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Chinese Migration to Sabah Before the Second World War - article ; n°3 ; vol.58, pg 131-158


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Archipel - Année 1999 - Volume 58 - Numéro 3 - Pages 131-158
28 pages
Source : Persée ; Ministère de la jeunesse, de l’éducation nationale et de la recherche, Direction de l’enseignement supérieur, Sous-direction des bibliothèques et de la documentation.



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Published 01 January 1999
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Danny Wong Tze-Ken
Chinese Migration to Sabah Before the Second World War
In: Archipel. Volume 58, 1999. pp. 131-158.
Citer ce document / Cite this document :
Wong Tze-Ken Danny. Chinese Migration to Sabah Before the Second World War. In: Archipel. Volume 58, 1999. pp. 131-158.
doi : 10.3406/arch.1999.3538
http://www.persee.fr/web/revues/home/prescript/article/arch_0044-8613_1999_num_58_3_3538WONG Tze-Ken Danny
Chinese Migration to Sabah
Before the Second World War
Throughout its modern history, the state of Sabah in the Federation of
Malaysia has never had a sizeable Chinese community. At no time since the
beginning of mass entries of Chinese into the state did the number go beyond
30% of the state's total population. Yet, despite the numbers, the Chinese
played a significant role in the development of the state.
While commonly accepted as being a part of the wider Chinese Diaspora,
there are some characteristics that are peculiar only to the in Sabah.
These include, the overwhelming position of the Hakka dialect group within
the Chinese Community ; Sabah is one of the few places in Southeast Asia
where the Hakka is the lingua franca of the Chinese community. Sabah is
also one of the few states where there were systematic attempts on the part
of the colonial government to bring in Chinese immigrants. Nowhere else in
the region was there a northern Chinese community during the pre-Second
World War days. Also the comparatively high percentage of Chinese in the
state who are Christians (30 %) as compared to the whole of Malaysia (9 %),
is among several distinctive features found among the Chinese in Sabah.
It is hoped that this study will help to explain some of the characteristics
of the Chinese in Sabah mentioned earlier.
Early Migration
Even though a Chinese presence in Sabah is a phenomenon of the modern
era, links between the territory of present day Sabah (Borneo) and China
Archipel 58, Paris, 1999, pp. 131-158 132 Danny Wong Tze-Ken
could date back to the Han Dynasty in China. (!) Nevertheless, such links,
which were part of the larger ties between China and the region of Southeast
Asia, were limited only to occasional trade missions and travelling by the
Chinese to the part of the world which they called Nanhai or " South Seas ",
and rarely did the Chinese settle in large numbers in Southeast Asia. (2) In the
case of Sabah, although there are speculations about the possible Chinese
colonies in existence in the territory, little convincing evidence is found. (3)
Several features in the state lend some support to this proposition. The name
of the longest river in Sabah, the Kinabatangan River, and the highest
mountain, Kinabalu, provide room for speculation about the possible
similarity between the word "Kina" and "Cina" (Chinese in the some
Bornean languages including Dusun, Bajau and also Malay). Another
phenomenon that suggests possible early Chinese presence in Sabah is that
the physical features of the Dusun-Kadazan ethnic group resemble Chinese.
All these suppositions however could not be proven for want of sources and
evidence. Nevertheless, it is apparent that more Chinese arrived in Sabah
after the establishment of British rule on Labuan in 1846. (4)
Spencer St. John, an English traveller who visited the west coast of Sabah
in 1858, reported several encounters with indigenous people who could
speak Hokkien (Minnanhua) dialect fluently. Most of them professed to be
descendants of Chinese who were petty traders plying between Labuan and
the mainland. (5) As most of the Chinese who arrived from had
originated from the Straits Settlements, especially Singapore, this trend
1. The place name of Duyuan, as recorded in the Honshu, Dilizhi 28 xia (Zhonghua shuju, 1962,
p. 1671) is believed by some to be Borneo. See Han Sin Fong, The Chinese in Sabah, East
Malaysia, Taipei, 1975, The Oriental Culture Service, p. 20. Beijing, quoting Hsu Yun-tsiao,
"Hua Chiao", in Xanyang Year Book, 1951, Singapour, Nanyang Press, 1951, Part X, p. 5.
2. For historical links between China and Southeast Asia, see Wang Gungwu, "The Nanhai
Trade : A Study on the Early History of Chinese Trade in the South China Sea", Journal of
the Malayan Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society (hereafter JMBRAS), Vol. XXXI, 1958, Part
2. No. 182; Reprint, Singapore, The Times Academic Presss, 1998 (The Nanhai Trade. The
Early History of Chinese Trade in the South China Sea).
