008

Scenes - Sarikei Chinese Family Lunch 1947-48

Sarikei rubber drying 1947-48
Click to enlarge. Click back arrow to come back.
Source: Hedda Morrison's 1957 book "Sarawak"
Submitted by reader Ikan Sembilang

Do you remember this picture from Hedda Morrison's book? This Chinese lady was cooking a meal with rubber sheets hanging out to dry above her. Her family could be considered lucky because their rubber trees would fill their rice bowls for the next few years.

Extract from John Pike's (former District officer in Sarikei) article (Source: 1):

The war in Korea (1950-1953) created a boom market in rubber and pepper, two of Sarawak's staple exports at that time. Income from rubber exports more than trebled between 1949 and 1950, and by another 40 per cent in 1951. Similarly pepper exports doubled between 1949 and 1950 and quadrupled again in 1951. But both rubber and pepper were long-term crops and there had been little rubber replanting since World War Two. Most Chinese farmers benefitted from the boom, but some missed out due to their rubber trees and pepper plants no longer being productive or new plantings not being ready for tapping or pepper collection. An "astonishing number of Chinese" who failed in this way committed suicide. Pike's most poignant memory when at Binatang "was the frequency of calls to him as a newly appointed Third Class Magistrate to view the bodies."

Sarikei Chinese family lunch 1947-48.
Find the simple benches.
Search for the lady cook who had sat down.
Check out the food cabinet. No fridges then.
Click to enlarge. Click back arrow to come back.
Source: Hedda Morrison's 1957 book "Sarawak"

After she has cooked her food, she would call out loudly to her extended family in the farm. The kids would need repeated calls to distract them from their games. The games were conjured with creativity since toys were the last things that families would spent money on then.

A typical Chinese family meal would have the whole extended family sitting around the table with a bowl of rice each. All the dishes were served at the same time on the table from soup to the main courses. There was usually no desserts. There was no practice of using serving spoon in those days. Everyone just dipped in their chopsticks and spoons. If there was a chicken slaughtered, the boys would be given the choice cuts like the drumsticks and the liver because in those days, there was no equality in sexes. Any leftovers would be covered with a netting or kept inside the food cabinet for dinner. Guess why the food cabinet had legs standing in a bowl of water each? It's to prevent ants from crawling up to the food. Ants? That's part and parcel of life.

The lady in the photo is now 96 years old. Her family owned a rubber and a small pepper farm. This house was at 3rd mile Repok Road and was later replaced by a better house in the 1950s. This lady is the mother of the Ngu family of the fabric store Hock Siong Kong and Southern Hotel at 21 Repok Road (Block 3 Left Repok Road). One of the girls in the picture provided this info after reading this post.

1. From British military intelligence to financial secretary of Sarawak: John Pike 1945-1967


Daniel Yiek said...

I found the 2nd pic after thumbing thru the book recommended by Ikan Sembilang. Though the pic did not say Sarikei, it's from Sarikei because the Sarikei lady cook was in the picture. Nice, eh?

stlau said...

I am trying to figure out the food on the table. What's the "pancake" thing that the girl is eating? Those bowls of rice are huge. Why aren't the girls eating rice? The man is too old to have so many young children. Maybe grandfather with kids from different children. Could this be staged for the photo shot? Or is this a real lunch scene? Very interesting picture.

stlau said...

Even in the seventies, the typical kitchen stove in a country house is made from clay (not cement) and use wood (not gas) for cooking. The floor of the kitchen is usually just hardened soil (not cement) - when it rains you could get potholes of muddy water on the kitchen floor. Outside the kitchen there is usually a big square tank to store water. Toilet is in the back yard anywhere from 20 to 50 metres away from the house. Cockroaches, ants, mosquitoes, flies, lizards, bird shit, etc. are all part of life.

changyi said...

Hi. Another great posting.
If you look more carefully, the stove is built for a right handed person. She would wash the kuali (a fixed one) and scoop the water out of the kuali using a recycled scoop made from a tin. There is an opening at the side of the wall, to the right of the stove. And everything would just be pushed out of that chute.

There would usually be two spaces, one for rice, and one for kettle. This is a very practical Chinese "tu chow" or clay stove. And wood would of course be chopped for the fire.

As for the girls not having rice, I would believe that the family would provide rice for the boys, and the girls would be given the hard kong pian. If this family practised "boys are important than girls", then the girls would only eat after the boys have eaten. So for the sake of this photo, the girls were asked to come to the table. Even the mother would eat later.

Do you agree?

We are talking about the social norms of post Second World War. But again, I may be wrong where Sarikei Chinese were concerned at that time.

Would love to see more of your posting. It is a pity I do not own a copy of the book.

changyi said...

I am back again!

I read again and again what Morrison wrote. The "cake" is bean curd cake. If I am not mistaken, and probably Morrison herself might be very knowledgeable about food at that time, this bean curd cake is our Foochow tie pian, which is made from milled soy beans and mixed with rice flour and then deep fried.

I love the original recipe of tie pian.

Daniel Yiek said...

Changyi found the answer to the cake question. It's in the caption of the picture if you click the picture to enlarge.

Changyi, interesting observations by you!

Other observations:
1. The young girls were topless.

2. The kids wore homemade pants. The adults wore traditional Chinese clothing.

3. There's a big homemade ladder next to the food cabinet. Usually used to pluck fruits from tall trees.

4. The walls were made of branches. The breeze could come right in!

5. Those stools (chairs) were very common (no nails - just pluck the wood into the rectangular holes). They are still common now. Circular dining tables were more common than rectangular ones in the old days.

stlau said...

I also guess it is Tie Bian which is not bean curd cake. I also cannot figure out the other dishes. This thing about boys getting to eat rice but not girls is totally new to me. It was certainly not practiced in our household (in the 60s). Can somebody comment some more? Also the issue of people committing sucide.

Tuan Lokong said...

My father used to teach me how to use chopsticks and scoop rice into the mouth by not blowing it out.

Hold a little bowl of rice on one hand and use the chopstick pricking fast and the rice will be suck into the mouth Hot!.

Kanga said...

Everything looks extremely familiar. I lived in the same type of environment in the 50's. I even had the same hair cut! It was bitter sweet. In my farm days I went through 3 houses. One slightly better than the next. Until I went to study in St. Anthony's, my feet hardly touched concrete floors. That was when I have to wear slippers. Before that it was shoeless at primary school in the village. One comment: the family in the photos was doing OK. They have rubber to sell!

easechen said...

My friend,(ex-classmate from Sarikei),was so surprised to see their family's pics in your blog. The Chinese lady cooking is her mum, & the family sitting round the table is their family!

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