Ling Ching Mi[ was born in the district of Minhow in Fujian province in China in 1853. His parents were well-known personalities in the Qing Dynasty.
Ling was educated in Fujian at the Trinity Methodist College. Subsequently, he became a pastor in the north-east county of Gutian and was promoted to the position of district superintendent. The turning point of his life took place in 1897 when a missionary adventurer by the name of Reverend Dr H.L.E. Luering befriended him. Luering was a German and linguistic expert who went to Fujian in November 1896 to do mission work among the Chinese. His ministry was very effective as he was able to speak the Foochow dialect fluently. Luering managed to convince Reverend Ling to relocate with his whole family to Singapore to shepherd the growing Foochow Christian population there. Ling’s wife was Ding Ngok Ching and they had three children but one child died at an early age.
On arrival in Singapore, Reverend Ling began his work in earnest. In December 1897, he became the first pastor of the Singapore Foochow Church which still stands today. His focus was on the Foochow Christian immigrants who were mostly poor menial labourers and trishaw pullers. The congregation worshipped first at a chapel near the intersection of Middle Road and Waterloo Street and later moved to a bigger building when the numbers grew. Ling’s ministry flourished and soon, he caught the eye of Bishop Warne of the Methodist Episcopal Mission
Bishop Warne despatched him to Sibu in Sarawak to start another Foochow church. The new settlement there was attracting many Foochow Christians from China. But there was no one to care for their spiritual needs. At that time, Sarawak was under the rule of the White Rajah James Brooke as a British protectorate (1841-1946). Reverend Ling answered this call to fill the void. For him, it was another opportunity to serve his people and break new ground. In May 1901, he left his family in Singapore and travelled to Sibu. From May to July 1901, while stationed in Sibu, he was able to lay a strong and solid foundation for the spiritual growth of this budding community. In July 1901, he returned to Singapore, leaving the work in Sibu in the capable hands of the local leaders whom he had groomed.
Life was very tough and challenging for the new immigrants. The intense heat, dense forest and tropical diseases caused many to give up and return home. Nevertheless, those that remained became quite independent and continued to grow spiritually. In later years, Reverend Ling’s work would bear tangible fruit through the establishment of a Methodist church at Sing Chu An: a two-storey belian wood building with attap roofing. In 1903, when Reverend James Matthew Hoover arrived in Sibu to continue the mission work, he found this building suitable for his home.
Population transplant plan in Perak
In May 1903, the Methodist Episcopal Mission was selected to embark on another ambitious population transplant plan in the state of Perak. The census done by the British Colonial Government in 1897 showed that a huge sum of funds was being wasted on importing rice for local consumption to the tune of $7 million! This was mainly attributed to the population explosion from a large number of Chinese immigrants from China for the booming tin-mining industry. In the Federated Malay States, the combined population for the states of Perak (280,000), Selangor (160,000), Negeri Sembilan (80,000) and Pahang (70,000) was 590,000. Perak was the obvious choice for this pilot population transplant project as it was the most populous and prosperous state.
Pockets of padi cultivation by the local Malays existed but the amount grown was insufficient. The Malay farmers were content with growing just enough for their own consumption, despite the monetary incentives offered by the British colonial government. Ultimately, attention was directed to the Chinese from China as a source of cheap agricultural labour, not unlike the tin-mining endeavour. Frank Swettenham, the British Resident of Perak, would write in a report that the Chinese were “honest, hardworking, thrifty and easy to govern and as a source of revenue, almost unequalled”.
As a result, in January 1903, G.T. Hare, the Secretary of Chinese Affairs in the Federated Malay States, presented a detailed proposal advocating Chinese labour for growing rice. The district of Sitiawan was identified as the ideal location due to its coastal location, far away from the hinterland dominated by tin-mining. The British did not want tin-mining to lure away the new recruits into abandoning their rice-planting venture.
In May 1903, Reverend Ling accepted the directive from the Methodist Episcopal Mission to join Reverend Luering on his trip to Fujian to recruit Foochow Christians to re-settle in the supposedly new “promised land” in Sitiawan. Ling was the ideal candidate, having originated from Fujian and served there for many years as a respected pastor among the locals. In addition, he possessed a good track record with his extensive pioneering experience of starting two Foochow churches in Singapore and Sibu. Once again, he left his family behind in Singapore for God’s work.
Luering and Ling set sail from Singapore on May 6, 1903 on the ship Hong Bee. After transiting in Hong Kong and Amoy where they changed ships, they finally arrived at Foochow on June 6, 1903. Their recruitment exercise initially met with encouraging results. They visited Min-chiang, Kutian, Kucheng, Ngu-ka and Hing-hua. Local pastors like Reverend Ling Guang Mi in Kutian and Reverend Huang Pao Seng in Fuching helped tremendously by opening up their pulpit for recruiting opportunities. The Boxer Uprising around 1900 with its fierce persecution of Christians in China was also a strong push factor for these Foochow Christians to seek escape to overseas destinations.
By July 5, 1903, they had enlisted nearly 700 potential settlers for Perak. They were near their target of getting 1,000 padi planters when a “poison pen letter” surfaced from an anonymous writer from Singapore. This widely circulated letter discouraged potential settlers by describing Sitiawan as a land teeming with man-eating tigers and gigantic ants as large as a thumb. This act of sabotage induced some 100 people to withdraw.
