May 5, 2011

Chinese Hero in Sabah Folklore?: Part 2 So Who is Wong Song Ping

So who is Wong Song Ping? While the story of his escapade on Mount Kinabalu is no doubt a myth, he was apparently a very real person. Wong Song Ping is also known as Huang Senping(Mandarin) and Ong Sum Ping(Hokkien). It is suggested that he was a native of Fujian, China.

There is a street in Brunei named Jalan Ong Sum Ping, the only street with a chinese name in Brunei! He must had been a significant figure in Brunei to deserve the honour.

And in South China Sea, there is a reef named Senping Reef, named so in 1947 by the chinese government in his honour.

Some say that he was a prince from the Ming Court, some say he was a minister and some say he was just an ordinary chinese that had fled from strife torn China during the late Yuan Dynasty.

Oral Tradition

The Orang Sungai of Kinabatangan has an oral tradition on how the Kinabatangan River got its name. They say an adventurer, whom was a "Prince" from the Emperor of China's Royal Court, started his journey from mainland China, through the Sulu Sea, he made his way to the river mouth of the Kinabatangan River.

Orang Sungai that live along the Kinabatangan River
This prince opened a few settlements namely Mumiang, Sukau and Bilit along the 560 kilometre long river. The river used to be called "Cina Batangan" which means Chinese River.

The chinese must had been delighted to discover the rare treasures of Borneo's forests. They traded edible bird's nest, rhinoceros horns, elephant ivory and hornbill casques for the Emperor and wealthy mandarins of China. The Chinese would had used the river to ferry the goods from the interior out to its outlet at the Sulu Sea.

Sulu Sea
From the outlet, these goods would had been loaded onto Junks that would sail through the Sulu Sea and made their way to China.

Seeing all these Chinese cruising the river, it's no surprise that the Orang Sungai would start referring the river as a Chinese River.

The Chinese also sought hardwood resin, damar, flexible rattan vines, beeswax, fragrant wood and oil rich illipe nuts. The river must had been busy.

A 14th Century Yuan Junk
Another oral tradition is that when Ong Sum Ping and his men reached the area, they were very exhausted after facing a shipping crisis. So exhausted they were that someone lost their arms. Hence, the area was known as Kina Batangan from then on meaning - The place that the Chinese lost their arms.

In Dusun or Kadazandusun dialect, the Chinese are called "Kina", quite similar to the Malay word "Cina".

So now, at least we know there were early chinese influence in the Kinabatangan region and that they founded a few townships namely Mumiang, Sukau and Bilit which are still around but how do we know Ong Sum Ping had anything to do with it?

According to Wen Xiongfei in the book Overseas Chinese History(南洋华侨史), Ong Sum Ping came to Brunei in 1375 during the early years of Ming Dynasty. But this doesn't mean this was the year that Ong Sum Ping first landed in Borneo. Remember the account that Ong Sum Ping fled China during the late Yuan Dynasty? Let's deduce this. The Yuan Dynasty lasted from 1271 to 1368 and Ming Dynasty succeeded Yuan Dynasty from 1368 to 1644.   

Wen Xiongfei provided a clue when he said that Ong Sum Ping came to Brunei in 1375, it was during the early years of Ming Dynasty. That's 7 years after the collapse of the Yuan Dynasty.

He married Princess Ratna Dewi, daughter of Sultan Muhammad Shah(1363 - 1402) and was conferred the title Pengiran Maharaja Lela and elected Chief of Kinabatangan. Why would the Sultan conferred such an honour to someone he just met? Well, you would if that someone is of considerable influence! 

Ong Sum Ping and his followers which include his sister arrived in Kinabatangan much earlier than 1375. They developed the area and became influential among the local inhabitants. Trading the natural resources of Kinabatangan area with China must had made Ong Sum Ping wealthy. With the increase of his prosperity, the local Malays started calling him "Raja". His followers called him "Chung Ping" which meant General. Ong Sum Ping apparently raised an army. Make sense, since you would want to deter anyone from trying to take over your profitable territory.  

Meanwhile, the fledgling Kingdom of Brunei was under threat of invasion from the Sultan of Sulu. The kingdom was located on the northern part of the Kinabatangan area. The Sultan must had observed Ong Sum Ping rise to prominence and power. If the timeline serves me right, this was after twelve years that Sultan Muhammad Shah ascended to the throne on 1363 and as historical fact says, he was the first sultan of Brunei. 

The Sultan must had seen the wisdom of co-operating with this regional power south of his kingdom and to seal their ties, he married off his daughter to Ong Sum Ping and conferred him the title Pengiran Maharaja Lela and recognized him as the legitimate Chief of Kinabatangan. The Sultan also had his brother, Pengiran Bendahara Ahmad to marry Ong Sum Ping's sister and gave her the title Puteri Kinabatangan. 

With this political marriage, these two powers worked together and successfully repelled the Sulu invasion. Brunei would go on to become a major power. Between the late 15th and early 16th century which is called Brunei's Golden age during the reign of Sultan Bolkiah (1473 - 1521), it was said that the sultanate's control probably over the coastal regions of Sabah and Sarawak, the Sulu archipelago and the islands off the northwest tip of Borneo. Sultan Bolkiah was known as Adipati Sulok in Hikayat Hang Tuah.

The Chinese expanded their influence from East of the Kinabatangan River to Northern Borneo. They built Chinese towns and villages, among which was present day Kota Kinabalu. 

During Sultan Abdul Majid Hasan's short reign from 1402 to 1408, Ong Sum Ping became one of Brunei's regent. Sultan Abdul Majid Hasan died in Nanjing China while on a visit in 1308. Ong Sum Ping's brother in-law Pengiran Bendahara Ahmad ascended to the throne in 1402 and ruled as Sultan Ahmad. Meanwhile, do you remember that Sultan Ahmad married Ong Sum Ping's sister? Their daughter was Puteri Ratna Kesuma. 

Sultan Ahmad died in 1425 while his son was the Brunei Maharaja in Sulu. Hence, there was a succession crisis. The Bruneians implored Sharif Ali, a direct descendant of The Prophet Muhammad to become their Sultan. He married Puteri Ratna Kesuma thus enabling him to ascend as the fourth Sultan of Brunei in 1425.

Ong Sum Ping returned to Fujian China in his later years and Emperor Yong Le instructed his officials to organize a welcome party for him. Ong Sum Ping never returned to Brunei or Kinabatangan because of his advanced age but upon his demise, his son Awang, was made the new ruler of Kinabatangan by Emperor Yong Le. Hence, continuing his legacy. 

So in Borneo's context, while some Chinese are later migrants, some amongst us are the descendants of these early Chinese explorers that made Kinabatangan their home about 636 years ago. It kind of explain why some Kadazandusun look very much like Chinese, it could be because of inter-marriages and it also explain somewhat why race relation in Sabah and Sarawak are healthy. We had at least 600 years of getting used to each other. 

In fact, they say Kublai Khan sent an expedition to Borneo in 1292 AD. Perhaps Chinese has been around in Borneo longer than 600 years!

In contrast, the first wave of chinese migrants in Malaya was in the 15th century. These were Hang Li Po and her entourage which comprised of one senior minister of state and 500 youths and handmaidens. Ong Sum Ping and his group had been in Borneo as early as 14th century. It was only in 19th and early 20th century that bigger wave of migrants from china made their way to Malaya again. 
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