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More Sandakan Sights


Having spotted an ambiguous sign the night previous outside a fenced off park area during my usual grub and beer quest, I elected that morning to retrace the spot, what now transpired to be a Memorial Garden to Malaysia's 2nd Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Razak. More than just a parkland however, my curiosity was rewarded in unexpectedly discovering 2 small adjacent buildings of contrasting design guarded by bored looking soldiers presenting a synopsis of his legacy. Previously Malaysia's first Education Minister upon independence, he was responsible for creating a new economic develoment policy, took part in the independence negotiations and oversaw the end of the Communist Emergency in 1960 before becoming PM in 1970. It was shortly before this that his calls for national unity were deemed "an important milestone in securing Malaysian brotherhood", prompted by what I learned to have been the 13th May 1969 "Tragedy", race riots which had killed 300. The history of modern Malaysia's evolution and his career depicted in photos also gleaned that a 1956 proposal had endeavoured to merge the Malaysian and Indonesian languages, with a new standardised spelling system invoked in 1972. In fact that very matter of comparison was explained in the Bahasa Indonesia tutorial I had finally managed to pick up in KK, with Djakarta reverting to its current form Jakarta for example. He died whilst on a visit to London in 1976.

I was left puzzled as to why that particular presentation should be situated here of all places, Abdul Razak hailed from peninsular Malaysia it had explained and had apparently made no specific mark on Sandakan, it was a bonus to have discovered it at all though. From there the tracing of another hidden corner of the city centre revealed a concentration of Christian influence, first in a grand colonial style school building which had been the first to be founded in all of Sabah in 1887 shortly after the BNBCC moved in. A brace of churches included an excellent cathedral like example, unusual in its obviously European influenced stone construction in this part of the world and just about the city's only structure to have survived WWII.........


The story of the establishment of North Borneo as a seperate entity crazily begins with the Sultan of Brunei being duped by an ordinary American sailor who had professed to be of political influence. After ceding the land to him upon the promise of its development and proper subjugation, it was promptly offered by the American to the highest bidder who proved to be an Austrian aristocrat no less. Baron von Overbeck together with Briton Alfred Dent had high hopes for creating a new money spinning colony and so set about it with the foundation of the British North Borneo Chartered Company in 1877. Fleetingly named Elopura (beautiful city), a name which would have reached new heights of irony had it prevailed, Sandakan was founded by company director William Pryer in 1879, soon to replace northerly Kudat in 1884 as the colony's capital. Electricity, a telegraph and a press were early developments, even preceding Hong Kong and Shanghai in installing an automatic telephone exchange and becoming known as the "Little Hong Kong of Borneo". The BNBCC issued its own currency from 1881 to 1941, examples of which were on display denominated in dollars and cents, and many examples of postage stamps dating from 1939 were excellent depictions of various cultural images, titled "The State of North Borneo, British Protectorate". Subsequent examples of currency within a display dedicated to the Japanese occupation were interestingly stamped "War Tax". After almost total destruction upon Allied bombing in the run up to its recapture, Sandakan was rebuilt functional but unlovely.

My first insight into indiginous culture in these parts was realised with photos of still loin cloth clad Murut people in the 1930s, and artifacts included a rattan sitting mat known as a Tavil which is part of standard male atire. There was also a long blowpipe which surprised me in its length at a full 8 feet long, and a quiver formed from a short cylinder of bamboo. Musical instruments were a Sompoton, a sort of hybrid of a flute and panpipes with a wooden chamber akin to a coconut, many gongs, also a xylophone known as a Gabang. In truth the museum was a sorry, shabby presentation short on artifacts however and rather disjointed in its story. Mainly a procession of photos and not even set out chronologically, the Japanese occupation and subsequent Death Marches from here barely got a mention.

From here it was back up the "100 Stairs", finding myself back at the English Tearoom but opting for museum no.2 instead, the nearby Agnes Keith House. Rebuilt from scratch after the war to serve as a residency for the State Conservator of Forests, a title her husband had held, Agnes Keith became a celebrated authoress, penning 2 of her 3 most renowned locally inspired works here. Her first, the acclaimed "Land Beneath the Wind", a title which has subsequently been adopted as something of a state motto, tells of life in Borneo when she wrote it in 1939. The house itself, a very large timber construction of some charm is beautifully but unremarkably set out as it would have been for a well to do colonial family of that era, its real charm qualified by a succession of photos of visiting colonial bigwigs and one of "St. Andrew's Nicht 1938" for example, with everyone decked out in highland dress. A picture of fishing boats of the time revealed them to resemble Chinese junks with their concertinaed fan-like sails. Another of the town taken in 1940 showed it to have been a much more aesthetically pleasing collection of large timber houses than its present incarnation, soon to be lost to Allied bombing, and various public buildings had once demonstated a character now sadly lacking. A fantastic colonial relic remained in an old fridge which an adjacent magazine extract from the "Country Gentleman" explained to have been gifted to the Keiths from renowned American explorers the Johnsons. It was actually an advertising feature latching onto the fact that they had travelled with it up the Kinabatangan River into the unknown on a Chinese junk, "this modern device the Kerosene Electrolux which needs no electric current, no water, no daily attention". It fantastically included photos of traditionally dressed Murut warriors variously cooling their arses at the open door or appreciating ice cubes for the first time in their lives.