3. For a detailed discussion on early Chinese links with Borneo, see Han Sin Fong, The
Chinese in Sabah, East Malaysia, pp. 20-31.
4. For an overview of the epigraphic remains of the Chinese of Labuan, see Wolfgang Franke
& Chen Tieh Fan, Chinese Epigraphic Materials in Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur, University of
Malaya Press, 1982-1987, III, pp. 1202-1218. Also see Nicholas Tarling, "The entrepôt at
Labuan and the Chinese", in Jerome Ch'en & Nicholas Tarling eds., Studies in the Social
History of China & South-East Asia, Cambridge, At the University Press, 1970, pp. 355-373.
5. Spencer St. John, Life in the Forests of the Far East, Travels in Sabah and Sarawak in the
late 1850s, London, 1862, [Reprinted by Oxford University Press, Kuala Lumpur, 1986], p.
Archipel 58, Paris, 1999 Chinese Migration to Sabah Before the Second World War 133
Map of Sabah
Archipel 58, Paris, 1999 1 34 Danny Wong Tze-Ken
persisted until several years after the establishment of the North Borneo
Company rule. The Hokkiens and the Teochius (Chaozhou) continued their
domination of the scene until the North Borneo Company brought in other
dialect groups.
Even though there were already Chinese in the state prior to 1881, their
number was small. The Chinese only began to enter Sabah in large numbers
after 1881, the year when the territory was taken over by the British North
Borneo Company. The Company was started by Alfred Dent and his partners
in London. They first started their venture in 1878 by establishing several
stations in Sabah including Tempassuk, Sandakan (Elopura) and Papar.
Three years later, the Company's efforts in administrating the newly
acquired territory were recognised by the British Government, which granted
a Royal Charter for the Company to function with the backing of the British
Immigration Schemes under the North Borneo Company
Among the first questions encountered by the British North Borneo
Company was the need of a sizeable population to supply a sufficient labour
force for the development of the territory. The native population of Sabah
was considered by officials of the Company to be too few and unsuited to
meet the requirements of modern development.^) In 1881, the number of
indigenous people was estimated to be 60,000 to 100,000.(7) These figures
were made up of the Dusuns, Bajaus, Muruts, Orang Sungei, Idahans,
Rungus and many others who also differed in custom and way of life.
The government realised that in order to forge ahead with its
development policy, immigration should be encouraged by every means.
Guided by the successes of other British colonial possessions such as Hong
Kong and Singapore, where sizeable Chinese communities existed, North
Borneo Company officials began to look towards China. Many in the administration subscribed to the idea of encouraging the
immigration of Chinese to the new territory. Such a view was supported by
6. Rizalino Oades, "Chinese Emigration Through Hong Kong to Sabah Since 1880", M.A.
Dissertation, Hong Kong University, 1961, p. 39.
7. It is difficult to give an exact figure to the total indigenous population of the state for 1881
as no census was taken. The first census of 1891 gave 67,062 as the total population for the
state, but it was incomplete, as the did not include many indigenous people who were
left out. However, the figure of 100,000 could be an over-estimation. See Lee Yong Leng,
North Borneo (Sabah) : A Study in Settlement Geography, Singapore, Eastern Universities
Press Ltd., 1965, p. 45.
Archipel 58, Paris, 1999 Chinese Migration to Sabah Before the Second World War 135
Alfred Dent and William Hood Treacher, the first Governor of British North
Borneo, (8) and a scheme to bring Chinese into Sabah was planned.
Treacher 's successor, William Crocker, who was acting Governor in
1887, remarked that by encouraging Chinese to migrate to Sabah, "You may
not only secure the development of the country (...) but a paying population
who will in time provide a revenue so much in excess of the cost of
government that the venture has every promise of becoming a profitable
investment ".(9) Crocker was of course referring not only to the industrious
characteristics of the Chinese, but also of their vices and habits, particularly
relating to opium smoking, gambling, and drinking habits from which the
government could extract a dependable revenue through duties and taxes.
