Sunday, May 31, 2009

People - Sarikei Siaw Ah Khoon

Everyone knows that Siaw Ah Koon Road branches from Repok Road to Nyelong Park. Who was this prominent Hakka (updated) in Sarikei, Siaw Ah Khoon 萧南坤, from the 1920s-1960s?

During the Chinese immigration waves, relatives in Sibu and surrounding towns would go to their District Office (DO) to get the application approval on behalf of their China relatives. These approved papers were then sent back to China or hand carried if there's anyone going back to their China village. After approval, the Foochow relatives would travel to their port city to wait for the next vessel to Singapore. The Cantonese would start their journey to Hong Kong and transfer to the next vessel to Singapore. From Singapore, they would wait for the vessels to Rajang (Rejang) River. (Source: 1)

Sarikei was the first town along the Rejang river with a District Office and everyone would alight to get their papers verified. In those days, you could see hundreds of new Foochow wearing their blue outfits and Fooochow hats alighting for their papers to be verified. Siaw Ah Khoon (District Officer in 1919) would be the man busy with the new arrivals. Relatives from Sibu and surrounding towns would come to greet them. Those who did not have valid papers could end up in the Sibu jail for two months. (Source: 1)

Sarikei Siaw Ah Khoon Road, 2006
JKR in background
Source: Jimmy Ong

Siaw Ah Khoon was from Kuching. He had no children of his own. He adopted five (updated) including a son 蕭廣大 (who later worked in Radio Sarawak) and a daughter, Irene 蕭金基, from a different family (Foochow). Irene 蕭金基 grew up to be the prettiest and most glamorous lady in town. She was educated in Kwang Chien, St. Anthony's and then St. Mary's in Kuching. She was later married to a Hokkien (updated), Francis Tan, the owner of Rex Book store, Kuching. (Source: 2)

During World War II, just before the Japanese invaded Sarikei, the colonial folks decided to flee Sarikei. The District Officer, WS Buck, handed Sarikei and its treasury contents of $200K over to the native officer, Abang Haji Abdul Rahim and the Treasury clerk, Siaw Ah Khoon. (Source: 3). After the war, Siaw Ah Khoon was later promoted to the second highest ranking government servant in Sarikei after the colonial District Officer.

He was active in community and social work. He was one of those active in the founding of Kwang Chien School in 1925 and many a time he also volunteered to teach English to the students in the evening.

Sarikei Customs Wharf mid 1950s, Wharf Road
Welcome for badminton star Wong Peng Soon
L-R: L1 Tan from Kuching (son of Tan San Guan 陳三元); L2 Lee Swee Lim李瑞琳 the manager of Sime Darby, Sibu; L3 Wong Peng Soon; L4 Siaw Ah Khoon; L5 Haji Satem; L6 ?; L7 Ong Poh Lim 王保林, the inventor of crocodile serving, Sarawakian
now in Singapore; L8 Wong Liong Hiong 黃良香,the manager of Borneo Co.Ltd. Sarikei
, L9 ?
Source: Chen Ko Ting
Submitted by: Ikan Sembilang

Hj. Satem, the father of Datuk Adenan Satem - former federal Minister of Natural Resources & Environment, was the Head of Royal Customs & Excise Department in Sarikei in the 1950s. He was a keen badminton player and a great fan of Wong Peng Soon. With his support to promote the game of badminton in Sarikei, the Customs Godown at one time was turned into a badminton hall for the locals to play badminton after office hours !

Born in Johore, Malaya in 1918, Wong Peng Soon (黄秉璇) was the first Asian to win the All-England Championships and he won it four times-1950, 1951, 1952 and 1955, earning him an international reputation as the "Great Wong". He also rose to victory as a member of the Thomas Cup team in 1948-49 and 1952, and for which he was captain of the team in 1955
. (Source: Ikan Sembilang)

Siaw Ah Khoon retired in the early 1960s. Before his departure from Sarikei for settling down in Kuching, he lamented that Sarikei was ungrateful for not according him a proper farewell. Little did he realise that his great contribution was one and half generation before the contemporary towkays (businessmen) then who were not aware of his story. (Source: 2). However, later a road was named in his honour.

1) Reader Lidasar
2) A Sarikeian in his 70s.
3) Sarawak Government in exile. By W.S. Buck


Daniel Yiek said...

Does anyone know Siaw Ah Khoon's relatives? Surely there are more pictures of him.

I also wonder whether Lidasar and 45rpm are still readers of this blog.

Daniel Yiek said...

A reader emailed this update:


L1 Mr.Tan from Kuching son of Tan San Guan陳三元

L2 Mr. Lee Swee Lim李瑞琳 the manager of Sime Darby, Sibu

L7 Ong Poh Lim 王保林 the inventor of crocodile serving,a Sarawakian
now in Singapore

L8 Wong Liong Hiong 黃良香,the manager of Borneo Co.Ltd. Sarikei

You had to pay $1.00 (a tidy sum then) to watch them play at the Customs Godown and most of them in the picture had passed away except L8 Wong. He must be about 90 now.

easechen said...

Rex bookstore's daughter is my friend (exclassmate in St Mary's). She's my facebook friend. I never knew her mum was from Sarikei? I have to ask her about this. The family's in Perth now.

easechen said...