Interred on Berhala Island by the Japanese and then later moved to Kuching, particular artifacts of note were a couple of postcards she had managed to send from captivity, bearing stamps from a US censor and army base. One said "I live in hopes of repatriation" and it was during this time that she clandestinely wrote her second work "Three Came Home", sewing the paper into dolls she had made for her son (on display). An excellent quote from it relates "While we have more than we need on this continent, and others die for the want of it, there can be no lasting peace. When we work as hard in peacetime to make this world decent to live in, as in wartime we work to kill, the world will be decent, and the causes for which men fight will be gone". Her third work "To Eat the Wind" simply means to walk for pleasure, and now it was related that much further than the 3 titles I had known her to have penned, no.4 "Bare Feet in the Palace" documents 18 months of living in the nearby Philippines. She said of it "This country had given me more than I could ever give back, and taught me more than I could ever teach". I knew the feeling, that was Asia all over. A fifth book "Children of Allah" is based in Libya where she then spent 9 years, and though having left Sabah after 18 years in 1952 never to return, her sixth work "Beloved Exiles" is a novel based around Sandakan. Given the content I was surprised that it didnt receive more mention locally. Her last work "Before the Blossom Falls" is subtitled "Life and Death in Japan". The antique clock chimed to remind me of days gone by.

A long hot bug bitten stroll led me from there past the post-war reincarnation of what had been the British Resident's "Palace", now clearly inhabited by the city mayor or similar, past some fine views of Sandakan Bay too before I came across the very expansive Chinese cemetery. It was actually the war era Japanese cemetery just beyond it which had been the real draw, and it eventually materialised notably absent of crosses, just a dozen or so untranslated white pillars in testimony to fallen soldiers and prostitutes. I chanced upon a snake crossing my path on the way back down to the town, a laterally striped yellow, green and brown beastie perhaps a metre long but sadly too slippery to snap. A more conventional discovery had been a memorial to "the Sandakan community leaders and overseas Chinese who sacrificed their lives during the May 27th 1945 massacre". This had to have been the Japanese withdrawal and something of a scorched earth policy.

Despite my successes that day I returned grumpy again in frustration at the heat, the bugs, the impassable pavements and the perversity of Ramadan restaurants open yet closed. A queue jumper at a supermarket got the rag from me to top it all off, she found my response very amusing for some reason, such a different interpretation of manners here. That night for the want of a better diversion I indulged in a seafront ritual of Roti Canai Telur (flat bread with egg mixed in, accompanied by dhal and curry sauce), since they were showing some irksome dodgy movie on a big screen, desperation or what. I saw the next day that "Beowulf" had yet to be released at the local cinema complex! From there another roost on the promenade revealed a rarity in 2 young Western chicks, there was a singular dearth of a travellers scene in this town despite the 2 new backpackers joints jointly hogging a prime seafront position, and from having been restless for isolation in the persistent company of Roberto I now found myself alone and in need of moral backing. It was surely a telling sign that most people simply blitzed through Sandakan en route for the attractions of the nearby Turtle Islands or a Kinabatangan River wildlife tour, but I had baulked at the variously extortionate and conveyor belt impression these considerations had had upon me. It still felt disconcerting to be approaching so close to so many natural wonders only to shirk them off though. It was hard for me to say if that was because I was simply tired of life on the road, certainly it would be a sin to admit to being underwhelmed by such attractions, but contrastingly I allowed myself to entertain another certain dose of snobbery in deeming myself not your average tourist. How many of them afforded Sandakan a day let alone 3, how many visited the museum let alone took notes, and yet for the want of time I was now contemplating a fourth day in a town you might consider didnt merit it. To be fair to myself though they had been 3 relentless days ticking off the full gamut of discoveries to be had, I was more thorough than anything else I mused.

The habitual beers that night, this time somewhat indulgently on the seafront for the want of civilised alternatives, became another distraction as I succumbed to the attentions of a young waitress clearly not accustomed to foreigners. It was an entertainment, education and disappointment all in one as "CT" first of all captured my attention in professing to be of the indiginous Suluk people. That was a name surely reminiscent of the Sulu Sea lapping right by us, and yet the collective museums of Sabah had ridiculously failed to elicit so much as a mention of this tribe. I could not even say whether the nomenclature was purely coincidental, but certainly that was unlikely given that she had emigrated with her family from the nearby Philippines, and the Sulu Sultanate though having made inroads into Borneo was historically based there. Though her English was little better than my Bahasa, the resulting simplicity became the springboard for a round of questioning which had me spark up like a Christmas tree at its loaded implications. Clearly in all innocence she enquired as to why I was still single, "at my age" was surely inferred, because that choice was one not deemed socially acceptable in her society. Much more entertaining however was the "Agama" question. It was one thing for me to however trickily try to convey the concept of atheism, but from a pretty girl devoid of the headscarf serving booze for a living, it was the intonation of incredulity which had me laughing at "Why wasn't I a Muslim?" Considering my recent denigratory writings and overall prevailing attitude of disdain, where was I supposed to start? I found the proposition so laughable I had to say it out loud, just as well she surley struggled to understand!

Posted by andyhay2 00:00 Archived in Malaysia

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