Thus efforts were made to procure Chinese labourers for the country. On
5th October 1881 for instance, 29 Macao Cantonese coolies arrived in
Sandakan (10) from Singapore by the S.S. Royalist. William B. Pryer, the first
Resident for Sandakan had sent his Chinese servant to Singapore to obtain
their service. The labourers or coolies were engaged at a monthly salary of
$2.50 with free meals. (U) This method however, was considered to be too
costly and lacking control as the labourers did not, due to the steady $2.50
monthly pay, work to the expectations of some company officials. A proper
system of procuring Chinese labourers and a proper pay scheme was
advocated. (12>
Pryer 's attempt was followed by a series of systematic efforts to bring in
Chinese immigrants to the state. Between 1881 and 1941, Chinese were
brought to Sabah through at least three major immigration schemes, namely,
Sir Walter Medhurst's Scheme, the Basel Missionary Society Scheme and
the Free Passage Scheme.
8. William Hood Treacher, "Sketches of Sarawak, Brunei, Labuan and North Borneo",
Journal of the Straits Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, Vol. 21, 1890, p. 27.
9. William M. Crocker, Report on British North Borneo, Sandakan, 1887, p. 5.
10. The existence of this group of Macao Cantonese coolies is mentioned only in the
correspondances of the North Borneo Company. Whereas the earliest surviving Chinese
epigraphic materials in Sandakan should be the inscriptions dated from 1887 comemorating
the fondation of the Sansheng gong by Chinese from Guangdong province. See Wolfgang
Franke & Chen Tieh Fan, Chinese Epigraphic Materials in Malaysia, Vol. Ill, pp. 1232-1247.
11. "Governor Treacher to Chairman and Court of Director", 15 October 1881, Colonial
Office (hereafter CO) 874/228.
12. "L. B. Von Donop, Director of Agriculture to Governor Treacher", 12 November 1881,
Archipel 58, Paris, 1999 136 Danny Wong Tze-Ken
Medhurst 's Scheme
The first scheme was implemented between 1882 and 1886 under the
newly appointed Commissioner of Immigration, Sir Walter Medhurst. 0 3) In
addition to being responsible for creating a workable system of obtaining
Chinese labourers and agriculturalists, Medhurst was also instructed to
induce respectable Chinese to form companies for taking up grants of land to
cultivate tropical cash crops. Medhurst set out for China in 1882 with a sum
of $50,000, by far the largest amount ever granted to a single project by the
North Borneo Company. Sir Alfred Dent, the chairman of the company, was
so confident of Medhurst that he wrote him, " It is unnecessary for us to
point out how important it is that you should always work in consort with the
governor [Treacher] ".(14> Dent was wrong in his judgement. Not only did
Medhurst fail to co-ordinate with Governor Treacher, he also failed to
appreciate the immediate needs of the new territory.
Treacher and Pryer, having always looked to the Straits Settlements and
the Malay States for inspiration and guidance, were advised by Hugh Low,
the Resident of Perak, to prepare a scheme that would allow a gradual and
cautious flow of agriculturalists, pioneers, timber-cutters, labourers and
fishermen. Pryer even went to the extent of clearing land and he readied four
reception huts for an initial batch of 100 immigrants. The site chosen was
probably at Melapi, a small settlement 50 miles up the Kinabatangan River
where there were already 20 Chinese, chiefly carpenters and shopkeepers
from Sandakan, " who appear to get on very well with the other
inhabitants"^15) Medhurst received advice and details about the necessary
steps need to be taken, but he ignored them.
In Hong Kong, Medhurst proclaimed on behalf of the Company the offer
of free passage to those who were seeking employment and willing to start a
new life in the new territory. But he did not select the participants. Perhaps,
Medhurst was more concerned with the quantity rather than the quality of
new immigrants for Sabah.
13. Sir Walter Medhurst (1822-1885), joined the Office of the British Superintendency of
Trade in China in the 1840s as a clerk. Prior to that, he was a part of the London Missionary
Society establishment in Singapore. For many years an interpreter to the English Government,
he was also Consul General at Shanghai until 1877 when he received a knighthood.
Appointed Immigration Commissioner of British North Borneo in 1882.
14. "Alfred Dent, Court of Directors to Sir Walter Medhurst", 8 September 1882,
15. "Report by L. B. Von Donop in Governor Treacher to Chairman", 29 1881,
Archipel 58, Paris, 1999 Chinese Migration to Sabah Before the Second World War 137
At least five shiploads of Chinese immigrants came under Medhurst's
scheme. The first batch of 43 came down to Sabah on the steamer S.S.
Hainan. All except one emigrated on his own account without any form of
assistance from the Company. They were mainly what Medhurst described
as "prospectors". The second emigration took place on 31 October 1882,
also via the Hainan. This time, a total of 225 Chinese emigrated to Sabah, of
whom 147 were sponsored, receiving free passage and a portion of wages
paid on account ; whereas most of the others went under a loan of passage
money only. Also included in this trip were two Chinese Christians of the
Hakka dialect group from the Basel Missionary Society, sent to investigate
the new territory for future emigration. There was also a Chinese physician.
