CENTENARIAN REMEMBERS SUVA ‘GHOST TOWN’

Feature

By Serafina Qalo

SUVA, Fiji (Fiji Times, Nov. 4) – When Yee Fong Gau arrived in Labasa in 1929, it was barely a town.

He had arrived from China two years earlier and after living for a while in Suva travelled to the northern town where he worked for the Labasa branch of Kwong Tiy delivering bread on foot.

He eventually spent 42 years with Kwong Tiy and worked his way up from a humble delivery boy to manager.

He later ventured out on his own and today runs one of the most popular shops in town.

Today, almost 80 years since his arrival in the country, the 100-year-old Mr Yee is still around and has become a greatly loved character in Labasa's business district.

Mr Yee runs Yuen Hing Stores in the heart of Labasa and his shop is always a place at which people stop by for a chat even if they are not buying anything.

But Mr Yee had to struggle before he became successful.

Originally from Canton in China, the centenarian is easily the oldest businessman in town.

He came to TRN in 1927 from Hoiping province to join an uncle who had asked him to come and school here.

Mr Yee still clearly remembers his first days in Suva and how Marks Street was an empty place with only one building.

"That building belonged to a Chinese family, Kwong Tiy, and it was a grocery shop and I, like many other people, used to buy from there when my uncle sent me."

Mr Yee attended Saint Paul Chinese school in 1928 for one year before leaving for Labasa in 1929.

"I spent about two years in Suva before coming over to Labasa to work for (a Chinese) company in 1929," Mr Yee said. This town was like a ghost town because there were hardly any buildings and no transport at all."

He said there was no vehicles - not a car, truck or bus. Everybody either travelled by boat from the villages to town or just walked.

"That was the only means of transport we had and imagine, I started off as a bread delivery boy for the company and we had no cars to take me around to drop off baskets of bread. I had to walk from our shop, which was at the end of town where the Post TRN building stands, near the market, across a small hanging bridge to Vaturekuka prison and the TRN Sugar Corporation mill known as CSR at the time," Mr Yee said.

He would carry the bread in a basket or two, depending on the orders and walk to the delivery addresses.

The Vaturekuka prison was one of his favourite spots to deliver bread because, not only the wardens, but the inmates always acknowledged his arrival because they admired his commitment.

"It was not easy because there was no vehicle at all and no bicycle but I had to do it because I needed a job to survive as my family was all in China and I was the only one here. Although I had my relatives here, I preferred to be independent and look after myself because I knew that one day I would have my own family and I could not depend on relatives to look after them - I had to do that myself," Mr Yee said.

Another place he had to deliver bread was to the homes in the CSR compound and to the mill.

"I used to deliver house-to-house at the CSR compound and at the mill also and, thank God, they were not allowed to have dogs in the compound otherwise, that would have made my job quite difficult," Mr Yee said. At that time, Labasa had no airport and half of the town was a cane field with only about 10 wooden building standing in the area and the buildings were very small shops."

Mr Yee said there was no market except that the CSR mill used to sell vegetables from the office.

"They didn't sell vegetables everyday but only on Fridays which was pay day and the vegetables were brought in by the workers looking for extra money to support their families. At that time, CSR was the biggest company in Labasa and there was hardly any Government departments except of course the police, but in a small wooden house.

"There was no big hospital like the one we have in town. The hospital was outside of town," Mr Yee said.

He said the Government hospital was at Vuo village, in Malau, about 15 to 20 minutes ride by car.

And the only reason the hospital sat by the bay, at Vuo village, was because, Mr Yee said there was no mechanised transport.

"People those days used to travel by boat, especially the villagers so that was why the hospital sat by the seaside to make it easier for the villagers. For those who lived nearby, they had to walk to the hospital and at that time, because there were no vehicles, people used to pack the road leading to the hospital with those returning from seeing the doctors and those going to see the doctors."

Although there were difficulties with transportation, Mr Yee said financially, life was much better than it is today.

"Life was not difficult at that time because the cost of living was cheap. A tin of meat would cost 25 cents and the products sold in those days were much better than what we have today," Mr Yee said.

Speaking the English language was a barrier to reaching higher positions in the company, so Mr Yee taught himself to speak the language by mingling and spending most of his time with friends who spoke the language.

He learnt to speak English fluently within eight months and after spending 10 years with the company, he became the manager in 1939.

