Sitiawan: The Promised Land of the Foochows

loading Rubber tapping in Sitiawan.

Home to Foochow settlers since the turn of the century, Sitiawan continues to reflect the close-knit community’s heritage and religious ties.

Sitiawan gets its name from the tragic tale of two elephants, one of which perished after becoming stuck in mud, while the other drowned as it faithfully clung to its friend as the tide of the Dindings River rose. The river was subsequently called “Sungai Gajah Mati” (“River of the Dead Elephant”), and the nearby village “Kampung Gajah Mati” (“Dead Elephant Village”).

In 1887, owing to a bad outbreak of smallpox, Penghulu Haji Mohd Ali petitioned the then-Superintendent of Lower Perak, Noel Denison, to rename the place out of superstition.1 The name “Sungai Setia Kawan” (“River of the Faithful Friend”) was adopted, while the village became “Kampung Setia Kawan”, later shortened to “Sitiawan” before a formal recognition by the Resident of Perak, Sir Hugh Low.2

Today, Sitiawan encompasses Kampung Koh, Simpang Dua, Simpang Tiga, Simpang Ampat, Ayer Tawar and Bruas on one end, and Lumut, Kampung Baru and Bating Luas on the other,3 with Simpang Ampat being the focal point for both commercial and social activities.4 It is a well-known sub-district of Dindings, now known as Seri Manjung.

Sitiawan Grows

Economic development began in Dindings a few years after the signing of the Pangkor Treaty, and was further boosted by immigration – the Achenese, who made Dindings their home and planted pepper and patchouli there, is one such example.5 The Malays formed the majority in the district until the influx of Foochow immigrants from southern China at the turn of the twentieth century.6

The idea of a Foochow base in Sitiawan was driven by the colonial government’s interest in rice cultivation. The Foochows were selected after attempts to attract other groups, such as the Indonesians and Tamils, obtained little success.

It was hoped that the Foochows, a dialect group distinct from the more numerous Hokkien, Hakka, Cantonese, Teochew and Hainanese, would develop rice cultivation and refrain from other economic activities.7

For that purpose, Sitiawan marked an ideal site, being far from the tin-mining areas of Perak: “[A]gricultural operations would be confined as much as possible to the sea coast line so that the interests (agricultural and tin) may not clash and in order that the glamour of tin mining may not induce the Chinese recruited for agriculture to abandon and take to the mines”.8

With government support, Foochow recruitment was undertaken by Christian organisations, mainly the Methodist Episcopal Mission (MEM). The MEM commanded a strong standing in Perak, especially within its local government; even the Chinese Protectorate in Perak, W. Cowan, was a church member.

It was therefore unsurprising that an American-German missionary with the MEM, Dr H.L.E. Luering, was appointed to bring 1,000 Foochows to Sitiawan.

A missionary-adventurer, Luering’s background is fascinating. Aside from his doctorate in oriental languages, Luering was well-versed in 15 languages. After pioneering in north Borneo and north Fujian in China, Luering had conducted similar missionary work among the aborigines in Perak.9

Accompanied by Reverend Ling Ching Mi, whom he first met in China, they left in May 190310 for the Chinese districts of Minhou, Kutien and Fuching, and encouraged members of the local Methodist churches to migrate to a “Southern Canaan”.11

A Foochow from Minhou himself, Ching Mi was best suited to assist the mission, having worked in a Foochow church in Singapore for five years and with first-hand experience in the Foochow pioneering works in Sibu.12 Evangelistic acquaintances in China, such as Reverend Ling Guang Mi in Kutien and Reverend Huang Pao Seng in Fuching, also assisted Luering’s mission.13

Reverend Ling Ching Mi.

W.E. Horley.

The emigration was a gradual process. While the first batch consisted of only 363 people,14 the aftermath of the Boxer Uprising prompted further migration – the majority of the Foochows were Christians who desired to evade persecution and practice Christianity. Sitiawan was thus perceived as their Promised Land.

The first batch of migrants lived in nine attap cottages housing 40-50 dwellers each. It was claimed that one could easily wash one’s feet in water by the bedside during rainy days.15

The second batch of 200 migrants added to the overcrowding, leading to the spread of diseases such as mange and scabies.16

It was not until by the end of the year that they were granted their apportioned lands: the Kutien group was given the Kampung Koh area; the Minhous the area adjoining it; and the Fuchings the land bordering the sea. These permanent settlements also entailed three acres of land for each planter, furnished with the gems and seedlings of sweet potatoes and cabbages of Nanyang origin; those brought from China had proved unsuitable for local soil.17

Thus, the brief life of the agriculture and livestock-based economy in Sitiawan before the rise of rubber planting began.

The old parsonage.

