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5 amusing Sarawak stories as recorded by colonial officer Ian Urquhart

The Crown Colony of Sarawak was established in 1946 right after the dissolution of the British Military Administration.

On Sept 16, 1963, it was succeeded as the state of Sarawak through the formation of the Malaysian federation.

Unlike other Crown colonies, Sarawak was perhaps the most unique one. Sarawak continued its pre-existing institution of government with minor changes.

The Council Negri which was established under the Rajah Brooke’s 1941 constitution, retained its functions with the rajah being replaced by a British governor. As for the governor, he was required to consult with the council to exercise his power.

In the meantime, Sarawak was divided into five divisions with each overseen by a resident. Each division was then divided into districts which were overseen by district officers.

While a number of Brooke officers remained at their posts, the Colonial office in London also sent officers to serve in Sarawak administration.

One of the first batch British officers arrived in Kuching to work as Colonial Service Administration Cadet was Ian Urquhart.

During his retirement in the mid-1990s, he started to write his memoirs, finally completing them shortly before he died in June 2012.

Urquhart always hoped that his memoirs would be freely available for those who shared his love for Sarawak and its people.

Thus, his family published it on the internet making it available for everyone to read.

Amusing, funny and downright entertaining, the book offers a rare view of Sarawak during its colonial days.

For instance there was one Penghulu Puso from Belaga who had the opportunity to meet Lord Louis and Lady Mountbatten in 1946.

“Looking at her many medal ribbons he had exclaimed ‘What a brave woman. She must have taken many heads’. It was a remark that pleased her greatly,” Urquhart wrote.

He also shared how much the then Governor-General of British territories of Southeast Asia Malcolm MacDonald loved Kapit and its people.

Urquhart once called Fort Sylvia his home/office when he was posted in Kapit.

Urquhart once overheard MacDonald say to Anthony Abell (the third British governor of Sarawak), that “If I could lead my life over again, I would have liked to be District Officer of Kapit.”

What makes his memoirs endearing is his observation of the commonplace things we see in everyday life, for example, “In my opinion, two of the most unpleasant sounds in this world are those of an Iban or Foochow woman who has a grievance and intends to express it long and loud, as I have known to my cost when hearing court cases.”

On a serious note, Urquhart also shared some behind-the-scene stories of Sarawak historical incidents such as the assassination of Sarawak governor Duncan Stewart and anti-cession movement.

Sarawak anti-cession demonstration. Borneo Asian Reports [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

For KajoMag, here are at least 5 stories that we find entertaining in Ian Urquhart’s memoir entitled Sarawak Anecdotes (2012):

1.The Brooke officer who was almost executed.

Since Urquhart came to Sarawak after World War II (WWII) ended, there was a handful of Japanese occupation stories he collected, especially from those who have interned.

Here is an interesting story of how a Brooke officer escaped execution:

“Willie Tait, the Rajah’s Postmaster-General of Sarawak, was a genial Yorkshireman. On leave once, he has picked up after an enjoyable party by a policeman in London late at night as he leaned on a lamp post for support. The copper asked him who he was and thought he was joking when he said ‘The Postmaster-General of Sarawak’ and carted him off to gaol for the night to sober up. As the Japanese were invading Kuching and most of his staff had fled. Willie bravely took over the wireless and continued tapping out news to the British forces in Singapore of what was happening in Kuching until he was found by the Japanese. With some other British, he was taken to the Astana and locked up there.

Because of his activities with the wireless, Willie was then taken out onto the lawn to be shot. Being a practicing Roman Catholic, he turned to his executioners and requested that he be allowed to make his peace with his God before he was despatched. His request was granted and he took as long as he possibly could in kneeling down and confessing his sins and praying many prayers to the Lord to save him, failing which that his soul be kindly dealt with, until eventually the Japanese interrupted him saying he had had long enough.

The Postmaster-General regretted that the Lord had apparently ignored his prayers to save him but them said to the Japanese that surely they could not expect him to die with a full bladder. This request was also agreed to, and he wandered over to a tree and took as long as he could over this important performance. At last it seemed that the Lord must have heard his prayers, for a lone British plane appeared over Kuching and the Japanese hastily returned their prisoner to his prison after which, apparently, they had so many other matters to think about that they forgot to execute Willie! Interestingly, no one has been able to identify which plane it was that saved Willie or why it was there.”

2.The haunted hill of 10th Mile Kuching

This is a story Urquhart’s brother in-law R.W. (Bill) Large told him. He was a police officer in the Sarawak Constabulary during Brooke administration.

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During the war, he joined the 2/15th Punjab Regiment and posted in Sarawak. However, he was captured and held as prisoner-of-war (POW) in Java.

After the war ended, he returned to the Sarawak Constabulary and eventually married Urquhart’s sister.

Here is the story Bill told Urquhart about the haunted hill at Kuching-Serian Road:

“Before the war, the Serian Road from Kuching was being maintained and the Public Works Department (PWD) engineer in charge told some of his local labour force, mostly Land Dayaks, to go up one of the many small hills near the 10th Mile, but they refused saying the hill was ‘hantu’, i.e a spirit haunted it.

To show them that this was nonsense, he himself went up the hill and, after a long time, several of the men, tremblingly and keeping close together, decided to look for him. They found him with a high fever and brought him down near death’s door. As a result, an RC (Roman Catholic) priest found some of his flock were wavering and so he went up the hill, with the same result as the P.W.D engineer.

