Monday, November 08, 2010

People - Siaw Ah Khoon Part 2 - An English speaking man in Sarikei in the 1920s

A English speaking man in Sarikei in the 1920s was a rare talent. What is the background of Benjamin SYAWE (aka SIAW) Ah Khoon 萧南坤 (c1886-1966)? Syawe Ah Khoon was an orphan raised by Anglican missionaries in Kuching, the capital of the then British Crown Colony of Sarawak.

Sarikei Kwang Chien Junior Middle School
1st batch's "graduation", 26 July 1928
Seated L5: Syawe Ah Khoon 萧南坤
Seated L4: Tiong Lok Ting 張樂天 Principal
Seated L3: Chen Mong 陳梦 (looks like him)?
Source: Sibu Chinese History Collection 詩巫華族史科集, 1992

Ah Khoon believed that his good fortune in life was due to the five Chinese coins wrapped in a blue cloth that he carried. He related this story in which he dreamt that there were coins wrapped in a blue cloth at the foot of a tree that grew in the grounds of the orphanage and that if he found them they would bring him and his family good luck. The coins were never to be separated and were to be passed down the male family line. In the morning he went to the tree and found the coins in the blue cloth as per his dream. He carried the coins with him for the rest of his life and on his death these were passed on to his son, Bernard. On Bernard's death, his wife Anne Tan Siew Geok held them in trust and then passed them on to her son. (Source: 2)

Syawe Ah Khoon in Sarikei, c1930s
Low resolution of photo is from source.
Source: Milton Tan

Ah Khoon married Catherine (1900-1985), a Nonya, from the same orphanage where they mastered the English language from the church.They adopted several children: (1) Emma Syawe, (2) Irene Syawe Chin Chee (3) Bernard Syawe Teck Chai.

There are 2 other not so well known adopted daughters. (5) Syawe Say Moy, from a poor family who asked Ah Khoon to raise her as one of his family and he gave her parents a couple of sacks of rice to help them out. Say Moy was brought up as the childhood companion of his son, Bernard. When Bernard was old enough to marry, Ah Khoon asked him if he would like to marry Say Moy, who at this time had not been adopted. Bernard was unable to marry her as she was more like a sister than a girlfriend. It was after this, that Ah Khoon formally adopted her. The other daughter is (6) Syawe Hong Kee (apparently in Kuching now). (Source: 2)

Syawe Ah Khoon in Sarikei, c1940s
Source: Milton Tan

Syawe Ah Khoon was a natural choice when the British needed English educated administrators. He rose through the ranks of government to become the second highest ranking officer (behind the colonial guy) of the district of Sarikei in the then 3rd Division of Sarawak. There he performed a crucial role in receiving and regulating the immigrants from China. In addition to several Chinese dialects, he was also fluent in Iban, and was able to negotiate delicate settlements with the native Dayaks. (Source: 1)

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. 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.  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 with their papers to be verified. Siaw Ah Khoon 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: 4)

Syawe Ah Khoon in Sarikei, c1940s
Source: Milton Tan

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 in Sarikei.

One day in 1992, a shy Dayak family turned up in Irene Syawe’s (his daughter) home in Kuching. They graciously introduced themselves and explained — with some emotion — that Syawe Ah Khoon had quietly sponsored their education and that they wanted to express their gratitude. (Source:1)

Syawe Ah Khoon in Sarikei, 1951
Source: Milton Tan

Syawe Ah Khoon was also a farmer, a family man and a fine Christian. From the success of a pepper farm, he built himself a large multi-family home in Kuching (opposite the Carmalite monastery) which included the grounds of Borneo Sawmill, the timber business ran by his son-in-law. The house was home to all the families of three of his children, their spouses and up to 9 grandchildren at one point. He also gave a sizeable sum of money in 1956 to the Anglican church to build the bell tower of St. Thomas' Cathedral,  overlooking the Central Padang (now called Padang Merdeka) in Kuching. A plaque “To the Glory of God” can be found at the base of this tower. (Source: 1)

Syawe Ah Khoon (R2) in Sarikei, 1957.
Look at that fabulous Iban costume
Source: Tony Bing

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 $200,000 over to the native officer, Abang Haji Abdul Rahim and the Treasury clerk, Siaw Ah Khoon. (Source: 3) After the war, Ah Khoon was later promoted to the second highest ranking government servant in Sarikei after the colonial District Officer. He retired after 40 years in service in c1954 or early 1960s.

Queen Elizabeth II Coronation Medal
Source: Wikipedia

Ah Khoon was awarded the Defence medal by the British and Commonwealth Authorities for general service during World War II. He had assisted people avoid the Japanese during WWII. When the Japanese found out, he escaped to an Iban longhouse. After a few weeks, he was informed that he was a wanted man in a search. The Ibans hid him in a pit they had dug till the Japanese gave up the search. (Source: 2)
He received a long service medal and the Queen Elizabeth II Coronation Medal. Only 138,214 Coronation Medals were issued. (Source: 2 and Wikipedia) One of them landed on a Sarikeian.

1) Milton Tan - Grandson's tribute
2) Reader Tony Bing
3) Sarawak Government in exile. By W.S. Buck
4) Reader Lidasar


Daniel Yiek said...

I decided to do a part 2 by piecing several pieces of new info and rarely seen photos.

If you read this, pls email the high resolution pictures for a Sarikei book (if it gets written and printed) or the Sarikei heritage center (if the gov builds one). Photos from the internet do not have high enough resolution.


Daniel Yiek said...

Pasted this comment from Part 1 received today. It's a coincidence that Associate Professor Dr Milton Tan, Siaw Ah Khoon's grandson has passed away the day before after I referenced his article in this post.

A email from Audrey below said

"Funeral details can be found in today's edition of The Straits Times."

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

nelson said...

kudos to the great man and condolence to milton tan's family. i'll remember this article whenever i use siaw ah khoon rd

Daniel Yiek said...

Updated blog. Siaw Ah Khoon's retirement cert showed 40 years of service as per his relative.

Sarawakiana@2 said...

Indeed a remarkable story...well researched and with great passion!!

Condolences to the family.

Daniel Yiek said...

A comment received:

The Japanese searched for him as a wanted man to work for them in the District Office.I presume
he was a wanted man not as a anti-Japanese or pro-British guy but merely wanted by the then government servants to come back to carry on their job assigned to them previously by the British.

Unknown said...

I was told this my my mother Emma. When my grandfather received news that the Japanese were coming for him, Iban friends came and fetched him and my family. They escaped into the jungle where camps were set up for them. There were several camps set up for the family to escape the Japanese patrols. When ever a Japanese patrol was spotted, the family were moved to a camp that had been passed by the Japanese patrol. The family evaded capture through the help of my grandfather's Iban connections. My grandfather and father hunted wild deer and boar, fished for prawns and my mother made a smoke house that she used to smoke all the excess meat and prawns. When the war ended, they came out of the jungle with tins of dried prawns and smoked jerky that they were able to sell.

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