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The life of Sibu historical figure Wong Nai Siong in Sarawak

Wong Nai Siong is perhaps one of the most famous Chinese pioneers to arrive in Sibu.

Born on July 25, 1849 in Fuzhou, Fujian Province of China, Wong was the eldest of four sons. His father was Wong King Po who worked as a farmer (although some records stated that he was a carpenter).

Young Wong Nai Siong in an undated photo, but most probably in the late 19th century. Credits: Public Domain.
Wong Nai Siong was one of the first to convert into Christianity in his village in Fuzhou

Looking back on his life, Wong was an educated man. He first studied at a traditional Chinese village school. Then he took the Imperial examinations and was awarded the rank of Xiu Cai.

Back in old Chinese dynasties, Xiu Cai was the name for intellectuals who participated in the Imperial Examination. Later, Wong took his County Exam or Autumn Exam in which he passed and became a Ju Ren. As a Ju Ren, Wong was an official reputable member of the literati.

In 1866, missionaries from the Methodist Episcopal came to China. Wong was then baptised in November that year, becoming one of the few to become a Christian.

A year later, a priest named Xu Yang Mei took him in. It was during this time that Wong started to learn English and became exposed to Western culture.

Wong Nai Siong started the first Christian newspaper promoting political reform in China

Wong started to be interested in reforming Chinese politics after his third brother was killed in the First Sino-Japanese War.

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Another report by author Lee Khoon Choy in Golden Dragon and Purple Phoenix, stated that Wong was frustrated with the decadent Qing dynasty and wanted a change.

“He was very much influenced by Kang You Wei’s reformist ideas. China, under the rules of Empress Dowager, was signing away unequal treaties to the Western Power. He went to Beijing and got in touch with the reformist leader Kang You Wei, who was advocating a reform movement similar to the Japanese Meiji Reform,” Lee wrote.

Kang was a Chinese scholar and political thinker of the late Qing dynasty.

Wong even started the first Christian newspaper promoting political reform.

Unfortunately for both Wong and Kang, their political reform movement failed. The failure forced Wong to flee back to Fujian and eventually to Nanyang (Southeast Asia).

Wong Nai Siong was responsible for bringing Chinese immigrants to Sibu in 1900

In September 1899, Wong arrived in Singapore to work as an editor for a local newspaper.

According to David W. Scott in Mission as Globalization, this was the year when Wong stopped by Sarawak while on his tour of Southeast Asia as part of visiting his daughter and son-in-law, prominent Singaporean Chinese leader Lim Boon Keng.

This visit led to a contract between Wong and the second White Rajah, Charles Brooke.

Reportedly, the Rajah gave him a loan of $30,000. This was to cover the cost of transporting the settlers from China to Sibu.

“This agreement stipulated that Nai Siong would bring 1,000 settlers to immigrate to Sarawak for the sake of developing an agricultural colony. To select these labour migrants, Nai Siong recruited heavily among his Methodist compatriots, especially his home county and two neighbouring counties in Foochow (Fuzhow),” Scott stated in his book.

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Meanwhile, the loan was to be repaid over a period of five years. Wong undertook to recover the loan from the settlers by making them pay two-third of their annual produce as tax until the debt was fully repaid.

The Sarawak government once arrested Wong Nai Siong

On Feb 20, 1901, Wong brought in 72 Foochows from China to Sungai Merah and another 535 arrived on Mar 16.

That same year, Wong received a second loan of $10,000 from the Sarawak government to bring more settlers to Sibu.

Unfortunately for Wong, he gave the money to a man named Lik Chiang for safe-keeping, but the latter ran away with it to Taiwan.

Somehow, Wong still managed to bring another group of 511 settlers on June 7, 1902.

He then set up a custom office at Lower Rajang to collect tolls from farmers and traders.

Historian Chang Pat Foh in Legends and History of Sarawak pointed out that this landed Wong in trouble because he was accused of collecting taxes without the Rajah’s authority.

Chang wrote, “He was arrested but was released not long afterwards. Upon his release, he promised to pay the debts incurred but he failed due to poor harvests by the Fuzhow community. In the end, the White Rajah gave up hope to collect the repayment of loan.”

In June 1904, Wong decided to return to Fujian, China after passing his managing duties to American priest James Hoover. His departure was surrounded by different rumours including poor health, his reluctance to deal opium and his $40,000 debt to the Rajah.

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Wong Nai Siong’s legacy in Sarawak
YMCA Board of Directors, Fuzhou, Fujian, China in 1920. Wong Nai Siong, front row, seventh from right. Credits: Public Domain.

Wong died on Sept 22, 1924 after suffering from liver illness. Although he only spent less than four years in Sarawak, his legacy continues to linger, especially in Sibu.

There you can find few sites built in commemoration of Wong including the Wong Nai Siong Memorial Garden at Sungei Merah, SM Wong Nai Siong and Wong Nai Siong Road.

Fukien Cabinet – Fuzhou Protestants and the Making of a Modern China in 1911. Wong Nai Siong, first row, fourth from left. Credit: Public Domain.
Patricia Hului
Patricia Hului is a Kayan who wants to live in a world where you can eat whatever you want and not gain weight. She grew up in Bintulu, Sarawak and graduated from the University Malaysia Sabah with a degree in Marine Science. She worked for The Borneo Post SEEDS, which is now defunct. When she's not writing, you can find her in a studio taking belly dance classes, hiking up a hill or browsing through Pinterest. Follow her on Instagram at @patriciahului, Facebook at Patricia Hului at Kajomag.com or Twitter at @patriciahului.
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