Friday, 23 January 2009

Immigrants In Colonial Malaya and Borneo: a pictorial account (7)

Transportation in Colonial Malaya

Modern transportation in the country owed its beginning to Indian labourers brought in to build railways and later roads. In the late 19th century railway lines were laid and managed almost exclusively by Tamils from Sri Lanka and southern India.

Thursday, 22 January 2009

Immigrants In Colonial Malaya and Borneo: a pictorial account (6)

Rickshaw: the human powered transport

Talking about rickshaw coolies in British Malaya led me to thinking about this popular transport in the late 18th and early 19th century in other parts of the world. Japan is credited with its invention known as 'jinrikisha'.

The Japanese rickshaw

The rickshaw in Singapore

Rickshaws in China

A convoy of rickshaws in Vietnam

A rickshaw transporting the memsahib in India

A rickshaw in South Africa

The modern rickshaw, now known as tri-shaw in the tourist state of Melaka

Tuesday, 20 January 2009

Immigrants In Colonial Malaya and Borneo: a pictorial account (5)

The Rickshaw Coolie

I weep for our forebears who came here with big dreams; for most, it was not a matter of choice but of necessity. Forced to starve either as tenant farmers callously exploited by land owners in their impoverished homeland or risk their their lives in an alien land, they took that great leap into the unknown. Being destitute and barely knowing their own written language but possessed of fierce ambition and an iron will, they came, some with only the clothes on their backs to try to earn a decent living so that they could return home in some comfort. Many did not make it of course, succumbing to the harsh conditions of eking out a living.

One special breed of people who seemed to toil against all odds was the rickshaw coolies. The recruiting agencies, invariably controlled by secret societies whose financiers were the rich 'Nanyang' Chinese capitalists, made huge profits from importing coolies, by providing them sea passage to 'Nanyang' after which the coolies would have to work for years to pay off the cost of the ticket. This modus operandi was repeated in the tin mines and farms in both the Straits Settlements as well as the Malay states that came under British control. James Warren's account of the procurement and control of rickshaw coolies in Singapore is probably reflective of the situation in the Malay states.

Hoping to own their own rickshaws one day, the newly arrived coolies hired rickshaws from either individual owners or 'syndicates' to ply the streets to pay off their passage leaving barely enough to satisfy their basic daily needs. Many of course would never be able to own one as the licences to operate a rickshaw were controlled by 'syndicates' with connections to the colonial government and rickshaws too expensive for an indentured labourer to save up to buy. Many succumbed to the lure of 'da yen' or 'great smoke'(opium) to alleviate their suffering. Those strong and experienced worked the day shift, when there were more customers while those who were inexperienced or on opium worked the night shift to avoid the intense heat of the day. However, a strong rickshaw coolie could make much more than other coolies, averaging 1.70 to 2.00 dollars a day gross in comparison with a coolie who worked in the dockyards (50 cents) or a labourer in tine mines (70 cents). Not every coolie could pull a rickshaw; he had to belong to either the Cantonese clan or the Foochow clan which controlled the business in Singapore.

In the early days of colonial rule, the control and regulation of the life of the 'inscrutable' Chinese migrants were left very much to the 'respectable' Chinese capitalists who, apart from being the either the heads of secret societies or their financiers controlled every business dealing with the migrants.

It is always the same story; the rich would always exploit the ignorant and the poor, whether in the past or in modern times.

For an insight into the rickshaw coolies, James Warren's "Rickshaw Coolie: a People History of Singapore 1880-1940" provides an excellent account.

Sunday, 18 January 2009

Do Birds Commit Suicide?

The other day, I was in the office when I heard a heavy thud against the glass door. I was startled to see a flock of birds, one of which flew at great speed and smashed against the door and dropped dead. Was it suicide? Was the bird sick or injured, or disoriented? Judging by its physical appearance, it was not injured in any way. We have heard stories of animals including birds commit suicide. The most famous of course are the lemmings which reportedly committed mass suicide due to some deep rooted impulses. One story has it that it was Walt Disney that perpetrated this myth in its movie "Wild Wilderness" released in 1958 that depicted lemmings jumping off the cliff. One theory has it that sick or injured animals including birds do commit suicide to bring a quicker end to their existence. I wonder if this bird was suffering from some kind of sickness. Or was it merely an accident? It was a sad thing.

