Imagining a Eurasian History of Southeast Asia

A few years ago someone I met in Kuching kindly gave me a cookbook that had just been published by the Sarawak Eurasian Association called Legacy Cookbook. This cookbook highlighted recipes from Eurasian families in Sarawak, and it also told the stories of their families.


I was of course aware that one of the colonial rulers of Sarawak, Rajah Charles Brooke, had a son with a Malay woman, but I had never really thought about the fact that there is an actual Eurasian community in Sarawak.

This book opened my eyes to that fact. It points out, for instance, that in the mid-nineteenth century James Brooke, the first “white rajah” of Sarawak, “brought with him Domingo De Rozario, a Portuguese Eurasian from Malacca, to serve as a cook,” as well as “another Eurasian from Malacca, Thomas Williamson, to serve as an interpreter.”


According to this book, the Eurasian community in Sarawak today is descended from around 50 main families, and members of those families have served in all kinds of positions in government and society over the years.

As I read about some of these families, I found their stories to be fascinating, but it also made me realize how fascinating a history of Eurasians in Southeast Asia would be.

There are already of course studies of individual Eurasian communities (Jean Gelman Taylor’s The Social World of Batavia: Europeans and Eurasians in Colonial Indonesia), individual Eurasian families (Rebecca Kenneison’s Playing for Malaya: A Eurasian Family in the Pacific War), and specific issues concerning Eurasians in specific times and places (Christina Firpo’s The Uprooted: Race, Children, and Imperialism in French Indochina, 1890-1980).

old photo

However, what would be really illuminating would be to see a grand synthesis of all of this information in order to get a broad view of “the Eurasian experience” across time, and throughout the region.

It would take a lot of work to do that, but it would be fascinating and rewarding.


For now though, I guess we’ll just have to wait for the arrival of that future study by eating some of these delicious dishes that Eurasian families have been cooking in Sarawak.

Crossing Boundaries in 1930s-1940s Sarawak and England

The digitization of archival materials, newspapers, etc., is fantastic for researchers, but I also find it a bit frightening as there is undoubtedly information that is now freely available that some people perhaps wish wasn’t available for the world to see.

So when I come across information about people whom I have never heard of, particularly when it is information from the twentieth century, I always try to be careful about what I say and reveal.

At the same time, by now I’ve had numerous people indicate to me that I’ve written about their grandfather, grandmother, etc., and are happy to find information that they were unaware of.

So with a couple of readers recently indicating that they are related to a Malay woman from Sarawak whom I previously mentioned in a post – a woman I referred to as “Munirah,” but whose real name was apparently Saerah – I decided to look a bit more into who this person was.


As I mentioned in the previous post, in the 1930s Saerah was married to an Englishman by the name of G. T. M. MacBryan who converted to Islam while serving as an official for the Brooke regime in Sarawak and who made the pilgrimage to Mecca together with Saerah.

The story of MacBryan’s life and his pilgrimage with his wife was recorded in a 1937 book by Owen Rutter entitled Triumphant Pilgrimage: An English Muslim’s Journey from Sarawak to Mecca.

Shortly after this book was published the couple returned to Sarawak via Singapore and there were a few articles that appeared in the Singapore press about them at that time. The Singapore National Library has digitized those articles and they can be easily found by searching for “Munirah” (the name that Saerah was known by in this book) at this site.

These articles are generally positive, although it’s clear that they relish in what was perhaps amusing to their expatriate readers, namely stories of the time that Saerah had just spent in England where saw snow for the first time, enjoyed weekend parties in London, etc.

Here is an example: 1937 article.

shabby pilgrimage

By contrast, there were clearly some people in Sarawak who were not as amused. In particular, the people who published The Sarawak Gazette “welcomed” the couple back with a short article in the October 1937 edition (available here) entitled “Shabby Pilgrimage.”

While Saerah was referred to in this article with the utmost respect, as MacBryan’s “Malay wife of wondrous charm and surpassing manners,” MacBryan (or “David Chale” as he was called in the book) was not treated so nicely.

To quote, the article begins by stating that: “Very little will be done to improve the relationship between Islam and Christiandom by the publication of Triumphant Pilgrimage, an account by Owen Rutter of an English Moslem’s trip to Mecca. Trip is the right word. ‘David Chale,’ whose incredibly aquiline profile serves as frontispiece, was a young district officer in Borneo and developed a great liking for the Malays, which raised confused ideas in his mind of ‘giving a lead’ and in some obscure way promoting world peace by adopting their religion, a resolve bolstered up by a good deal of oblique disparagement of the Sarawak administration.”


