|Report: Visiting the Land Below the Wind - Members' Trip to Sandakan and Kota Kinabalu, Sabah
23 to 26 September 2005
As expected with any Badan Warisan event, there was a well packed agenda, so much to do and see and – so little time.
In Sandakan, members were warmly welcomed by the Sandakan Municipal Council, led by President Mr Yeo Boon Hai and colleagues, especially the tireless Ms Catherin Chua. Members also had the opportunity to meet Mr Lai King Hang and Mr Peter Kue who were involved in the production of the Sandakan Heritage Trail and kindly took time out to walk members on the trail.
One of the highlights of the visit to Kota Kinabalu was an opportunity to enhance ties with the Sabah Society. Members were invited to the Sabah Society’s premises at Damai Complex where our group was warmly welcomed by our hosts led by Datuk Chan Chew Lun and YM Tengku Datuk Zainal Adlin . An idea imported from them was the use of the “Magic Box” - to find out more, please attend our future events!
The Sabah Society’s Secretary Puan Zahrah Yaacob gave a short presentation on their organisation. We also heard about their recent commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the Sandakan-Ranau Death Marches and we were given an interesting preview of Sabah’s indigenous architecture by R.N. Sokial. Badan Warisan reciprocated with a presentation on Badan Warisan and the issues we faced in conservation. We also offered the Sabah Society reciprocal membership. Both organisations pledged a greater co-operation in research and conservation matters.
The following evening, YM Tengku Datuk Adlin, Chairman of the Sabah Tourism Board and Vice President of the Sabah Society gave a dinner talk to members on the diversity of Sabah’s tourism assets and presented members with a gift pack courtesy of the STB at the end of the evening. YM Tengku also kindly facilitated arrangements for our visit to the Tamu Besar Kota Belud the following day.
Many other people showed us very kind hospitality and even opened their premises specially for our visiting group. We would like to express our grateful thanks to everyone.
Members would also like to thank Dr Chandran Jeshurun, Puan Sri Datin Amar Elizabeth Moggie, and Puan Sri Datin Susan Jalaluddin for co-ordinating the trip and ensuring that all went according to plan (as humanely as possible), and keeping participants on track with the tight schedule.
Here now members share just a few highlights of their encounter with Sandakan, once dubbed “Little Hong Kong” , and Kota Kinabalu, formerly called Jesselton.
Visit to “Newlands”, the Agnes Newton Keith House
By Leslie A.K. James
Those who have read Land Below the Wind, the first of three books on Borneo by American writer Agnes Newton Keith, will be aware of how much the house she shared with her husband Harry was the centre of her experience in pre-war Sandakan. Situated on a wooded ridge overlooking the town and Sandakan Bay, the house with its menagerie of servants and animals, was both a haven and a point of entry for this perceptive and sensitive author. The best way to approach the house and appreciate its location is on foot up the rugged path from the town, the so-called Stairs with a Hundred Steps. The reward is well worth the effort, as Badan members who made the climb will attest.
The original house was occupied by Agnes and Harry from 1934 until 1942 when they were interned by the occupying Japanese and sent to prison camps first on Pulau Berhala near Sandakan and then to the notorious Batu Lintang camp at Kuching. When the Keiths returned to Sandakan after the war they found their house destroyed. It was rebuilt in 1946-47 on the original foundations to much the same design and was the first government permanent timber house to be built after the war. Agnes and Harry named it “Newlands” and they lived in it until they left Sabah in 1952. Although the house had many occupants after the Keiths’ departure it was always known as “Agnes Keith’s house”.
The restored Agnes Keith House is a true gem and the highlight of any visit to Sandakan. Restoration was begun by the Sabah Museum in collaboration with the Federal Department of Museums and Antiquities in
2001 and the house was opened to the public in 2004. It is a fitting tribute to the author who paid tribute to North Borneo and its people in her first book, the title of which has been adopted by Sabah -- Land Below the Wind.
On entering the house Badan members were greeted by the strains of 1930s music playing on a replica wireless set. Beautifully polished belian floors, high ceilings and reproduction period furniture recreated the ambience of a colonial government officer’s residence. Old photographs and simple décor completed the picture while upstairs exhibits told the life-story of this gifted American writer and her husband. A short but well-produced video presentation incorporating documentary film placed Agnes Newton Keith and her husband in their historical and social context.
Agnes Keith’s trilogy of life in Borneo before, during and after the Second World War has become a classic. Badan members were impressed with the way the Malaysian and Sabah governments through their respective museums have done justice to Agnes Keith the writer by restoring and conserving her house as a national and state heritage site, without doubt one of the best managed and maintained in the country. * Leslie James has contributed an article on Sandakan to the November 2005 issue of the Expatmagazine
By Andy Drinkwater
We were told there would be a train ride as part of our trip in and around KK, but only a few of us knew (those who had read the notes, perhaps?) there would also be – not one, but two working steam engines! Definitely an experience to savour, for the small boys (and girls) in our group – because there was no-one to tell us that we couldn’t climb in the cab, or to mind the oil and grease and dirt – all of which there were copious amounts….anyone who has read “Wind in the Willows” knows exactly what I mean, when I say that to be standing on the engine plates, hand on the throttle, and peering out of the cab window, the only thing that can possibly come to mind is – “Toot Toot”!