The Rubber Boom, Education and Health

While the original plan was for the Foochows to grow rice, they survived on cash crops and pig farming instead. The arrival of rubber in Malaya in the early twentieth century witnessed a shift towards rubber planting, and this activity among the Foochows was encouraged and influenced by Foo Choo Choon, a prominent Chinese leader in Ipoh; W. Cowan, the Chinese Protectorate; and Reverend W. E. Horley, an influential Methodist missionary.

While the Sitiawan Methodist Mission acquired land concessions for rubber planting, followed by a church building and an orphanage through Horley,18 Foo went as far as to promise to pay 20 cents for each rubber tree planted.

Motivated by the incentive, many Foochows turned towards rubber planting.19 The remarkable fortune of the rubber boom20 and its full production by 1915 transformed many Foochow coolies into smallholders with wealth and social positions. Income from latex production provided the MEM with funds to erect the Pioneer Methodist Church building, completed in 1927 at the cost of $20,000.

Despite the rubber slump after the First World War, Sitiawan saw the construction of roads, linking it to bigger towns such as Taiping and Ipoh. By 1918 Sitiawan had its own police station in Simpang Ampat, and although dispute settlements were under Teluk Anson’s court jurisdiction, law suits rarely occurred.21

Education in Sitiawan experienced a turning point with the arrival of its first resident missionary, Reverend Van Dyke, in March 1904. Van Dyke established an orphanage in the attap-shed parsonage, which also housed the “Foochow school” with 22 students and a Foochow-speaking teacher, Ling Ding Jug.22

Attempts to teach in English began in 1907, and the orphanage-cum-school was later converted into the Sitiawan Industrial School to train students to “do manual work during certain hours of the day as well as to learn to read and write”;23 it was commonplace then for children to assist in the rubber estates and in other agricultural activities. In 1916 Horley renamed the school the Anglo-Chinese School.24

“Koh” means “storey” in the Foochow dialect, and at Kampung Koh, the word refers to the wooden double-storey parsonage that replaced the attap sheds in 1914, known as muksu lau (pastor’s home) among the Foochow Christians. This multi-purpose building, which housed the orphanage and school on its lower floor, was the hub of the Methodist Concession. It also functioned as a district office, dealing with land matters concerning the settlers.25 Today, it houses the Sitiawan Settlement Museum.

A Mission Hospital project began as early as 1917, but the MEM continued to suffer from a lack of funds and medical personnel. With the arrival of a Miss M. Dirksen in 1931, a Methodist clinic catering to the poor and needy was opened;26 with its house-to-house visits, the clinic emerged as the church’s medical arm, serving the Foochow community until today.

Kampung Koh’s emergence sparked the beginning of a new township. Two new rows of shophouses were followed by the migration of settlers from surrounding villages such as Kampung China.27

Another feature of Kampung Koh’s mission heritage lies in its three wells. Dug by a missionary, Dr William Shellabear, the wells once served the town when it lacked clean drinking water. Having catered to over 2,000 settlers until the 1960s, the womenfolk were said to draw water from the wells in the wee hours of the morning before carrying them in tins across their shoulders to be sold. As these wells never dried up even during droughts, Horley dubbed them the source of “living water”, which fed and quenched thirsty souls.28

Villagers moving into New Villages as part of the Briggs Plan.

With its expanding Methodist population and the rubber boom, Sitiawan enjoyed a phase of economic development and became an important rubber planting town. All this was disrupted by the Second World War and the subsequent Malayan Emergency.


The Second World War brought hardship to the town, which continued with the declaration of the Malayan Emergency in 1948. Most areas in Perak were classified as “black areas”, and Sitiawan’s dispersed settlement and vast rubber plantations were advantageous to the communist guerrillas.

Sitiawan was the hometown of key figures of the Malayan Communist Party (MCP). Ong Boon Hua, alias Chin Peng, was born and bred in Sitiawan and was once a bashful student of Nan Hwa Middle School. So was Wu Tien Wang, MCP’s representative on the Advisory Council of Singapore in the early post-war years; and Eng Ming Ching, better known as Suriani Abdullah, a prominent female leader of the 10th Regiment and an MCP Central Committee Member.

The height of the Emergency in Sitiawan witnessed pro-British and Kuomintang supporters gunned down in broad daylight,29 and the burning of a town in Simpang Tiga, which left a thousand victims homeless.30

Communist flags, bearing the hammer and sickle, were also found tied to rubber trees in Kampung Koh, and the area was strewn with propaganda leaflets.31 The church struggled to maintain its dwindling numbers amid the strict curfew and a climate of prevailing violence.

Even so, evangelical missions were actively pursued and supported by the Methodist Church of Malaya.32 In Sitiawan, mission work was focused on “New Villages”,33 such as Kampung Raja Hitam, Kampung Merbau, Pekan Gurney and Simpang Lima, which benefitted from the provision of medical services and relief supplies.