Note the globule of blood near the beak

Saturday, 17 January 2009

Immigrants in Colonial Malaya and Borneo: a pictorial account (4)

Opium and the Chinese Coolies in Malaya

Historians have argued that the harsh conditions of work in the tin mines and farms, the tropical heat, debilitating diseases and malnutrition had driven many coolies to seek succour in opium. But it is also probable that many who had left China were themselves already addicts. On the other hand, others have argued that opium fortified them with the energy and strength to endure pain, loneliness and back-breaking work. It was used as a cure for dysentery and fever from Malaria. Many coolies abandoned the tin mines when the supply of opium ran out as they could not work without opium. Whatever the rationalization, the opium trade was a significant contributor to the Malayan economy and made the Colonial business houses and Kapitans China tremendously rich. The kapitans, through kongsis, not only controlled the supply and sale of opium and spirits, but also the gambling dens and the suppy of daily necessities of the coolies , which kept the coolies perpetually in debt.

By the time the coolies came over, millions of Chinese in the mainland were already addicted to opium.

Workers in India processing opium for export to China and the British colonies

By 1885, China herself was already cultivating the poppy to meet burgeoning domestic demands
(Source: Peter Lee: Opium Culture)

Just as people of the west would meet in pubs for their regular doses of beer or liquor, the Chinese would meet in opium dens for their fix (Source: The social life of opium in China by Zheng Yangwen)

Smoking had become a means of hospitality offered to friends, colleagues and guests
(Source: Zheng Yangwen)

The rich of course had the pleasure of ladies attending to their smoking needs in lavish surrounding

(Source: Zheng Yangwen)

The culture of opium smoking had spawn a demand for a class of women well-versed in the art of preparing opium and pipes for their clients. They would also join their clients in the habit (source: Opium Culture: the art and ritual of Chinese tradition by Peter Lee)

For the rich, they had the purest opium and their utensils exquisitely crafted to indulge in the habit. Seen here is a gold plated lamp, black lacquered pipe and other paraphernalia
(source: Opium Culture: the art and ritual of Chinese tradition by Peter Lee)

Pipes with tips of ivory and jade
(Source: Zheng Yangwen)

Pipes with saddles of wrought silver
(Source: Zheng Yangwen)

The opium bowls. Two bowls (below left) shaped in the form of a lady's "golden lotus" ( bound feet, considered to be intensely erotic in the early Qing Dynasty)
(Source: Zheng Yangwen)

James Lee's description of an opium den for the poor in Shanghai ("The Underworld of the East). For the poor, the ultimate reward after daily toil was to smoke a pipe of the lowest grade opium while lying on a coarse mat in a roadside den
(Source: Peter Lee: Opium Culture)

John Blofeld's description of an opium den, Te I Lou in Beijing for the wealthy ("The City of Lingering Splendour" from Peter Lee)

Opium smokers in South East Asia in the early 2oth century

Arguments on why opium was beneficial to both the suppliers and consumers

The Empress Dowager Ci Xi of China's last dynasty, the Qing Dynasty, was an opium smoker herself.

The Chinese called opium "Da yen" or "great smoke" and the pipe "Yen chiang" or "smoking gun". Pretty apt description I must say.

Wednesday, 14 January 2009

Immigrants In Colonial Malaya and Borneo: a pictorial account (3)

Lords of the Eastern Seas

The Somali pirates remind me of the pirates that infested the seas of South East Asia in the 19th century. I digress here, but they deserve mention.

This was what they were after: bird's nest. The Qing Dynasty's demand for it was insatiable; and the Lords of the Eastern Seas, the Illanuns, or the slave raiders profited from a highly lucrative trade of capturing and selling slaves to cave owners to work in birds' nest caves, and to entrepreneurs to collect jungle produce in what is now known as Sabah and Sarawak. Tens of thousands were captured at the height of the increase in trade between Qing China and the European colonialists in South East Asia. The Europeans provided birds' nests to China in exchange for the much sought after Chinese tea and other commodities in the early and latter part of the 19th century.

The Illanuns, who originated from Mindanao (the Philippines) and the islands in its vicinity and owed their allegiance to the sultan of Sulu, and the lesser known Balangingi pirate terrorized the coastal villages and the interior of Borneo in search of slaves to be sold in slave markets. In fact, slave trading began as early as 1768 to supply labour to the nobility to work as bondsmen in their fiefdoms. Whether out of complicity or lack of resources, the colonial powers were unable to stem the rampant slave trade. The English called them "Sulu pirates' while the Dutch branded them a "vile race".

