SECONDARY SCHOOLS IN TAWAU > SMK TAWAU > History
Original Source : peacecorpsonline.org/messages/
Gus Breymann's writes: A Sabah Sojourn
INTRODUCTION TO THE JOURNEY
More than 160,000 Peace Corps Volunteers and staff members have served in wonderful, challenging settings around the world. It is a safe bet that most of us have returned with at least one good story about our experience. This is my personal collection of such stories. There is no grand design here, although the anecdotes are presented chronologically for the most part. Each sketch is intended to entertain and satisfy my simple urge to commit something to writing about his six-year association with the U.S. Peace Corps in Malaysia and the Philippines between 1964 and 1970. Along the way, small contributions about the history of the Peace Corps and some of the Southeast Asian countries where it was a guest may surface. Where sensitivity to individual situations is still advisable, first names or altered names are used. A couple of scenes in this six-year script are better left unrecorded for the time being.
We were Sabah/Sarawak IV. That is, we were the fourth contingent of Peace Corps Volunteers assigned to Sabah and Sarawak. Our group replaced volunteers in "Borneo I" who had entered service in 1962 before the formation of Malaysia.
Collectively, the Peace Corps referred to us as "BAGS," or "BA Generalists." Many of us were liberal arts graduates who fit easily into TESL teaching slots overseas.
Sargent Shriver had sent a telegram in the fall of 1963, congratulating me for being selected as a trainee for the Peace Corps in Sabah/Sarawak. A quickly retrieved world globe showed where Sarawak was, but there was no sign of Sabah. Further checking revealed that Sabah was the new name for North Borneo, which until September of that year had been a British colony. On September 16, 1963, Sabah and Sarawak had become the two Borneo states of the new Malaysian nation. Beginning in early 1964, all future groups of Peace Corps Volunteers sent to Sabah or Sarawak were known as "Malaysia" volunteers, and training of Borneo and peninsular Malaya volunteers was consolidated.
Sabah/Sarawak IV volunteers trained at University of Hawaii in Hilo and Waipio Valley between February and April, 1964. In Hilo,we were housed on the grounds of the old Army hospital just below Rainbow Falls. In Waipio Valley, we lived in bamboo huts and got a taste for the first time what life might be like in a Borneo village. Throughout training, the group studied Pasar (bazaar) Malay intensively, learned something of the history of Malaysia, completed practice teaching assignments in Hilo's schools, and went through a regimen of physical exams and psychological tests. Occastionally, trainees would disappear overnight, having been "deselected" and sent back to their homes on the mainland for reasons known only to the University of Hawaii training staff and the psychologists who observed us around the clock. Those of us who remained in training resented the speed and secrecy of the deselections, but in hindsight, there was probably no better way to accomplish the separations.
Approximately twenty of us eventually completed training, were sworn in, and flew off to Borneo at the end of April, 1964. As we climbed aboard our Pan Am Boeing 707 in Honolulu, three of us were singled out at the foot of the ramp. George Grantham, Julia Chang and I were each handed copies of the Yale series textbook on Chinese language and told that we were being assigned to Chinese middle schools.
Our flight carried us first to Wake Island, where we stood around in a World War II quonset hut while the plane was refueled. Commercial jet travel was only five years old in 1964, and westward trips across the Pacific often required refueling stops. From Wake, we flew on to Manila, where we were deposited in the transit lounge for several hours. Eventually, we boarded a Cathay Pacific Lockheed Electra II and began the last leg of our trip down to Jesselton, the capital city of Sabah.
Imagine leaving home and "civilization" for a two-year tour of duty. Imagine flying toward the third largest island in the world, three degrees north of the equator, a place known by most Americans then---and perhaps now---only as the home of the "Wild Man of Borneo." Imagine enduring three months of training and education in anticipation of the very moment when you would actually step onto the soil of Borneo. As the Cathay Pacific turboprop carried us south, our anticipation grew palpable. Soon we saw Banggi Island, then the green, hilly west coast of Sabah. We peered out the left side of the aircraft at the tropical island and the blue-green South China Sea. As we descended on Jesselton airport, the reality of our actually being in "The Land Below the Wind" began to sink in. Few of us realized that reality would continue to unfold for the duration of our volunteer experience or that, for most of us, our lives would be changed forever---all because Sargent Shriver had sent us telegrams inviting us to join a great adventure. Few of us understood that we would have to redefine our understanding of "civilization" as we immersed ourselves in an unbelievably rich multicultural experience.
The vignettes that follow are dedicated to Song Chang, Martin Collacott, and Roger Flather. They know they enriched my life, and they know how grateful I am.
THE EARTH RANG LIKE A BELL: GOOD FRIDAY 1964
Sabah/Sarawak IV was in training in Hilo when the greatest earthquake on the North American continent occurred in Alaska on March 27, 1964. It was recorded at 9.2 on the Richter scale. According to World Book, it lifted more than 25,000 square miles of the earth's surface from three to eight feet and pushed one end of uninhabited Montague Island 33 feet upward, exposing a strip of sea floor some 1,350 feet wide. At the same time, a 35,000 square mile region around Kodiak and Anchorage sank two to six feet. Buildings and pavement in Anchorage fell 30 feet in a few seconds.
The quake sent shock waves around the world, literally. In Iran, for example, the ground surface rose and fell a third of an inch. Streets in Houston rose nearly five inches. Georgia well water moved up and down 10 to 20 feet. A showboat on the Mississippi River was torn from its moorings. Six months later the earth was still quivering in Alaska, where more than 9,200 aftershock quakes were recorded. In effect, the entire Earth rang like a bell on Good Friday.
In Hilo that Friday evening, several of us were attending a movie downtown near the bay. Suddenly, the tidal wave siren sounded and we evacuated quickly, heading back uphill toward the Peace Corps training center at Rainbow Falls.
Hilo had been struck by devastating tidal waves in 1946 and 1960. Photos of the power of a tsunami show parking meters in the downtown area bent flat against the street in the 1960 tidal wave---within just a couple of blocks of the movie house we had just left.