Clinics were established by mission boards in 100 out of 156 new villages in Perak.34 It was not until Malaya’s Independence and the end of the Emergency in 1960 that Sitiawan regained its tranquility.

The Future

The establishment in 1984 of the Lumut naval base, Malaysia’s largest naval dock, saw an increase in commercial activities at Seri Manjung. Sitiawan is well-positioned to reap the spill-over effects. While the town is no longer rubber-based – 80% of its estate land is used for palm oil cultivation35 – housing developments, contract supplies to the naval base, fishing, prawn farming and shipbuilding activities are on the rise.36

All this has spurred population growth in Sitiawan: many from nearby townships such as Ayer Tawar are flocking into the main town or Lumut for work. Be that as it may, Sitiawan’s uniqueness as the largest Foochow settlement in the peninsula continues to be reflected through its living heritage and its Methodist Christian legacy.

1 Shih Toong Siong. The Foochows of Sitiawan: A Historical Perspective. Persatuan Kutien Daerah Manjung, 2004, pp.3-4.

2 S. Durai Raja Singam. Malayan Place Names: From Port Weld to Kuantan. 3rd ed., Singapore, 1957, p. 237.

3 Ibid.

4 Shih Toong Siong. The Foochows of Sitiawan: A Historical Perspective. Persatuan Kutien Daerah Manjung, 2004, p.3.

5 Annual Report of the Straits Settlements 1891, p.623.

6 aspx?pageid=4210&name=when_penang_and_ the_dindings_were_one.

7 Shih Toong Siong. The Foochows of Sitiawan: A Historical Perspective. Persatuan Kutien Daerah Manjung, 2004, pp.40-42.

8 Ibid, pp.50-51.

9 Ibid, p 47.

10 2017/09/13/special-day-for-the-foochowscloseknit- community-celebrates-114th-anniversaryof- their-arrival-in-th.

11 Chiang Liu. “Glimpses of the Chinese in Sitiawan.” Journal of the South Seas Society, vol. VIII, pt 1, 1952, p 4.

12 Shih Toong Siong. The Foochows of Sitiawan: A Historical Perspective. Persatuan Kutien Daerah Manjung, 2004, p. 249.

13 Kiu Mee Kuok. The Diffusion of Foochow Settlement in Sibu-Binatang Area, Central Sarawak 1901-1970. Sarawak Chinese Cultural Association, 1997, p 40.

14 aspx?pageid=4210&name=when_penang_and_ the_dindings_were_one.

15 Chiang Liu. “Glimpses of the Chinese in Sitiawan.” Journal of the South Seas Society, vol. VIII, pt 1, 1952, p 5.

16 Ibid.

17 Ibid.

18 Shih Toong Siong. The Foochows of Sitiawan: A Historical Perspective. Persatuan Kutien Daerah Manjung, 2004, p.204-205.

19 Chiang Liu. “Glimpses of the Chinese in Sitiawan.” Journal of the South Seas Society, vol. VIII, pt 1, 1952, p 6.

20 The highest rubber price recorded was $5.71 a kati in 1910 (exchange rate: £1 to $8.50) (Shih 2004:205).

21 Chiang Liu. “Glimpses of the Chinese in Sitiawan.” Journal of the South Seas Society, vol. VIII, pt 1, 1952, p 6.

22 Shih Toong Siong. The Foochows of Sitiawan: A Historical Perspective. Persatuan Kutien Daerah Manjung, 2004, pp.142-145.

23 Ibid.

24 Hicks, E. C. History of English Schools in Perak. Perak Library, 1958, pp. 42-43.

25 Shih Toong Siong. The Foochows of Sitiawan: A Historical Perspective. Persatuan Kutien Daerah Manjung, 2004, pp.160-163.

26 Shih Toong Siong. The Foochows of Sitiawan: A Historical Perspective. Persatuan Kutien Daerah Manjung, 2004, p 112.

27 Ibid.

28 community/2011/09/29/the-sitiawan-settlementmuseum- houses-vintage-exhibits.

29 “Kuomintang Man Killed.” The Straits Times, 25 June 1948.

30 “Bandits burn a village: 1,000 homeless.” The Straits Times, 5 February 1950.

31 “Red flags on rubber trees.” The Singapore Free Press, 24 November 1949.

32 Lee Kam Hing. A Neglected Story: Christian Missionaries, Chinese New Villagers, and Communists in the Battle for the ‘heart and minds’ in Malaya, 1948-60. Modern Asian Studies 47, 6 (2013), pp.1977-2006.

33 Ibid

34 Ibid, p 1994.

35 community/2013/02/12/some-villages-remainslow- paced-while-seri-manjung-undergoes-rapiddevelopment.

36 community/2014/05/21/kong-high-growth-indistrict- over-the-last-10-years.

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