Then a month later the critiques continued as The Sarawak Gazette published some critical reviews of Triumphant Pilgrimage, such as this one from The Spectator:

“David Chale (an assumed name), ex-district officer in Sarawak, over lunch at Quaglino’s, asked Mr. Rutter to write for him the story of his pilgrimage to Mecca. He explained, with a ‘strange exalted look in his eyes’ – ‘glittering blue eyes, strangely compelling,’ of course (see carefully posed studio portrait) – that he hoped to unite Islam and make it into a great force for world peace. ‘His lobster forgotten,’ he told [of] his conversion and of his marriage to a Malayan, and of the struggle he had had to reach Mecca.

“Exhausted by Chale’s intensity, and convinced that it was not another shameful journalistic stunt, Mr. Rutter agreed.

Triumphant Pilgrimage is as sickly with sincerity, as exhaustingly tense as its hero. Presumably Mr. Chale approves of his portrait, but if he possessed any of the judgment, modesty and sense of humor with which Mr. Rutter endows him, he would have refused to pass this account of his physical and spiritual adventures which nauseates by its smugness, its exaggeration of difficulties and its lack of any sign of real understanding of the Islamic world.

“After reading this book one sees the wisdom of Ibn Saud’s law (which Chale evaded) forbidding converts of less than six years’ standing to go on the pilgrimage.”


So G. T. M. MacBryan clearly had some detractors. Whether such criticisms were warranted or not, I don’t know enough yet to say, but the claim that he was “intense” does seem to me to have some basis.

It is also unclear to me what the relationship between MacBryan and Saerah was like after their return to Sarawak, but with the arrival of World War II, the relationship apparently fell apart, and the next time we find Saerah mentioned in the media is in 1947 when she was interviewed in Singapore as she was on her way to England with her new husband-to-be.

There was an article that was published in 1947 in The Singapore Free Press (18 April 1947, page 1) entitled “Malay Beauty Sets Sail for UK: Love Story from Sarawak.”

This article reported on a steamer that had set sail for England from Singapore the previous day. It noted in brief that such well-known people as the wife of the Governor of Singapore were onboard, but then it proceeded to discuss in detail two “not so well-known” passengers, “Sarah MacBryan, a lovely Malay girl, and young Mr. Derek [should be David?] S. Walford.”

The article then relates in detail “their story, which is as interesting as any which had come out of Sarawak.” Here I think it is perhaps best to simply quote from the article:


Mrs. MacBryan, a Sarawak Malay, 34 years old, mother of two children, wore a short think silk multi-striped European summer frock. Derek Walford, tall, young and serious – he is only 24 years old – an ex-Sarawak police officer.

Mrs. MacBryan was brought up on a Sarawak rubber plantation. Her story really begins in 1936, when Mr. G. T. M. MacBryan, a member of the Sarawak Government Service under the White Rajah, Sir Charles Vyner Brooke, asked her to marry him. The ceremony was duly performed under the Muslim marriage rites.

Mr. MacBryan, who supplied material for an author to write his life story, revealed that as a midshipman at the end of the Great War he threw up the Navy because “discipline chafed his spirit,” and “spiritual suffocation is worse than physical.”

Given a job in a shipping office he was so disgusted at being little better than an office boy that one day he threw a cup of tea in the face of the manager. Then he met an old friend of his father’s from Sarawak. The idea of running a district appealed him and he took a job in the Sarawak Government service.

Apprehending a murderer one day, Mr. MacBryan was so impressed with the stoicism of the man when he was captured – a Muslim – that he came to the conclusion that he could not live out his life without the help of such a faith, and to meet his spiritual needs he must make the pilgrimage to Mecca.

He resigned from Government service, went to India and in three years returned to Sarawak. It was then that he met lovely Sarah MacBryan – known as Munirah – and with her he planned his trip to the Holy City.

sarah 2

With the aid of his charming wife, MacBryan succeeded in his mission, and is one of the few white men who have kissed the black stone and so absolved himself from his sins, and he witnessed the mass sacrifice of the animals in all its color.

They examined the great library at the Mosque at Medina, full of the treasures of the Moslem world collected over the last thousand years.

