A Small-Town Boy’s Memories Of Binatang

I was born in a very small town but for the past 35 years, I have called Miri my home. The small-town boy in me never truly goes away. Time and again, I am caught up in nostalgia whenever I recall my childhood days in Binatang (now known as Bintangor).

A very old photo of Binatang

A very old photo of Binatang

The recent sale of my dad’s shophouse in Bintangor has cut off one of our last ties to the town.  But there is a special place in my heart for the little town. And with the passing on of my mum on August 30 this year, I sometimes get very nostalgic and I would recall my happy days growing up in Binatang.

My dad's shophouse in Binatang

My dad’s shophouse in Binatang

I remember the fun of growing up in Binatang. I remember the quality family life I experienced in the small town. I remember some of the town’s colourful and eccentric characters. I remember the town’s delicious food. I remember some of the memorable events that happened in the town. I remember how Chinese New Year was like. I remember the days of communist insurgency and curfews.  I remember my schooling days at St Augustine’s Primary School and Kai Chung Middle School. I remember holiday trips to Sibu and Kuching. I remember the MV Pulau Kidjang tragedy.

FUN

Carefree childhood. No computers. No smartphones. No Facebook. No Twitter. No Instagram. No Playstation. Just simple innocent fun.

Fun like swimming in the Rejang River. Doing somersaults after jumping from the Rejang Port Authority wharf into the Rejang River to impress the passengers on MV Rajah Mas, MV Pulau Kijang or MV Soon Bee berthed at the wharf. Playing marbles and hopscotch in the back lanes. Hide-and-seek . Cops-and-robbers.  Kite flying. Fishing in the Rejang River and roadside streams.  Digging for earthworms behind Eastern Theatre to use as fishing baits.

Fun like waiting for the weekly Borneo Bulletin every weekend. Looking for my articles in the Borneo Bulletin. Taking part in Borneo Bulletin’s crossword puzzle contests. Waiting for the monthly Dophin magazine. Visiting Heng Chiong Bookstore to see if there were any new Enid Blyton books.  Reading books borrowed from Kai Chung’s library. Reading my brother Tian’s English novels by James A. Michener, James Clavell, Arthur Hailey, etc. Reading my sister Kim’s Chinese romance novels by Chiung Yao (瓊瑤)and Yi Shu (亦舒).

Fun like climbing rambutan trees and eating rambutans like monkeys up in the trees in my dad’s orchards. Fun like helping my dad to harvest fish in his fish ponds for sale. Fun like walking around my dad’s orchard looking for fruits (such as guava, starfruits, papayas, oranges, limes, etc) to pluck.

Me on a rambutan tree in my dad's orchard

Me on a rambutan tree in my dad’s orchard

Fun like rearing ornamental fish in egg jars. My dad would sometimes drive to outskirt areas and help us to catch nice small fishes in the streams for us to rear.

Fun like playing with old Brooke coins and BDC water tokens which are worth a lot of money now.

Fun like receiving letters from overseas pen pals.  Fun like receiving payments from Borneo Bulletin for my article contributions.  Fun like riding around town on a bicycle in the evening. Fun like playing badminton with my sister Lim Kim and my brother Ching Sien on the road in front of my dad’ shop.

Fun like watching movies at Eastern Theatre. Fun like watching the movies Wang Pao Chuan Part 1 and Part 2 a few times.  Fun like watching free open air movies (mostly cartoons and cowboy movies) on the field in front of Binatang District Council courtesy of Milo. Fun like stopping by Eastern Theatre to look at the posters and photographs (seriously, there were photos of scenes from upcoming movies being displayed at the theatre) of upcoming movies.  Fun like going to No.13 Wharf Road to look at the posters (of currently-showing movies) that were pasted on the side walls of the shop.

Quality Family Life

I remember the huge ancestral wooden building ( actually it was a row of 3 wooden shophouses) that housed the extended family of my paternal grandfather. I remember the kedondong tree growing near the house. I remember the slipper factory next to the house. I remember the small stream by the side of the house.

