December 18, 2017

Cotton Flour Sacks - Memories of Yesteryears





This posting is dedicated to all my neighbours who lived in Kung Ping Road or Brooke Drive in the 60's. They will remain always in my heart as VIPs of my childhood and in particular Ah Chuo Pak and Ah Chuo Moo the parents of Andrew Ting Boi Hua who were the kindest people I have ever known in my life!




My Hainanese friend Ah Choon and I have great conversations and often reminisce about our childhood. And one of the stories we swapped not long ago was about our growing up years in the 50's when most frugal mothers and grandmothers would seek out cotton flour sacks to make underwear and sleepware for children!! Many mothers made rough quilts and sewed the pieces of flour sacks together as the reverse side.

I remember my neighbours the noodle makers (mien sien) - Ah Chuo Moo and Ah Chuo Pak - who used up more than 5 sacks of flour each day. Their children (some of whom are millionaires now) happily wore pajamas and shirts made out of these nice and really "tahan" or strong cotton materials. The cotton was so good that their pajamas never seemed to tear!

I carried a bag made from the flour sack and we had some nice pillows made from the cotton material. We used several to strain our home made soy bean milk. Another neighbour sewed pieces of these sacks together to form a nice huge awning over her small kitchen and yard. At one time after Woodstock young people started to wear little jackets fashioned out of them so that they looked hippies!! Those were the days when many Sibu people looked like John Lennon.

Indeed there were so many things we could make out of these versatile cotton sacks. Ah Choon remarked that even if we wish to have these cotton flour sacks today we cannot have them because the importers no longer use them. Instead they use raffia sacks. How we wish we could have them again.

Some things to share with you.


In the United States many women could still have the opportunity of buying some of these feedsacks from vintage stores.

Here is an interesting poem from the 1930's found on a very nice blog called "Crafter by Night". I hope she does not mind me borrowing it.......

1930 flour sacks
by Colleen B. Hubert

IN THAT LONG AGO TIME WHEN THINGS WERE SAVED,
WHEN ROADS WERE GRAVELED AND BARRELS WERE STAVED,
WHEN WORN-OUT CLOTHING WAS USED AS RAGS,
AND THERE WERE NO PLASTIC WRAP OR BAGS,
AND THE WELL AND THE PUMP WERE WAY OUT BACK,
A VERSATILE ITEM, WAS THE FLOUR SACK.
PILLSBURY’S BEST, MOTHER’S AND GOLD MEDAL, TOO
STAMPED THEIR NAMES PROUDLY IN PURPLE AND BLUE.

THE STRING SEWN ON TOP WAS PULLED AND KEPT;
THE FLOUR EMPTIED AND SPILLS WERE SWEPT.
THE BAG WAS FOLDED AND STORED IN A SACK
THAT DURABLE, PRACTICAL FLOUR SACK.

THE SACK COULD BE FILLED WITH FEATHERS AND DOWN,
FOR A PILLOW, OR T’WOULD MAKE A NICE SLEEPING GOWN.
IT COULD CARRY A BOOK AND BE A SCHOOL BAG,
OR BECOME A MAIL SACK SLUNG OVER A NAG.
IT MADE A VERY CONVENIENT PACK,
THAT ADAPTABLE, COTTON FLOUR SACK.

BLEACHED AND SEWN, IT WAS DUTIFULLY WORN
AS BIBS, DIAPERS, OR KERCHIEF ADORNED.
IT WAS MADE INTO SKIRTS, BLOUSES AND SLIPS.
AND MOM BRAIDED RUGS FROM ONE HUNDRED STRIPS
SHE MADE RUFFLED CURTAINS FOR THE HOUSE OR SHACK,
FROM THAT HUMBLE BUT TREASURED FLOUR SACK!

AS A STRAINER FOR MILK OR APPLE JUICE,
TO WAVE MEN IN, IT WAS A VERY GOOD USE,
AS A SLING FOR A SPRAINED WRIST OR A BREAK,
TO HELP MOTHER ROLL UP A JELLY CAKE,
AS A WINDOW SHADE OR TO STUFF A CRACK,
WE USED A STURDY, COMMON FLOUR SACK!

AS DISH TOWELS, EMBROIDERED OR NOT,
THEY COVERED UP DOUGH, HELPED PASS PANS SO HOT,
TIED UP DISHES FOR NEIGHBORS IN NEED,
AND FOR MEN OUT IN THE FIELD TO SEED.
THEY DRIED DISHES FROM PAN, NOT RACK
THAT ABSORBENT, HANDY FLOUR SACK!

WE POLISHED AND CLEANED STOVE AND TABLE,
SCOURED AND SCRUBBED FROM CELLAR TO GABLE,
WE DUSTED THE BUREAU AND OAK BED POST,
MADE COSTUMES FOR OCTOBER (A SCARY GHOST)
AND A PARACHUTE FOR A CAT NAMED JACK.
FROM THAT LOWLY, USEFUL OLD FLOUR SACK!