Their happiness lasted for several years, and the Malay girl visited many of the capitals of Europe, had parties at the London Casino, the Berkeley, and the Savoy Hotel – and saw snow for the first time in her life.

Then came separation, the war, and in September 1946 – – a divorce.

A few months ago, she met Derek Walford.

“I was intending to join Rajah Brooke’s police force when war broke out,” he told me yesterday, “but naturally I went into the Army, and my service took me to India.”

“At the liberation of Malaya I was a half-trained policeman with the British Military Administration and I went there with the occupying forces. Then I was released from the services in the Far East and held a post in the Sarawak police force until I resigned recently.”

Meanwhile, Mr. Walford had met Mrs. MacBryan and together they traveled to Singapore on their way to England.

They remained here for three weeks staying with friends while they arranged their passage.

When I saw her in her cabin before she sailed today, I asked her: “Are you going to be married in England?”

She replied: “I have been divorced under both Mohammedan and English law, and I am, therefore free to marry whom I please.”

Mr. Walford added: “We cannot say we will definitely be married until we have studied the legal position in England, but if we are able to marry it will be in England and not in Malaya.”

“I plan to spend the next few years in Malaya if I can get a job, and I am going home on leave for a spell. My parents know about the situation as it stands at the moment, and they are not standing against my wishes.”

“Most of my leave will be spent in London.”

And they left to carry their luggage up the gangplank to the ship which will carry them to England where their future will be decided for them by the lawyers.


Why would a reporter for The Singapore Free Press in 1947 spend so much time talking about two “not so well-known” people?

My sense is that it is because they didn’t fit “the norm,” and this made their story potentially interesting for readers. They were doing something that “normal” people didn’t do, and they were taking a chance that “normal” people also did not take.

As the advertisement above indicates, late-colonial Malaya and Sarawak were places where there were supposed to be clear boundaries between the British and the Malays.

MacBryan, Saerah and Walford all crossed/blurred/ignored/challenged those boundaries.

The reasons behind their “transgressions” might have differed, and might have fallen across a wide spectrum from the ignoble to the noble, but ultimately crossing those boundaries at that time was an action that was ahead of the tide of history.

These were some very interesting people.

Pua Kumbu and Digital Knowledge Mobilization

On a recent trip to Malaysia I visited an exhibition on Textile Tales of Pua Kumbu at the University of Malaya Art Gallery that really impressed me.

Pua kumbu are textiles that are woven by the Iban people on the island of Borneo. (“Pua” is the Iban word for “blanket,” and “kumbu” means to wrap.)

Pua kumbu were traditionally used by the Iban for various ritual purposes. That, of course, makes these textiles important, but what makes them even more significant is that each pua kumbu has a story woven into it that the weaver can “read” by viewing the cloth.


For those of us today who have no connection to the traditions of the Iban, however, “reading” pua kumbu and understanding the ideas that they contain is all but impossible.

However, the Textile Tales of Pua Kumbu exhibition made this possible by employing “polysensory and immersive digital media” to educate visitors to the exhibit about how pua kumbu are made, as well as about their significance and the tales they contain.


The exhibition opens with a video projected onto the floor. The beginning of the video takes viewers into the interior of Sarawak where many of the pua kumbu in the exhibit were produced.

To view the video, one has to walk right up to the edge of the area where the video is projected, and in doing so, one gets the sensation of actually entering the video and boarding the boats that take one upstream into the interior.


Upon “arriving,” the video on the floor goes blank, but the story continues on the adjacent wall where the image is so big that one has to take a few steps back in order to view it all. Here again, one gets the sense of being immersed in the video rather than simply viewing it.

This opening video provides historical information about the Iban and their tradition of weaving pua kumbu.

Once that video ends, visitors then proceed to another room where there is another video which shows a master weaver “reading,” in Iban, stories from pua kumbu.


Accompanying these readings are animated interpretations of the stories.

The animated figures in the stories are almost geometrical in shape. This at first may seem merely artistic, but then one quickly comes to realize that these geometric shapes match and mimic the geometric patterns on pua kumbu themselves.


After learning some of the stories that are on individual pua kumbu, visitors than proceed to another room where a large pua kumbu is laid out. This pua kumbu contains one of the stories that is “read” and animated in the previous room.


