Sibu is the largest port and commercial centre in the Rejang Basin and the gateway to Central Sarawak. Located at the confluence of the Rejang and Igan Rivers, approximately 130 km from the South China Sea, Sibu is a thriving modern town with a vibrant centre and a bustling, crowded waterfront.
To visitors, Sibu feels more down-to-earth than relaxed Kuching. There is still something of the pioneer style about the town, and its people are direct, plain-speaking and assertively friendly. Of course, their smiles may be partly due to the belief that Sibu has more millionaires per capita than any other city in Borneo.
The mighty Rejang, almost a mile wide, is the dominant feature of the town, and a room with a river view is highly recommended for vibrant impressions of waterfront life. The river is a source of constant activity, with large ocean-going vessels manoeuvring delicately between speeding express boats, battered river launches and tiny sampans, and Rejang sunsets can be truly spectacular.
Sibu is not only a fascinating town in its own right; with its excellent road, air and river transport links it is also the ideal jumping-off point for exploring the whole Rejang Basin, from the coastal town of Mukah to the furthest reaches of the Upper Rejang, over 600km upriver.
Before 1st June 1873, Sibu was known as “Maling”, named after the winding portion, “Tanjung Maling”, on the other side of Rejang River. Maling was a small village with a few small and simple shophouses consisted of atap roof and wooden walls and floors. Main population are Malays and minority are Chinese. In 1841 “Sarawak” (the present Kuching – Sarawak Capital) was ruled by ‘White Raja’, James Brooke. On 1st June 1873, the third division was created and the division was named after the native rambutan because of the fact that the division had a lot of native rambutan known as “Buah Sibau” in Iban language. Native rambutan was small and sour unlike the improved varieties currently sold in the market which are big and sweet with fruit easily removed from the seed. Prior to 1900, the businessmen in the towns of Sarawak were mostly Kekhs or Ming-nam people of Chinese origin. Business in those days was mainly barter trade.
In 1901 Mr. Wong Nai Siong led the first batch of Foochows from China to Sibu to open up the fertile lands of Sibu for cultivation, a massive opening up of Sibu. Therefore, it was a landmark year or a milestone in the history of the development of Sibu. Mr. Wong Nai Siong originated from Ming Ching District, Foochow City, China. According to records, his objectives in opening up Sibu were:
(a) to escape from the sufferings of the totalitarian government of the Ching Dynasty
(b) to search for new avenues of livelihood for the poor in his village in China.
Mr. Wong Nai Siong came to Singapore in September 1899. From there, he proceeded to West Malaysia, Sumatra and the Dutch East Indies. For six months he explored the places but failed to find a suitable place for the immigration and settlement of his folks in China. In April 1900, Mr. Wong Nai Siong came to Sarawak and got the approval of the Sarawak Rajah to look for a suitable site for Chinese immigrants.
Mr. Wong explored the lower valley and upper reaches of the Rejang River. He soon discovered that the Rejang Delta was very fertile and particularly suitable for cultivation. So he decided to choose the area for opening up for cultivation. With that decision, Mr. Wong went to see the second Rajah of Sarawak, Rajah Charles Brooke, for discussions regarding the matter of opening up of land for cultivation. In those days of the Rajahs, Sarawak was sparsely populated with vast land yet to be developed, Mr. Wong’s plan was timely and very much appreciated. So, when Mr. Wong Nai Siong went to see Sir Charles Brooke and explained to him his plan to lead large groups of Foochows to open up Sibu for cultivation, the Rajah immediately agreed. Both parties signed an agreement. Below are the first 4 of the 17 terms of the agreement signed and sealed on 9th July, 1900 in Kuching.
Memo of Agreement was made in duplicate between the Sarawak Government, herein after mentioned as the Government, on the first part and Messrs. Wong Nai Siong and Lek Chiong of Chop Siin Hock Chaw Kang, herein after mentioned as the Contractors on the other part.
1. The Contractors agree to introduce into the Rejang River one thousand adult Chinese agriculturalists,men & women and about three children and to establish them in that river for the purpose of cultivating rice, vegetables, fruits, etc., but of these immigrants not more than one half are to be introduced during the first year, that is to say before June 30, 1901, and the rest the Contractors undertake to introduce during the following year, that is to say between June 30, 1901 and June 30, 1902.
2. The Government undertakes to advance the Contractors the sum of thirty dollars for each adult and ten dollars for each child so introduced, and of these advances two thirds shall be paid to the Contractors in Singapore, and the balance to Kuching on the arrival of the immigrants, there and the Contractors undertake that moiety of the immigrants to be introduced during the first year as mentioned in Paragraph 1 shall be brought to their destination in the Rejang within 4 calendar months from the date they receive the advances in Singapore as above mentioned.
3. The Contractors undertake to repay all such advances to the Government within six years from the date of this Agreement as follows: Nothing to be paid by the Contractors during the first year, during each of the subsequent years one fifth of the advances to be paid each year, that is to say RM 6.00, for each adult and RM 2.00 for each child in respect to the advances paid on their amount in accordance with Section 2.
4. The Government undertakes to provide for the passage of the above mentioned immigrants from Singapore to the Rejang, or, in the event of the Contractors bringing these immigrants direct from China to the Rejang basin, the Government will pay the Contractors five dollarfor each immigrant as passage money.
The Chinese immigrants came in three batches. The first batch consisted of 72 people, the second batch 535, and the third batch 511, totalling 1118 people. Of the total, 130 brought their spouses and families, while the others were bachelors. After working in Sibu, nearly all the immigrants chose to settle down and made Sibu their new home. Some bachelors asked their parents back in China to “Marry Girls” on their behalf and send them to Sibu. Although many of those new brides who came to Sibu had never seen their partners before, they were happy to settle down. They raised families and toiled with their husbands for a brighter future in Sibu. When news of the efforts of the initial batches of the immigrants bearing abundant fruits of their toiling and labouring in Sibu reached the villages in China, more and more Chinese couples migrated to Sibu to join in the search for greener pastures. Because of the fact that the majority of the Chinese immigrants who came to Sibu were Foochows, and because the Foochows played a major role in the opening up of the plantation area, Sibu has been called New Foochow or Small Foochow, a tribute to the Foochows for their contributions to the development of the land in Sibu. The term “New Foochow” or “Small Foochow” is not only locally used. It is clearly stated in the April 1901 issue of Sarawak Gazette: “The settlers are from Foochow and style their place the New Foochow”.
Regarding the other dialect groups, according to records, the Chiang-Chuan and Amoy people had come to Sibu earlier than the Foochows. But they did not come in large groups and were mainly concerned with commercial activities. Also, between 1902 and 1917 six hundred seventy six Cantonese came to Sibu to join in the opening up of Sibu. We are indeed indebted to our forefathers for having laboured and suffered tremendously in their pioneering endeavours to open up Sibu as a new area for the settlement of the immigrants.