The Qing Emperor. Beside him a bowl of bird's nest soup

The Empress Dowager Cixi and her entourage

Harvesting birds' nests from caves

The distribution system in the procurement and sale of birds' nests

Another valuable commodity was China's porcelain and stoneware. An Iban with his pecious 'pesaka' or heirloom. Apart from its functional value, it was believed to be infused with spirits that protected the owner

An Illanun pirate

Sea robbers as Owen Rutter called them

An Illanun warship. Upward to 100 feet long, it was paddled by more than 190 men. Illanuns were accomplished ship builders and seamen

A slave boat

They raided as far as the Sea of Bengal to the west and as far south as the coast of Papua New Guinea

A slave's account of his capture and bondage (From Sulu Zone, 1768-1878 by James Francis Warren)

How much was a slave worth? ((From Sulu Zone, 1768-1878 by James Francis Warren)


Proud display of skulls. Captured slaves were not only put to work in bird's nest caves, jungles, fisheries and rice farms. The weak, elderly or infirm were sold off for human sacrifices, a ritual among the war-like Ibans of Borneo. Battles with rival tribes used to provide the heads for ritual sacrifices, but the abundant supply of slaves from the Illanuns enabled even the less affluent to perform this ritual.

Iban women carrying skulls in a ceremony

Immigrants In Colonial Malaya and Borneo: a pictorial account (2)

The Chinese gold miners in Sarawak

The Chinese were already well established in Sarawak since 1820, mining for gold and antimony. Gold was discovered by them in 1842 in a place called Bau, ( 'Mau San' as the Chinese miners called it) in the Kuching district. They were left very much on their own as the weak Brunei Sultanate exerted only nominal control over Sarawak through its governor. The status quo was soon to change with the arrival of an English adventurer, James Brooke who was made 'Rajah" over Upper Sarawak (which was at that time the Bau district) and Sarawak proper (Kuching) for his help in quelling a rebellion by Land Dayaks (the Bidayuhs) and the Malays over the cruel treatment of the Brunei governor. As governor, James Brooke imposed taxes and forbade the direct export of gold and antimony and direct trading in opium and spirits. Pitting himself against Chinese monopoly over gold and antimony mining, he set up the Borneo Company to exploit the rich mineral resources of Sarawak.

Bau, Kuching: remembering its past

Their livelihood threatened, several miners, six hundred of them, sailed down the Kuching river to the Astana, the residence of Brooke to assassinate him. He somehow escaped by swimming across the Sarawak river, but 5 other Europeans were not so fortunate; they were beheaded by the incensed miners. With the help of Iban warriors, Brooke proceeded to hunt them down. The families of the miners were not spared either. About 2,000 Chinese, including women and children were killed while those fortunate enough escaped to Dutch controlled Borneo. The mining settlement was burnt to the ground. The botched insurrection came to be known as the 1857 Chinese Rebellion.

The Chinese miners in Bau

Sunday, 11 January 2009

Immigrants in Colonial Malaya and Borneo: a pictorial account (1)

Studying History is a secondary school student's perennial nightmare, due primarily to the insipid way it had been and still is being taught. Ask me what I remembered of my History classes and I can't tell you a thing except for a few dates and a few names or events. However I was enthralled by The Encyclopedia of Malaysia's " Early Modern History (1800-1940)", the 7th volume of 15 volumes on Malaysia, which gives a concise account of life in that era. What is particularly 'edutaining' about the volume are the images that populate the book. These are rare photos and paintings that offer vivid glimpses into the past, especially the Chinese and Indian 'pendatangs'. Most of the images were scanned from the pages of this excellent volume. Hence my first instalment on these 'pendatangs'.

Female Immigration in colonial Malaya

It was only in the early 20th century that saw a dramatic influx of female immigrants, both Chinese and Indians to Malaya, many, to join their husbands. The Aliens Ordinance Act which restricted further recruitment of male workers sparked a wave of female workers. The Indian female migrants worked in plantations as rubber tappers and weeders while the Chinese were mostly found in tin mines as dulang washers. Those English speaking ones worked as amahs looking after the children of European families.

By the 1940s, they formed about 50% of the workforce toiling in the estates and tin mines, and other ancillary occupations.

The arrival of Indian migrant workers, particularly women in the early 20th century

On the left: a female Indian rubber tapper in an estate. On the right, Indian women workers sorting rubber seeds collected for planting

The arrival of mostly female Indian workers. On the right, an Indian family

Chinese women and children arriving to work in the tin mines and rubber estates. Inset: Chinese dulang washers, the most famous of whom were the Samsui women

Most gravitated to the tin mines as dulang washers, panning for tin ore, though a substantial number also worked in rubber estates and agricultural farms. The women from Samsui, a district of Guandong, were hardy women well-known for doing heavy manual work.

Left: those who lived in towns worked as domestic helpers. Right: A fortunate few worked with European families as child minders.

Japanese prostitutes set up the first brothels in 1887

Life was hard for the predominantly immigrant male workforce in the 18th and early 19th century. Prostitution was condoned although the manner of acquisition by buying, kidnapping and trickery was inhumane. They worked and lived in sordid and abject condition. Yap ah Loy, the Kapitan China of Kuala Lumpur is reported to own 300 prostitutes in his brothels in 1883.