Sunday, May 16, 2010

People: Sarikei Mr Olaprath R. Celestine - interview

Sarikei was fortunate to have several great teachers from India in the 1960s-1980s that taught thousands of students who are now dispersed through out the world. Mr Celestine was one of the teachers. My email interview with him was arranged through an ex-Anthonian, Clement Sia.

1) What was your personal and professional background before you came to Sarikei?

I was born on 3rd April, 1942. That day that year happened to be Good Friday and my mother thought I would become a priestJ. Well, by the time I completed my HSC, my eldest brother (Fr. Joseph) was a priest and I contemplated becoming a Jesuit priest but after one year gave it up and went to college. I graduated in March 1963, majoring in Zoology & Chemistry.

2) How did you end up in Sarikei and when did you arrive?

I was preparing to go for post graduate studies in Zoology when a friend of my brother asked me whether I am interested in going to Sarawak or Brunei to teach. I was not too keen to become a teacher at that time – I was top student in my class but felt too young to start teaching - but the prospect of going overseas appealed to me. So I said yes and he helped me to send two applications to schools in Sarawak and Brunei. St. Anthony’s School Sarikei was one of them. As luck would have it, the Biology teacher, Mr. Jacob Sebastian had left St. Anthony’s School in 1963 and they were looking for a replacement. Mr. Titus and Mr. Lopez had joined SAS in 1962 followed by Mr. Albert and Mr. Antony in 1963. Mr. Titus was a close friend of one of my uncles though I did not know it at that time. Fr. Ahern was the principal (Fr. Rottinguis had gone on leave to Holland) and when he consulted Mr. Titus he recommended me. So Fr. Ahern wrote to me offering the job. That was sometime in November 1963. I had to apply and get a passport, and it took several months. The nearest passport office was in Madras (now called Chennai). There was no passport office in my State, Kerala at that time. It was in May 1964 that I got my passport. Meanwhile Fr. Ahern was urging me to come soon “before my students were biologically ruined because he was teaching them Biology in my absence”. I arrived in Sarikei on 19th May 1964 and joined SAS as the fifth Indian teacher. (Mr. & Mrs. Ignatius and Mr. George arrived after me in 1965)

3) What can you remember of the first trip to Sarikei?

I was a young 22 years old bachelor then. It was my first trip abroad. The route was: Cochin – Madras – Singapore – Kuching - Sibu – Sarikei. I traveled by train with my brother, Fr. Joseph, from Cochin to Madras. Then I took the flight to Singapore. It was the first time I was traveling by air. I was a bit nervous but happy. The flight was very comfortable and took over 3 ½ hours. There was overnight stay at Singapore and I was put up at Adelphi Hotel. I was very much impressed by the cleanliness of the city and courteousness of the people. Next morning I checked out and went by the airline’s coach to airport and took the flight to Kuching. I had to stay overnight at Kuching also but there I did not have to go to hotel because an Indian airport officer there was a friend of Mr. Titus and he had arranged with him to take care of me. He took me to his family quarters and next morning got me into the Sibu flight. At Sibu airport Mr. Titus & Mr. Lopez were there to welcome me. I was seeing them for the first time but they could recognize me from the photo I had sent with job application. From Sibu we took a Chinese launch which took around four hours, longer than my Madras – Singapore flight, to reach Sarikei but I enjoyed the ride, listening to the humorous running commentary provided by Mr. Lopez & Mr. Titus. Before starting from India I had read about Borneo and knew about “Longhouses” and why it was called “Land of Headhunters” and large parts of Sarawak was jungle and sparsely populated. Still I was surprised that all along the banks of Rejang River I could see nothing but mangroves and not a single house. Only when the launch neared Binatang I saw a longhouse and then a few shops and houses at Binatang.

 At Sarikei I stayed with Mr. Titus and family and well looked after by them for two weeks. All the four Indian teachers were staying in four units in a large wooden building nicknamed “Indian Colony” which belonged to one Mr. Kwong Loon. Then I moved to a ground floor room in a Chinese house nearby.

4) What was Sarikei like in those early days? e.g. shops, infrastructure, schools, people, food, culture.

Sarikei in those days was a quite little town were everybody seemed to know everybody else, inhabited by friendly people, mainly Chinese and Malay families and a few Ibans and Indians. Repok Road was the main street which joined the Wharf Road along the banks of Rejang River, with the Borneo Company office at one end on the river side and Police station across the road. The fish, pork & chicken and vegetable markets were at the other end of the road. The lone Shell petrol bunk was halfway on wharf road. The multipurpose “Padang” used for football matches, celebrations including annual sports of SAS etc. was a prominent land mark besides the only cinema theater Cathay and the covered Basket ball stadium. Shops lined both sides of Repok Road and the few side roads. Most of the shops were old double storied buildings with shops on ground floor and their owners and families staying upstairs. I think that is why they were called shop housesJ .