More discouragement would come their way. The date of departure from Foochow by the ship Glanfalloch was pushed back from July 27 to August 18, 1903. Undeterred, the duo ventured further into Hinghua, Tai-tian, Te-hua and Yong-chun. Their meticulous planning was again thrown into disarray when news came that the new date of departure from the port of Ma-mui would now be brought forward to August 4. As a result, hundreds of registered settlers were unable to get to the port on time and only 484 Foochows managed to board the ship when it set sail.
On board the ship in the South China Sea, four people died from cholera after eating contaminated food secured at Amoy, an infected port. Another perished from heart failure due to extreme physical exhaustion. After 19 days, the ship finally arrived in Singapore on August 22, 1903. In compliance with the health regulations, the settlers were required to be quarantined for 17 days on St. John’s Island, 3km south of Singapore. Thirty people were found to have contracted cholera while on board the ship, and 12 died on St. John’s amidst the deplorable living conditions on the island.
Arrival in Sitiawan
Of the 467 settlers that made it, 104 would later abscond in Singapore. Only 363 actually set foot in Sitiawan – 236 men, 72 women and 55 children. They came in two batches, with the first one landing on September 9, 1903. Further disappointment was in store as they found the “promised land” in reality consisted of virgin swamp forest without any proper infrastructure and decent accommodation. Only seven longhouses with planks and attap roofs were built to house all the 363 new settlers. Each house could accommodate up to 40 or 50 people and their families. The houses were built on stilts and during the rainy season, the inhabitants could fish from their doorsteps! Even the promised 10 acres of land per family for cultivation was inexplicably reduced to three acres. Nevertheless, these tenacious Foochows proceeded to carve out a Christian settlement amidst the hostile environment.
Pioneer Methodist Church
Reverend Ling proceeded immediately to build a rudimentary thatched roof shed as his church, the centre and headquarters. His family later joined him from Singapore and he started to lay a firm foundation for a Methodist church, the third one that he would set up for Foochows. The lives of the pioneer settlers would centre on two things: toiling the unforgiving land with a complete reliance on a forgiving God. On Sundays, their life revolved around church activities. The core Christain values helped them to persevere under the most adverse of circumstances. Among the new settlers, Reverend Ling inculcated very strictly the virtues of working hard and diligently attending Sunday church services, as well as moral prescriptions against smoking, alcohol, gambling, and womanising. He was their de-facto spiritual and community leader.
However, he encountered much opposition and criticism from the disgruntled pioneers. They were angry and disappointed with the many broken promises and unexpected harsh living conditions. But through perseverance, there were breakthroughs. Indeed, on October 17, 1903, Reverend Luering reported to the Methodist mission conference that the settlement was “exceedingly pleasant, transforming the previous wilderness into pleasantness”.
However, the poor judgement of the original planners in planting padi on 2,500 acres of mission concession land failed miserably. No feasibility study had been done beforehand. The water-logged and swampy soil in Sitiawan with its poor irrigation was found to be unsuitable, and the padi seedlings failed to thrive. Some vegetables like cabbage from China did not grow well in the tropical climate. The infrastructure and monetary promises were also not met. Nonetheless, the resourceful and hardy settlers resorted to growing coconut trees instead. Livestock breeding would provide cash income. Every family was involved in some form of animal husbandry, rearing pigs, sheep, ducks, geese, chickens and bullocks. Cash crops like sweet potato and tapioca were easily cultivated for personal consumption. These provided hope and sustained the settlers in the initial stages of resettlement. In subsequent years, rubber planting would become an unexpected boon for the settlers.
Return to China
By December 1903, Reverend Ling had been in Sitiawan for five months. The intense work and frequent travelling took a severe toll on him and his family. The absence of any intervening furlough made matters worse. Reverend Luering who was based 50 miles away in Ipoh was of little help as he too was busy with his own ministry. Ling requested for a transfer back home to China. The reason cited was “the failing health of his wife who has now remained in the tropics for over seven years without a change”. His nephew, the influential and capable Ling Ti Kong, with the assistance of Ding Chin Seng would later take over the spiritual leadership of the church. Reverend Ling returned home to Foochow and was appointed as a pastor in Linsen. Later, he taught in the Anglo-Chinese Theological College before retiring in 1913.
On retirement, Reverend Ling returned to Sitiawan with his family to enjoy a peaceful and quiet life, living nearer to the coastal town of Lumut. He died on January 5, 1915, at the age of 62. He was laid to rest in the vicinity of the Pioneer Church Cemetery at Kampong Koh, at an obscure site some 30 metres from Kampong Cina Road. His tombstone there is inscribed with his birth name, Ling Lik Jen. On January 29, 1928, his wife unveiled a marble tablet inscribed with the names of her husband, Reverend Dr H.L. Luering and Reverend Dr Huong Pau Seng in a dedication ceremony at Pioneer Methodist church.
- ^ Ling was given the name of Ling Lik Jen at birth and was later given the courtesy name of Ling Ching Mi. A courtesy name was usually bestowed on a man at adulthood and would replace his birth name.
- ^ Shih Toong Siong, The Foochows of Sitiawan – A Historical Perspective (Perak: Persatuan Kutien Daerah Manjung, 2004), 39.
Lau, Earnest. From Mission To Church, The Evolution of The Methodist Church in Singapore and Malaysia:1885-1976. Singapore: Genesis Books, 2008. 36-37.
Shih Toong Siong, The Foochows of Sitiawan – A Historical Perspective. Perak: Persatuan Kutien Daerah Manjung, 2004.
Oral interview with Shih Toong Siong. January 1, 2021.
Oral interview with Samuel Yu, grandson of Ling Siew Pi. January 12, 2021.