These two magnificent steam engines were both built by the Vulcan Foundry in Lancashire, Northern England, in 1955, and must have been fairly unique even then, as they were wood-burning types; I would think hardly a common design in England at least, as coal would be the norm. Now, certainly, they are very rare, especially as they are still fully functional, and even now do a good 2 days work each week hauling tourists between Tanjung Ara and Papar. Hauling is the only word to use when talking of steam engines!
Clearly for the people that care for them and drive them, it is nothing less than a labour of love, very much evident in their excellent “oily rag” condition as we aficionados of the classic vehicle brigade might say – by no means pristine and sterile museum exhibits that don’t have a drop of oil in them, but dirty underneath, well greased where it matters and absolutely ready for action – including getting your hands black if you ventured into a cab - as I did. In other words, pretty much as they had been throughout their working lives, although now in a more gentle retirement, and looking as if they would and could carry on for ever! Pity that we did not see them with steam up, because I can assure you that the sight and sounds and smells of a large steam engine ready for the off, would be quite splendid in this day and age of silent monorails & LRTs, and smooth KLIA ekspesses – with one of these Vulcan 2-6-2s champing at the bit, you would definitely know you were going on a journey!
Sadly, we were not able to take the steam-train ride, as ours was not one of the days of their twice weekly sojourn, but still it was a pleasure and a privilege to admire them at close quarters – for this small boy at least.
Sabah’s Rare and Historic Stone Monuments under Threat
By Dr Chandran Jeshurun
Some thirty-four years ago, Tom and Barbara Harrison devoted a number of pages of their book, The Prehistory of Sabah (Kota Kinabalu: The Sabah Society, 1971), to the unusual stone monuments standing in the rice fields of the area west of Kota Kinabalu towards Papar and northwards towards Tuaran. They painstakingly recorded the locations of these strange-looking stones of considerable bulk and varying heights that were an integral part of Kadazan folk culture and counted 12 of them on the Tuaran road and an incredible 90 on the Papar road. Known as menhirs, these megalithic-type stone formations might have had proto-historic origins but they were an integral part of Kadazan cultural and ritual practices right up to that late 20th century.
Sadly, the Harrisons’ fervent recommendation that steps ought to be taken to ensure their preservation, as they were already being disturbed by human and animal activities at that time, was never taken seriously. That is, not until a La Salle Brother in the person of Peter Phelan, who hailed from Ireland and has lived in Sabah for more than two decades, took it upon himself to put in writing the years that he had spent in studying these menhirs. His book entitled “Traditional Wood and Stone Monuments of Sabah” was published by the Pusat Kajian Borneo (1997) and it not only marks the location of each menhir but also discussed in detail their place in the customs and folklore of the lowland Kadazans in the rice fields of the Penampang and Tuaran districts close to Kota Kinabalu. The stones themselves come in different shapes and sizes although most of them are tapered towards the top with a broader base that is embedded in the ground usually on the bunds that separate individual plots of rice. A wooden version of the menhirs also exists but most of these have naturally been largely lost through the passage of time.
On the Badan Warisan Malaysia’s latest visit to Sabah we were taken by train from Tanjung Aru in Kota Kinabalu to the small town of Papar, the train ride itself being something of an “old worldly” experience. While waiting for our coach to arrive at the Papar railway station, Brother Phelan gave us an impromptu talk on the research that he had done both through observation and listening to oral history as to the cultural significance of the menhirs. It is quite fascinating that they served several purposes from signifying the passing of a land-owner who had no children to acting as oath stones and boundary markers. It was also pointed out to us that they were all believed to have resident spirits in them which could be called upon to settle disputes among the village folk. Later, he navigated our coach through some of the back roads of the Kadazan villages but, to our dismay, there were hardly any to be seen. Finally, on our way out of Papar town Brother Phelan pointed out two menhirs standing in the rice fields and we quickly got off the coach to see for ourselves these extraordinary stone monuments.
One worrying thought that all of us came away with after this rural tour was the danger to which these menhirs are exposed primarily due to the rapid urbanization of the countryside. There was visible evidence of more and more of the rice fields being left to lie fallow only to be almost immediately turned into new construction sites for commercial premises and residential development. One naturally wonders how many menhirs had become victims of this inexorable march of small towns and suburbs in recent years. Previously, some menhirs were regularly unearthed due to the rice fields around them having their boundaries changed or, even more curiously, farm animals such as buffalos knocking them down. Unless something drastic is done immediately to have these unique menhirs of Sabah marked and protected, there is every chance that they will all disappear in less than a decade from now.
*More pictures from the trip will be posted soon.
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