I like the beginning scenes of the film, The Lover (L’Amant). You see a ferry crossing the Mekong that is filled with Vietnamese taking goods to market, but those people ultimately just serve as a backdrop, as the film quickly focuses in on the two main characters, a French girl and a Chinese guy. Once this happens, the Vietnamese on the ferry more or less disappear from view.
What I like about those opening scenes is that they present in visual terms what we often find in texts from the colonial period. Colonial-era authors wrote a lot about the things that were important to them – themselves. So if you want to find information about other people, such as “the natives,” it can be difficult, but not impossible.
I was looking at a section of The British North Borneo Herald called “Shipping News and Passenger List” (yes, it’s exciting reading, I know). In many cases, you are not told who exactly was on a given ship, but you are told that people were on it.
For instance, the “Shipping News” records that the Nam Yong arrived in Sandakan from Jolo in the Philippine Islands on 1 June 1903 with 19 people on deck. Who were those 19 people? We are not told.
Then you have boats like the Labuan that left for the island of Labuan on that same day carrying Mr. Jupp, 2 second class native females and 83 other people on deck.
So there was one European, and he is named, but the others are just numbers.
The only non-European who’s name I have seen mentioned in the “Shipping News” is Lim Paik Kiew, a prominent Chinese businessman in North Borneo who I wrote about once before.
So like in the film, The Lover, if you are European or a rich Chinese, then you are named in the “Shipping News.” If you are someone else, then you are just there in the background, a number.
So how can we see/find such people?
I think I got a glimpse of the type of people who were probably on those boats when I came across a section in the 17 November 1902 issue of The British North Borneo Herald called “List of Unclaimed Letters Now Lying in the Sandakan Post Office” – kind of like a 1902 version of “You’ve Got Mail.”
These are some of the names listed there: Chi Tock, Foong Sin Loong, K. Higuchi, Sobail Deen, Spuran Singh, Boleslar Adrionavichu, Hazi Khamal Mohammed, Dr. Chu Shan Hong, Prayag Dolla Sukul, Ng Cheng Suak, Japar Nathan Mokum, Cheong Poh. . .
These names are all the names of people who had most likely migrated to Borneo. To get there, they must have taken one of the ships that regularly appeared in the “Shipping News,” and when they did, they would have been recorded as a number.
The mention of “2 second class native females” above indicates that people indigenous to Borneo also traveled to some extent, but my guess would be that those boats were probably used more by this group of immigrant workers, men who journeyed to Borneo from India, China, Japan, the Philippines, etc.
So those unnamed people on boats in the colonial archive (and in modern films) did actually have names. And more than that, they had mail too.
Chi Tock, Hazi Khamal Mohammed and Boleslar Adrionavichu! You’ve got mail!!