Further, next to the pua kumbu is a device, similar to an iPad, that viewers can slide alongside the pua kumbu. At certain points one can see on the screen a detail from the textile. If one then presses the screen, what is an abstract detail on the pua kumbu then gradually transforms on the screen into a more realistic image of what is represented there.


The exhibit then proceeds on to another room which contains information about the area where the pua kumbu in the exhibit were woven, and then on to another room with a video about how pua kumbu are made.

This video is projected onto a curved wall, and on either side of the screen are two large pua kumbu. In fact, however, viewers soon realize that those two textiles are part of the screen as well, as images from the pua kumbu “fly out” of the textiles into the screen, creating an interaction between the video and the pua kumbu on display.


There is much more that one could say about this exhibit, such as the fact that one can download an app to ones smartphone so that when one holds the phone up to a photograph on the wall, a video will start playing on the smartphone about the contents of the photograph, etc.

However, what should be clear is that this exhibit does an amazing job of using digital technology to enable one to gain a deep understanding of both tangible and intangible culture.


The cultural and historical information in the exhibit is the product of a couple of years of research on the part of Dr. Welyne Jeffrey Jehom of the Department of Gender Studies at the University of Malaya.

The digital presentation and enhancement of that information, meanwhile, is the product of the work of Professor Harold Thwaites, the director of The Center for Creative Content & Digital Innovation at the University of Malaya, along with members of his team from that Centre.


A press release about the exhibition that came with the brochure sums up nicely what impressed me the most:

“This exhibit showcases for the first time, via various forms of digital capture and innovative media communication methods, the intangible culture and heritage of creating this textile craft of East Malaysia.

“Professor Harold Thwaites explained, ‘this exhibition is a cutting edge knowledge mobilization from High Impact Research at UM that goes far beyond just journal articles.’

“All too often in University research projects, the culmination of the work is somewhat traditional, resulting in a number of journal articles, talks at conferences or academic publications of various kinds, shared with a special audience only.

“Here in Textile Tales of Pua Kumbu the goal is to take research beyond the academic sphere and bring it to the public sphere.

“Public interactives presented in the form of exhibitions, can serve to mobilize knowledge much faster than more traditional modes of ‘publication.’ It creates and presents to the public, a living, digital, cultural imaginary of intangible knowledge, that heretofore could only be experienced by a very few people.”


I couldn’t agree more with the need to move academic knowledge out of its restrictive and limiting world of specialists and journals, and to use digital technology to do so. This exhibition does a wonderful job of demonstrating one such way to do this.

For more information about the exhibition, consult the following facebook page: http:/

And for more on pua kumbu, see:


Finally, I would like to thank Professor Thwaites and Dr. Jehom for taking the time to talk to me when I visited the gallery, as well as the kind graduate student who showed me around the exhibition.

Making Traditional Music Cool in Sarawak

Lamenting the loss of tradition is something that you hear all around the world, but there are some places that succeed in keeping the traditional world alive.

The way they do that is by changing tradition to make it fit the contemporary world.

This is easier for some places than others.


In the case of architecture, for instance, places like Bali and Thailand have been pretty successful at this. What is their secret? Well in part it is because they rely on the colors and textures of the natural world.

When someone in Chiang Mai or Ubud makes a boutique hotel, for instance, they use natural wood and surround the hotel with plenty of tropical green plants and the result is that they create something that feels both “traditional” but very contemporary and hip as well.


Contrast that with efforts to make Chinatowns in Southeast Asia look cool. . . When people think of things Chinese they think of bright red, and there is just nothing natural about bright red. . .

The result? It is more difficult to come up with something Chinese that feels both traditional and contemporary.

dan bau

With music you have similar problems. A traditional instrument like the đàn bầu in Vietnam has a sound that is associated with feelings of sadness, so it would be hard to incorporate that instrument into an upbeat contemporary song.

I say all this because recently I came across a video of a group of young musicians in Sarawak, called At Adau, that successfully combines together traditional and modern instruments to produce a hip contemporary song.

What is more, the video that they made for the song is also cool.

Clearly the traditional instruments that this group plays, like the sape, are easier to adapt to a contemporary sensibility than say the đàn bầu. So that helps. And to be fair, there are other people in Sarawak, like Jerry Kamit, who have already worked hard to make the sape meaningful for contemporary listeners.

So what At Adau has done is not entirely novel, but it is still very cool. And the video is really good as well. Good job!!