At the training center, we listened to the radio and learned that, if a tidal wave was to strike Hilo again, it would move down the Pacific and hit the islands in succession within a couple of hours. That gave us enough time to climb in a car and drive to a sugar mill northeast of Hilo. It was a spot where we could look back across Hilo Bay toward the city's business district. We continued to listen to the radio as the tidal wave progressed toward Oahu, then Maui, then the Big Island. All we could see in Hilo Bay was a stream of small boats and ships heading out to the open ocean, where they could ride out the fast-moving tsunami.
Luckily, Hawaii was spared on Good Friday, 1964. After a few hours of watching from the sugar mill, the radio informed us that the danger had passed and we returned to the training center.
THE CLOSET PSYCHOLOGIST
In the early years of Peace Corps training, it was the staff psychologists who decided whether trainees went to a host country assignment or whether we were "deselected" and bundled off in the middle of the night to catch a flight back to the mainland. The University of Hawaii staff psychologists were omnipresent: observing, taking notes, interviewing trainees, always maintaining appropriate professional distance. In Waipio Valley, I remember one of them hiding behind a bush, watching attentively as we learned the proper Muslim way to butcher a chicken. Which trainees would be squeamish? Which ones would enjoy killing the chicken?
In addition, the staff psychologists administered batteries of psychological tests indiscriminately: the MMPI; the California Test; the Rorschach. There were probably others. As the Peace Corps matured, I believe it reduced this overly heavy emphasis on psychological profiling, perhaps because trainees and civil rights attorneys demanded fewer invasions of personal privacy. The central point, though, is that staff psychologists were widely perceived in 1964 to play decisive roles in our fates as trainees. These demigods were held in fear and respect. As our judges, surely they led exemplary, unflawed personal lives.
Which brings me to a wedding. Two wonderful people in our group had entered Sabah/Sarawak IV training as a couple and decided they would get married before leaving for Malaysia IF both completed training successfully. They finished with flying colors, and a wedding was planned in the historic Lyman home overlooking the Pacific in Hilo. All of us attended, and the two were married in the wide living room that fronted on the ocean. It was a beautiful ceremony in the home of one of the pioneer families on the Big Island.
Several of us stood at the rear of the room as vows were exchanged. We heard a commotion, looked behind us, and saw an inebriated man climbing the steep rear steps. This man was not just tipsy; he was falling-down drunk. He was literally crawling up the back steps of the Lyman home on all fours. He was so far gone that he was a danger to himself. In unison, we moved toward the man, grabbed him in the armpits, and carried him quietly to a closet just inside the entrance to the home. There he stayed, behind a guarded door, until well after the wedding reception ended, out of view and earshot of the wedding party. I was pretty proud of myself for helping to handle this very embarrassing situation so adeptly. The newly married couple learned only later about this guest's arrival during the ceremony.
He was the chief staff psychologist for our group. Peace Corps training must have proven too much for him.
FIRST NIGHT ON THE
ISLAND OF BORNEO
Thanks to author Agnes Newton Keith, Borneo is "The Land Below the Wind." The typhoons that devastate Luzon, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan and the China mainland periodically do not follow a more southerly track, and North Borneo is spared the destruction of the great winds that howl westward across the Pacific toward the Asian mainland. Frequent local storms, yes. A long monsoon season, yes. But no monster storms.
Upon arrival in Jesselton, Sabah/Sarawak IV volunteers were taken by bus to temporary housing at Gaya College, where we stayed through a brief in-country orientation by members of the government of Sabah. The biggest question on most minds that first afternoon and evening was where our volunteer assignments would be. Three of us knew that we had been selected to teach in Chinese middle schools, but their exact locations remained undisclosed.
We found out soon enough. While shaving in the men's lavatory at Gaya College shortly after arrival, I was approached by a tall, distinguished and friendly person who introduced himself as Martin Collacott. Martin was a Canadian Colombo Plan advisor assigned to the Sabah Education Department, and he was to be one of my supervisors for the rest of my volunteer assignment. He was also responsible for implanting the memory of my first night in Borneo firmly in my mind from that day to this.
Borneo. "The Wild Man of Borneo." Headhunters with blowpipes and shrunken heads. The Land Below the Wind. Somerset Maugham's short stories about district officers. Japanese atrocities against the Australians at the end of the war in the Pacific. Just what kind of place were we coming to? Because the Peace Corps was still in its relative infancy, we were sure we would be posted to the "ulu" and not emerge again into "civilization" until our tour of duty ended two years hence. We would march off into the jungle in our hair shirts, not to be seen again.
Contrast that prospect with what we actually found at Martin's home in Tanjung Aru that first evening in Borneo. Since our new supervisor was an advisor to the Sabah education department, he was accorded a comfortable "Division I" government home usually reserved for the highest state officials. Government housing in Sabah, from Division I down to Division IV, had a certain functionality that made it fit in beautifully in the tropics. Of course, there was no air conditioning, but the living rooms, dining areas, kitchens and bathrooms featured large screenless windows that let cooling breezes flow through. On hot, still days and nights, ceiling fans helped make these government quarters livable. Only the bedrooms were screened, making it possible to sleep without mosquito netting much of the time.
Martin's cook, an elderly Chinese prepared a meal for the four of us that was delicious by any standard. We finished it off with a delicious yorkshire pudding, coffee and small glasses of Drambuie.
Amid the drinks and conversation that evening, Martin set an empty cardboard box on the floor across the wide living room from where we sat. He drew a bullseye on one side of the box. He then produced two genuine Murut blowguns and a quiver full of sharp bamboo darts. We three newcomers were challenged to see who could hit the bullseye using the blowgun and darts.
The contrast was almost too much to bear, given our earlier expectation that we would all vanish into the primitive Bornean jungle as soon as we climbed off the plane. That prospect was shattered, temporarily at least, by a wonderful, convivial evening. An after-dinner game with a native blowgun just hours off the plane from Honolulu! Could all this really be happening? And a delicious Western meal provided by an urbane, witty host who was obviously enjoying living in Borneo. Would our own volunteer assignments include any of these same amenities? What were we to experience in our own postings now that our earlier expectations of Borneo had been modified?
No doubt Martin was sizing each of us up that evening. I learned shortly thereafter that I was being assigned to teach a special English transition class at Government Junior Secondary School in Tawau. Tawau, reachable only by ship every other week or by Borneo Airways Dakota every evening if the weather was good, was to be my new home.
