How did your ancestors make their migration journey? How does one travel to a new beginning? This story follows a typical Chinese emigrant on his way to Semarang, Indonesia, some 100 years ago.
It is 1912, the first year of the Republic of China. Bing Han has just turned 16 and is about to leave his village in Zhangzhou, Fujian province. He has never left home, but now needs to make a journey of 4000km. He is scared.
Equipped with straw sandals, an umbrella, and a bag of food, Bing Han sets off for Semarang in Indonesia, where his brother Bing Yao has already been living for four years. Their oldest brother, Bing Swie, has to stay at home to till the fields and take care of their parents.
With feet of lead, Bing Han walks to the city of Zhangzhou, which takes a day. From there, he goes on a flat-bottomed wooden boat to daunting Amoy (Xiamen), the bustling emigration hub of Fujian. In Amoy, Bing Han stays at the ‘Zhangzhou Inn’, whose guests all come from Zhangzhou and who all seem to be going to Semarang.
They will need to go to a place called Singapore first. There, Bing Han will meet Tik Tjoe, who is organizing the whole trip and will bring him to Bing Yao. Tik Tjoe has partnered with the Zhangzhou Inn for years and he has arranged that its owner gives Bing Han his boat ticket.
After several lonely days of waiting at the Inn, the boat for Singapore is ready to leave. Bing Han follows the other guests to the harbor and nervously approaches the intimidating, metal steamboat.
Every wave rams Bing Han’s homesickness deeper into his belly. The boat moves in every direction, except the one back home.
Arriving on the busy docks of Singapore, Bing Han is relieved to find Tik Tjoe. Surrounded by strange-looking people talking strange-sounding languages, he follows Tik Tjoe to an inn which, just like the one in Amoy, is also called the Zhangzhou Inn. Tik Tjoe knows everyone there, and everyone appears to speak Bing Han’s Zhangzhou dialect.
Tik Tjoe comes from the village next to Bing Han’s and their families have been close for generations. Tik Tjoe works for the Tian Yi Private Postal Exchange, which functions as a ‘one-stop-shop’ emigration agency with branches all across southeast Asia. Tik Tjoe explains to Bing Han that in addition to the travel arrangements, he will also be organizing the transfers of money and letters that Bing Han is expected to send back home.
Home. Bing Han asks why they have to go so far from home. Tik Tjoe responds that he knows people with sugar plantations in Semarang who are in need of labor, and will pay decent money to the workers as well as the Postal Exchange for recruiting them. Because their families have been friends for so long, Tik Tjoe has agreed to lend Bing Han’s family the considerable money required for the journey’s advance payment.
Tik Tjoe keeps talking, but Bing Han only hears one word that keeps ringing in his mind: ‘home’.
After two very long weeks, Bing Han arrives at the port of Semarang. Seeing Bing Yao makes him smile for the first time in ages.
Just like his brother, Bing Han is going to work at the sugar plantation of the Liu family. The Lius are originally also from Zhangzhou and have been in Semarang for several decades already. Having made a lot of money with their sugar production, they will now provide Bing Han with free board and lodging in exchange for a two year unpaid apprenticeship.