“Perseverance is the key to success”. This is the motto that drives the poor dulang washer on the performance of her work. It is obvious to the meanest intellect that a dulang washer does not live a life of ease and luxury. She earns barely enough to feed herself and her family and her life is a hard one. Yet, she persists in her work because she hopes that one day she might succeed.
A dulang washer has neither tin-mines nor labourers to work for her. She obtains tin-ore from the rivers where anyone can help themselves to the alluvial tin-ore, though of course she has to obtain a licence first before she can begin to extract any alluvial tin from any river.
Very early in the morning, she busies herself around her shabby hut. She prepares a scanty meal for her still sleeping children and, having eaten a hurried breakfast of hot Chinese tea and some home-made cakes, she walks to work. Her husband has also gone to work for he works as a rubber tapper and has to be up early too. On her shoulders she carries a pole with a basket containing a big bowl of rice, a large bottle of weak Chinese tea and some vegetables on one side. Hanging on the other end, is a big, smooth-surfaced wooden dish called a “dulang”, a wide-brimmed hat made of rattan and an old wooden bucket, which is bound up tightly with rattan to prevent leakage. Around her neck she wears a faded red scarf. On her feet, she wears a pair of dirty old sandals which have been mended over and over again.
When she has walked a little distance away from her home, the sun rises and beats down upon her. Because she is afraid that the hot rays will tan her or give her sun-stroke, she hurriedly ties the scarf over her head and then places the wide-brimmed hat carefully over it. By the time she reaches the river, the sun is already shining very brightly and would have given her sun-stroke had it not been for the protection of the scarf and the hat. Thanks to the long sleeves she wears, her arms are not exposed to the sun.
She finds a cool place on the bank of the river and sits down to rest before starting work. A drink of the weak Chinese tea refreshes her. She would have made it stronger if she could have afforded to buy more Chinese tea leaves.
Taking the bucket and dulang, she walks to the edge of the river. There, she rolls up her trousers high above her knees and wades to the middle of it. She bends down and scoops up some tin-bearing soil from the river bed into the dulang. She holds the dulang a little below the level of the water and rotates it. The swirling water carries away the light soft soil and the heavy grains of tin-ore settle at the bottom of the dulang. She then empties the grains of tin-ore into the bucket. It takes much washing to obtain a handful of tin-ore and the poor woman’s work is tiring and tedious.
By noon, her bucket is only a quarter filled. She leaves her work and wades back to the bank for some lunch. On dry land, she inspects her legs and sees several leeches hanging on to them and sucking her blood. She is so immune to this sight that she calmly plucks them off and throws them away. She washes and dries her legs and then applies some Chinese ointment to the bites. She sits in a shady place and begins her hurried lunch. After working so long in the water, she enjoys the meal though the rice and vegetables are cold. She leaves some for the evening because she will not get home until about seven o’clock in the evening.
There is no rest after lunch for she returns to work immediately. Regardless of the passing time she works on. Even the beautiful reflection of the setting sun and the purple clouds in the water does not distract her. Only when darkness falls, does she return to the bank, eat the remaining food and pack to leave. She rolls down her trousers again and starts to walk wearily home.
She trudges to the town and sells her tin-ore to a tin-smelter. He weighs her tin-ore and calculates the amount of money that must be paid to her. Meanwhile, she helps herself to a warm cup of tea from the man’s tea-pot and rests her weary bones on a wicker chair. The man gives her the money and reluctantly she leaves the comfortable chair to start on the journey home.
When she returns to her simple and shabby abode, she again does not have the liberty to rest for she now has to prepare dinner for the family, with the help of her eldest daughter. The younger children wait impatiently for their dinner and while the tired dulang washer is preparing the long-awaited dinner, her youngest child watches, a seraphic look of innocence on his pale and wan face.
After dinner, she sends her children to sleep and then has the usual talk about their future with her husband. They both add some of the money they earn to their hidden ‘store’ which they sometimes count happily.
So, after a hard day’s work, she lies down on her wooden bed and stays awake for some time, thinking how wonderful it would be to be rich. But, exhaustion soon puts her to sleep.
This is a typical day for a poor dulang washer. Though her work is difficult and tiring, she never thinks about giving up her only means of income to take up some work that is beyond her knowledge.
Miss Yvonne Chew,
Lower Six Arts 1952
St. Michael’s Institution
The story above is extracted from The Michaelian 1952, an annual magazine by St. Michael’s Institution Ipoh.