Our ancestral house and the slipper factory and sago mill

Our ancestral house and the slipper factory and sago mill

The side of the house and the kedondong tree

The side of the house and the kedondong tree

I remember enjoying close knit family life in the small town. I remember watching movies in Eastern Theatre with my mum and dad. I remember enjoying my mum’s cooking. I remember my mum’s skills at making kaya, egg cake, fragrant glutinous rice and other delicacies. I remember eating durians with rice.  I remember my mum humming songs when she did her cooking or when she washed our clothes. I remember my mum getting up at nights with a torchlight and a needle to dig bed bugs out from the cracks on the wooden floor on which we slept at night. I remember massaging my mum’s legs or back when she had pain. I remember my mum going to the Rejang River bank to look for me when I had been swimming for too long. Mum’s love knew no bounds.

I remember how my dad loved to plant fruit trees in his orchard and rear fish in his fish ponds. I remember helping my dad when it was time to harvest the fishes. I remember how skillful my dad was at repairing outboard engines. I remember the “kaybo” nickname given by the Ibans to my dad. I remember how strict my dad was in regards to fads like sporting long hair and wearing jeans. I remember once when he literally hauled me to the barber to have a haircut after I had ignored his few subtle attempts to get me to go for a haircut. I remember how angry he was during Chinese New Year one year when my brother Sien and I wore cheap jeans tailored by a local tailor and with the design based on the then famous AMCO jeans. I know my dad loved us and did not want us to be influenced by so called bad Western cultures.  I remember my dad rearing crocodiles and the one occasion when he managed to hatch baby crocodiles from crocodile eggs.  I remember my dad rearing monkeys, bear, small parrots and a talking burung tiong mas. I remember the burung tiong mas calling out “Poh Hin tien wah” (Meaning telephone call Poh Hin…Poh Hin is my dad’s name) causing my dad to run to the shop next door (we did not have any telephone in our shop and people looking for my dad would often called the next door shop whose Foochow owner would then shout loudly “Poh Hin tien wah”). I remember riding on my dad’s motorised tricycle when I was in primary school. I remember how the tricycle was used for delivery of kerosene after its engine no longer worked.

My dad harvesting his fishes

My dad harvesting his fishes

Baby crocodiles hatched from eggs

Baby crocodiles hatched from eggs

AMCO jeans

AMCO jeans

My dad's tricycle

My dad’s tricycle

Me playing with my dad's bear

Me playing with my dad’s bear

I remember how my eldest brother Chin Tian loved reading (he still loves reading). My love of reading was because of his influence. I remember reading his collection of books by authors such as Arthur Hailey, James A. Michener, James Clavell and Alistair MacLean  after I had “graduated” from Enid Blyton books. I remember how he loved to sing songs by Beatles and Cliff Richard and also Yao Su Rong’s (姚蘇蓉) “Today I Won’t Come Home “ (今天不回家). I remember smiling whenever I heard him singing “今天不回家” as今天sounded like his name. I remember him becoming the form teacher of Form 4A when I was in Form 5 at Kai Chung. I remember him giving me pocket money at the end of every month after he received his salary.  I remember what a big deal it was in those days when he bought a black and white television set.

I remember my brother Chin Kiong teaching me History for a few months when I was in Form 2 before he went to University of Singapore for further studies. I remember him rearing ornamental fish like gold fish, angel fish, guppies and sword-tail fish. I remember how he successfully bred them and were able to sell the new born fish. I remember envying him as he was so good in his studies. I remember how he would take the trouble to buy for me Singapore first day covers and school badges as he knew collecting stamps and badges were my hobbies then.

My brother Kiong and his angel fishes

My brother Kiong and his angel fishes

I remember my sister Lim Kim was in Form 5 when I was in Form 1 at Kai Chung.  I remember watching my sister Lim Kim taking part in singing competitions in the school. I remember tagging along after my sister when she went around town. I remember playing badminton in the evening with her on the side of the road in front of my dad’s shop. I remember reading her vast collection of Chinese romance novels especially those by Chiung Yao (瓊瑤)and Yi Shu (亦舒). I remember sharing a room with her on the second floor of my dad’s shophouse.  I remember how some of the teachers at Kai Chung treated me as one of their pet students because they knew I was the little brother of Lim Kim.

