On 20 November 1903, T. C. H. Arensma, the general manager of a major tobacco plantation on the east coast of British North Borneo, Darvel Bay Estates, arrived back with his wife from a trip to Europe. A celebration was organized by some of the Europeans at Lahat Datu (now spelled Lahad Datu), but Chinese also participated.

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The governor of British North Borneo gave permission for the Constabulary Band to perform at the event, and when Arensma arrived at the wharf that had been “gaily decorated with palm-leaves and bunting,” the band played popular airs as “the Chinese gave their General Manager a specially warm reception amidst the firing of crackers and the dinning of gongs.”

After having arrived, a dinner and concert were held in Mr. Arensma’s honor. The dinner was served on the verandah of the “Kongsikong,” the main meeting house for a Chinese organization, or “gongsi.” There, we are told that 40 people “enjoyed a truly royal and hearty repast lasting till nearly mid-night.”

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The account of this event in The British North Borneo Herald does not indicate what food was served, but the program for the concert is recorded. It began with a “Festival March” which is described as a “song and dance by all the Dutchmen.” This was followed by a song called “Marching Along.” There was then a trio (cello, violin and piano) performance of a Bach “Meditation,” a rendition of the Teresa Del Riego ballad “O Dry Those Tears,” a trio performance of a fantasy from Weber’s opera Der Freischütz, and a duet performance of “Serenade” by Italian composer Gaetano Braga.

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This was then followed by a very special “serenade by torchlight by all the Chinese tandils [i.e., overseers] and coolies.” The account in The British North Borneo Herald noted that “The torch-light procession of all the Chinese Tandils and coolies in the Estate which took to (sic) place at the conclusion of the first part of the programme formed a particularly striking feature, the long line of torches occupying over a quarter of a mile in length. On reaching the ‘Kongsikong’ they serenaded Mr. and Mrs. Arensma while the head Tandil addressed on behalf of all the Chinese a few words of welcome to which Mr. Arensma made a suitable reply, and with three hearty cheers all dispersed.”

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Then the Europeans ate dinner. After dinner the performances resumed. While there was a cello performance of a fantasy from La Traviata, and a rendition on violin of Émile Waldteufel’s waltz “Les Patineurs,” most of this second session was devoted to singing, featuring such songs as “The Rowdy Dowdy Boys,” “Here’s a Health unto his Majesty,” “Gipsy Song,” “In Sweet September,” and “I Don’t Want to Play in Your Yard.”

Then as the evening drew near to a close, a certain Mr. Kershaw and a certain Mr. Lammert offered a rendition of a song that was popular at the time called “Chin Chin Chinaman.”

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“Chin Chin Chinaman” was a song from a musical comedy called “The Geisha” that opened in London in 1896. The lyrics of the song are meant to replicate the broken English of a Chinese laundryman: “Chinaman no money makee / Allo lifee long! / Washee washee once me takee, / Washee washee wrong! / When me think he stealee collars / P’licee man he come; / Me get finee fivee dollars, / Plenty muchee sum!”

After that song had been sung, and as befit a celebratory event in 1903 attended by people from the Netherlands and Great Britain, the evening ended with the singing of “God Save the King” and “Wien Neerlands Bloed,” followed by a supper.

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So “Chin Chin Chinaman” was sung at this gathering at the “Kongsikong” in Lahat Datu to honor the return of T. C. H. Arensma, the manager of the Darvel Bay Estates tobacco plantation, an employer of many Chinese coolies, all of whom had reportedly serenaded Mr. Arensma and his wife by torchlight earlier in the evening, and then had “dispersed.”

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While so much has been written about colonies, British North Borneo has not been the subject of much (or any?) critical research. However, it really deserves to be studied as it was a fascinating place.

Run by the British North Borneo Company, it wasn’t really a “colony,” but then again, it was.

Seeing the way that Chinese were important for this event – they welcomed General Manager Arensma with fire crackers, provided the venue of the Kongsikong to hold the celebration, and serenaded Arensma and his wife – and the way that they were “dispersed” and ridiculed, is, I think, a fascinating window onto the complex, colonial, racist world that existed at that time and place.