SO NOW MY FRIENDS, WHEN THEY ASK YOU
AS CURIOUS YOUNGSTERS OFTEN DO,
‘BEFORE PLASTIC WRAP, ELMERS GLUE
AND PAPER TOWELS, WHAT DID YOU DO?’
TELL THEM LOUDLY AND WITH PRIDE DON’T LACK,
‘GRANDMOTHER HAD THAT WONDERFUL FLOUR SACK!’

I think all over the world women in particular would have special memories of flour sacks. Thoughts of them just warm me up and help me value my old neighbours in Sibu even more!! Frugality and thriftiness are values we need to pass on to our next generation.

December 17, 2017

Sibu Tales : Lau King Howe Hospital and Flowers

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Shui Mei has always reminded me of my father's hospital stay. I first caught a whiff of the fragrance of shui mei which was grown in the Lau King Howe hospital when my father was admitted. He was given one of the First Class Ward rooms. Outside, there were many shui mei planted in large salted egg jars. I had often wonder who planted those beautiful flowers and other flowers like canna lilies in the hospital. 
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My father there and then told me that the fragrance of Shui Mei reminded him of Fujian, where it was a common plant and found in every household. He also told me that bonzais of Shui mei were popularly groomed by many academicians and especially poets. Years later bonzai became a craze and in fact even newspapers reported cases of people stealing shui mei from houses, from public places etc.
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Photo of Shui Mei from Jong Shiau Chin
My pragmatic maternal grandmother said that only the rich and famous would grow a garden of flowers to look at. The poor must grow vegetables for food. My mother said it would be very advisable to grow fruit trees if we had the land and we did not have to buy.
Some how perhaps,was it Lau King Howe himself who introduced shui mei to Sibu in 1926??

December 16, 2017

Sungei Merah : Grand father's Pomelo

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My paternal grandfather was very fond of growing fruits in all the properties he purchased over the years. He grew lots of pomeloes in Hua Hong Ice Factory land. My mother remembers collecting a few pomelo which dropped during high tide and she had to swim in the water to collect them. My mother, in those days, was a good swimmer. Our house in Hua Hong was a stilted house and flood waters would reach the first landing. Fruit trees grew well long the raised banks of Pulau Kerto.

Not long after my parents were married , my paternal grandparents moved to Sungei Merah. There he planted four pomelo trees. It was this special home that we used to visit as his noisy grand children every weekend until he passed away. Grandfather actually lived in that house for slightly more than 12 years, if I am not mistaken.

Whenever we visited them during the weekends, there would be lots of fruits for all of us to eat.

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My grandfather was particularly fond of pomelo. And Grandma Siew would always peel the big fruit and place the segments in a small dish for him and for the rest of us.

Grandfather was a very gentle eater. He would use a tooth pick to get a small segment of pomelo and slowly put it into his mouth. Perhaps it was his mannerism that many of my aunts and uncles inherited. They were all very careful eater at the table. And they seldom talked in front of him.

My 7th Aunt told us that Mrs. Hoover had made sure that the girls studying in Yuk Ing Girls Schools were trained not to laugh or giggle. And they must put on a very serious face.

My grandfather did have a very serious face.

The pomelo grown in Sg Merah by my grandfather was especially sweet and juicy. My father used to tell us that Grandfather was good in planting the best of fruit trees.

December 15, 2017

Sibu Tales : Losing a Child

Sandbars along the Rajang River are not uncommon. There are a few famous ones where school children enjoyed having picnics and great thrills in the by gone days.

Pulau Kerto was in those days a romantic place for many to visit because it had a sand bank. Scouts and Girl Guides had many precious memories of their activities there, especially cooking on the river beach.

As a few friends would say, "Sibu in those days had no swimming pools, no mountains and no seas for any one to enjoy."Image may contain: sky, cloud, twilight and outdoor

Getting to the sand bars using small boats borrowed from friends was already a thrill in itself. However teachers had to be very vigilant whenever they brought kids for picnics like this in the 1960's. I remember my cousins had a great picnic when they were in Senior Middle School and they were accompanied by their Chinese language teachers.

A few incidents , very tragic ones, took place in the 60's. there were several drowning cases. But that did not deter many others to enjoy the thrills of visiting a sand bar during the holidays, with or without teachers.An aunt lost a very bright daughter because the tide came up too fast . While the rest could swim in time to the river bank, she was carried away by the current. It was a family tragedy.

After the 70's with bad political instability in Sibu, children learned not to seek thrills outside their homes if they could help it. They took to the streets, cinema halls, gambling dens and for thrills, probably some also went underground.


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A sand barge along the Rajang River


Today these sandbanks are no longer playgrounds but "industrial sites" where machinery dredges sand for a profit. Sarawak and all its development projects need a lot of sand. River sand is a very profitable business.