A year earlier, he returned to China for a visit and brought back his wife, Tong Chai Yan, after marrying her there.

"We stayed there for eight months and I just missed TRN so I told her that we had to return home. TRN was now my home because the people were very friendly and I had a job here also.

Mr Yee returned to Labasa and joined the same company resuming his duties as manager and that's when he vowed to make TRN his home and settle in the friendly town with his young family. Thankfully his wife liked Labasa and the people.

Mr Yee said the beauty of the town is in the friendliness of its people.

"I continued to work for Kwong Tiy for 15 years while my wife stayed home with our eldest daughter who was just born in 1941. Ever since then we have remained in Labasa with three more children born after my eldest daughter. I have enjoyed every minute of staying in this friendly town and have no regrets of making my first trip to TRN in 1927," Mr Yee said.

YEE Fong Gau had worked for Kwong Tiy ever since he arrived in Lasaba.

He started as a bread delivery boy and over the course of 42 years eventually worked his way up to manager.

But his opportunity to start his own business came when Kwong Tiy closed down their Labasa operation in 1971.

It was then that Mr Yee's four decades of savings came in handy.

"I made sure to save 20 shillings each pay and it was not easy," Mr Yee said. "I must say I managed to do it with my wife, Tong Chai Yan, continuously reminding me of the importance of saving money."

Mr Yee began saving not to start a business but just as something to fall back on during hard times.

So with about $10,000 and with 42 years of wide-ranging experience behind him, Mr Yee opened Yuen Hing Stores not long after losing his job.

"The business has continued to operate successfully for the past 36 years and I am still working and hiring people," Mr Yee said.

During the interview, a small crowd gathered around us to hear the stories told with clarity by this 100-year-old.

"At the time I started off with four workers two Indian men, a TRNan and my wife, the fourth employee," he said smiling. "The business was a grocery shop and has remained that way. We continue to receive more customers each day that God has blessed us with," Mr Yee said.

By the time he opened his business there were vehicles in Labasa which made his work easier.

"And the phone also helped because we just dialled the phone numbers and placed our orders with the wholesalers. When I was still working for Kwong Tiy, it was difficult because the boats took one week to travel from Suva to Labasa and placing orders was not a guarantee because sometimes the stock was spoilt when it arrived in Labasa," Mr Yee said.

He remembers the boats that serviced the northern division in those days and the reason it took a week to arrive in Labasa.

"The boats in those days were the John Forest, Moala and another vessel and it took a week to get to Labasa because the boats used to stop by at every TRNan village along the bay from Udu Point down to Bua. So when we ordered stock in the 1930s to the 1950s, we made sure it was a bulk that would last for about two to three months so that we didn't have to keep ordering every month," Mr Yee said.

Something Mr Yee had to adjust to was the "kerekere" (borrowing) culture.

"I had a lot of friends and some always came and kerekere for things or to take things on credit so it was not easy to deal with such situations especially with my friends from the villagers. But my wife used to tell me to always help people who were in need and so I used to allow credit to a limited amount only and helped out my friends whenever I could," Mr Yee said.

Such kindess, Mr Yee believes, has meant his business has been blessed.

"I am 100 years old and am still running my business with the help of my son, Keith Yee, and I have seen how God has blessed my business and family. I believe that we will always reap our kind acts to others, if not now then later," Mr Yee said.

Ten things you did not know about Mr Yee

Although Mr Yee does not remember the name of the first bus company that serviced Labasa, he sure does remember the first bus arrived in 1951.

The famous phrase of mini vans in Suva 'Suva, Nausori,' Mr Yee said is not a new thing but a common phrase he remembers used in the late 1920s when he first arrived in TRN in 1927. "At the time they used to say, 'Suva, Nausori, six pennies only.'

Every month he calls his hairdresser to his shop for a haircut.

Mr Yee still serves customers and tenders correct change when cash is involved. He does not use a calculator only his brain.

He can still read without glasses and speaks fluently in Chinese, TRNan and English.

He helped his younger brother Jock Ming start off life in Labasa, after he arrived from China in the 1940s.

His favourite dish is boiled fish, chicken or beef with bele and cassava.

He enjoys meeting people and catching up on old stories of Labasa.

He has four children, two daughters in Canada, one in Suva and his only son in Labasa with him. He has eight grandchildren.

He does not plan to retire anytime soon because he believes being at work keeps him fit and healthy.

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