One thing which fascinated me was that almost all the houses were built of wood, standing on stilts of wood. (I discovered later that the wood used was Belian also known as “Iron wood” so strong and heavy that it sinks in water.) It was also first time I saw houses thatched with Belian shingles – even St. Anthony’s Church and main buildings of SAS.

Unlike the other Indian teachers at SAS I was a bachelor when I arrived, so I had to eat out. So I could get used to the local food, especially Chinese food. My favorite eating place was Ah Kau’s Cantonese restaurant. I enjoyed Ah Kau’s dishes but could eat only small amount of rice because I found it too hard (half cooked).

Mr. Titus has given a detailed study of Sarikei in his email interview and my impressions about Sarikei are similar, but his observations and descriptions are better than mine. Please follow this link.

5) What are some of the best and worst memories of the schools you taught in?

I lived 21 years of my life in Sarawak and taught 14 years at SAS and seven years at SMK Meradong. Those 21 years were the best part of my career and most productive part of my life. I have a lot of fond memories and not many sad memories. I always treasure the affection, sincerity and helpfulness of my students, right from my first batch. They were very eager to learn. Students of my first batch (Form V, 1964) were not much older than me and I had to learn teaching by teaching themJ. First year was really tough for me but I was fortunate to have Mr. Lopez and Mr. Titus who readily helped and guided me. Within a few months after my arrival, Fr. Rottinghuis returned from leave and took over charge from Fr. Ahern. Working under Fr. Rottinghuis was one of my happy memories at SAS. When I first met Fr. Rottinghuis he looked very intimidating. But gradually I found him lovable. He was humorous too. He was strict with students and had novel methods of correcting errant students. He wanted SAS to have best possible facilities, modern teaching aids etc. and he used to spend his own money for that. I felt sad when he left SAS and very sad when he passed away in Holland. May God grant him eternal peace.e best possible facilities, modern teaching aids etc. and he used to spend his own money for that. I felt sad when he left SAS and very sad when he passed away in Holland. May God grant him eternal peace.     

Funny side of Fr. Rottinghuis

By the end of 1964, a Peace Corps man, Mr. Ken Lease joined SAS. He, Mr. Wong Yew Tiung and I, all bachelors then, had a jolly good time. After class we often met for lunch at Ah Kau’s Restaurant, nicknamed “Adelphi”. We used to spend a lot of time there, talking. Fr. Rottinghuis often met us there and he branded us “Three Musketeers”. Mr. Teng Pang Yii also sometimes joined us for a beer. Yew Tiung at that time was staying with his parents at their rubber garden several miles away from town. Sometimes he used stay with me in my room. We shared a lot of adventures and visits especially during Chinese New Year, Dayak Festival and Hari Raya. I still cherish my first visit to a Longhouse. It was in 1965. One of my Form five students, Janting, invited me to visit his Long house. I asked how far it was. Not very far, he said, “we go by bus to Jakar, then a short distance by long boat and then walking a short distance.” OK, I said. On a Saturday early morning he came to my room to fetch me. He asked me to put on my canvass shoes, not slippers. “Can we return by this evening?” I asked. He replied “Of course, we can, if you feel like it, or we can stay at the Long House for the night.”  So we started. Went to Jakar, took the long boat, about an hour’s drive, then started the walk. Oh my! Walk through the jungle…. Uphill, downhill, up, down…. I slipped a few times but Janting was close by to prevent me falling most of the time….. it took nearly three hours!  I asked Janting why he said it was only an hour’s walk. He replied, smiling, “Sir, you walked too slow”. I told him “I don’t want to go back today”. He was very happy. Janting’s sister who worked in Sarikei was at home and she served us lunch. She was the only other one who spoke English. After lunch we made a tour of the longhouse. It was amazing that so many families living together harmoniously in one house. There was a river nearby with crystal clear water. Janting also took me to a nearby smaller longhouse. Janting and I slept in the attic of their storeroom and early next morning returned to Sarikei.

Jane and I got married in 1967.  Jason, Jane and Jasmine, 1970s

Well, those were my happy go lucky bachelor days. Meanwhile Mr. Antony & family had moved out of the “Indian Colony” and I occupied that unit together with my cousin Thomas who was teaching at Sekolah Tinggi. In 1967 during December holidays I went home, got married and returned with Jane and got busy raising a family. Our son Jason (Joseph Raphael) was born on 25.9.1968 and daughter Jasmine on 7.5.1970. Before our daughter was born we moved house to an “upstairs flat” at Hua Tai Road for about four years. When we bought a car, we moved again to a semi detached house in Nyelong Park as we needed a car porch. We stayed there until I was transferred from SAS to SMK Julau.