I remember having childhood fights with my brother Sien over little things such as “sleeping territory”. I remember how I used to be filled with resentment when he often went back to Kai Chung in the afternoon to play badminton, leaving me to look after my dad’s shop. But we shared great moments swimming in the Rejang River, fishing, flying kites, etc. He was much better than me at fishing and kite flying. I did not know how to make kites and it was my brother Sien who was the one to make our kites. I remember the kite fights where the strings were coated with a mixture of finely crushed glass and rice glue. I remember how children ran after kites set free after losing out in kite fights.

Mum, brother Sien and me

Mum, brother Sien and me

I remember having another “brother” nicknamed Longkau who migrated to Canada after his Form 5. I remember how he used to explain to me and my brother Sien some basic Science knowledge. I remember how my dad sent him packages containing things like Japanese slippers, clothes and some food items when he was in Canada. It is a real pity that he has not maintained contact with us despite us treating him like a family member.

My sister Lim Kim, me, my brother Ching Sien, my mum, Longkau and my dad

My sister Lim Kim, me, my brother Ching Sien, my mum, Longkau and my dad

I remember my Uncle Boon (my mum’s second youngest brother) staying with us to continue his secondary school education at Kai Chung after my maternal grandma had moved to Sibu. I remember how he loved to sing. I remember him using the name Rocky.  I remember borrowing his bicycle to go to Kai Chung in the afternoon for gardening or PE. I remember him helping my dad to refill kerosene tins at the kerosene storage tank near the Rejang River bank, a chore that my brothers Tian and Kiong also shouldered whenever they were in Binatang.

My dad's kerosene storage tank

My dad’s kerosene storage tank

I remember my maternal grandma doting on me when I visited her in her Tiong Hua Road house in Sibu during school holidays. I remember the lengths she would go to make my visit enjoyable. I remember Uncle Gain (mum’s youngest brother) and my grandpa bringing me for movies. I remember my grandma cooking her own dry mee that was so tasty. I remember my grandma treating me to ice kacang and rojak sold by hawkers operating from three-wheel hawker cart.

I remember my maternal grandpa visiting us every month from Sibu, bringing with him Chinese swordfighting (wuxia) novels and magazines for my mum who also loved reading such materials.

I remember the time when my fifth auntie (my mum’s youngest sister) and her family were staying at Julau where my uncle was working for the Dept of Agriculture. I remember how they would visit us sometimes and we too would visit them on a couple of occasions.  I remember how cute my cousin Ah Seng was at that time. I remember having fun sliding down the grass slope near the government quarters that my uncle was staying in. I remember how my uncle liked to tease me. I remember how close my 5th auntie was to my mum.

I remember the visits of my Big Uncle (Tua Ku) during school holidays as my uncle was teaching in Mukah then. I remember my uncle bringing us sago biscuits (tebaloi).  I remember also how my uncle loved to take part in singing competitions.

Yes, nothing can beat the memories of growing up in a great family.

Memorable Characters

A small town like Binatang has its share of colourful and eccentric characters.

I remember Ah Li Pek who moved around town selling siao bee and prawn balls that were really delicious.

I remember Eboh who was born dumb. He loved fishing and used to come to my dad’s shop to buy fishing accessories like hooks, fishing strings and sinkers.

I remember  Kew Mee, the Binatang version of samseng.

I remember Ah Ruan, the mentally unsound guy.

I remember Kotek, the coffeeshop owner with a missing wrist and a friend of my dad.

I remember Min Na Mu, the lady who went around selling kompia.

I remember the Malay garbage collector with the big nose who emptied the rubbish bins around town into a wooden garbage cart that he would later empty into the Rejang River.

I remember the wharf labourer Hock Huat whose family shared the house where my maternal grandma was staying before she moved to Sibu.

I remember the well-known basketballer who unsuccessfully tried to woo my pretty next-door neighbour by whistling some romantic songs on many evenings as he cycled past the shop. As he cycled past, he would look up to the second floor of the shop where the girl was staying with her family.

