Sandakan: Land Below the Wind
One of the joys of taking a cruise is stopping in exotic ports of call about which you know almost nothing. Such was the case when, during a recent cruise from Bali to Manila, I found myself deposited on the shores of Sandakan, a port city on the island of Borneo in the Malaysian state of Sabah, and couldn’t resist exploring.
Set amid lush tropical rainforests, these days Sandakan is most famous for its eco-tourism — there is an orangutan rehabilitation center, rainforest discovery center and Turtle Islands Park, all in or around the city. What I didn’t know before I spent a day exploring the city, however, is that it has a rich, fascinating colonial history that has left an indelible imprint.
By the end of the 19th century, Sandakan was one of the wealthiest towns in the region thanks to its timber. A group of British businessmen that had bought the land from the sultans of Brunei and Sulu established British North Borneo in 1881. Sandakan was named the capital in 1883, and, by the mid-1930s, the city was said to be home to the highest concentration of millionaires anywhere in the world.
Driving through the streets 80 years later, I found this rather hard to believe — many houses to the left and right of the main road seem neglected and run-down.
There are plenty of coastal fishing villages completely built on mangrove stilts, where one house can be home to three generations, crammed in one or two rooms.
“In earlier times, it was mostly fishermen and sea gypsies who lived in these villages,” said Ayrul, my tour guide. “They spent most of their time at sea. They believed in an old saying — the sea is for the living, while the land is for the dead. They only came to land to bury the dead.”
Nowadays, however, it is not only fishermen living in these quarters. The cheap accommodations have lured other townsfolk to settle there.
Sim Sim fishing village, which faces Sulu Sea, is a wild jumble of lodgings. There is electricity but no sewage system and no privacy whatsoever, it seems. The tiny houses’ walls are so thin that if someone watches television, their neighbor next door can follow the plot of the whole show without a single glance at the screen.
Simple eateries are scattered throughout the village, where the mostly Chinese inhabitants hunker down for a quick bowl of noodle soup or engrossing games of mahjong — a favorite local pastime, according to Ayrul.
The wealth of Sandakan vanished during World War II, when most of the city was destroyed in bombings.
But if one takes a closer look, there are still traces of a rich colonial past to be found throughout town, including many surprisingly well-preserved buildings.
St. Michael’s Anglican Church, first established in 1888, is one of the few buildings in Sandakan that survived destruction during the war. The roof was damaged, but the foundation stood firm during the bombings.
It took more than 12 years to build the granite house of worship, which resembles a typical church one might find in the English countryside. Many of its benches are more than 100 years old. Upon entering through the main gate, visitors are greeted by a simple sign bearing the word “Love.”
The church is shared by Chinese, English and Malay-speaking congregations, the latter being the largest with more than 300 members.
Perhaps one of the most visible and famous remainders of colonial times — and one of the most popular tourist destinations in Sandakan — is the house of novelist Agnes Keith.
Here, the American writer resided with Henry George Keith, her husband from New Zealand, who was the conservator of forests for the government of North Borneo from 1934 to 1952.
The house, which Keith lovingly named “Newlands,” was made immortal by the writer’s first novel, “Land Below the Wind,” an account of her time in Borneo and a colorful description of colonial life in the 1930s before the war. The book was popular enough to be turned into a Hollywood movie in the 1950s, and the book’s title still serves as the unofficial nickname for Sabah.
Life during and after the war in Sandakan was the subject of Keith’s second and third novels, “Three Came Home” and “White Man Returns.”
The airy, two-story wooden bungalow, built using classic colonial architecture, overlooks the city. It has been turned into a museum dedicated to the late writer, who passed away in March 1982 in British Colombia, where she and her husband lived after his retirement.
“Most of the museum’s photographs and artifacts were donated by Agnes Keith’s granddaughter, who lives in Canada,” Ayrul said.
Black-and-white photographs hang on the walls of the first floor, depicting daily life during colonial times — such as a young Agnes Keith in a bathing suit smiling cheerfully for the camera — as well as official visits from British representatives.
An old gramophone, radio, fridge and other remnants of the 1930s take visitors back in time. A stairway leads to the second floor, which has three rooms, including Keith’s library.
“There is mental energy in this room, discharged and accumulated from the past, which seems to exhilarate you when you enter it,” Keith wrote in a passage about the special room in “Land Below the Wind.”
An old typewriter, placed on the wooden desk that stands in the middle of the library, suggests that the author spent many productive afternoons here, writing stories and recording various anecdotes that would later become the basis of her autobiographical novels.
“Like a ship beached by a high tide, our bed stands in the middle of our bedroom floor,” Keith wrote, and indeed, upon entering the bedroom, it is exactly as she described it.
Agnes Keith’s husband joined the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization in 1953, and the new job led him to posts in the Philippines and Libya — giving Agnes the chance to add to her literary oeuvre by writing down accounts of post-war life in the Philippines and her experiences living in Libya.
Only a few steps away from Newlands, the English Tea House and Restaurant is housed in another colonial-style building. It’s a pavilion sitting at the foot of a hill with a spectacular view of Sandakan Bay.
Far away from home, the restaurant still honors that most British of traditions — afternoon tea. British delicacies like scones and a wide selection of tea offer a taste of the “good old days.” The restaurant’s spacious garden was, and still is, used as a croquet field — another favorite British pastime.
Agnes Keith once spoke of her adventures in Borneo as “the caviar of my existence to which other events in my life are Schwarzbrot [a bitter-tasting bread from Germany].”
While Sandakan may now only be a shadow of its former glory, a visit to the city can certainly evoke images of what living here a century ago felt like — a time of adventures and new challenges, when everything was still untouched and waiting to be discovered.
This article was first published on March 20, 2011 in the Jakarta Globe newspaper.