Gus Breymann's Home Page: A Sabah Journey - Part II

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By Admin1 (admin) on Tuesday, December 31, 2002 - 11:11 pm: Edit Post

A Sabah Journey - Part II

A Sabah Journey - Part II

The long beach at Tanjung Aru was lined with mighty ironwood trees. Running northeast-southwest, it faced several offshore islands and the South China Sea. Sunsets there are beautiful beyond description.

Because the water and sand were often too warm to enjoy at midday, we frequented Tanjung Aru in the evening and late at night. Phosphorescent algae were often present on the surface of the sea. Swimming or frolicking in the shallows caused the algae to be stirred up, resulting in long, glowing greenish- yellow wakes on the surface wherever we swam. When swimmers stood up, their bodies would also glow faintly until the phosphorescence died away. The glowing water made nighttime visits to Tanjung Aru all the more exotic.

The Peace Corps offices on the third floor of the Chung Khiaw Bank Building were two blocks from the waterfront. Administrative offices were located on one side of the hallway, and the Peace Corps physician's waiting room and offices were across the hall. The Peace Corps physician with whom I worked most of the time was the irrepressible Monroe Gross.

In 1967, an air conditioner in Monroe's medical storage room caught fire and caused quite a lot of smoke and water damage to the building. Monroe was away visiting Volunteers at the time. It fell to me to clean up his offices and to be interrogated by the Kota Kinabalu Police Department. The fire source was obvious from the beginning; there was no question of arson. Still, reports had to be filed.

Unknown to most at the time, our medical office possessed a government-issued coffin in case a Volunteer or staff member died in service in Sabah. Coffins are not too easy to conceal, but ours was stored inside an innocuous wooden crate. The crate, in turn, served as the foundation for the physician's examining table in his office. The subterfuge worked quite well. No PCVs knew they were lying atop a coffin during an exam. It was our private little secret.

When a group Kota Kinabalu police officers arrived to investigate the fire scene, they noticed the undamaged crate and asked me what was inside. When I identified its contents, their eyes grew wide and suspicious. Solemnly, an officer directed me to remove the top of the crate. When they saw the plain, wooden coffin inside, their suspicion and fear grew even more palpable. It dawned on me quickly that their next question might be whether there was a body inside, superstitious as some Asians are about death.

Now this was not a modern casket. Its lid had no hinges; the top was secured to the rest of the box by screws placed at intervals around the perimeter. The screws themselves were about six inches long and were designed to ensure that, once a body was placed inside and the lid screwed down, it would take a great deal of time and effort to remove the lid again. Hygiene would also be preserved. Those were long screws!

At the officers' request, I began removing the lid, screw by screw. My wrist ached. My elbow ached. Blisters formed on my hand. The sheer amount of time required to free the lid caused the officers to become increasingly nervous. Knowing Monroe as I did, the possibility that there might be a body inside may even have flashed through my mind in a moment of private gallows humor. I could just imagine the headlines in the "Sabah Times." The atmosphere in the small examining room was thick with fear and anticipation. I am still convinced that some of the officers believed they would find a body inside.

To my profound physical and emotional relief, we found only two items when I removed the last screw, and neither was a human body. The bottom was lined with excelsior, presumably to immobilize a body during shipment. The only other content was a U. S. Navy manual on how to embalm a body.

The police officers left Monroe's office satisfied once and for all that he had not been stashing a body under his examining table.

It remains a sad personal observation and an occasional source of confusion that I spent much of the Vietnam War outside the United States. It is sad because I still cannot appreciate the true impact of this defining period in American history. I wasn't present. I know the facts of the war, but I cannot feel the depth of the anti-war sentiment that drove Lyndon Johnson from office. All I knew about the war then was what I gleaned from the international editions of "Time" and "Newsweek" that arrived in Sabah at the end of each week. There was, of course, no television there during the '60s. I still feel deprived of a deep understanding of the sea change the Southeast Asian war brought to the U.S.

On the other hand, one might reasonably infer that, since Vietnam was only nine- hundred miles to the west of me across the South China Sea, I might have had a much more intense relationship with the war. This was an instance, though, where proximity did not make a difference. I was still isolated. Rather, my superficial understanding of the war came from news magazines and occasional incidents.