Jemadar Guptha, Loyal to the Empire and Beaten by the Japanese in World War II Sarawak

It is well known that after the Japanese occupied Southeast Asia in World War II, Indian nationalists formed something known as the “Indian National Army,” a military force that had the ultimate goal of freeing India from British rule.

The formation of this army was a sign that there were plenty of Indians in the region who were opposed to the British.

At the same time, there were other Indians who identified with the British.

In looking through the digitized materials in the Australian National Archives, I came across an account by an English officer by the name of Hayward Thomas Richards about a certain Jemadar Guptha (“jemadar” is a term for a military officer) who was encouraged by the Japanese in Kuching, Sarawak on the island of Borneo to join the Indian National Army.


This is what Richards wrote:

“In mid 1943 the Japanese in Kuching were endeavoring to form a kind of ‘INDEPENDENT INDIAN’ force in Kuching, and to this end [they] organized a demonstration of Independent Indians.

To this demonstration they asked Jemadar Guptha, who was in charge of a party of about 50 Indians at the aerodrome, to bring his men. He refused, saying that neither he nor his men wished to attend the ceremony.

He was then brought to Kuching and interrogated by civilian officer KUBO, in the presence of N.C.O. KOGO and lieut. NAKATA. I was present during part of this interview which was roughly as follows:


Question: Why do you not wish to attend the demonstration?

Answer: Because I am a loyal subject of H. M. King George, and a British P.O.W. My only connection with the Japanese is that I have been unfortunate enough to be captured by them in action.

Q: Why do you think so much of the British?

A: Because they have provided me with land and a livelihood, are looking after my wife and family while I am away, and will provide me with a pension.

Q: What do you think of the Japanese as compared with the English?

A: (Shrugging his shoulders) We can only judge people by their treatment.

Q: There is no need to be afraid of the two British N.C.O.’s who are present.

A: I am not afraid of anyone.


At this juncture the Jemadar was taken out and I heard and saw no more but on talking with him later I understood that he was taken to KEMPEITAI H.Q. where he was so severely ill-treated that he lost control of his natural functions and he use of his legs.


Then he was brought back to Kuching P.O.W. Camp Guard Room where he was further ill-treated. Eventually after several months he was returned to the Indian P.O.W. Camp in a very weak, emaciated and crippled condition.

Now I am glad to say, he is well on the road to recovery.”


Was Jemadar Guptha a fool who had been mentally colonized? Or was he a hero for standing up for what he believed in and for being willing to endure torture rather than to compromise his beliefs? Were the Indians who joined the Indian National Army heroes for wanting to free India from British control? Or were they opportunists who were willing to collaborate with the Japanese military, an organization that clearly demonstrated to the peoples of Southeast Asia during World War II that it could engage in acts of brutality and inhumanity?

These are tough questions to answer, but I’m glad to see that Jemadar Guptha was on the road to recovery when the war ended.

The Dayang Muda “Puttin’ on the Ritz” in WWII Bombay

In looking around in the materials digitized by the Australian National Archives I came across a file called “Landing Permits Dayang Muda of Sarawak.”

Sarawak, on the island of Borneo, was a kingdom ruled over by a British family, the Brooke family. The king was referred to as the “Rajah,” and the heir apparent was referred to as the “Tuan Muda.” The “Dayang Muda,” meanwhile, was the official title of the wife of the Tuan Muda.

In the first half of the twentieth century, the Tuan Muda of Sarawak was Bertram Willes Dayrell Brooke, and the Dayang Muda was his wife, Gladys Milton Palmer.


The Dayang Muda was a colorful character. She interacted with high society in Europe and got involved in the movie industry, all the while capitalizing on her connection to the “exotic” world of Sarawak.

The file that I just came across in the Australian National Archives, however, revealed to me something that I didn’t know about the Dayang Muda – that she lived through World War II in Bombay, India. . . in the Ritz Hotel!!


In October of 1945 the Dayang Muda contacted Australian authorities to indicate that she wished to travel to Australia together with her personal secretary of 15 years, a Russian gentleman by the name of Captain Paltov.

The Dayang Muda had apparently sought to travel to Australia in 1941, but when she was passing through India on the way from her villa in Greece she learned that Malaya and Sarawak had fallen to the Japanese, and she feared that travel to Australia would be impossible. What is more, Paris, where she also had a home, had fallen to the Germans.

With no place to go, there was no choice left for the Dayang Muda but to remain in India, and she apparently did so, by taking up residence at the Ritz Hotel in Bombay.

