Borneo: Sarikei and mah-mah

Sunday 11 April 2010
I've lived more than half of my life outside of Borneo. Sadly, I've only made a few trips back since our move to New Zealand. Growing up, I spent a lot of time with my paternal grandmother whom I called mah-mah. I often followed her back to Sarikei, an itty bitty town with a single traffic light. Mah-mah lived in an old rickety wooden house on stilts that my grandfather built decades ago. Unfortunately, he passed away when my dad was away in the UK finishing his degree so I never met him.

Sarikei house
Dad's family home. It's completely deserted now.

Back in those days, mah-mah and I would go to the jetty to catch a boat. Things have changed a lot since. One can easily drive there from Kuching or Sibu instead of being crushed in the boat by dozens of other passengers along with their livestock.

Grandfather came from Fujian province in China in the early 1900s. Abject poverty drove hundreds of thousands of Chinese who live near the coastal areas, specifically from Guangdong and Fujian provinces to seek their fortune elsewhere. I wished I paid more attention to my grandmother when she was alive as she loved to reminisce her past. Mah-mah had to get married at 16 to avoid being raped by the Japanese soldiers during World War 2.

She would show me her slightly deformed feet. Like many other Chinese girls, her mother bound her feet to achieve a lotus shape so that she would be more marriageable. This meant crushing the bones, particularly the toes and then binding the foot tightly with a long piece of cloth. It was also excruciatingly painful. She cried so hard that her mother couldn't bear to continue doing so.

lotus shoes
My collection of shoes for bound feet. The pair on the right are at least 80-100 years old. The two newer ones were made by the only shoemaker of these type of shoes in Malacca. At the time of purchase which was 8 years ago, he only had 12 surviving customers.

bearlerina & lotus shoes
To get an idea of the size of these shoes, I've put them right next to my 4 year old's ballet flats (children size UK 7.5)

Mah-mah used to tell me how poor they were. All eleven kids had to tap rubber in the jungle which was backbreaking work at wee hours in the morning and then walked miles to the closest school. Meat was a rare treat and served only during the Chinese New Year.

Mah-mah used to rear pigs, chickens and ducks. Every so often, she'd sent me out with my cousins to catch a chicken. The 4 of us were utterly useless at it. My generation is used to seeing chickens nicely cling wrapped and packed in individual polystyrene containers. On a number of occasions, she had tried to demonstrate to me the way to slit its throat, drained the blood and dunk it in hot water before plucking the feathers. I never lasted long. I would turn three shades of green and flee the scene before mah-mah could ask for my assistance.

Dad was an absolutely brilliant student (and still is, I might add) and won a scholarship under the Colombo plan to Manchester in the UK. Only a small number of students who had performed exceptionally well were picked throughout Malaysia and awarded scholarships. He used to do odd jobs while studying in order to send much needed money back to the family. Dad had a lot of responsibilities on his shoulders upon his return. He supported his family as well as sponsoring his one of his siblings' education overseas.

Here are some photos I took of my father's hometown ten years ago.

Sarikei house2
Photos of my deceased grandfather, grandmother, oldest uncle and his wife

Mom, dad's older sister and her husband. This was the last time I saw my uncle before he passed away a few years later.

Sarikei market2
And this is how the we wrap our chickens.

Sarikei carrying chicken
And carry them home

Sarikei market
Shopping at the wet market


  1. Mah Mah always had a soft spot for you . I hope ALL her grandchildren would learn a significant small part of their past from your effort . Good on you :D The past generation's dream of a better life is now realised ....hopefully the passion for success continues on in the family's future generations for a loooooooong time.

  2. hi there join in Sarikei facebook group at



Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...