December 14, 2017

Nang Chong Stories : Tiffin Carriers

School meals in the 1950's and 60's were simple fare. No Foochow activist like Jamie Oliver would have fought for better school meals because every one was rather poor. To be able to have some cold rice, a bit of salted fish and some vegetable soup was already a God sent meal!!

But how was food brought to the school by the students? And how was it like to be a teacher in those days? There were no microwave ovens, or even electric food warmers.

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The Chung Cheng School and several other schools had hostels to provide accomodation and food for  students who live too far away from the school. Families who lived in 16th Company, and as far away as Bintangor, Tu Lai sent their children to Chung Cheng School.

The cooks of the Chung Cheng Hostel in the 1950's and 60's were very benevolent and kind. Most of them were sympathetic especially towards students who came from poor backgrounds. Some teachers also stayed in the hostels with the students, but they had a separate wing. Some teachers who lived further away would also pay for their school meals. They would bring their Cheng Ark or tiffin carriers for their food. A couple would place the containers on the shelves of the school kitchen and the school cook would place soup at the bottom tray, fish and vegetables on the other containers and finally rice at the top. The enamel of the cheng ark kept the food warm and even if the teachers had their lunch at 2 p.m. their food would still be hot, especially if the cheng ark was placed on the huge stove which would still have coals smouldering.

My aunt Hung Yung had her lunch in this way with her husband. Both of them taught for a long time in Chung Cheng School. This kindly service helped my aunt to worry less about her food and she and uncle could concentrate on their teaching.

Some students who had many siblings in the same school also brought their own cheng ark, with food already placed in the containers by their mother. According to one former student, she and her brothers only had a lot of rice and some salted fish. When they saw hostel students having chicken soup or fried eggs, she was very envious. But some how she managed to grow up strong and determined to do well in school.

Some very hard working mothers would cycle half a hour from their rubber garden hut to the school just to deliver the food in the cheng ark by 12.30 so that their children could have a meal before they started their afternoon classes.

It must have been very hard for mothers to plan ahead how to prepare food for their children. They must also be careful with their time management too.

In most cases, children carried just a mug of cold rice and hard salted fish in their bags. Did their rice box ever get "Cheu tieu"or sour? Would they then forego their lunch and remain hungry until they went home in the evening?

As a busy mother, I had felt for the mothers and children and their school packed lunches.

December 13, 2017

Sibu Tales : Water Chestnut

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Fresh water chestnuts in Miri

Years ago it was hard to get fresh water chestnuts in the market in Sibu. Usually mothers would desperately look for water chestnuts for their children who just had measles. The best TCM "cooling antidote" for after measles is water chestnut juices.

In those olden days, the blender or juicer was not yet in the market. So at home, the hardworking mother would crush small chopped pieces water chestnuts with a mortar and pestle and then use a handkerchief to squeeze out the juice.

And naturally it would have been too pricey for the poor to buy fresh water chestnuts to make juices for their sick children. Well you see, most siblings would get measles at the same time and it would be hard time for the mother.

However the wise women would be able to find other means of cooling down their children. Fresh coconut water, sugar cane juice would be the alternatives.

There was even a common comment that when fresh water chestnuts appear in the market, measles was in the air!!

Fresh water chestnut is a delicacy for the Foochows. It is a good ingredient for the making of meat rolls, and when a mother wants to prepare a good minced pork dish, a few water chestnuts, chopped fairly well would give the minced pork a bit of crunchy texture.

One of my best memories of my second sister's knife skill and patience was the way she peeled water chestnuts for our maternal grandmother. She was so meticulous and fine in her work, even when she was only in her teens.


Those who often have ulcers can eat a few fresh water chestnuts after a meal, treating them like fruits.

Today in some places water chestnut juices are available in packet form.

December 12, 2017

Sarawakian Local Delights : Tapioca (Ubi Kayu)


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Ubi kayu or tapioca used to be one of the cheapest snacks Sarawakians could have.

Tapioca is easily grown wherever farmers grow their padi in the past. The tapioca would be grown around the padi fields forming some kind of boundary between lots. Land would be put to good use. The leaves could be eaten as vegetables too.

India is now the largest exporter of tapioca leaves and root tapioca which is the main ingredient for making starch and other by products.

There are two kinds of edible tapioca in Sarawak, one which will yield roots and the other just good and delicious leaves for cooking.

Then there are two kinds of root tapioca. The more desired ones are those with yellow roots. The whiter ones are edible and slightly bitter. They become woody more easily.

Whenever Sarawakians see the yellow tapioca, they would not think twice to buy.

The yellow tapioca can be fried, boiled, steamed and cooked in soups, or as part of bubur cha cha.












Cotton Flour Sacks - Memories of Yesteryears

This posting is dedicated to all my neighbours who lived in Kung Ping Road or Brooke Drive in the 60's. They will remain always ...