I remember how the wharf labourers delivered cargo (unloaded from ships and motor launches) using 4-wheel cart. I remember how the wharf labourers used metal hooks to haul gunny sacks of rice.

MV Rajah Mas

MV Rajah Mas at the Rejang Port Authority wharf in Binatang…note the 4-wheel carts and the wharf labourers

Metal hook used by wharf labourers

Metal hook used by wharf labourers

I remember the night soil carrier who would empty toilet buckets under cover of darkness. In those days, there were no modern toilets. In the shophouses, the toilet was a hole on a raised floor with a big metal bucket beneath the hole to collect human droppings.  Going to toilet was a nauseating affair as you had to endure the terrible stench from the faeces that had been collected in the bucket.  There was an opening outside the shop with a metal lid. The night soil carrier had to lift the metal lid and pull out the bucket for emptying into two large containers.  He would carry on his shoulder a wooden pole on each end of which he would place one of the two containers.  He  would later empty the containers into the Rejang River (and we swam in the river, my goodness!).

Bucket system of toilet used in shophouses (this photo is a Singapore photo)

Night soil carriers emptying toilet buckets behind shophouses (this photo is a Singapore photo)

A night soil carrier (this photo is a Singapore photo)

A night soil carrier (this photo is a Singapore photo)

I remember Ali Baba. He was not a Binatang resident but was from Sibu. He made frequent trips to Binatang to peddle gemstones, rings and other ornaments.  Dressed in flowery attire, he shuffled along with a sway akin to someone who is half drunk. A lot of  kids were terrified of him.

I remember Anthony Teo Tiao Gin, the Council Negri member for Binatang for several terms. I remember how some Binatang folks were unhappy with him but were scared of speaking out against SUPP in those days.

Food

I recall with relish the food that I used to enjoy during my childhood in Binatang. My mum’s cooking. Seng Kee’s kompia. Binatang’s famous oranges. Green Mountain soft drinks. Leng Chong’s ice kacang. Morni’s rojak. Ah Li Pek’s siao bee and prawn balls. Liang Hua Restaurant’s steam buns.  Ah Kao Pek’s buns. Tung Luok Huong’s dian bien hu. Ah Pek Kiang’s braised fried noodle (福州炒煮面). The special (in those days) bread from Sibu that we could buy from Ming Kwong Café.

Memorable Events

I remember the marriage of Teng Luen Da, the son of Kapitan Teng Tung Hsin. The whole town was in a buzz on that day as Luen Da had married a beauty queen from Sibu. People thronged outside the Kapitan’s shop trying to catch a glimpse of the bride.

I remember the death of a young Heng Hua boy from drowning in the Rejang River. He stole a watch from a watch seller in Wharf Road and the towkay chased after him. In his bid to escape,  he jumped into the Rejang River but got into difficulties and drowned.  Heng Hua gangs from Sibu came to Binatang to seek justice for the boy’s family. Rumours had it that the towkay paid a tidy sum as compensation.

I remember the passing away of Siaw Beng Chek, the father of the Chua siblings who stayed in my dad’s shophouse. He was feeling unwell and was rushed to Sarikei by car but he passed away while on the way to Sarikei. The car then turned back to Binatang and I happened to be tending my dad’ business in the back portion of my dad’s shop when the car arrived.  My dad was at the Binatang District Council building and I had to run there to inform him. My dad then asked me to cycle to Kai Chung to inform the Chua siblings. I will never forget the sight of Chua Chin Ming sobbing uncontrollably outside the car when he got back from school.

I remember the occasion when there was a huge glut of Binatang oranges and when the orange farmers wanted to sell the oranges to the shopkeepers , they were offered so low prices that in anger the farmers threw their oranges into the Rejang River and many people jumped into the river to help themselves to the free oranges.

The famous Binatang oranges

The famous Binatang oranges

I remember the annual poisoning of the Rajang River using derris root (Chinese call it Rotene) known locally as tuba. The roots were crushed and thrown into the river, releasing rotenone that killed fishes which then floated to the surface of the water. People in boats then scooped out the fishes. Nowadays I am sure not many of us would want to consume fish that has been poisoned in such a way.