It was a sad memory. School had closed for the annual Holidays in December 1977. Mr. Titus and family had gone to India for holidays and Mr. Henry Ling, SAS senior assistant, came to my house with a letter from the Education Dept. The news was that I am transferred from SAS to SMK Julau. At first I felt very angry and sad. I had no choice and prepared to move. Mr. Lopez & Mr. Thomas and some of my students helped me to pack up and go. I was told that SMK Julau wanted to start Form Four in 1978 and they needed a senior science teacher to set up lab and equipment. One of my old students, Damien was the senior assistant there. When the form three results were out, there were not enough students to start a Form 4 Science batch. Meanwhile, the Biology teacher at SMK Meradong (in those days it was known as SMK Binatang) had left and Mr. Michael Lim, the principal there heard about me. He used his influence to get me transferred to SMK Meradong. Within a few weeks, there was another pack up and move. Mr. Michael Lim was very helpful and he arranged a good staff quarters for me in school compound. My family liked the quiet surroundings. I got my children admitted in Nanga Stras Primary School not far from SMK Meradong. I liked the change and the challenges. I was the senior science master there. I was also put in charge to build up labs and equipments to start Form Six. SMK Meradong was the first school to start Form Six in 6th Division. During December 1978 we went to India for holidays. During April, 1980 my brother Fr. Joseph and his friend Fr. David visited us for a few days. They offered Mass at our quarters and at Binatang Church and at St. Anthony’s Church, Sarikei.

 Fr. Smets, Fr. Joseph , Fr. David... with Mr and MrsTitus, Shirley, Jane, Jason, Jasmine.

6) When did you leave Sarikei? How many times did you come back after that?

I left Sarikei and Sarawak in 1984. By that time the change of medium from English to Bahasa Malaysia had reached Form 3 and the Indian teachers were not qualified to teach in Bahasa Malaysia and had to leave. I could have got one or two years more as I was teaching in Form Six, but that would affect the higher studies of my children, so I decided to leave in 1984.

I visited Sarikei once again, together with Mr. Titus and Mr. & Mrs. Lopez during Chinese New Year in January 2001. It was a very happy and memorable occasion. Students of Form Five Science & Arts batch of 1977 organized a reunion and invited their former teachers too. They also paid for all our expenses including air tickets and accommodation. It was a dream comes true. It involved tremendous effort, energy and money to organize it. The Indian teachers were living far away in India and only less than ten out of around 70 “boys & girls” of 1977 Form 5 Science & Arts batches were still staying in Sarikei. Others were spread all over Malaysia, Singapore, Australia, etc. Below are some of the pictures of the happy occasion.

Front row guests: L2 Mr Lopez, L3 Mr Titus, L4 Mr Celestine. 2001

Mr Lopez (left), Mr Celestine (right). 2001

7) What are you doing now after retirement?

I stopped teaching when I returned from Sarawak, though I was only 43 years old at that time. I decided to settle down in Cochin City to be nearer to good educational institutions for further education of my children. My original home town was further away from Cochin and I had to manage land there inherited from my father. I bought a new house in Cochin. Soon after, Mr. Titus bought his house nearby, so we were neighbors here. Mr. Titus was Principal of a private college here and he got me employed there as Registrar but I worked there only for two years. Meanwhile my son and daughter got admitted into Engineering College and both graduated with degree in Computer Engineering. I also got interested in computers and started learning from my childrenJ. I had bought a computer at home for their use. I learned Word Processing and graphics designing and started a Desk Top Publishing (DTP) service from home. It was a “one man show” mainly to keep myself occupied. I continued it for several years. My wife, a professional teacher, had worked for only one year in Sarikei at Methodist Secondary School but after returning to India, she started teaching in a private English medium school and continued for 22 years. She stopped teaching only three years back. Meanwhile my daughter married a Computer Engineer like her and together started a computer software development company. They have two daughters and they stay in their own apartment. My son works as overseas consultant for a German Software development firm. He works from home. He is also married. His wife is working with the State Electricity Board. They have two sons. They bought a new house about 10 km from my house five years ago and moved out from my house while my wife and I continued staying in our house. When my wife stopped teaching, my son asked us to come and stay with them. Their house is a two storied and with four bedrooms. So we obliged and moved in with them, after renting out our own house

Looking back, I feel happy with my life so far. By grace of God I and my wife have no serious ailments and we are able to look after ourselves. And our children and their families are doing well. We hope and pray that God grant us health and happiness for rest of our lives, however long or short that may be.

I wish to thank Daniel Yiek for giving me this opportunity to go down the memory lane and recount a major chunk of life. Thank you Daniel.

Any of my former students and friends who may read this blog are welcome to contact me at  or

(Editor's note: Mr Celestine Olaprath is now connecting with ex-students and sharing old school photos on facebook.)


Daniel Yiek said...

Hope you like the story telling style of Celestine's interview. Mr Celestine is IT savvy so you can connect with him electronically.

Nelson said...

superb interview! well executed! I heard that Father Rottinghuis was also known as the Tiger of Rajang.

Anonymous said...

Daniel Yiek,
Many thanks to your blog. I managed to write to mr. Celestine, who was our science teacher in my form 1 at St. Anthony in the year 1971.

During the time, only a few Indian in town and we remember them till today.

Their service and teaching contributed a huge parcel of impact in Sarikei. We can never forget them.

May God bless them with good health and hormony.

Mee Khing

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