I was in Tokyo in February, 1966, when I met two American civilian nurses who were intent on having a howling last fling before they flew off to Saigon to care for the wounded. I've wondered what happened to them and how the war must have changed them. In Tokyo, they were completely clueless about what they would soon face.

A number of former Peace Corps Volunteers went to work for the U. S. Government or government contractors in Vietnam after they left Sabah. One went to work in the ill-fated pacification program. Several went to work for Alaska Barge and Transport (AB&T), one of the war's major engineering contracting firms. One of those former volunteers who worked for AB&T stayed at my apartment while he was in Kota Kinabalu visiting friends during Chinese New Year. He shuddered visibly every time a Lunar New Year firecracker exploded, thinking that it was armament. The war had turned him into a nervous wreck, and he was a civilian!

The story goes that the Peace Corps secretary in Kuching had a boyfriend who was a U. S. Air Force pilot in Vietnam. She made a (prohibited) visit to him in the war zone, flew a combat mission with him, and was (predictably) sent home as soon as the Peace Corps learned where she had been on "vacation."

I remember flying over Vietnam in a comfortable Cathay Pacific Convair 880 twice while the war literally raged below me. I remember looking down and seeing nothing but bomb pockmarks filled with muddy yellow water. It felt very strange to be above the war but not in it. (Cathay Pacific later began skirting Vietnam when one of its 880s was shot down over South Vietnam by a rocket, killing all passengers and crew.)

I remember the harbor between Hong Kong and Kowloon being filled---literally filled--- with U. S. Navy ships and the streets filled with sailors and soldiers on R&R.

I still have the engraved aluminum letter opener a friend sent me from Hanoi during the war. The letter opener was supposedly made by North Vietnamese craftsmen. The engraving on the shank indicates in Vietnamese that the utensil was fabricated from the twelve hundredth American warplane shot down by Ho Chi Minh's anti-aircraft guns.

I was in the Kota Kinabalu airport on March 31, 1968 when I learned that Lyndon Johnson had decided not to run for re-election. I was surprised and confused by the news. What powerful forces could have led this larger than life figure to make such a defeatist decision? That was not the LBJ I had come to know over the years. Most of the Peace Corps staff in Kuala Lumpur were rabidly opposed to Johnson. It saddened me to think how gleeful they must have been when they heard that Vietnam had brought him down.

Missing much of the civil rights movement in the States was equally sobering. I was out of the country when Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965. I was lying sick in a hotel room at Sanur Beach on Bali on April 5, 1968, when I learned on the bedside radio that Dr. Martin LutherKing, Jr., had been assassinated in Memphis. In those few short days, I had learned that an American president had decided not to run for re-election and that a Nobel Peace Prize winner had been shot. I could not put the pieces of the grim puzzle together. The two events were without context.

Tenom was one of my favorite towns in Sabah. I had close friends there. The railcar trip up the Padas River Gorge was always beautiful and sometimes exciting. The Murut culture in that area of the state was fascinating. Peace Corps Volunteers who were posted around Beaufort, Tenom and Keningau loved their assignments.

It is impossible for anyone who spends time in the interior of Sabah to escape the obligatory sip of "tapai," or homemade rice wine. It is culturally unacceptable to decline a host's offer. The Muruts ferment the wine in large earthen jars that often reach the height of thirty inches or so. The guest squats beside the jar and sips the wine up through a long bamboo straw. A green banana leaf often floats atop the liquid. The host pushes the leaf below the surface, and the guest is obliged to keep sipping until the leaf rises to the top again.

The quality of tapai can vary from drinkable to vinegary and almost unbearable. It's rarely a pleasant experience, and I never got along with it very well. It always gave me a monster headache the following day. In addition, there was the ever present possibility that anything solid one sucked up through the bamboo straw might be the remains of a cockroach that had fallen into the brew several days earlier. It was the certainty of almost unbearable hangovers, however, that kept me from enjoying this native beverage.