EVENSONG, CANON NEWMARCH, AND THE END OF THE EMPIRE
St. Patrick's Anglican Mission in Tawau was a thatch-roofed wooden structure on the shore of Cowie Bay. The pews were rough hewn. There was no electricity, but there was a large, Australian nun who powered the tiny pump organ near the altar. Canon Walter Newmarch, an Australian missionary who had been spreading the Word in Borneo since 1954 on behalf of the Australian Church Missionary Society, lived in a comfortable home on stilts next to the entrance to the rudimentary church structure. Newmarch and his wife were open, friendly and genuine people. They made visitors feel at home, welcome. Little do they know what a positive impact they had on one young American who was learning to live in Asia.
It became a custom to attend Evensong at St. Patrick's on Sunday. The liturgy was simple, majestic and somewhat shorter than other Anglican eucharistic rites. Even in Borneo, though, it was clearly "high church" by today's Episcopal standards.
The evening breezes along the bay also made the small sanctuary bearable as the tropical sun began to set and the large fruit bats flew in for a night of foraging from their roosts on Sebatik Island across the bay. Evensong was a time for preparation for the upcoming week of teaching at Government Junior Secondary School.
One of the popular hymns sung by the small congregation began, "The day thou gavest, Lord, is ended. The darkness falls at thy behest." Borneo had been a British colony until only a few months earlier. Slowly, all the colonial servants drifted away to other posts or to retirement in England. (How many times would I hear the lament---particularly from the Chinese towkays and office workers I met in 1964---that they wished Sabah had never joined Malaysia. They were, in effect, still mourning an era that had recently passed away, much like a close relative.) The final stanza of the stately Evensong hymn affirmed the transitory state of the Empire: "So be it, Lord; thy throne shall never, like earth's proud empires, pass away." The beneficent "darkness" of empire was emerging into the light of new day as I watched.
Returning to St. Patrick's Church thirty-four years later was revealing beyond words. The wood and thatch church was long gone, replaced by a large, white, air-conditioned structure. Heavy glass doors sported signs imploring parishioners not to use cellular telephones in the sanctuary. A Christian rock band warmed up its amplifiers near the altar. The building was used for services in English, led by a charismatic Chinese pastor, Albert Vun, who would certainly be uncomfortable being referred to as an Anglican priest. Beyond the attractive building was a newer, huge edifice, painted pastel pink. The interior looked more than anything like a modern movie theater. That was where the Mandarin, Hakka, and Malay services were conducted. Upon entering one Sunday morning, ushers quickly hustled the visitor to the smaller building. Surely, they thought, this orang puteh could not be there to participate in a Hakka service!
From small, rude Anglican mission to energetic "cell church": Clearly any hint of empire that lingered in 1964 had vanished by 1999. Most of those present in church that Sunday morning hadn't even been born when Sabah was still a British colony. And I had frequented St. Patrick's when the state was still going through its birth pangs.
MAH JONGG AT MIDNIGHT
C. M. Tan and his Filipino-Chinese family were the neighbors who lived immediately behind my Peace Corps house in Tawau. Mr. Tan worked for the Public Works Department and was a respected leader in the Filipino community in Tawau.
As I shaved at the kitchen sink every morning, Mr. Tan's sultry daughter, Pilar, watched me in amusement as she washed dishes in her kitchen a few feet away. Pilar also worked at the local cold storage, precursor of the modern supermarkets now present in Tawau. I have her to thank for letting me buy groceries on credit near the end of every month until my next month's living allowance came through from the Peace Corps office in Jesselton. Even in those days the Malaysian ringget equivalent of $100 per month did not go far.
One of the things I'll always remember about my neighbors, the Tans, was that I could wake up at virtually any time in the middle of any rainy night and hear the mah jongg tiles clicking on the table inside their home. That family really loved those ivories.
THAT DAMNED STORK
In parts of Europe, storks are symbols of good luck. Homeowners even place small platforms on their roofs in the hope that storks will build nests there and bring good fortune to the household. Elsewhere, a "visit from the stork" is a euphemism for childbirth and all the happiness usually implied in that event. Some say that the stork has been saved from extinction because of the myths that have been built around these tall birds.
Between 1963 and 1966, there was a military engagement ("Konfrontasi") between Indonesia and Malaysia because President Sukarno opposed the inclusion of Singapore, Sabah and Sarawak in the newly formed nation to his north. There were infrequent incusions by Indonesian troops along the Sabah and Sarawak borders with Indonesia. Tawau was an armed fortress, situated as it was literally within sight of the Indonesian frontier. The Royal Air Force, the Royal Navy, the Royal Australian Air Force, the Gurkhas, the SAS, various army units, and the militia were all encamped in or near Tawau at one time or another while I lived there. The Royal Navy's "Hermes" and "Ark Royal" aircraft carriers steamed into Cowie Bay and sat offshore several times as visible symbols of Commonwealth support for Malaysia in its first years of nationhood. RAF aircraft based in Singapore and Malaya flew daily low-level patrols over Tawau in a show of colors. The five or six Peace Corps Volunteers stationed in the town capitalized on this military environment in different ways. If nothing else, it provided an opportunity to get NAAFI gin at very low cost! PCVs were entreated to soak the labels off the gin bottles to remove proof that they had come from a British commissary intended only for the Her Majesty's troops.
During 1964 and 1965, a tall Marabou stork roosted on the roof of a PCV’s shack next to the terminal at the Tawau airport. This bird had been brought to Tawau by an RAF squadron that had been posted in Africa previously. It was the squadron's mascot, and it flew from perch to perch around the perimeter of the airport. The fact that it chose to spend much of its time atop a shack occupied by a PCV was the source of occasional comment around town.
The scene shifts to a quiet, paved road in front of Tawau's cottage hospital. As I came around the corner on my blue Suzuki motorbike, I was confronted by the foot-long beak of a Marabou stork, aimed squarely at the middle of my forehead. In its meandering, the RAF mascot had decided to land in the mangrove swamp opposite the hospital and had then walked into my path. There wasn't enough time or space to come to a stop before I hit the big bird. As I flew over the handlebars, I looked back and remember seeing the mascot flopping on the pavement. Luckily, I suffered only scrapes on my knees and elbows and a muffler burn on one calf. The bird’s beak missed my forehead. The motorbike also survived. I was cleaned up and bandaged at the cottage hospital next door and then continued home.
