Saturday, July 27, 2013

Book reading at Ong Sam Leong's tomb (Bukit Brown)

A first for Bukit Brown this rainy morning is a book reading that took place at the tomb of Mr and Mrs. Ong Sam Leong. Mr John Hunt, author of the book, "Suffering through Strength - The Men Who Made Christmas Island", sportingly joined the Bukit Brown tours (on invitation by the Brownies and Singapore Heritage Society) this morning and the author shared his insights on Ong Sam Leong and his sons Ong Boon Tat and Ong Peng Hock contributions and impact to Christmas Island. Also, present this morning were over 50 participants from all walks of life, both young and old.
The view from Ong Sam Leong and today's crowd 
I had the opportunity to learn more about Mr. Ong Sam Leong and hear from the author himself, on how in 1899, Ong Sam Leong was engaged by the Christmas Island Phosphate Company to provide supply coolies (labourers) from Southern China to work in this mines and was paid a monthly sum based on the how much phosphate was mined by this coolies. This coolies recruited by Ong Sam Leong were made to signed a IOU of sorts amounting to $20 Straits dollars to Ong Sam Leong and Co for the shipping travel cost to Christmas Island and paid back slowly through the wages they earned mining for his company. Ong Sam Leong provided food, a general store, gambling, prostitution and opium dens to this workers, with some of this vices leading to greater debt or increasing their stint has a worker in the company for an additional year or more !
John Hunt at Ong Sam Leong's tomb. Over 50 people came
down to Bukit Brown for the tour despite the rain
In the first 5 years of mining (1899 - 1904), just over 2400 workers were hired. Fed with only basic boiled rice and salted fish and coupled poor health care, 614 workers died from beri-beri, mining accidents, suicide or murder, a ratio of 1 out of 4. Conditions improved after worker unrest of 1919 with improvements made into the management of the workers by the company. The story of Christmas Island is not just about Ong Sam Leong but also of the coolies who dream of making it big in a foreign land and of the trials and tribulation they faced in the development of Christmas Island. This was, their story.

After the book reading at Ong Sam Leong's tomb, i had the honor of guiding John and his wife in Bukit Brown.
John Hunt  in his suit and tie with a picture
of Ong Sam Leong projected on screen  
In the afternoon, i attended John Hunt's talk jointly organised by Select Books and Singapore Heritage Society at Select Books premise in No 51, Armenian Street and took this opportunity to purchase a copy of the book, Suffering through Strength - The Men Who Made Christmas Island and also got the author to sign my copy.

Limited copies of the book are still available at Select Books at a retail price of SGD$49.22

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