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Hatim Tai, the anonymous writer who wrote ‘The Ballad of Kuching’

In 1965, the Sarawak Gazette received an anonymous package. Inside, it contained a ‘beautifully bound autograph book with a cover in Chinese silk’.

It was properly addressed to The Sarawak Gazette editor. The book contained 52 pages, one for every week of the year.

The verses were typed, preventing one from identifying the writer by the handwriting.

According to the gazette, they normally did not publish unidentified anonymous material. But they found one poem ‘though topical in impeccable good taste’.

So they published the poem in The Sarawak Gazette on Aug 31, 1965.

“We feel this is a remarkable effort in its kind and publish it for that reason. A good deal of the ‘spirit of Sarawak’ is embalmed in the somewhat subtle ‘infrastructure’ of these verses,” the gazette reported.

The poem was called “The Ballad of Kuching” and was dedicated to Tun Jugah Barieng (1903-1981), a notable politician of Iban descent and recognised as one of the founding fathers of the Federation of Malaysia.

He played an important role in bringing Sarawak into the formation of the federation on Sept 16, 1963.

While the gazette credited the poem to ‘Hatim Tai’, it is not sure whether the penname was given by the publication or if that was what the writer called him- (or her-) self.

What we know about The Ballad of Kuching by Hatim Tai dedicated to Tun Jugah Barieng

Altogether, there are 52 stanzas in “The Ballad of Kuching”. The poem, as Sarawak Gazette described, truly did convey the spirit of Sarawak in its lines, describing the different races in Sarawak, such as the Malay, Chinese and the Dayaks as well as their celebrations.

“Orang Melayu, courteous, proud and gay,
The sly mouse-deer whose deeds of yesterday.
Cicadas sing, renounces kris for pen
And writes his fate upon the future’s clay.

The Orang China kicks against the womb
And scattering riches makes my house his home;
The lotus-blossom blooms in every street
Whose very stones applaud the honeycomb.

The longhouse-dweller by his jungle stream
Sends me his sons who of diplomas dream
The world moves on; some savant’s staff- who knows?-
May one day strike upon the longhouse beam.”

When did Hatim Tai write the “Ballad of Kuching”?

From the poem, we know Hatim Tai wrote it in 1965 (the year of the publication).

“This Chinese New Year celebrates the Snake
And in the streets the dragons dance and shake;
The candles burn for luck, the din of gongs
Six confined generations might awake!”

In one of the stanzas, Hatim wrote:

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And in 1965, the Chinese calender celebrated the year of the snake.

Furthermore at this time, Sarawak was going through the Indonesia-Malaysia confrontation as a result of Indonesia’s opposition to the creation of Malaysia.

Hatim Tai also referred to the confrontation in stanza 19.

“Now Mao Tse-Tung is getting to his feet,
And Bung Soekorno in his winding-sheet
On Confrontation feeds- to arms! before
The bland horizons of forebears meet.”

This was also the time when Sarawak saw transitions of power and service from the British colonial officers, all of whom eventually left service here in Sarawak after it became part of the Malaysian federation.

Hatim Tai seemed unhappy with those eager to see these officers leave and yet still wanted the Commonwealth forces to stay and protect them during the confrontation.

He wrote,

“’Depart, Expatriate’, the foolish say,
‘And office leave to those who hold the sway,’
Yet dare to utter in the self-same breath,
‘Soldier, remain- the tiger stalks his prey!’”

Who could Hatim Tai have been?

A number of times in the poem, Hatim Tai referred to himself as “Kuching”, especially in the second and third stanzas.

The second stanza goes,

“Now fades the golden sunset, swift to bring
The paramour of night upon its wing;
The molten silver of the crescent moon
Exhorts my song, I am the Cat – Kuching!”

Meanwhile the third stanza goes,

“I am Kuching- the-Cat this is my town,
My city, palace, capital and crown,
And thus I reign and watch my people go,
And take no thought if they white or brown.”

A king?

However in Stanza 50 instead of referring himself as “Kuching”, Hatim Tai calls himself a king.

“Yet am I King. A king without a throne?
Yet do I have a throne; the seed I’ve sown.
Tun Abang in his palace eats my salt,
And in my shade the people’s will is known.”

Tun Abang here most probably referred to Tun Abang Haji Openg, the first Yang Di-Pertua Negeri (Governor) of Sarawak who took office from Sept 16, 1963 to Mar 28, 1969.

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The official residence of the Yang di-Pertua Negeri Sarawak is the Astana. The name ‘Astana’ is a variation of ‘istana’ which means palace.

Built in 1870 by the second white Rajah, Charles Brooke, it was the Brooke family’s main residence in Sarawak.

Going back to him dedicating the poem to Jugah, the late minister was a candidate for the first Sarawak governor.

The idea, however was rejected by Malaysia’s first prime minister Tunku Abdul Rahman. His reason was that the posts of the Sarawak chief minister (which was held by Tan Sir Datuk Amar Stephen Kalong Ningkan) and the Sarawak governor could not both be held by Ibans at the same time.

Subsequently, the post which could have gone to Jugah went to Abang Haji Openg.

More questions about Hatim Tai and “The Ballad of Kuching”

Even after more than half a century later since “The Ballad of Kuching” was published (and now forgotten), there is no answer for the question, ‘Who was Hatim Tai?’

Yet, there were more questions to ask about this anonymous writer.

For instances, why did he want to conceal his identity? Is it possible that the writer was a ‘she’? Was he a close friend of Jugah?

To write a 52-long page of book and meticulously type it out must have taken a great effort on the author’s part.

Was he a Sarawak British colonial officer who had a great passion for Sarawak? Or even maybe a local who served in Sarawak service with other expatriates?

Another curious question, where is the book now? Most importantly, what were the contents of the rest of the 51 pages?

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We might not be able to answer these questions anytime soon. But, Hatim Tai’s message in his final stanza in “The Ballad of Kuching” still resonates with today’s Sarawak.

“Divided we must perish- doubt not that,
We shall not fail the insignia of the Cat
If for each race the writ of freedom runs:
“Our strength lies in our unity.”

You can read the poem here. If you have any thoughts or information about the mysterious author, leave it in our comment box.

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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