One would think that spending four years in a high-class hotel would be quite comfortable, but the Dayang Muda stated in 1945 that “My prolonged stay in India has affected my health and I am most anxious to find a home.”

Indeed, I’m sure that years of “Puttin’ on the Ritz” must have taken its toll.

A British Haji in Sarawak and his England-Loving Malay Wife

A few months ago I wrote a post about an Irishman who became a Buddhist monk in Burma in the early twentieth century, and who was known as U Dhammaloka. Recently I posted about a documentary that is being made about this man.

One of the things that is fascinating about the story of U Dhammaloka is the fact that he was more or less unknown by scholars until recently. Another thing that is interesting, however, is that it has now become quite easy to find (some of the limited) information about this person given that so many books and newspapers have been digitized.


Today I realized that there are probably other figures that are as fascinating as U Dhammaloka that many of us are not aware of, such as Gerald MacBryan.

MacBryan was born in Somerset, England. He joined the civil service in Sarawak in 1920, converted to Islam, married a Malay woman and made the pilgrimage to Mecca.

By the time World War II broke out, MacBryan had become a personal secretary for the Rajah of Sarawak, Vyner Brooke. MacBryan fled to Australia with Brooke when the Japanese occupied Sarawak, but then he tried to return, and this caused problems for him.


I came across a file about MacBryan in the Australian National Archives. This file contains a letter from Vyner Brooke in which Brooke pleads with the Australian authorities to clear MacBryan’s name.

The same file also contains a sort of biography of MacBryan in which it states that “He is described as tall, thin, shifty and unscrupulous, unwilling to look a person in the eye, and is said to be of such unstable character that it would not be fantastic to assume that he might have designs on being appointed by the Japanese as a quisling Rajah of Sarawak.”

It is difficult to determine if this is true, but several authors have claimed that MacBryan did want to create a caliphate based at Sarawak, with himself as caliph.


Meanwhile, The Straits Times (from Singapore) carried an article in 1937 about MacBryan’s Malay wife when she arrived in Singapore after spending a year in England. Apparently there was a novel that was published in 1937 about MacBryan’s pilgrimage to Mecca called Triumphant Pilgrimage: An English Muslim’s Journey from Sarawak to Mecca, so MacBryan and his wife were “famous” at that time, and The Straits Times referred to MacBryan’s wife by the name she was known by in the novel – “Munirah.”

The article claimed that “‘Munirah’s’ former shyness has disappeared. During the interview she spoke freely of her impressions, and without hesitation posed for the cameraman.

“Hair bobbed, wearing a two-peace costume, a white crepe-de-chine blouse, a small gold kris brooch, its only decoration, and a grey tweed skirt. Mrs. MacBryan declared enthusiastically, ‘I like England much better than Sarawak.’”


Ok, so in the 1930s there was an Englishman in Sarawak who converted to Islam, made the pilgrimage to Mecca and had dreams of creating a caliphate in the region, while his Muslim Malay wife got the latest British hairstyle and preferred England over Sarawak. . . that’s amazing!!

Remixing the Past: Murdered Chinese in 1900 Sarawak

In reading issues of the Sarawak Gazette from the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, I repeatedly come across references to Chinese either killing themselves or getting murdered. Life for Chinese laborers and merchants on Borneo at that time was clearly not easy, and many people’s lives were cut short for one reason or another.


Just looking at the year of 1900, for instance, we see that in January a Chinese shop owner in Sundar by the name of Ah Hai was murdered and his shop was burned to the ground.


In April an official reported the murder of another Chinese in Sibu. His report noted that “the dead body of a male Chinese was found in the river not half a mile below the station. It has since been identified as that of a Hokien of Sibu named Chan Ah Tong who was by profession a peripatetic trader. The body was covered with wounds inflicted without doubt by weapons.”


And then there was a notice offering a reward for the capture of eight Teochew men suspected of murdering pepper planter Liong Ten Chiow.

Sarawak and the rest of Borneo were like the “Wild West” in America had been not long before this point.

To capture that sense, I’ve created a soundscape called “Murder in 1900 Sarawak.”

Remixing the Past: Of Pigs and Men in 1920s Sarawak

Partly because I’ve been spending a lot of time in a forest that is inhabited by wild boars, and partly because sometimes when I’m out there I think about some essays that Jonathan Saha posted on his blog this summer about animals, I’ve been thinking about animals and how viewing the past from an “animal perspective” might be an interesting way to think about history.

