Participation Mystique Number Six

Malaysian Spirit Log Number Two: Paraanthropology in the Raw

Our house was on a hill just above the government’s district office. There was the constabulary. It counted few in its number and had little to do until, of course, the Brunei Rebellion began and the Indonesian troops began gathering at the border (about 12 miles away). I say “our” house because after the floods, Timah and her family were with me until my stint ended sometime in June of 1964.

Then came the Ghurkas and the Malay Army and the British Commandos and reinforcements for the constabulary. They brought their tanks, and set up field tents and  other equipment to create a sort of headquarters below us. There was much noise and bustling and not just from the soldiers. British jets flew low overhead where nothing noisier than hornbills had flown. They dropped phamplets upon us urging us to either surrender or stop cooperating with communists or whomever. These were printed in several languages including Jawi script, an Arabic alphabet used for writing the Malay language. It was introduced by Islamic merchants who brought Islam to the region in the 7th century.

Military helicopters flew onto the school soccer fields. At first this was a novelty and we all rushed to watch the landings and have our scarves and hats blown about. Soon it was commonplace. One day,  a United Nations team came by copter  to assess the situation. The Chinese Clandestine bunch were said to be hiding about here and there. In the jungle. In the shops. Growing vegetables. Selling rice. Meeting in secret and plotting to take over the country.

As rumors (and maybe even actual intelligence) spread, our house was surrounded  by rows of barbed wire and a few slit trenches. These trenches were occupied by men with Sten guns in the late evenings. The Stens were British 9mm submachine guns.

A curfew was imposed and  required that we be inside at dark and pass a checkpoint at the bottom of the hill. It was all very daunting. I rehearsed my Malay responses to any challenge I might receive when going home at dusk.

All I had for transport was my British made bicycle and my legs. But if were we to be invaded by the Indonesians (which the nearly hysterical Singapore Straits Times predicted would happen in every edition as did the angry broadcasts from Djakarta during which Sukarno threatened same), my next door neighbor, the Scots road engineer Tom Oliver, and I were to hustle into one of his big lorries (preloaded with dynamite) and drive to the capital of the state, Kuching, blowing up bridges behind us. I kept an oversized rattan rice basket loaded with essentials near the door for my whole second year in Bau. I was ready. Meanwhile, the troops lined up nightly outside the door of Tom’s amah’s house, a beautiful Malay woman who was sister to Bujang and Gorot and Hamdan. I could hear them taking turns with her. I wonder if she became rich? Many schoolgirls were suddenly sporting new shoes and other trinkets as well. It all happened overnight. The shops on the only street of Bau were frequented by troops as well. I drank Konchi beer by the quart with them and smoked too many Players cigarettes. They’d get so drunk they’d forget their Sten guns sometimes. They went to the border for a few days and always came back missing one or two of their mates and with tales of having their heads licked by salt-hungry rats while they slept. These fellows were around my age…young and uneducated Brits who were, I imagined , much like my high school pals who were soon to be drafted into a war I heard was cooking up in Vietnam. The shopkeepers who made the best Mei Goreng in the world were suddenly producing plates of beans and bangers and fried eggs for the boys. One day we even had the Highlanders marching down the two blocks of our kedah. It was a very functional little town that even had a movie theatre. Sort of. It was enclosed and had rows of wooden benches…much like the benches school children used in some of the makeshift village schools. They were set upon the hard packed dirt floor. The Chinese theatre owner had an imposing overstuffed chair placed somewhere near the middle of the interior, arranged for optimum viewing. I don’t remember the cost but it was pennies. I seem to remember smoking. I’m sure. People smoked, for the most part, hand rolled cigarettes. Bidayuih rolled a bit of Indonesian tobacco in a dried palm leaf. They self extinguished regularly so one could judge the distance to a village by how many cigarettes one could smoke in the distance. Berapa rokok ke Kampong Sudoh? For example one might ask someone coming the opposite directions on the path. And one could judge how far ahead someone was by how bright red the spit was on the path. Fresh betel spit was a blood red. But it gradually dried brown. A greeting in town with Malay speakers was often Pergi mana or pergi ke mana? It meant where are you going. No one really cared for an answer. It was sort of like the American how are you. Who wants to stand and listen to the woeful tale. And anyway, it is usual obvious how you are and where you are going.

So the theatre. I probably smoked too. One could buy Players singly from an open tin in the shops. I did. We had no television, of course, and to see a film out in the Bidayuh kampongs required walking in with a projector and a battery to power it. This did happen on occasion. But town folk could see a new movie every week even during monsoon. I believe the Chinese owner was thought of as a rich man.

Nothing more exciting than invasions and floods and the killing of chickens happened in Bau while I was there except Chinese festivals. Though only two blocks long, the only street of Bau was often the site of what were to me exotic, loud, and fascinating parades and promonades. I ran down my hill at the first hint of another ritual performance. Men sat upon highly decorated chairs in brocade gowns and large hats and were thus carried through up and down as drums and cymbals and gongs crashed. A makeshift Chinese opera came to town and put up a stage in front of the temple. The temple itself wafted incense into the street. Who were these people and what was this about?