The annual fish poisoning in Binatang

The annual fish poisoning in Binatang…that was my dad at the bottom right hand corner of the photo

The derris roots used for poisoning the fishes

The derris roots used for poisoning the fishes

I remember the political ceramahs held at the Binatang District Council padang, especially the one where Tun Abdul Rahman Ya’kup (the Chief Minister of Sarawak at that time) campaigned against SNAP which was an opposition party at that time.  He said SNAP was an English word for “pecah” meaning broken so there was no reason to vote for a party that was broken.

I remember watching basketball matches at the basketball stadium. I remember players like Ah Hiung and Ah Tok. I remember the fights that sometimes broke out during some games.  I remember cheering for my classmates William Lu, George Yeu, Peter Wong, Su Ing Hee, and a few others when they played for the school against other schools.

I remember watching badminton competitions at the badminton court near the Borneo Company building. I remember Osman emerging champions for many years until he was dethroned by a teacher (whose name I can’t remember now).

Chinese New Year

I remember how packed the town was during Chinese New Year. I remember how we played firecrackers with abandon. I remember wearing new clothes most of which were bought from our next-door shop Chop Min Hin run by Eh Yan (Foochow words meaning shortie). I remember visiting friends and drinking the popular local-made Green Mountain orange squash. I remember the Eastern Theatre showing a few movies each day during the Chinese New Year from about 10am till 9pm or so. I remember receiving angpows containing fifty cents when I was in primary school.

Communist Insurgency

I remember life during the communist insurgency. I remember the curfews and how kids loved them because it meant extra holidays. I remember the droppings of government anti-communism leaflets from helicopters. I remember the incident of communist propaganda being sprayed on the walls of St Augustine’s Church. I remember the occasion when Kai Chung Middle School was surrounded by soldiers and a Kai Chung student was arrested for being involved in the communist insurgency (that student in later years became my boss shortly after I started  working in Miri). I remember how terrified I was on the occasion when I received a letter written in Chinese from someone trying to recruit me to join the communist insurgency. I remember the deaths of some people I knew who were killed in skirmishes between the communists and government forces. I remember the detention of some people who were sympathetic to the communist causes.  I remember the signing of the peace treaty on 21st August 1973 in Simanggang by Abdul Rahman Ya’kub (the Chief Minister of Sarawak at that time) and Bong Chee Kok (leader of Communist Insurgent in Sarawak,the PARAKU or Pasukan Rakyat Kalimantan Utara).

Leaflets thrown from a helicopter over Binatang

Government anti-communism leaflets thrown from a helicopter over Binatang…see the people running to pick the leaflets

Signing of the peace agreement in Simanggang

Signing of the peace agreement in Simanggang

Schooling At St Augustine’s Primary School

I remember my primary school days at St Augustine’s.  I remember how my dad sent me to school and picked me from school in his antique car. I remember Father Smith and Father Warganer, the last batch of Caucasian priests at the school. I remember the headmaster Wan San and how fierce he looked. I remember the occasion when one girl student fell into the bucket toilet at the school and was covered with urine and faeces.  I remember having to say the Lord’s Prayer every school day.

Group photo of St Augustine's Primary School

Group photo of St Augustine’s Primary School…I can’t recognise myself in the photo though I can recognise some of my classmates