The two Christians were funded by Medhurst whereas the doctor received a
half passage subsidy. (16>
The third emigration took place on 8th January 1883 via the S.S. Fokkien
which brought with it 340 immigrants, including 30 families with 81
members. A total of $518 were spent by Medhurst in subsidising this
passage. The fourth shipment arrived in Sabah in April 1883, also via the
Fokkien. Included in the passenger list were 96 Christian Hakkas who, upon
receiving the report of the two delegates sent down on the second trip, had
decided to leave for Sabah. They were settled in Kudat where a settlement
was opened. A further fifth shipment arrived via the S.S. Thaïes with 114
passengers. (17>
Medhurst sent down at least 1,000 Chinese immigrants. Chief among the
group were petty traders, shopkeepers, tailors, shoe makers, labourers and
some farmers, many under the sponsorship of the company. Medhurst was
under the impression that Singapore was booming due to the mass of
Chinese there, but he failed to realise that, unlike Singapore, Sabah suffered
from a lack of enterprises. What Sabah needed was pioneers who were
willing to face the challenge of opening up the country, and not traders or
craftsmen. C1 8) Yet this trend persisted at least until 1886 when Medhurst
returned to England. As shipload after shipload of these unsuited people
disembarked in Sandakan and Kudat, the towns were crowded with them. In
16. Walter Medhurst, "Report on Immigration and the Formation of Chinese Companies",
Secretariat File, No. 16.
17. "Managing Director to Sir Walter Medhurst", 18 September 1883, CO874/1 18.
18. K. G. Tregonning, A History of Modern Sabah, 1881-1963, Singapore, University of
Malaya Press, 1965, p. 130.
Archipel 58, Paris, 1999 138 Danny Wong Tze-Ken
Kudat for instance, out of a total of 937 inhabitants, 348 were Chinese, of
whom 222 were shopkeepers. (19)
Not only did these traders end up earning very little by trading with each
other, they faced severe competition from their counterparts from Singapore
and Labuan, for whom they were no match. The latter, having arrived much
earlier and being well-verse in the native languages, knew the needs of the
locals. Some of these new immigrants were quite successful, earning to a
profit as middlemen in rice trading. The new immigrants, who were mainly
Cantonese, were basically city-dwellers, and unaccustomed to the forest
before them. Even the few artisans and farmers in the group were finding life
difficult in the new territory. Many packed their bags and returned to China,
or made their way to Singapore. Only a small number remained.
Despite this setback, Medhurst's venture did yield some positive results.
Among those who arrived under Medhurst's scheme were the Hakkas, who
would later play a very significant role in the development of the territory.
The Basel Missionary Society Scheme (1905-14)
In December 1905, two successful pioneers from Kudat were sent back to
China to encourage their fellow countrymen to immigrate to Sabah. The two,
Yong Ah Kit and Lee Ah Pin, both Hakkas, returned in 1906 with 150 Hakka
men, women and children. The North Borneo Company then resettled them
in the Inanam and Menggatal-Tuaran area on the west coast. Like previous
assisted immigrants, they were given land and financial assistance. (2°) The
First eight months of 1906 saw the arrival of 884 free Chinese at Jesselton,
many of whom were Hakka agriculturists who had come to join their
relatives. (21)
In 1912, the economy of the state suffered a setback from the plummeting
rubber prices, this caused a decline in Chinese immigration into the state.
Except for the Hakka Christians who had arrived as agriculturists, Chinese
immigration into the state as a whole suffered a setback. The outbreak of the
First World War also resulted in a reduction in labour procurement for
estates. This was mainly due to the absence of European estate managers and
supervisors, of whom many had returned to Europe for the war. This
however, did not deter free labourers from entering the state through
19. Tregonning, Ibid., p. 80.
20.Ibid., p. 141.
21. British North Borneo Official Gazette, 2 September 1906.
Archipel 58, Paris, 1999 Chinese Migration to Sabah Before the Second World War 139
Illustration non autorisée à la diffusion
ri.^i/'f H
A Chinese (Courtesy trader and of Sabah his family State in Archives) Sabah, c. 1890
An Hakka girl in Kudat, c. 1890
(Courtesy of Sabah State Archives)
Illustration non autorisée à la diffusion
Archipel 58, Paris, 1999