2) My Grandpa I never knew: Beans of the Orient


In fact, his father, Ong Chong Choon, would had had been one of the pioneers braving unknown to found Sibu with his distant relative, Pastor Wong Nai Siong in 1901 had it not been for his marriage. Ong, Wong or Wang are but mere Anglicised translations of the same Chinese root character for royalty.

Sibu is today the indisputable capital for overseas Foochow outside China. Fate, or the impending birth of his firstborn, Kai Chang, would again deny Chong Choon the chance to found Setiawan two years later. Two sons followed suit quickly and doused any fire of pioneering spirit in him, for providing for his growing family took precedence.

It was with heavy heart when he waved Kai Chang off from the pier of Fuzhou wharf. Deep down, he wanted to be in Kai Chang’s shoes, but with two younger sons in tow, that dream and adventure would have to wait, sadly, to remain unfulfilled, albeit to be fulfilled nevertheless by none other than his firstborn. Yes, Kai Chang would have to carry the family’s name to Nanyang, he would be the torch bearer.

Instead of the Foochow migrant magnet Sibu or Setiawan, Kai Chang chose to head for Penang.  His father’s protest, “Why not Sibu or Setiawan?” still rang deafeningly, but he had made up his mind and stubbornly stood his ground. Such rare display of defiance surprised Chong Choon for Kai Chang was only 15 then. His father would not have tolerated such disobedience. Gazing onto his son, Chong Choon knew deep inside it was time to set his son free to plot his own life destiny. He reluctantly agreed above the sobs and protest of Kai Chang’s mother.

He urgently made arrangements for Kai Chang to contact some fellow clansmen once he reached Penang. That was the most he could do, for there were only a handful of Foochow in Penang. Most had settled around Sibu and Setiawan.

Before Kai Chang could sit down for the much needed rest on solid ground, and lunch, a call rang through the attap shack for those destined for Penang to head for the pier immediately. He scrambled, managing to take a whiff of the fragrant “Ang Chow” boiling in the pot, enough to satisfy his hunger pang for the moment.

With a few fellow migrants, they headed for the pier and hurriedly clambered onto a tongkang, and up onto a cargo ship bound for Penang. “I am no cargo,” muttered Kai Chang silently above the growl of his hungry stomach. He was again alone, only Foochow, amongst Hokkien, Hakka and Cantonese.

He sighed. Cold, hard and dry “Kong Pian” biscuits again unless he did not mind the heat and stench of the boiler room to re-heat his “Kong Pian”. Freshly baked “Kong Pian” would be heavenly. Re-heated ones were just as good, and he headed down the boiler room.

“Kong Pian” are hard tacks or trooper’s staple, baked to perfection over 400 years of warfare. Being dry, “Kong Pian” last without preservative. When threaded together through a hole in the middle, “Kong Pian” could be transported with great ease. “Kong Pian” are the key not just in keeping an army well fed but motivated to win battles. For their taste alone is worth dying for.

The weekend journey with a short stopover at Port Klang was soon over. Kai Chang could not wait to disembark, away from the stench of the ship’s cargo of rubber strips. They were made by coagulating the white sap tapped from “Hevea” trees in formic acid, then rolled through presses to remove excess water, and finally sun and smoke dried. Many made their fortune from this liquid gold. Tales back home boasted of gold oozing from trees in Nanyang.

He excitedly boarded a sampan, almost keeling it over, for the final leg of his journey. The sampan took him one of the busy jetties along “Huay Chun Tao”, literally “Fire Ship’s Bow” in local Hokkien dialect or Weld Quay, Penang. He leapt from the sampan even before it was securely moored to the jetty. He gazed back. Steam ships of many kinds were fast replacing sail ships.

Penang was the turf of Hokkien and Straits Chinese. The latter are only Chinese by appearance and religious belief but Malays in all other aspects. They spoke, dressed and ate like Malays.

History, not legend, has it that the Sultan of Kedah was hoodwinked into offering Penang Island and Province Wellesley in exchange for British protection against constant harassments from the Thais. The promised protection was not to be, and Kedah finally fell to the Thais in 1811. Ironically, the whole of Kedah was eventually transferred to the British Administration under the 1909 Anglo-Siamese Treaty.

At “Fire Ship’s Bow”, he was greeted with a both familiar voice and face, a fellow clansman from the same village. He was a chatty fellow and animated as he rattled away during their walk all the way to Ayer Hitam or “Black Water”. Electric trams and ubiquitous rickshaws fascinated Kai Chang. Penang was full of lives, filled with lives, so vibrant and noisy. Kai Chang was awed.

After brief introduction, Kai Chang was quartered in a small shared room above a shop facing Penang Hill. Ayer Hitam, a common name, probably got its name from the blackish well water, or was it derived from the bitter sweet black drink that was gaining popularity? The aroma was new and distinctive. At last, he was at home away from home amongst clansmen.

Days quickly turned into weeks, weeks into months, and months into years. Life in Penang for Kai Chang was like clockwork, wake up at 5 a.m., work and shut eye at 10 p.m. day in day out. He was quickly put to work washing the cups and saucers or sweeping the floor, gradually working his way up to person-in-charge or “tau chew”. Only then was he taught the secret of frying coffee beans until they give out that distinctive aroma.

Unbeknown to him then, these tiny unremarkable beans would feed his family and his children’s families. Select the finest Arabica beans, rotate fry them in a cylindrical metal drum over medium charcoal amber, add butter and sweet corn, and some would bragged a tint of opium. Kai Chang would have nothing to do with the wretched opium.

And Kai Chang was ready. He needed his father’s blessing.


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