If a throbbing head were not enough, drinking tapai was often accompanied by a vigorous Murut dance called the "lanserang." The dance began on a square wooden floor that was cut out from the surrounding floor of the building. The square platform was mounted atop thick, flexible, green bamboo trees that functioned as springs, much like the leaf springs in a car. Groups of dancers would stand on the square, lock arms, and then begin bouncing up and down. The wooden floor became a rigid trampoline. Mounted on a rafter above the center of the square was a carved wooden phallic symbol, to which a small amount of Malaysian currency was attached. The objective of the dancers was to make the floor bounce high enough to enable an adolescent male to snatch the currency from the phallic symbol.

Groups of dancers would migrate between the tapai jar and bouncing on the lanserang floor nearby. Imagine moving back and forth between an earthen jar of sour wine and jumping on a trampoline for several hours at a time. That is why I say that the combination of rice wine and that particular native dance were a "deadly duo."

Waking up the next day was the closest I have ever come to wishing I were dead!

In February, 1999, I drove from Kota Kinabalu to the Kinabalu National Park Headquarters on a two-lane paved highway in just over two hours.

It was not always so. In 1967, the road up the side of one of the highest mountains in Southeast Asia was barely one lane and was unpaved most of the way beyond Tamparuli. During the rainy season, there were (and still are) frequent landslides that would obliterate the roadway altogether until a PWD bulldozer could be brought in to carve a new lane out of the mountainside. These landslides often caused long delays.

Imagine driving up a narrow dirt road in the mountain mist, with deep, deep ravines only inches from the wheels. If you met oncoming traffic, you would have to stop, put the Land Rover in reverse, and back down the treacherous road until you came to a cut out in the face of the mountain that would allow the uphill traffic to pass you.

Ranau is the Kadazan town a few miles beyond the National Park Headquarters. Under the conditions just described, a drive from K. K. to Ranau could easily consume eight hours. I arrived in this quiet town one afternoon after just such a drive. I was dirty, very tense, thirsty and physically exhausted. I met Diane, the PCV I had come to visit, and asked her whether there was a kedai (shop) where we could talk and where I could get food and a cold drink. She reminded me that most of the shops were Moslem-owned and that it might be hard to find a cold beer anywhere in town. We found a place. I ordered food for both of us and a Carlsberg for myself. (Carlsberg and Tiger were the two prominent beers in Sabah at the time.) I was resigned to the possibility that the beer would be served at room temperature, which was not uncommon in places where electricity and dependable refrigeration were not always present.

As I looked around, I noticed a kerosene refrigerator at the back of the shop. The shopkeeper ambled back to the machine and opened the door. The entire surface of the interior was coated with a rime of ice about four inches thick! And on the shelves were the very coldest bottles of Carlsberg beer that I had ever felt or tasted. Exhausted as I was, I knew there must be a God when the owner served up that icy, frosty bottle with our meal. It was the perfect end to a grueling day.

The Ranau experience exemplified how pleasant experiences could occur in the most unexpected circumstances or places.

One of the published histories of North Borneo begins with the following dedication: "There are two monoliths in North Borneo. One is Mount Kinabalu, and the other is John Dingle." Dingle WAS a mountain of a man. He came from a distinguished medical family that had been in Borneo for many years. He was one of those rare people who can most accurately be described as "bigger than life." Nothing they accomplish is small. Their presence pervades. They dominate the scene, wherever they are. Dingle, one of the last surviving administrators of the Chartered Company, was district officer in Kudat near the end of his career in the early sixties, and was held in affection my Sabahans. Among many accomplishments, he had survived internment by the Japanese near Kuching during the war.

District offices are administrative sub-units of residencies in Sabah. (The Kudat district office is part of the West Coast Residency, for example.) Government rest houses were often located in towns that had district offices. These rest houses were precursors of hotels and were intended for occupancy by government employees when they traveled to the district headquarters on official business.

The Kudat rest house was a particularly appealing place. As were all the others throughout Sabah, it was an airy, single-storey wooden structure with lots of windows and ceiling fans for ventilation. There was a central dining and relaxation area, with wings that had guest quarters going off in both directions from the central public area. Meals were generally very tasty. The guest rooms were plain but clean. The premises surrounding the building in Kudat were neatly trimmed and planted with hibiscus and other tropical flowers. In short, government rest houses were inviting destinations for Peace Corps Volunteers and staff members when they were on travel status.