Shortly thereafter, an RAF officer drove up to my house. No doubt I was going to be rebuked for colliding with and killing the squadron's mascot. I prepared myself for the worst. After the officer inquired about my injuries, he informed me that he had found the stork back in the mangrove, that it had suffered only a broken leg, but that the officer had shot the bird. When I expressed remorse over being the cause of the animal's demise, the officer replied, "Not to worry! We were going to get rid of it anyway. It was becoming a hazard to air traffic around the airport."
FRITZ, AZAHARI, AND THE BRUNEI REBELLION
The involvement of Peace Corps Volunteers in internal partisan or military affairs of host countries where they served was strictly proscribed, particularly during the early 1960s. Sargent Shriver and the Kennedy administration knew that adverse publicity about a Volunteer becoming embroiled in a host's domestic affairs could wreck the new agency. When those standards of proper conduct were breached by Volunteers, as was sure to happen, the Peace Corps acted swiftly and quietly to remove the PCV from the country. Sometimes the agency removed a Volunteer even if he or she had not been personally responsible for getting caught up in host country political or military affairs. The latter is the case in this little vignette.
Sheik A. M. Azahari was the charismatic, ultra-nationalist leader of a political party in the Sultanate of Brunei, the oil-rich British protectorate that separated most of North Borneo from Sarawak. Azahari was also pro Indonesia in 1962, when it was becoming increasingly clear that Sabah and Sarawak would be incorporated into Malaysia within a year or so. In him, Sukarno had an ally against Malaysia. There were some indications that Azahari had connections with communist parties in China and Indonesia.
Azahari fomented a rebellion against the proposed federation of Malaysia, and his rebel supporters took to the jungle around Brunei. Azahari demanded the overthrow of the Sultan of Brunei. He proposed the formation of an independent, unified state of Kalimantan Utara (North Borneo), consisting of Sarawak, Brunei, and North Borneo, instead of federation with Malaysia. The British were forced to bring Gurkha troops in from Singapore to quash the rebellion, and Azahari removed himself to Manila in late 1962, where he continued to promote his unsuccessful cause briefly.
PCV Fritz was stationed near the Brunei border, and he got caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. He was rounded up by British soldiers purely as a safety measure. Fritz and his protectors came under attack by Azahari's rebels, and the PCV performed gallantly by saving the life of a British soldier who had been wounded in the skirmish.
Although Fritz had gotten caught in an international incident through no fault of his own, it became clear eventually that he would be unable to continue serving successfully as a PCV. The Peace Corps arranged for him to take a training assignment at the University of Hawaii's Peace Corps training center in Hilo. The agency could move very swiftly when it needed to, especially when it faced a potentially embarrassing incident.
SARGE OUTFOXES SUKARNO, OR DOES HE?
This little anecdote may be apocryphal. Then again, it may not be.
Sargent Shriver cooled his heels in Singapore for a few days while the American ambassador in Jakarta struggled to arrange a meeting between Shriver and mercurial President Sukarno. The Peace Corps director was interested in introducing Peace Corps Volunteers into Indonesia, and Sukarno had invited Shriver to come to Jakarta to discuss that possibility.
The brilliant nationalist Sukarno was, as some will remember, a great admirer of the female form. Among his wives he counted the alluring young Madame Dewi, whom he had brought to Indonesia from Japan in the late '50s.
A meeting between the Peace Corps director and the vain father of Indonesia was eventually arranged. The story goes that Sukarno repeatedly requested pretty, young American nurses, ostensibly to assist in ameliorating severe health problems in the islands. His motive was suspect; Shriver knew that Sukarno had an appreciative eye for young women. Apparently, Sukarno was promised American nurses by the end of Shriver's visit to Jakarta. Somewhere between the deal and the fact, though, someone else decided that Indonesia would be better off with tall male basketball coaches as Peace Corps Volunteers. That's what the newly emerging country got. Sukarno's reaction was not recorded.
The Peace Corps presence in one of the most populous developing countries in the world was painfully brief. As Indonesian-American relations deteriorated in 1964, Sukarno kicked the Peace Corps and the United States Information Service out of the country.
COLLIDING WITH PRINCE PHILLIP
The shortest distance between two points is a straight line. Government Junior Secondary School (now known as Sekolah Menengah Kebangsaan Tawau) is located on the east side of the Tawau airport. My Peace Corps home in 1964 and 1965 was located on the west side of the runway. The only safe way to get from A to B was a circuitous trip that required fifteen minutes on a motorbike. The shorter way was to drive up to the airport and cut across the active runway onto the school sports field that bordered the runway. Much shorter. Obviously the preferred and more daring route.
Because the Tawau airport was busy during Konfrontasi, a system had been set up to alert everyone to the pending arrival of an airplane. An air traffic controller hoisted a large white flag to the top of a sturdy bamboo pole on the wooden airport control tower. When the flag went up, everyone knew that the runway was off limits and that a plane could be expected to land soon. If the flag was lowered, activity around the runway resumed.
After we finished a day of teaching at GJSS one day, my PCV friend Maryanne and I climbed aboard my motorbike, intent on crossing the runway on our way downtown. We edged off the school sports field, crossed the deep drainage ditch that paralleled the east side of the runway, and stopped. The white flag was up, signifying that a plane was in the vicinity. We didn't hear or see one anywhere. Just as we braked to a stop, the air traffic controller walked out onto the ledge of the control tower and began gesturing at us energetically with both arms. Maryanne and I debated what his instructions meant, and we concluded that he was trying to indicate that it was still safe to cross the runway in spite of the white flag flapping above him.
We began to cross the runway. About half way, I looked to my right and fixed my gaze on the outline of an airplane on final approach from the north. I goosed the motorbike, and we made it to the other side without really coming close to a collision with the landing plane.
The RAF traffic controller was apoplectic. I bore the brunt of his anger, although I'm certain I would have been in much greater trouble if Maryanne hadn't been on the back of my bike. I had violated the rule of the signal flag! What was far worse, THIS aircraft was part of the Queen's Flight, a Hawker Siddeley 748 twin turboprop. What's more, the plane was piloted by HRH Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, the husband of the Queen of England! (Philip had been a rated pilot since 1959 and flew both helicopters and airplanes.) Only when I learned the pilot's identity did I understand the air traffic controller's rage. That also explained why there had been armed Malaysian troops positioned along the drainage ditch as we had begun our crossing.