Schooling At Kai Chung Middle School

I remember how life was like at Kai Chung. I remember how in Science class, Ms Constance Yii told us that air has weight and demonstrated this by hanging a balloon at each end of a stick.  I remember having to go back to school in the afternoon for physical education (PE) and gardening. I remember being caned during one morning assembly by Chen Ling Mei for carrying Michael Jimbai on my bicycle while on the way to the school for gardening. I remember hating practical Chemistry in the lab as I am colourblind and could not tell the colour changes from chemical reactions inside test tubes.  I remember one morning assembly when the school board chairman addressed the assembled students and teachers in Foochow, commencing his address with “Thie Thie Moi Moi” (meaning younger brothers and sisters). I remember one of my Form Three classmates bragging about shagging a lower form girl in the gardening storeroom.  I remember some of my Form Five classmates telling us about their voyeuristic experiences peeping into the room of a married couple in the old wooden hostel near the basketball court.  I remember the fun of having temporary trainee teachers from Rajang Teachers’ College.  I remember the trip to Belawai organized by the school where some students were accused of stealing water melons. I remember the school canteen from which I hardly ever bought anything. I remember the daughter of the canteen owner and her suicide dramas and how she ended up marrying one of my Form 4 teachers. I remember my Biology teacher whose atrocious pronunciation made us want to burst out in laughter. I remember how he used to pronounce hibiscus as “hi bi kuh” and microscope as “mi kro kop”. I remember how students nicknamed him Amoeba.  I remember school badge collecting becoming a popular hobby among students.  I had a nice collection of badges, thanks in part to pen pals who sent me their school badges and also thanks to my brother Kiong who gave me quite a number of school badges.

Holidays

For me, school holidays meant visits to Sibu and sometimes Kuching.  As a primary school kid, going to Sibu was by using slow motor launches such as Sin Hai Ching or Sin Bintang, a journey that took about two and a half hours if I am not mistaken. In the seventies, express boats took over and the journey was cut short to about an hour.  I can remember express boats with names like Flying Swallow No. 1, Flying Swallow No. 2, etc.

For trips to Kuching, we used either MV Rajah Mas, MV Soon Bee or MV Pulau Kidjang. It was an overnight journey with the ship usually leaving Binatang at about 4.30pm and arriving in Kuching at about 4-5am the next day. I remember sleeping on the deck of the ships, with the roars of the waves and the chugging of the ship’s engine in my ears. On some trips, my dad managed to rent a cabin from one of the deckhands and the journey was a bit more comfortable.

I remember the tragedy that struck MV Pulau Kidjang on December 27, 1973 (it happened on my birthday!). The ship sank off the mouth of Rejang River near Tanjung Jerijeh while on its way from Kuching to Sarikei. It was reported that 159 were on board the ship but only 38 were saved (including 18 sailors). Of the 121 missing, only 41 bodies were recovered. People in towns like Sarikei, Sibu and Binatang stopped consuming seafood for months after the tragedy due to fears that some of the missing may have been eaten by fishes. I remember that one of the survivors was a Binatang businessman by the name of Luk Tai Lik.

MV Pulau Kidjang (Submitted by Abg Bollhasan Abg Alli to Sejarah Sarawak facebook)

MV Pulau Kidjang (Submitted by Abg Bollhasan Abg Alli to Sejarah Sarawak facebook)

Report of the Pulau Kidjang tragedy in the Vanguard newspaper

Report of the Pulau Kidjang tragedy in the Vanguard newspaper

Sigh……how time flies. My family moved from Binatang to Kuching in early 1977. Almost 4 decades have elapsed since then. There is no doubt that growing up in such a small town like Binatang has a profound impact on me. It’s coloured my life philosophy. The sense of community meant that you knew most of the people in the town. I grew up with a lot of freedom. Life was so simple. The town was quiet and peaceful.  I could just go out on the streets to play with my friends without any parental supervision. I could ride my bicycle with my hands off the handlebars without worrying about cars as there were so few cars then.

That taste of freedom lingers to this day.And as much as I enjoy city life, the small-town boy in me loves to go down memory lane. I believe it’s good to sometimes hit the pause button of life in a city and do some reflection. These memories caused me to write this blog article. I’m thankful. And I’m grateful for having the blessing of growing up in my small town!

3 comments

  1. A very nice story it bring me back to the end of 1972 when l first step my foot in Binatang Bintangor later named (On our way to Sibu by Rejang). Not forgetting the ‘Sui kam’ Binatang sour oranges which was a dollar for 5-6 katis. Your story bring me more memories l could recalled.

    Thank you very much.

  2. Thank you for posting your Bintangor family story.
    I visited Bintangor 3 times from 1988, and spent two Chinese new year celebrations there.
    Very memorable times.
    Best kebabs ever, sitting on the wharf in the evenings.

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