I was looking at records from the American consulate in Sandakan, on the island of Borneo, from the early twentieth century, and found an interesting letter to the consul general from two Chinese, Wan Loy and Chap Fook Kee.

These two men said that they were fishing merchants, and that two men who worked for them, Ho Tiam and Lee Sin, had run away with one of their fishing boats and six other Chinese, “mostly cooks.”

Wan Loy and Chap Fook Kee believed that these men were headed to Zamboanga on the island of Mindanao, which was then under American control. So they appealed to the American consul in Sandakan to contact American authorities in Zamboanga to apprehend the men who had stolen their boat.


They did this by submitting a formal signed letter. In this letter, Wan Loy and Chap Fook Kee said that “we beg that you will kindly inform the Collector of Customs at [Zamboanga] to apprehend these people.”

“If possible we should be obliged if you would telegraph the Collector.”

Wow! Wan Loy and Chap Fook Kee were so polite!!

Somehow, however, I doubt that these are the actual words of two Chinese fisherman in Sandakan, but that makes me wonder about how this communication actually took place.

Let’s imagine that these two guys did not speak English (or did not speak it well). Where then did this official letter to the American consul come from? Someone else must have written it, but who?


While all of that remains unclear, there was nothing unclear about the consul’s response.

He did indeed send a telegram to the collector of customs at Zamboanga. The telegram consisted of just four words:

ARREST         EIGHT            CHINAMEN   [in a]   SAMPAN


I wonder how this story ended. When you look in the archives, you often find pieces of stories like this.

I think that is what makes archives interesting. We learn something, but then the rest has to be left up to our imaginations.

In this case, we can imagine eight Chinese in a boat arriving in Zamboanga, excited that they had succeeded in running away, and then. . .