Prince Philip completed his royal inspection of all the British troops in the area and left a couple of days later. I went up to the airport to watch him board the plane with the Queen's crest emblazoned on the fuselage to the right of the door. I crossed that runway many more times after HRH left, but never when the white banner was flapping atop the bamboo flagpole. I had learned my lesson.
On February 9, 1999, I looked out the window of my Malaysian Air 737 jet on the tarmac at that same Tawau airport, waiting to leave the town I had grown to love thirty-four years earlier. My old school building was visible across the same runway, and I could still approximate the very point where we had made our notorious motorbike crossing in 1965. It was a nostalgic moment.
FRESH BREAD, FRESH COFFEE AND GHEE
Tawau was an isolated place in 1964, accessible only by one daily Dakota flight or by Straits Steamship every couple of weeks. There were no highways to anywhere. Television was unheard of in Borneo. The battery-powered Philips short-wave radio provided by the Peace Corps brought occasional BBC news and propaganda from China. Access to telephones was mostly undependable and always expensive.
Under those circumstances, Peace Corps Volunteers survived and prospered by learning to appreciate and anticipate small pleasures. The previous week's international editions of "Time" and "Newsweek" usually arrived on Friday afternoon for the reader to discover what was happening in the outside world. One could become absorbed with the news for an entire weekend.
Small pleasures were wholly idiosyncratic. In my case, one enduring pleasant memory is arising early enough to get down to the bakery to buy a still-warm loaf of white bread. Fresh bread, New Zealand butter and canned strawberries from the Huat Lee cold storage made for a perfect start of the day.
But the senses were aroused even more by a unique little place near the shophouses along Chester Street in Tawau. To get to the bakery, I had to drive past a small open shed across the street from the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank. Inside the shed was a huge wok with a diameter of about four feet. A laborer stirred the contents of the wok with a large wooden paddle. The aroma of large quantities of roasting coffee in the cool morning air was fantastic enough, but numerous coffee shops in Malaysia often added ghee to the roasting process, producing and even richer fragrance. Furthermore, the beans were roasted longer and darker. The ghee and the dark roast produced an unbelievably delicious cup of coffee. Anyone who has ever sat in a coffee shop in Kuching, Sibu, Kota Kinabalu or Sandakan will still summon that fragrance to their nostrils and smile broadly.
A couple of other fragrances deserve mention. In the evenings I often spent time on Tawau's municipal wharf. Traders in small wooden craft tied up there to bring in and haul out all kinds of goods. Often there were small boats from the Celebes (now Sulawesi) and from the Moluccas. Bags full of whole nutmegs often filled the air with the smell of that spice. More common, however, was the unique, oily sweet smell of copra. The hotter the day, the more pungent the aroma. Both were unforgettable.
Just why that small tin-roofed shed was situated on the corner of a vacant lot was something I never learned. What I know, though, is that driving past when the coffee and ghee were being blended in the sizzling wok was one of those seemingly small, insignificant events that gave rise to sensory pleasure in a time and place where small satisfactions could make the entire day.
"THE MILITIAMEN ARE RECEIVING THEIR GUNS TODAY."
The sports padang at Government Junior Secondary School was about the size of two soccer fields. It doubled occasionally as a drill site for conscripts in the local militia. The home guard was an important, if not particularly battle ready, supplement to all the other military forces in the area. They guarded public facilities around Tawau, but not much more. Elite fighting units they were not.
I watched a new batch of militia members arrive aboard lorries one afternoon as I sat in a friend's home across the road from the sports field. One of the lorries also bore several large wooden crates. The militia members formed into ranks, and training them to march in step got underway. Back and forth across the dusty field they trudged. Each recruit carried a wooden stick instead of a rifle. I watched as the officers present worked to establish discipline among boys and young men from the ulu who knew very little about military organization or the reason they had been recruited in the first place.
I started to leave my friend's house a while later. As I descended the front steps, a British officer came running toward me as fast as he could make his legs move. He obviously had something to say and began yelling, "Get back inside! Get back inside!" I complied.
The officer came to the front door and ordered everyone to stay inside and away from all windows and doors until the all- clear was signaled. My curiosity got the best of me, and I asked why our movements were being restricted so severely. The officer looked at me and said, "This is a bit embarrassing, but it's for your own safety. The militiamen are getting their real guns today."
We remained invisible inside until the trucks pulled away at dusk.
Another small pleasure in Tawau during 1964-65 was witnessing the arrival or departure of the Gurkha Rifles. The legendary and incredibly disciplined Nepali fighting men usually arrived at the airport aboard RAF Argosy twin-boom turboprop transports. Platoons were then posted deep in the ulu along Sabah's border with Indonesia. When an Argosy arrived with a new deployment of Gurkhas, small crowds gathered at the terminal for the ceremony. The Gurkha Rifles invariably disembarked from the transport in tight formation, wearing their distinctive hats with the bent brim. They literally marched off the wide rear loading ramp of the aircraft in double step under the watchful eyes of their British officers, who often carried swagger sticks that matched their style.
The contrast between the tall, fair- skinned officers and the very short, powerfully built Gurkha fighting men was dramatic. Combined, however, the officers and soldiers presented a military image of absolute fearlessness and total command of the situation. Their reputation for never taking prisoners alive preceded them and must have struck fear into the hearts of the Indonesian incursionists who operated along the border. To top it off, each Gurkha wore a sheathed kukri. The kukri: that famous curve-bladed killing knife used only by the Gurkhas. In a capsule, it was a REAL SHOW!
A brief bit of trivia here. After "Konfrontasi" ended, a few Gurkhas returned to Borneo as civilians to raise vegetables on the slopes of Mount Kinabalu. They found the mountain and the Kadazan farmers in the area similar to their environs in their homeland in Nepal.
THE HOVERCRAFT EXPERIMENT
Military conflicts around the world have always provided opportunities to test new, experimental weapons under actual combat conditions. That was true during "Konfrontasi." Within walking distance of my house in Tawau, the Royal Navy decided to field-test its SR.N5 air cushion vehicle, popularly known as the Hovercraft, for the first time in early 1965. In fact, these tests were probably the very first military applications of air cushion vehicles anywhere in the world. Two early model Hovercraft were deployed in my town for many months and were being evaluated for coastal patrol and logistic support of Commonwealth troops on Sebatik Island and in the estuaries west of Tawau. Built by British Hovercraft, the SR.N5 was powered by a single Rolls Royce turbine. It provided forward propulsion (via a large propeller mounted on the back of the craft) and downward air pressure which caused the machine to rise above the surface on its rubber skirts.
