Tuesday, May 01, 2007


Gold in the South ... the story of an immigrant
by Shan Ru Hong (21st Century, 2007)
Price: RM20.00

(A review. The reviewer who prefers to remain anonymous)

The beginnings

SHAN RU HONG'S FAMILY, reduced to penury by lack of land and an opium smoking father, were lucky. A relative told them there was work and gold in the south seas. With what was left of their money they sailed south in the hold of a ship and landed in Singapore, and put up at Kreta Ayer, where many desperate ones from their area had also come. After the quarantine procedures the relative disappeared, leaving them to fend for themselves in the strange town. There was no work and no food. Sympathising hawkers gave them left overs like iu char koay and pak t'ong ko which helped with the hunger. Then mother and elder sister earned money carrying water for a few cents a time. They slept where they could.

As luck would have it, the missing relative did return with good news - they had relatives up North who had a tin mine. He would ask for their help. That was good news which resulted in their taking the train to Gopeng, Perak. There, father had a job in a mine and mother and elder sister were employed to clear the land of bush and other unwanted growths. The "gold" they had heard about back in the home village was in fact tin which made uncle rich, operating a profitable tin mine. The boy Ru Hong was able to go to school which he leapfrogged with double promotions; but he did not finish for he had to go out and work too.

When he was about 17, Ru Hong became a revolutionary and decided to dedicate his life to the cause of the emancipation of the working class and socialism. He turned down the job of mine manager which uncle offered him and instead went underground. He joined the illegal Malayan Communist Party in whose ranks, unknown to him, was an earlier member Rashid Maidin, a charge man in an English mine at Gopeng. Rashid Maidin was to became one of the leaders of the Communist Party taking part in the so called Baling talks and in the tripartite peace talks in Hatyai in 1989. Ru Hong was to become the commander of the 2nd Regiment of the Malayan Peoples Anti Japanese Army.

One reason why this memoir is important is its account of the transformation of these impoverished immigrants into Malayans. One witnesses it on the occasion of the triumphant celebration of the registration, i.e. recognition, of the Perak Kinta Mine Workers Union which Ru Hong and friends had successfully set up. The organisers had invited the Chinese Consul and Tan Kah Kee (who did not attend) to the opening ceremony, which Ru Hong's group came to realise was a mistake as the event, as they conceived it, was not a Chinese celebration but local event.


Ru Hong tells us of the slump of 1929 and the slow recovery of 1937. In those days the British made sure that there were no "trouble makers" to upset the vital production of rubber and tin. Arrests and banishment of suspects were feared. When police pressure increased friends of the revolution deserted. In addition to harassment by the administration the workers, called "piglets," were forced to work for the same boss despite having paid off their passage money. Among the thugs who kept them in virtual slavery was one Lau Pak Khuan, a tough who, by a stroke of luck, struck it rich when he dug into a wealth of tin.

These memoirs explode the myth about "Moscow trained agitators." It is the history of home made revolutionaries who learnt how to organise, teach and move with secrecy from the hard and merciless school of life. They learnt how to avoid special branch surveillance, they learnt patience and flexibility in steering the pioneer groups into recognition as legal trade unions, skills
which were acquired during hard negotiations with bosses. Bitter lessons taught them how to differentiate between correct tactics and blundering orders; they learnt to avoid the errors of rigid "leftist" orders with apparent compliance but which were in fact subtly disobedient. They discovered themselves that the "closed door" policy of the leadership was wrong, that they had to go out and work among all types of people, workers in the estates as well as on the mines, small farmers, workers who were also part farmers, and take in all views. This was the solid foundation that formed a stubborn, popular and victorious obstacle to Brazier and the British TUC's vain attempts to smash the independent trade unions in 1945.

When he wrote these memoirs Ru Hong was past his 80th birthday. He displays a remarkable memory. We learn that a rubber tapper with good trees earned $20 a month . In 1937 "fat" rice (most could only afford broken rice) cost $4.50 for a 165 kati bag Mine workers earned $29 a month and women workers $12.

This account of a destitute childhood and hand to mouth existence and a struggle to survive, typical of immigrants, is a must read for all whose forefathers headed here in search of work and rice. It should remind them to be charitable to the thousands of immigrants who have today come to this country in search of work but are treated as thieves, scoundrels and prostitutes. But we are sick with meanness best illustrated by the example of the late Dr Tan Chee Khoon who claimed that immigrants were the cause of much of the crime; and this came from one of the heads of the Labour Party and a leader of the Methodist Church. Compare his heartlessness to that of Austria, a country devastated by the 2nd World War, which generously opened its doors to some 3 million homeless and starving refugees without a whisper of complaint.


* fat rice - whole, unbroken rice

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