Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Borneo Cultural Festival - The Teochews have a tale to tell

SIBU: If you love listening to stories, come to the Borneo Cultural Festival (BCF) at Sibu Town Square where the Teochews have centuries old tale to tell that dates back to the Qing Dynasty.

It is a piece of treasured history about the struggles of their forefathers who ventured to sea in the quest for fortune among the kingdoms of ‘Nanyang’, which we today refer to as the ‘countries of Southeast Asia’.

This promoted trade and social relationship and, until today, this tie is still maintained between China and Asean countries.

The story surrounds the historical theme known as ‘Merchants of the junks with red-painted bows’. The Chinese today call these junks ‘red-headed boats’. These merchants who travelled with thousands of crewmen are called ‘The Merchant Clan of the Red Argosy’.

Sibu Teochew Association chairman, Penghulu Chua Hiong Kee told The Borneo Post: “The spirit of these merchants is the pride of both the overseas Teochews and clan members in the homeland, for this story is about a spirit of braveness and determination.”

He said this spirit still dwells in Teochews scattered worldwide today, and that clan members must not forego the story in their soul, but live on with the legacy to lift the spirit of the red-headed boat that held the clan together.

Chua said the story began in the early Qing Dynasty during the reign of Emperor Qian Long when he required merchants in Southern China to set out to build regional trade relations.

“To manage this regional relationship and trade, the imperial court ordered the bows of Teochew junks be painted red and those of the Fujian Merchants be painted blue.”

A historical research shows the Teochews were pleased to be given the red colour as, according to Feng Shui, it denoted the Fire Element of Southern China.

The research also recorded the Teochews liked the colour red which symbolised the ‘yang’ element that could ward off any evil in their sea voyage.

“Thousands of merchants and their crewmen set out in large red-headed junks that sailed with the wind to carry out barter trade with Southeast Asian nations.”

He said they became such skilled sea navigators that the merchants needed no compasses, but travelled with the wind and looked to the stars for directions.

Chua said an important nation they traded with in Nanyang was Siam, where they obtained rice.

He said trade relationship became so important that they set up factories there to build junks using teak from the tropical forests.

“The traders also sailed to Borneo to get spices and birds’ nests.”

He said the Chinese merchants brought along silk, tea, pottery, salt, sugar and other items for the barter trade.

As they sailed home, they distributed the Nanyang goods and enjoyed brisk business.

The history noted that the business became so prosperous that the sea trade route became the second Silk Road of China.

Chua said the business of the Merchant Clan of the Red Argosy flourished until the end of the Qing Dynasty when the imperial government closed the sea trade to prevent the spread of a revolution that was rising against the corrupt imperial court.

“But that did not stop the Teochew merchants from heading out because by then the sea Silk Road was in their blood – the Teochews had developed a deep passion for the sea.”

He said since the merchants could not trade overseas, they became pirates to remain in the sea.

He said rising from this were two renowned merchant-turned pirates Lin Daoquan and Lin Feng, the legacies of which still lived on.

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