The SR.N5 appeared completely helpless when not in motion. It was like a duck sitting on a rubber nest---low, squat and motionless---on the narrow beach below the Tawau Resident's home. When powered up, though, it was both fast and noisy. It carried about a dozen soldiers. Speed must have been the most redeeming feature of the Hovercraft. It could not have been stealth; it was far too noisy. As one or both of them skimmed across Cowie Bay, I could hear them approaching miles away. Not only was the Hovercraft noisy. It also had a distinctive sound unlike any aircraft or ship. Certainly the Indonesians must have identified them easily.
One day as I watched a football (soccer) game at the town padang, two American Navy officers approached me. That was a very strange occurrence because we never saw American military in Tawau. They were there to observe the use of the two Hovercraft in combat. We had a brief but pleasant conversation. They were just as surprised to see a Peace Corps Volunteer there as I was to see them.
Beginning in 1967, the U. S. Navy began using a slightly larger version of the Hovercraft, the SR.N6, in the Mekong Delta. I wondered whether its introduction into that much larger Southeast Asian war was an outgrowth, in part, of the military observers' visit to Tawau a couple of years earlier. Later, in the Persian Gulf War, our Navy used behemoth relatives of the SR.N6 called LCACs (landing craft/air cushioned) successfully.
For all we know, this naval innovation got its start in a coastal town in Borneo.
AMERICA'S CHINESE PRESIDENT
When I taught English at GJSS in Tawau, all the students were Chinese, the sons and daughters of towkays and farmers who had settled in the area years earlier. Most of them spoke Hakka, a somewhat more gutteral and less demanding dialect than Mandarin. The administrative and teaching staff consisted of a delightful mixture of Chinese and Indians. Our principal was Mr. Ngee Kut Keng.
Our job was to remove all the students between Form Three and Form Four for a year of intensive English language instruction. The goal was to prepare them for the Junior Cambridge Examination after completion of Form Four. The "remove class" was an experiment unique to this school. We did not have a great deal of guidance about how it should be conducted. We were given two texts published by the English Language Institute at the University of Michigan and then told, in effect, to teach the students English all day every day.
They were a willing group and deserved much better than I could provide. As their facility in English improved, some of the students enjoyed making jokes about English words and surnames. Sometimes a word seemed funny to them solely because of its sound. Other times, a word was humorous because its pronunciation was roughly comparable to a salacious term in Hakka or Mandarin.
Lyndon Johnson was president then, basking in the afterglow of his success with the Civil Rights Act and whatever residual affection he acquired when he assumed the presidency upon JFK's assassination. The Vietnam War had not yet begun to strangle Johnson. One of the students in my "remove class"---I think it may have been Lim Seng Neng--- grinned broadly one day and asked whether I was aware that the President of the United States was Chinese. I took the bait and replied that that was news to me. I asked who this Chinese President of America was.
"John Soong," he said, flashing his ever-present smile.
A SEA OF SNAKES
By no means was she a cruise ship. The M. S. Kinabalu was a 4,500-ton cargo carrier that plied the waters between Singapore and Sabah for the Straits Steamship Company. Tawau was the last port of call on each voyage of the Kinabalu and her sister ships. Each one sported a few passenger cabins and a combined bar and small dining room. Maintained and staffed in the finest of British colonial traditions, the small ships were a clean and comfortable way to navigate the stunningly beautiful coast of Sabah.
During a school holiday in 1965, my supervisor sent me from Tawau to Kudat to work on some curriculum plans. He was kind enough to book passage aboard the Kinabalu, a real treat for a Peace Corps Volunteer. The trip is etched in memory because of three events along the way.
Along the main deck, the Kinabalu had a small library for its first-class passengers. It seated no more than one or two, but its sliding doors provided remarkable "National Geographic" vistas of the turquoise water and volcanic islands as we steamed through the Celebes Sea and then into the Sulu Sea. As I sat reading in the library one afternoon, the steward approached me and said, "Tea time, sir." I thanked him and said that I would take tea there in the library. He replied that tea must be taken in one's cabin. I tried to convince him that I should be permitted my cup of orange pekoe, my biscuits, and my fresh fruit there. Unsuccessful, I followed him meekly to my small cabin, with its small porthole, where he delighted in serving afternoon tea in the proper, prescribed manner. It was an amusing lesson in the rigidity of British routines concerning one of the social practices of truly civilized people.
Another vivid recollection was watching Moslem passengers respond to the call to prayer. The men, wearing their songkoks and checkered sarongs, gathered on the ship's fantail five times a day, spread their prayer rugs on the bleached deck, and faced Mecca to pray. It was a small scene to the casual Western observer--- nothing more than a very colorful snapshot---but it symbolized the great power of Islam, which would ascend mightily in East Malaysia from that time onward. What a memorable snapshot!
Finally, the trip aboard the Kinabalu provided a chance sighting that few humans have ever witnessed. As we sailed north of Semporna on a hot, sunny day in a calm Sulu Sea, we cut through a huge congregation of sea snakes. It took literally minutes to slice through thousands of yellow-bellied serpents basking on the surface. Thousands upon thousands of them, writhing in the crystal clear water! According to Sherman Minton, who wrote an article in "Oceans" in 1978, "this tendency to gather in great numbers at the surface is an enigmatic aspect of sea snakes."
During the Vietnam War, helicopter pilots over the South China Sea also reported this rare sea snake phenomenon, according to Minton. Like other experiences in Borneo, I count myself incredibly lucky to have witnessed this strange habit of one of Earth's tropical creatures.
THE ROOSTER STOPPED CROWING ON SEPTEMBER 30
This sketch might easily be entitled "The End of the Year of Living Dangerously." Anyone interested in President Sukarno in the '60s should watch "The Year of Living Dangerously" on videotape. It is a remarkable movie.