During the war, a company of the 2/15th Punjabs under a British officer (none of whom had heard the story of haunted hill) sent a patrol up it. In no time, they returned down again helter skelter as stones from no visible source were being hurled at them.

It took a big party with beating gongs to go up and recover the arms which some of the soldiers had dropped in their panic.”

It would be interesting to know the exact location of this haunted hill.

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3.The prison break that went wrong.

Urquhart also made friend with J.B. Archer, the Chief Secretary for the third Rajah Vyner Brooke.

According to Urquhart, he learned a lot about Sarawak from Archer. Over a drink in the Sarawak Club, he shared a story that took place at Kuching Round Tower which was used as the Rajah’s gaol.

“A Chinese was incarcerated in this building. He worked out to this satisfaction that, if he made a hole in the roof of his cell, he would be able to escape. Eventually, he somehow acquired a suitable tool and working at night, he started to carry out his plan. The trouble was that he had misestimated where to make his escape hole. Above him was a cell with three Chinese women prisoners in it.

They were surprised to hear noises under the floor even more surprised when a small hole appeared in their floor, which was widened and a man’s head then appeared.

He was disappointed at what he found but made the hole big enough to get his body through, and then started to investigate whether there was any chance of escaping from women’s room.

But having been starved of male company for a long time, they had other ideas and drew lots. The winner insisted that the mad had sex with her which he did. Then lady no. 2 said it was now her turn. This started him, but he managed to satisfy her. However, when it came to no 3’s turn, he was unable to perform and in a dudgeon she ungallantly shrieked out loud enough to be heard by the gaolers that she was being raped!”

4.Mrs Hoover’s soup

Reverend James Matthew Hoover was an American missionary in-charge of Foochow immigrants during Brooke’s time.

With his fluency in the Foochow dialect, he was the official representative in all dealings with the government.

He married his wife Mary Young in 1904, a British teacher in Penang who later joined him in Sibu.

Here is a story about Mrs Hoover’s soup:

The Chinese in Sibu were very hospitable and those that were well off would give quite large dinner parties, consisting of anything from eight to 24 courses.

Usually the food was presented in a bowl or on a dish, placed on the table and then each guest used his chopsticks or spoon to remove from it what took his fancy and put it in his own bowl or direct into his mouth.

Most of these dishes were soupy or savoury and after a bit one’s spoon would inevitably be coated with a layer of fat, however much one had licked it.

In Sibu the habit was that the last dish of the meal would consist of something sweet such as a large bowl of tinned peach slices or of litchis (lychees) in syrup. Before the final dish was put on the table, a bowl of very hot water was placed there in which the guests could rinse their spoons or chop sticks.

I soon learnt to watch out for the arrival of this bowl and be amongst the first to clean my spoon, as after several people had done so, there was a nice layer of fat on the surface of the water.

Pre-war, Mrs Hoover, the wife of the American Methodist bishop, was intently engaged in talking to her neighbour and so failed to note the arrival of the bowl of hot water.

Eventually she turned round, dipped her spoon several times into the bowl, which had been well used for the cleansing of spoons, and, watched by the startled Chinese, took several spoonfuls of semi congealed fat in, by now, warm water and poured them into her bowl, whose contents she proceeded to consume, saying, as she finished the last spoonful, how much she enjoyed Chinese soups.

With carefully concealed regret, the polite Chinese then felt obliged to do as she had done and from then on in Sibu the bowl of hot water was known as ‘Mrs Hoover’s soup’.

5.His Excellency Anthony Abell and his Special Branch man.

After Duncan Stewart’s assassination, security was predictably tight around the next governor Anthony Abell.

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In his memoir, Urquhart shared one incident when he had to accompany the governor.

“I was accompanying the Governor, Sir Anthony Abell, who was sitting on a longhouse floor in my district. He got to his feet, picked up a toilet roll and said “I’m off. Please ensure no-one follows me.”

When he returned he was laughing and told me what had happened.

He had found a nice little area of bushes close to one another that gave him some privacy and was squatting down and starting to commune happily with nature, when, to his annoyance, he heard the mistakable grunting of a pig that had realised that a choice meal might soon be available.

The pig came indecently close so as to catch His Excellency’s droppings before any rival pig could do so. This, H.E. found inhibiting.

He looked around for a suitable stick within reach with which to whack the pig on its snout, but to his annoyance could not find one. At that moment, a nearby bush quivered, and a length of arm emerged with a suitable stick for His Excellency.

It was the arm of the Special Branch man, whose instructions had been always to keep within sight of the Governor but to do so inconspicuously.

Until that moment the Governor had not realised that each time previously that he had left a longhouse with his toilet roll, the Special Branch man had also been there.”

Besides his experiences and stories as well as gossips he heard during his service in Sarawak, Urquhart also recorded his comments on Brooke’s administration and his observance of the local people.

For Sarawakians and history enthusiasts, the book is definitely a must-read.

You can read Sarawak Anecdotes: A Personal Memoir of Service 1947-1964 here.

Patricia Hului
Patricia Hului is a Kayan who wants to live in a world where you can eat whatever you want and not gain weight. She grew up in Bintulu, Sarawak and graduated from the University Malaysia Sabah with a degree in Marine Science. She worked for The Borneo Post SEEDS, which is now defunct. When she's not writing, you can find her in a studio taking belly dance classes, hiking up a hill or browsing through Pinterest. Follow her on Instagram at @patriciahului, Facebook at Patricia Hului at Kajomag.com or Twitter at @patriciahului.

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