It was early July 1918 the Great War that engulfed Europe was drawing to a close. The last major German offensive codenamed “Operation Michael” had but petered out. Half a globe away, a small passenger ship was docking as the sun, like the ship’s passengers, was rousing reluctantly from its deep slumber.
The breeze was south westerly. The ship yawed gently from the caresses of the wave, a drizzle of sea water greeted a teenager as he rushed excitedly onto the ship’s foredeck. He was relieved that the journey from his village in the county of Min Hou, to the land of opportunity, Nanyang, would soon be over. After weeks of tossing and threats by the temperamental South China Sea, with nausea, sickness, stench & stale air as his constant companion below deck were but a distant memory. Clutching tightly on to his little belongings, the teenager, wide eyed with excitement mixed with fear of the unknown, took apprehensive tentative steps onto a tongkang for the last leg of his journey to firm ground, or so he thought.
The teenager disembarked onto land, St. John’s Island, a transit island south of Singapore, land nevertheless, thrust forward by the inquisitive courage of a 15-year old teenager. He was quickly herded into an enclosed shack together with other men. Women and children disappeared into an adjacent shack. They were instructed to undress. Shocked, confused and bewildered, he stood defiantly refusing to strip, which earned him a palm across his left cheek by a menacing mustachioed turbaned man. Seeing that all other fellow travelers were obediently undressing, his pride slighted, he reluctantly followed suit and with nothing but his palms to cover his pride.
They were showered with white peppery powder, sending searing pain on his open wounds and tears welling up immediately. He screamed but coughed instead and the powder tasted bitter. He had been warned. He vaguely remembered as faithful old earth or “ti lau xin”. Probing into his open mouth and a few tabs on his chest by a stranger, made stranger by his fiery red crown and ocean blue eyes, and his arms, yes, his arms were covered with fiery red hair too. But for his fair skin, the stranger could have been easily mistaken for General Guan Yu reincarnate. The teenager was given a nod and told to dress up and move along.
The next thing he knew, he was standing in front of another strange man bellowing in some stranger still cacophonic tongue. Thankfully, standing beside him was a Chinese face relaying the strange man’s questions in familiar tongue. Queries translated were replied in brief nods. Satisfied, he scribbled “Ong Kai Chang” onto a piece of paper and stamped “Approved”.
Soon he was out of the compound, with the sun smiling mercilessly down on him. Kai Chang was all sweaty, sticky and hungry, “Why is it so hot and humid here?” was his fleeting thought before he was disrupted by a familiar tongue but unfamiliar face. He followed the stranger no older than himself. The stranger turned out to be from the neighboring village, and had come a year earlier. Kai Chang was quickly brought to an attap shack where he was greeted with familiar tongue but more unfamiliar faces. He was told that they were all from the 10 districts or familial dialect groups of the Foochow clan from Fukien province. Kai Chang was a full blooded Hockchew from Min Ho County, Fuzhou. Most were destined for Setiawan, the choice destination on Peninsula Malaya for those from Fuzhou, the other being Sibu on the land of the hornbills and White Rajah, Sarawak.
“Foochow could trace their roots back to the fertile Henan province. Its fertility was both a blessing and curse. Crops were abundant earning the envy of its neighbors and constant ravages of war. They were of ancient Han Chinese stock, tenaciously loyal and stubbornly proud, hardened by their tumultuous history. They migrated south to present day Fuzhou to escape famine and death, and from constant wars and threats of war. Mass migration occurred during the reign of Emperor Yong Jia (Jing Dynasty-308 AD) and Emperor Guang Qi (Tang Dynasty-887 AD). They settled in the 10 districts around Fuzhou, namely Min Hou, Lian Jiang. Yang Tai, Zhang Le, Fu Ching, Min Qing, Pin Nan, Gu Tian, Ping Tan and Luo Yuan. They considered each other as dear as members of one family. They spoke in similar yet subtly distinctive dialects, improvised from the core Fuzhou dialect, which in turn, was an assimilation of ancient Wu and ancient Chu with the local Minyue.”