When Sukarno went to war with Malaysia in January, 1963, he stated, "We will support the North Kalimantan Unitary State and carry out confrontation until Malaysia is pulverized into dust. We will not be toyed with. We are the rooster that crows for the rising sun of the Far East. Malaysia will be crushed."
Less than three years later, Sukarno himself was "crushed" in what started out as a Communist-led coup d'etat. Who was responsible for his ultimate downfall is still very much in debate, but it is clear that the United States, Britain, and Germany were deeply concerned about the rapidly rising influence of the Indonesian Communist Party, or PKI, in the country's internal affairs. There is little doubt that the United States aided the anti-Sukarno forces in numerous ways as far back as the late 1950s, but that's not the subject of this vignette.
Sukarno's demise as president began on September 30, 1965, in what is now known as "Gerakan 30 September", or the "September 30 Movement." I was about two months away from completing my first Peace Corps assignment on the Malaysia- Indonesia border. I could stand on the municipal wharf in Tawau and look southward across Cowie Bay into Indonesia two miles away; it was that close.
I learned of the Sukarno's fall from power shortly before it was known to the world. A British gentleman whose name I remember very well lived up the street from me. He was with the Special Branch. We talked casually occasionally, and I got to know him as a friendly and well informed person. He often walked down the street in front of my house, and he stopped at the front door one day at the very beginning of October. Without much ado, Laurie proclaimed with a sly smile, "You don't know this yet, but Sukarno has just been overthrown."
I doubted what the Special Branch officer said because this news was so completely unexpected. As the days passed, though, word did begin filtering out that a transition was, in fact, in progress and that Sukarno was in difficulty.
I've never figured why Laurie chose to pass this bit of intelligence along to me. I can only surmise that he knew it would become public soon and that he and the Commonwealth forces would be able to leave that tropical backwater where they had been resisting Indonesia for more than two years.
The overthrow of Sukarno set in motion an unparalleled purge of the Chinese in Java and the rest of Indonesia that began a few weeks later. The number of Chinese deaths has never been ascertained, but estimates range as high as two million. Only a fraction were active PKI sympathizers. It remains the most terrible blemish on contemporary Indonesian history.
Anyone interested in the origins Konfrontasi must read Greg Poulgrain's meticulously researched 1998 book, The Genesis of Konfrontasi. The author, a professor at Queensland University of Technology, theorizes that Confrontation was instigated by Anglo-American intelligence planners as an anti-Sukarno stratagem and as a way of forcing a reluctant Sarawak to join Malaysia in 1963. This stratagem was carried out in spite of President Kennedy's attempts to end Konfrontasi by befriending Sukarno in 1962. Poulgrain's book is a fascinating new addition to the extensive literature on Konfrontasi.
I had come to Sabah during the height of Konfrontasi, and I left the Malaysia-Indonesia border as the little war wound down. It ended officially at a peace conference in Bangkok in 1966.
SUNDARI BINTI SOYO AND THE NIGHT
Sundari binti Soyo was a jolly, rather plump Javanese woman with a mouth full of gold inlay. She always dressed in an immaculate, beautiful sarong and kebaya. My housemates and I inherited her services from the first group of volunteers who occupied "the Peace Corps house" in Tawau. She cleaned and cooked for us occasionally, and we paid her monthly from our meager living allowance. It was she who taught me how to buy fish and prawns and crab that were still fresh, not "busok." She lived a few blocks away at the Tawau Residency, where her main job was to be the maid and cook for Mrs. George, the wife of the British Resident. Sundari was known throughout Tawau as an outstanding cook of Javanese fare, and she was often hired out to prepare large feasts.
Sundari also had an amazing green thumb; she could make anything grow. She planted a huge variety of beautiful tropical shrubs and flowers outside the house. They bloomed constantly. The banisters on the front porch were lined with pots of plants, flowers, and herbs. I can still smell the lemon grass. She did all this out of simple generosity and out of an inborn Indonesian appreciation of beauty and color.
Sundari even found a rare night blooming cereus (known in Sabah as the "bunga rajah") and tended it carefully on my front porch as it grew taller and taller. This flower has a reputation for blooming only once every few---is it seven?--- years. The large, single white blossom opens only during the night, and it wilts completely before next daylight. It is a charm to have these plants bloom in one's presence. Our night blooming cereus blossomed shortly before I left Tawau at the end of 1965. We watched its progress from birth to death through the night.
But Sundari's generosity was not unlimited. A few days before I left Tawau, she took a parang and cut down every single plant she had placed around the house, including a large hibiscus bush. The pots vanished from the porch. I was surprised to see how plain the house looked absent her handiwork. She did not know who would be living there next, and she was not interested in having another person enjoy the floral beauty she had created. It was also her touching way of saying goodbye.
THE WILD MAN OF BORNEO AND TWO U. S. SENATORS
After a month back in the States, I returned to Sabah in February, 1966, as Associate Peace Corps Director.
The Peace Corps office in Jesselton (now Kota Kinabalu) was the only U. S. government office in the state. The nearest American consulate was in Kuching, Sarawak, a couple of hours away. Therefore, Peace Corps staff in Sabah were called upon occasionally to carry out small assignments on behalf of the State Department that would have been delegated to some other element of the "country team" in any other country where the U. S. had diplomatic representation.
At the end of 1966, we were asked to do the advance work and then host two U. S. senators who were coming to Sabah. They were senators Gale McGee (D-Wyoming) and Frank Moss (D-Utah). We greeted them when they arrived at the Jesselton airport aboard a U. S. Air Force MATS C- 121 Super Constellation. The interior of the aircraft was beautifully appointed with plush executive seating designed for congressional junkets such as this one. McGee, Moss, their wives, and a few staff members had just been to Hong Kong and Saigon on their way to Sabah, and the aft baggage compartment in the cabin of the plane was crammed full of boxes of booty from their earlier stopovers in the shopping havens.
We laid on a nice visit for the two senators. They met informally with a representative group of Peace Corps Volunteers in the lobby of the Borneo Hotel in Tanjung Aru. They paid courtesy calls on Sabah's Yang de Pertua Negara (head of state) and the chief minister.