And while there are of course a variety of different animals that one could use to examine history, I’m curious these days about pigs.

boar tracks

So I made the (somewhat random) decision to look through the issues of the Sarawak Gazette for the years of 1920 and 1922 to see what it said about pigs.

Indeed, it had a lot to say about pigs. So much, in fact, that I was able to categorize the information into various times of human-pig relations.

borneo pig

First of all, there was the relationship that the indigenous Dayaks had with pigs.

It is clear from my superficial examination of two years of the Sarawak Gazette that pigs were essential for the Dayak way of life. Of course their meat was an important form of protein, but in terms of religion and culture, pigs played an equally important role in various events and rituals.

There was an article in 1922, for instance, on “native medicine” which noted that “Dayaks and other natives use all manner of charms and talismans for procuring invulnerability, such as the material of wild pigs’ nest which is slung around the waist.”

Then there was an article on “Religious Rites and Customs of the Iban or Dayaks of Sarawak” which detailed the process by which a couple could get married. It involved various stages, and there was the potential for bad omens to bring an end to the ceremony at different stages. If, however, after that had happened the two sides still wanted the marriage to proceed, “a pig is killed the liver of which is examined: if the omen is good the marriage may be proceeded with, if bad it must be relinquished.”

And then finally there were ways in which pigs played a role in Dayak deaths: “Should a death occur from accident, the body cannot be brought into the house until a pig has been killed and each inmate of the house has been smeared with the blood, otherwise a curse would fall upon the house and it would be unsafe to live in.”


So pigs were clearly important to the Dayaks, and they way that they traditionally captured them, apparently was by trapping them. I haven’t figured out yet what those traps looked like, but they contained some kind of “magic charm,” which the above figure is an example of, and which now sell in the international art market for significant sums of money.

In the early 1920s, however, the Sarawak Gazette carried numerous stories about the injuries that Dayak pig traps caused.

A February 1920 report from Simanggang stated that “Penghulu Nuga reported the death of one Ujoi by a pig trap set by Jebin of the same house.”

In April 1920 there was a follow-up to this report that “Jebin [was] sentenced to six months imprisonment for culpable homicide in causing the death of another Dayak by his pig trap, and to pay $100 pati nyawa to relatives of deceased.”

In 1922 “a Dayak living at Slanjan was pierced in the side by a pig trap supposed to have been set by himself” while a man in Sibu by the name of Nglambai “was fined 2 piculs for causing hurt to a small boy by setting a pig trap in his fruit grove. The boy had a narrow escape from death.”

And finally, “A Sarikei Dayak was fined a pikul for setting a pig trap and slightly wounding a Chinese woman.”


I have no idea what happened before the Brooke family gained control of Sarawak when someone was injured by pig trap. I would assume that it must have been resolved by people in the longhouse.

However, with the arrival of the Brookes, European forms of justice started to be employed, and Dayaks had to compensate for the harm that their traps (unintentionally) caused in terms that they did not define.


We can also see a similar process with regards to the Chinese in Sarawak and their relationship to pigs.

In the January 16, 1920 issue of the Sarawak Gazette there is a report from Sadong (for December 1919) that stated that some Chinese coolies demonstrated outside a shop in the market on “the eve of some Chinese feast day.” They demanded that the owner of the shop kill three pigs for the feast the next day. The shop owner agreed.

So pigs were important for the Chinese, and to some extent this was religious, although I think these coolies were more interested in getting the pigs into their bellies. . .

In any case, a month later, in a report from Upper Sarawak, an official noted that “pigs were being killed at Siniawan in a number of places in the bazaar,” so he arranged to have a slaughter house built “on an approved site” and to lease the right to slaughter and sell pork there “to a Chinese at a monthly rental as is done at Bau.”

So seeing that the Chinese were slaughtering pigs, an official for the Brooke administration decided to establish a monopoly for the slaughter and sale of pork (a “pork farm”) in Siniawan, and to lease that monopoly to the highest bidder, which in Sarawak, like the rest of Southeast Asia, ended up being a rich Chinese.


Once that happened, Dayaks figured out that beyond religious/ritual benefits, there were other benefits that one could get from pigs. . . namely, one could become rich by selling them to Chinese who wanted to eat them.

