Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Early Chinese Settlers in British North Borneo

My father hinted that our ancestors had hailed from China but other than saying the family name was ‘Lee’ he volunteered hardly any details. And I, being the timid child I was, pretended I wasn’t interested in dead moyangs who had braved the elements and sailed across the South China Sea. As an adult I was scared to pry for fear of disturbing a skeleton or two in the old family cupboard.

But when you’re surrounded by Chinese, being spoken to in Hakka or Mandarin because “Oh? Kau putih betul orh? Saya pikir kau Cina!”, and married into a Chinaman family, it’s good to know a little about their origin—why, when and how they came to North Borneo. So I did a little snooping around and discovered the following:

An early Chinese settlement in Luyang?
The Chinese have been coming to our shores since time immemorial. According to one historian, Brunei had already established relations with the Middle Kingdom in 518 AD. The Chinese had come to trade, naturally, and by the ninth century, trade between Brunei and China had increased.

In 1521 when Pigafetta (1491 – 1534) visited Brunei, there were already thousands of Chinese cultivating pepper gardens in Brunei. When you consider that NB was Brunei’s jajahan, it’s easy to see how the Chinese population would have spilled over into Sabah.

[Pigafetta sailed around the world with Magellan and was one of the eighteen who lived to tell about their incredible voyage.]

During the NBCC era, the British thought the Chinese would be an asset to the Company because they were ‘hardworking, money-loving Chinese’ who came and worked as traders, shopkeepers and artisans, and coolies in rubber and tobacco plantations. (The NBCC had actually preferred the Chinese labourers, over the other races, to work in the tobacco plantations.) There were, however, very few engaged in agriculture—vegetable gardening or rice cultivation. Farmers were needed to grow food to feed the growing population.  

From 'Journal of Southeast Asian Studies' by Amity Doolittle
The natives, the British discovered, were not keen to produce more food than they needed. They were, essentially, subsistence farmers who were hunter-gatherers or engaged in shifting cultivation. So boatloads of Chinese were brought by the British to open up farms in North Borneo.

Source: Bonding with Gaya Street 2012

The responsibility of selecting suitable recruits and arranging their free passages was given to the Basel Mission which, in turn, employed agents in China to look for suitable Hakka families. Why Hakkas? Because the NBCC thought that the Hakkas were natural farmers, the kind who could ‘tickle the soil with a hoe and make it smile with a harvest.’

It was actually a win-win situation because the NBCC wanted ‘tillers of the soil’ and the Hakkas wanted to escape persecution which was caused by the fall of the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom. Then, there was also the shortage of food, the result of natural disasters. Through the Basel Mission, the Chinese were helped to migrate elsewhere, including Hawaii, Malaya and NB.

Whereas in Malaya the recruits were needed to work in tin mines or to cut down forests on lands which would become tin mines, those chosen for NB were to work as farmers on plots given to them free! Land didn’t cost too much then because, as pointed out by one urang putih: “Who would want NB? Leave it to the monkeys!” When Jose Rizal, the Filipino patriot, wanted to settle down in NB he was told he could buy land at $3.00 (yes, three dollars!) an acre. That was in 1892.

Anyway, back to my Chinese story…

In 1913 the first batch of twenty two (NBCC-sponsored) families landed in Kudat and were taken by boat to Jesselton and then up the Darau River to their final destinations. These pioneers were given temporary lodgings on arrival before each family was allocated ten acres of land along the north-south coastal strip making up Telipok, Menggatal and Inanam. More families arrived and three years later they totalled 89 households comprising of 346 individuals.

Each family was given everything they needed to start a farm. The government built a house on their respective plot and they were given “two pigs, four hens, one cock, five ducks, four earthen baskets, two changkols, two parang (bengkok), one big axe, one parang, three bamboo hats, one mosquito net, kitchen utensils including Chinese frying pan, one tin bucket, two empty kerosene oil tins, one rice pot, one vegetable chopper and one rice spoon.” Such a long list for each household! (I have a feeling the parang bengkok is a rimbas, no?)

Rice Farming: ‘The Chinese’ by Danny Wong Tze Ken
Regular inspections were carried out to make sure the recruits were okay. The NBCC even asked the shopkeepers in Menggatal to extend these new-comers credit for their daily necessities until they could fend for themselves.

Each family cultivated their respective ten-acre plot. They prospered and there were families who could afford to buy more land and thus enlarged their properties. Some supplemented their incomes by working elsewhere…sawing planks, joining the road gang, blacksmithing. Two families in Telipok kept shops. They settled down.

 They applied for land to build churches and schools, which they ran themselves, and a burial ground to bury their dead. Long before the natives had schools built for them, the Chinese kids were already going to school, such was their enthusiasm for education.

Perhaps your Chinese ancestors came on their own like Mr. Hubby’s paternal (Hakka) grandfather who came here with his family—to escape persecution—and they bought and cultivated their own plot of land in Inanam. Maybe your ancestor opened a shop like my friend, Andrew’s, grandfather did in Tuaran. 

Or you could be like me. You know only your Chinese family name and little else. 

Ref: The Hakka Experiment in Sabah  (Commemorative Publication)  Zhang Delai
The Chinese by Danny Wong Tze Ken 


  1. I am once again wowed by your post about Sabah's history or in this case the Chinese in Sabah. I can totally relate to this cos my grandfather came to KK in the early 1940s to escape the communist invasion in China. He wasn't given a land to cultivate but dad told me he worked for the British missionary and followed the priests masuk kampung.I really love the way you write history. It isn't dry or boring :D

  2. enjoyed reading that. keep up the good work.

  3. Great post! Hakka means "guest people". They are the Jews of the east. So maybe they are also a perfect choice because they are used to nomadic live. :P

  4. What a good dose of Sabah's history.
    And what a surprise to learn that you may have some Chinese blood in you.

    By the way, I have finished writing the story 'They Found Me'. Read it when you are free. Please bear with my weak language.

  5. I thoroughly enjoyed this post :) more please? :P

  6. Another good writeup Tina,I enjoyed the read !

  7. Very interesting reading.. I have made a research on our family roots and found out I am the 8th generation of Ngu Tung San of the Hokkien dialect who came to Sabah from Shenjen in China in the early part of 1800s, married two local women.