Thursday, January 19, 2006

Foochow pioneers of Sitiawan


By DIANA YEOH

Foochows in Perak who want to trace their ancestry should go on the Sitiawan Heritage Trail and visit the Sitiawan Settlement Museum.

IT was an eye-opener for 12 members of the Perak Heritage Society who joined the recent Sitiawan Heritage Trail for the first time. The trip traces the legacy of pioneer immigrants of the Christian Foochow Chinese who arrived in 1903 and for some of the members, it was a good opportunity to discover their own “roots”.

The members, led by PHS vice president Law Siak Hong, were briefed on the history of the Foochows in Sitiawan. They also went on a one-day tour of Kampung Sitiawan, Simpang Dua Tionghua Cemetery Manjung, Sitiawan Settlement Museum (Kampung Koh), Pekan Gurney, Simpang Lima and Ayer Tawar.

The name Sitiawan comes from two words, setia and kawan. But the story behind it is by far more fascinating. It’s about the extraordinary friendship between two elephants used to transport tin ore along the Dindings River near the area in the late 1800s.

The story has it that one of the elephants got stuck in the soft sand of the riverbed. Efforts by men to save it proved futile. But the second elephant refused to let go; it clung to its friend and both eventually drowned.

In memory of this friendship between the two elephants, the town was named Setia Kawan or loyal friend. Over the years, the term evolved into Sitiawan. On the flip side, the place is also fashionably called City A1 (Sitiawan) by the locals.

In 1903, 363 Christian Foochows (Fuzhou) led by Reverend Ling Ching Mi arrived here from China. It was the Chinese Colonial Government’s second population transplant experiment in the Malay peninsula, following the success of a similar scheme in Sibu, Sarawak in 1901.

The group that arrived in Sitiawan consisted mainly of Kutian, Hockchew, Hockcheng and Henghua. Each was allocated its own agricultural settlement on a 1,000 ha of land in Kampung Cina.

One of the settlements was called Kampung Sitiawan on a tributary of Dindings River. It is a historical spot as this was where the Foochows first landed in Sitiawan.The settlers grew padi to meet the growing demand for rice due to increased economic activities in the area during the period.

The long-term objective was to establish a population growth centre for future labour supply to exploit the rich resources of the land.Unfortunately, the padi programme failed but quick action to switch to rubber saved the day. Over the years, the Foochows became a formidable group that spurred commercial activities in the area.

In 1999, the Sitiawan Settlement Museum was set up in Kampung Koh in 1999 by the area’s Pioneer Methodish Church (PMC).

Interestingly, and unknown to the public, the museum building was once an old wooden house which was home for the church reverend. It now showcases many old pictures, utensils, bicycles, tools, clothings and antiques once used by the Foochows.

Outside the museum is a well which supplied water for the Foochows for 30 years as there was no piped water then. Next to the museum stands the Pioneer Methodist Church, a majestic building in the shape of a “cross” originally built in 1904. It was burnt down in 1906 and rebuilt in 1907. Near the church is the grave of Reverend Ling.

The Sitiawan Settlement Museum is located at K-6, Jalan Chen Mei, Kampung Koh. Call 05-6920612 (opening hours from 9am to 5.30 pm, and entry is by appointment only).

*articles appear on Travel Times*