But why had these two American pols come to Sabah, of all places? The answer lay in the fact that Senator McGee was an avid photographer. He had picked up fancy new camera equipment in Hong Kong. Shortly after the dignitaries arrived, the MATS pilot asked me whether it would be possible for Senator McGee to charter a helicopter. I replied that I would find out, and I asked what the purpose and destination of the helicopter flight would be. The MATS pilot responded somewhat hesitantly that Senator McGee wanted to go into the jungle to photograph the fabled "Wild Man of Borneo." It took me a while to convince the pilot that there was really no such person or tribe in Sabah in 1966, and the idea of a chopper flight into the ulu to photograph cannibalistic savages died shortly thereafter. A helicopter was not chartered. Instead, we took the entourage to a colorful native market in Papar, where Senator McGee delighted in trying out his new camera equipment.
The distinguished junketeers departed for their next stop, Jakarta. Later, I received a very complimentary thank-you letter from Ambassador James Bell in Kuala Lumpur. The embassy must have considered the visit a success. I hoped that Senator McGee had been convinced once and for all that the "Wild Man of Borneo" was really the "Mild Man of Borneo."
Jesselton, the post-war capital city of Sabah, would not do as a proper Malay name after Merdeka in 1963. After Malaysia came into existence, Jesselton was renamed Kota Kinabalu in 1968. Situated on the west coast of Sabah and hugging the Crocker Range, "K.K." is a wonderful place. I had the good fortune to live there for more than two years, first in a home along Penampang Road. Later, I moved into a two-bedroom apartment in a house that I shared with a Chinese goldsmith, Tham Shin Hup, and his young family near the Radio Sabah headquarters.
I spent many weekends snorkeling with friends around the beautiful islands that lie a mile offshore in the South China Sea. Although there is a great deal I might say about my time in Kota Kinabalu, three brief sketches will do.
The Chinese constituted about 23% of the population of Sabah in 1960. Many of them had been born on the Chinese mainland and wound up in places like Sabah because of any number of historical events that made relocation advisable. One fact of Chinese history and culture that I witnessed in K. K. was the occasional sighting of an elderly woman with bound feet. Breaking the bones and then binding a young girl's feet tightly with cloth strips so that they would grow to no more than three or four inches during her lifetime was a sure symbol of gentility and high class, according to those who practiced this horrible deformation of the human body. The tiny feet were then placed in elaborately embroidered "lotus shoes." Walking was often difficult or impossible, accomplished painfully only with the aid of a cane in both hands. Hip and lower back disorders were common and debilitating results of the practice. Foot binding had begun about a thousand years ago and had been outlawed only at the end of the last Chinese dynasty in 1911. (It continued to be practiced in rural areas of China until the 1930s, however.)
It would be insensitive to say that I count myself lucky to have seen some of these old women hobbling around on canes. What impresses me still, though, is that I witnessed firsthand a unique cultural practice that few Westerners have ever observed and which will, thankfully, be a thing of the past in only a few more years. Meanwhile, the two old ladies with bound feet and walking canes who sat on the high porch of their home along Penampang Road remain etched in my mind's eye.
Another group of refugees who stood out in K. K. were Sikh bank guards. They were posted as silent sentinels, invariably with huge double-barreled shotguns, at the entrances to most banks in K. K. They never said anything; they just sat there, formidable both because of their weaponry and because they were large, proud, powerfully built people.
My office was located on the third floor of the Chung Khiaw Bank Building, and the bank's Sikh guard was always there, crouching on the sidewalk, eyeing every passerby. As many times as I passed by him for more than two years, he never gave me more than a piercing stare.
Why were all the bank guards Sikhs? Why were they in K. K.? The answer, I learned, was that these natives of the Indian subcontinent had also been bank guards in China before Mao Jedong took power in 1949. So, with the mass exodus of Chinese Nationalists during the late 1940s, the Indian Sikhs living in China also saw the Communist handwriting on the wall and emigrated to places like Sabah, where they resumed working as fearsome bank guards.
The final K. K. sketch concerns the Nam Hing Restaurant. In the 1960s, it featured delicious and inexpensive Cantonese food. On Sunday mornings, it served steamed dim sum and was always crowded for those delicacies. Peace Corps Volunteers and staff members frequented the Nam Hing because it was close to the Peace Corps headquarters. The restaurant's owner put a large jar of fresh, homemade chili sauce on every table. It went great with steamed rice! I will never forget the gray-haired matriarch who sat at a side bench early every morning squeezing the juice out of hundreds of fresh limes into a bowl. After a couple of gallons of lime juice had been extracted, she combined it with salt, garlic and red chilies. The mixture was allowed to age in a refrigerator for a time and was then transferred to the bottles on patrons' tables. It was the most delicious chili sauce one could imagine; I've experienced nothing that tasty since. The Nam Hing's cooks also had a special recipe for preparing sweet and sour pork that gave it a unique taste and consistency.
When I walked into the Nam Hing in February, 1999 after an absence of more than thirty years, a few things had changed. Air conditioning had been added. (I do not think that qualifies as an "improvement.) The beautiful white marble that had graced the tabletops had been replaced by unattractive Formica. But, wonder of wonders, the jars of homemade chili sauce were still there, and the concoction was just as delicious as ever. Grandmother must have passed her recipe along before she went to her higher reward. And the sweet and sour pork? Its unique taste and crunch were unchanged.
I studied the towkay carefully for a while and concluded that, thirty years older, he was the same man who had supervised the restaurant when many of us had frequented it in the 1960s. He limped thirty years ago, and he limped now. He hovered over the cash drawer now just as he had then. He shouted his customers' orders back to the kitchen the same way.
I was in a time warp in 1999, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
BLOOD ON THE BITUMEN
Keningau was a quiet village and the government center for the Interior Residency of Sabah. There was only one road into and out of town. As I walked south along the left shoulder one day, I noticed huge, dried splotches of what could only be blood on the bitumen. A single spot might have been explainable, but there were many. What could account for large, round bloodstains on the surface of the road?
The answer became apparent as I approached the back end of a water buffalo being led along by its owner. Leeches were firmly dug into the tender tissue at the animal's backside and were engorging themselves with its blood. They became distended, reaching a length of five or six inches and the thickness of an adult's finger, and then they simply dropped or were swatted off that tender part of the water buffalo's anatomy onto the road surface. As the occasional Land Rover or Toyota Land Cruiser drove over the huge parasites, they burst like water balloons and left their telltale marks on the pavement.
A beautiful terrace house unit in Taman Semarak
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