Siaw Ah Khoon's daughter was the late Irene, married to the late Francis Tan of Rex bookstore (manager/partner). The other owner is the Sims, now in Perth.

Irene was my aunty's (Chen Sui Nong)best friend. I actually visited Irene with my aunty in 2000when I visited Kuching. Daniel, I'll email you Irene's son's email addr.

MT said...

Dear Daniel,

Thank you for putting up a blog on my grandfather, Siaw (also Syawe) Ah Khoon. I am Milton Tan, the 2nd of 3 sons of Irene Syawe Chin Chee, daughter of Siaw Ah Khoon; known by her married name, Irene Tan, and a Hakka (not Foochow as in your blog). She currently lives in a nursing home in north London, near my younger brother Rodney. My elder brother, Neil, lives and works in the US. Our father, Francis Tan Eng Chong, founder of Rex Bookstore at 28 Khoo Hun Yeang Street, Kuching, passed away in Kuching in 2003. (His bookstore partner, Mr Sim Kheng Lung, has 3 daughers (Angie, Geraldine and Suzan) and now lives in Australia; just to fill in a bit more detail to a comment on your blog.) Francis is a Hokkien (not Hakka as in your blog), son of Joseph Tan (passed away in the 50s in Kuching), a trader from Fuchien, China, who settled in Kuching after separating from his wife (my grandmother), a Filipina, who took custody of their daughter, Bobbie Aronzazo (my aunty) who lives in Manila.

Siew Ah Khoon was raised as an orphan by the Anglican Church in Kuching. He married Catherine (1900-1985), a most gentle Nonya, also from the same orphanage. They were both taught to read and write immaculate English by the Church. That was why grandfather was able to hold the high office in the British Colonial government in Serikei. Grandfather was also fluent in Iban, and was involved in some delicate negotiations between the British and the Dayaks (over land rights, if I remember correctly).

Siew Ah Khoon was a Hakka ( I was told) and knew something about farming, as most Hakka did. He had a successful pepper farm (not sure where) that yielded a small fortune in its day. In gratitude to the Anglican church for raising him up, he donated a sizable sum for the bell tower of the St Thomas Cathedral in Kuching. A plaque to acknowledge his gift can be found at the base of the bell tower.

My parents and brothers lived in our grandparents's multi-family house at Jalan Tun Abang Haji Openg, Kuching (opposite the Carmalite monastery) together with all our cousins. The house, built of Belian timber still stands today, part of an orchid farm by the Au-Yong family. Grandfather had adopted 3 (not 2 children in your blog) -- 1) Emma Syawe (who passed away in 2007 in Singapore), married to Wee Chong Hong (passed away in 1965), a timber merchant, and had 4 daughters and a son; Irene Syawe Chin Chee (my mother) who married Francis Tan Eng Chong (see above) and had 3 boys including me; and Benjamin Syawe (passed away in the 70s), who married "Ah Kim" (passed away c2005), and had 1 boy, the only survivor of Syawe Ah Khoon's lineage. My uncle, Benjamin indeed worked for Radio Sarawak in Kuching. My mother was a teacher in Chung Hua Middle Schools and in St Thomas Primary School in Kuching. She was the founding President of the Sarawak Teachers Union, one of the largest workers union in Malaysia today.

Daniel Yiek said...

Dear Milton,

Thanks for the clarification. Your grandpa was an important piece of Sarikei's history!

If you can, pls email me some pictures of Siaw Ah Khoon to be used in a future book on Sarikei's history. Above is the only picture of him that my blog readers could find. My email is:


Daniel Yiek said...

Hi Milton,

I received info from older people of Sarikei that your mum, Irene, was adopted from a Foochow family who lived across Nyelong River, Sarikei. I have no further info on who they are. You may want to check with older folks in Sarikei in their 70s-90s now. Sarikei was a small town in the early days and everyone would know your famous grandpa.

After the adoption by your Hakka grandfather, naturally she becomes fluent in Hakka.

MT said...

Dear Daniel,

Thanks again for your interest and hard work in piecing together the biography of my grandfather. Between my younger brother and I, we have quite a number of pictures of him. We'll send them to you.

Thanks also for the note on my mother. Your explanation is plausible. Her official papers indicate "Hakka" and she always introduces herself as Hakka, but, as you say, it could be her adopted race. Did you know that she was also fluent in Mandarin, Foochow, Hakka, Hokkien, Iban, and Malay?


stacy said...

Really proud to read about my family history!

Granddaughter of Emma syawe
Stacy Wee

MT said...

see also

stacy said...

Very very well said!

Janice said...

I am Emma's daughter living in Australia. For years, I have been curious about my mother's biological heritage. I believe Emma was born either in Sarikei or Sibu. She came from a large family. My grandfather adopted her because her mother passed away in childbirth. I would be interested to contact my mother's family. The prospect of finding other family members is an exciting one.

Anonymous said...

It is with deep regret to inform you that A/P Dr Milton Tan passed away on 8 November 2010.

Audrey Song
Grand-daughter of Emma Syawe

David Phillips said...

Siaw Ah Khoon formed part of the Sarikei 'provisional government' with Khoo Peng Loong and Wong Ngiong Hua when the British officials left in 1941 ahead of the Japanese occupation - 'orang puteh lari'! The Sarikei shopkeepers had to form their own home guard to prevent their businesses being looted.

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