They speak Iban and local Malay just like the native speakers; their Iban sometimes better than those of city Ibans. They even scold or reprimand their children in Iban and local Malay.
These are among the attributes that make the Saratok Chinese a special breed.
My memory of encountering them dates back to the late 50s but am more vivid about this in the early 60s and certainly wasn’t born yet when Ah Choo and wife escaped from the ugly hands of the Japanese during the early part of the Occupation in 1941.
The couple found it most convenient to stay in rural Saratok with my parents, sharing their humble home in the upper Melupa river that was only reachable by around 10 hours of paddling from Saratok town.
I was told again and again about this special bond by my mom in front of the couple when I was young and happily lodging at the loft of Ah Choo’s (I have no idea what his surname was) Chop Chuan Ann of the old Saratok cowboy town in the early 60s.
At one time I shared the bed with his youngest son Bah Kak, now a big “towkay” despite having only gone to the local Min Syn primary school only for a few years.
This “One Saratok” Iban-Chinese bond came a few decades earlier than former Malaysian premier Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s “One Malaysia” concept. It is a typical racial unity bond in Sarawak since time immemorial. I had the privilege of serving in Kanowit and Julau where similar bond and local Chinese knowledge of their Iban counterparts — and customers’ — dialect are similar to that of the Saratok scenario.
In Betong, Roban, Debak, Kapit, Sri Aman and Limbang, the situation is similar. One would not be able to distinguish the Chinese there from native speakers because they speak authentic local Iban dialect and accent.
Heavily and entirely relying on their local Iban and Malay customers, the Saratok Chinese and their counterparts in the aforesaid towns and relevant locations elsewhere have to quickly assimilate their local dialects and customs.
They have special ways to please their customers, for example, giving them credit facilities, even giving them free lodging at their premises.
In Saratok of old, Ah Choo’s loft was among the favourite lodges for free for the Ibans from Melupa and middle Krian longhouses.
There were times when more than one family shared the loft as our lodge, including getting a handful of “ikan pusu” (then costing less than one ringgit per kati) for free during dinner time.
Those were the days of depending on the tide for boat journeys and thus making it a necessity to stay overnight in town. It was also when I would look forward to an early morning “special pau” at Sirun’s coffeeshop, now a cafe popular with “chap langkau” drinkers. Then Sirun coffeeshop was opposite to Ah Choo’s.
Other shops like Ah Lun, Chang Kok, Kah Choi’s Lim Chai Seng, Ah Ling, Ah Kau, Kin To and many more are also popular “alai betukay” (towkays giving credits and free lodging facilities) in Saratok of the 50s, 60s and 70s.
Now Ah Lun and Chang Kok are popular coffeeshops whereas Ah Kau has been turned into a hotel. The present, mostly second and third generation Chinese, speak better Iban and Malay than their parents, thanks to studying together in schools where Iban and Malay have become the lingua franca.
Now that many of the second generation Chinese such as Bah Kak and my classmate Chen Nang Kwong are in their mid-60s, we always look back with nostalgia at our young days. Nang Kwong, a retired teacher and now running a coffeeshop and hotel, was my classmate for three years (Form One to Three).
When we were in Form Two during the afternoon work party, we were always paired to collect rubbish sharing one big bin basket that we held together. One fine day, we were tasked to collect rubbish from the teachers quarters. Out of curiosity, we innocently unwrapped a newspaper folder only to be shocked it contained the stained “Modess” (sanitary pad) of a teacher!
We always laughed when we recalled such innocent incident, including when I became SMK Saratok school principal where Nang Kwong was a teacher in 1985, 13 years after we left the school as Form Five students.
Our schoolmates Ah Nyoo, Tse Tsin, How Ho, Dr Shin Pek Hin and others are happily running their own businesses or retired. I do meet them at times, especially Tse Tsin, who has turned his father’s tinsmith into a big and successful enterprise.
For others and for those with no school experience to share, they do have other common interests and topics as means of greetings namely “sabung manuk” (cockfighting) and 4D numbers (lottery) to discuss. Cockfighting and 4D are common binding interests among Saratok Chinese, Ibans and Malays.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the New Sarawak Tribune.