In March 1920, the official stationed in Upper Sarawak reported that “The pork farmer [and I assume that he is referring to the person in Bau] ceased to kill pigs on the 18th as he said that he could not sell at the controlled price owing to the high price of pigs.”

The Brooke government apparently wanted pork to stay at a set price, but Chinese farmers started to demand higher prices for their pigs.

The man who had the monopoly on the slaughter and sale of pigs then “tried to buy pigs from the Dayaks” but the Dayaks had heared that the Chinese were asking a high price for their live swine, so they refused to sell at anything but the same price that the Chinese were asking even though “their animals are far inferior beasts to those of the Chinese breeders.”


Some from animals that had ritual significance to the Dayaks, pigs in the 1920s were being transformed into commodities that the Dayaks could demand a high price for.

Perhaps this explains why violence started to emerge in relation to pigs.

It was reported from Upper Sarawak in February 1920 that there was a “Dayak shooting case” that occurred in the following manner: “a pig drive was in progress when Sejit shot a relative of his named Sanyas in the back killing him instantly. Sejit saw the long grass waving and simply fired without waiting to see what he was shooting at with this unfortunate result. The Court sentenced him to a year imprisonment.”

A month later it was reported from Upper Sarawak that: “On the night of the 16th, a gardener’s house at Seringgok was held up by two Chinese armed with thorny sticks, while two more proceeded to the piggery, and cut up and made off with a pig weighing some 90 catties. The gardener got out through the back of the house and raised the alarm, but the thieves managed to make good their escape in the darkness.”

Pigs had clearly become valuable. . .


What this very brief and superficial examination demonstrates to me is that there is great potential in looking at the past from an “animal perspective,” or more specifically, from looking at the past from the perspective of human-animal relations.

In the case of Sarawak, for instance, one can clearly see larger societal and economic transformations in the situations that pigs found themselves.

If historians were to examine the past from the perspective of those situations that pigs found themselves in, we might not learn a great deal that is new, but I think we’d see a lot that we already know from a novel and enlightening perspective.

So in any case, to honor the role of pigs in the history of Sarawak, I’ve created a soundscape that I’ve called “Peaceful Pigs.” It’s not about Dayak pig traps or Chinese slaughterhouses. But instead, is a soundscape which imagines a (more or less) peaceful co-existence between pigs and humans. This might not be what actually occurred in the past, but that is why this is the past “remixed.”

The Enchantment of 1948 Sarawak

In the early twentieth century, German sociologist Max Weber noted that one characteristic of modern societies was an increasing “disenchantment of the world.” By “disenchantment,” Weber meant that in modern societies people appeared to be moving away from believing in magic, spirits and gods (that is, powers that can “enchant” people), and moving instead towards adopting a more “rational” way of viewing the world.

These days scholars no longer believe that there is a direct line of development from “premodern” to “modern” worlds. Instead, many academic studies have been published that talk about the “enchantment” of the modern world, that is, they talk about how people in “modern” societies continue to follow certain “irrational” beliefs.

SG May 1948

Recently I was reading an issue of the Sarawak Gazette from 1948, and I came across some reports by a British Sarawak government official that clearly show evidence of the “enchantment” of society at that time.

There was, for instance, a report of an ailing Chinese man who was “spell-bound” by a Chinese medicine man and told to offer money to a spirit in order to cure his illness. The spirit accepted the money, but the Chinese man became even more ill.

Then there was a report of a conversation between this same government official and the Dayak head of a kampong, or village. The government official tried to convince the Dayak man that growing rice was more beneficial than raising pigs because one needed rice to survive whereas pigs tended to destroy the padi, or rice fields.

The Dayak man, however, responded that, “No. We must keep pigs to kill for our begawai (ceremonial feasts and offerings to the spirits); if we do not hold proper begawai the padi will be no good.”


In another report, the same official noted that in one area the rice fields had been badly damaged by pigs and rats. Nonetheless, the harvest was still better that year than it had been in the past.

The Dayak residents of that area attributed this to the fact that the government official had blessed the fields earlier in the year.


This government official was an Englishman, a man who undoubtedly agreed with Weber that modern societies were “disenchanted,” and his reports were in some ways meant to point out the degree to which certain people in Sarawak remained “enchanted,” and therefore were failing to become “modern.”

To be fair, there is much less enchantment in the world today than there was in the past, but it remains, even in “modern” countries like Great Britain.