Monday, August 21, 2017

The Storyteller from Signal Hill

(Several years ago I was involved in a community project in KK. An important part of this project was collecting stories from members of the public to compile into a book. I met and spoke to a number of people who graciously shared their stories. One storyteller was this guy who also showed great interest in the old pictures we stuck on the walls of the Gaya Street shops. That was how I found him--- looking at the pictures.)

Francis—born on Signal Hill in 1945, at a time when Jesselton had been reduced to smoky piles of rubble—has enough stories to keep his listeners enthralled from morning till nightfall and still the telling would not be done. However, the stories need to be coaxed out of him but once he’s convinced he has an interested listener, the words tumble out effortlessly.



Even his name has an interesting tale. His father, also named Francis, gave the same name to two sons and also named his daughter Francisca!

“My father named us after his favourite saint,” he explains, “Saint Francis of Assisi.”

Francis’s grandfather and his wife were among the Hakka families recruited by the North Borneo Chartered Company to start farms in North Borneo. They landed in Kudat but made their way to Jesselton where Grandfather Chong became a trader dealing in sundries and selling them to the local community including the Bajau fishermen in Jesselton.



Francis spent his early childhood on his grandmother’s farm and among the families of Hakkas who cultivated vegetables for the market and grew rubber on Signal Hill.  These were deeply religious people who, along with Grandfather Chong, built a church on the hill. It was a Basel Mission Church and it doubled as a school. It was where Francis had his early education before he moved to Sacred Heart Primary School and later to Sabah College.

His father was a high court clerk who was proficient in Malay, Chinese, Kadazan and English.  His office, on the hill near the Atkinson Clock Tower, had a magnificent view of the town and the South China Sea. As a government servant, he was provided with quarters so the family need not live in the attap-roofed, zinc-walled houses built on stilts over the sea where, on windy days the houses shook and during high tides the walls were slapped and hit by incessant waves.

“My father’s government house was one of several arranged in neat rows near the beach in Tanjung Aru,” Francis says. “It was spacious and although all the government houses were built of attap and kajang there were no cases of fire.” Perhaps people were more cautious then, knowing the fragility of their situation especially when there was only the Armed Constabulary to turn to when there were fires because a fire brigade was non-existent.

What does Francis remember most about living in the kajang houses?

“I could hide in the attic,” he says. He smiles broadly before he continues. “The toilet… well, it wasn’t really what you’d call a toilet today. Each house had an outhouse some distance from the living quarters. There was a bucket placed underneath a hole and every morning a man we called Ah Pak would remove the bucket and pour the waste into another pail. Then he had to clean the empty bucket with water before replacing it in the outhouse. I was told he was paid three hundred dollars although I had no way of finding out whether it was true or otherwise.” He shook his head as though he couldn’t believe that there were people who didn’t mind working as a shit collector.

In Jesselton itself, latrines were built directly over the sea and narrow timber catwalks connected them to the land. Passing boats could be rowed very near the latrines and many townsfolk were known to sit nervously in the cubicles because they could not dismiss the possibility that a passing boatman might just use an oar or a pole to poke him in the rear just for fun.

There was a time when one latrine was painted white and another, some distance away, was red. No one now remembers why there was a white toilet and a red toilet. Perhaps one was for males and the other for females? Or it was convenient to tell a family member: "I’m at the red latrine if anyone looks for me”!

Francis himself worked at various jobs that included living in the wild and collecting soil samples as a Junior Agricultural Assistant. He later became a policeman but left the police force so he could go on his own adventures and chase dreams instead of law-breakers.

No comments:

Post a Comment