I remember falling asleep once in the Keningau rest house to the rhythmic melody of Kadazan gongs in the distance. It was something straight out of Somerset Maugham. In his short stories, Maugham described the ambiance of Borneo rest houses during the colonial era beautifully. He also portrayed men like John Dingle in a way that only great writers can do.

What was special about the Kudat rest house was that there was a large wooden chair in the public area that was reserved for the exclusive use of John Dingle. I am not certain what would have happened if someone had sat in it by mistake, but it was clear that only John Dingle was privileged to occupy that particular chair, much like a throne. Here was a man who dominated the local scene by his presence, but he also made his presence felt in his absence. Myths ---not to mention great short stories---are built of such powerful images.

Yun Mee drifted into and out of my life beginning in February, 1966. She had been trained as a Sabah police officer in Singapore or Kuala Lumpur but had evidently left the force sometime between 1964 and 1966. I say "evidently" because she may never have actually stopped working for the police. The fact that she appeared and disappeared without notice made me mildly suspicious of the reason for our infrequent encounters. I didn't give it much thought at the time, however.

One such encounter occurred when I suffered a severe attack of conjunctivitis in both eyes. I drove to Queen Elizabeth Hospital, and the British doctor knew exactly what to do. He clamped my eyelids open, anesthetized my eyeballs, and dropped a mild acid solution on them. The acid ate away the sclera. The doctor then applied an antibiotic that would get rid of the conjunctivitis.

He padded both eyes with gauze. It was obvious that I would not be driving anywhere for a good while! But my Land Rover was in the hospital parking lot.

How it happened, I will never know, but Yun Mee appeared at the hospital out of thin air and drove me to my apartment not far away. I doubt that it was a chance encounter. I know that I had nothing to do with her appearance at that place on that date. She was just there at a time when I needed assistance.

I recovered slowly. After a few days, she appeared again and suggested that I see a Chinese herbal doctor about my eyes. Her recommendation became more insistent, and she began pleading with me to see her kind of doctor because she was certain I was going blind despite the hospital physician's competent care. Ultimately, I gave in and we went to her herbal doctor, who concocted a pasty potion for my eyes. I tolerated his medication as long as I could and then washed it away. My eyesight continued to slowly return to normal.

Yun Mee was intensely pleased that I would retain my vision because of our visit to her doctor, not mine. I wasn't about to argue with her.

Peace Corps Volunteers began arriving in Borneo in 1962. It was the first significant and most extensive contact citizens of Sabah and Sarawak had with Americans. However, it was not the first contact between the two. Hard to believe, but an American colony had been established in North Borneo almost one hundred years earlier. An American 1865! Twelve Americans headed by Thomas B. Harris and Joseph W. Torrey, plus sixty Chinese, purchased a ten-year lease on land near the mouth of the Kimanis River and raised the American flag in December, 1865. They opened a consulate, an act that raised fear among the British, Germans, Spaniards and French. The colony never flourished, however, and was wracked by disease. It was abandoned in 1867. Its main accomplishment was to stimulate greater British interest in North Borneo, an interest which eventually led to the formation of the British North Borneo Company.

One-hundred years later, I had the opportunity to visit the remains of the Americans' "Ellena" colony. I stopped at the Kimanis Rubber Estate to visit Vernelle Johnson, a Peace Corps Volunteer who was teaching in a primary school there. After a courtesy call, the head of the estate drove us inland a short distance. We climbed a low hill in the rubber garden. At the top, there was nothing except a gravestone. It had been defaced, or someone had attempted to use black paint to discern the inscription. Painstakingly, Vernelle and I began to bring forth the wording on the stone. I still have the paper on which I wrote the words as we crouched at the top of the hill.

In Memory of
Bradley Harris
Hon. Chief Secretary of
the Colony of
Ambong and Maroodu.
By Birth
a Citizen of the U.S.A.
Died 22nd May, 1866.
Aged 40 Years.
Erected by the Rajah
A Tribute of Respect to the Memory of An Old,
Faithful and Esteemed Friend.
"After Life's Fitful Fever, He Sleeps

I still find it astonishing that an American colony could have existed in remote Borneo around the time of our Civil War, and I consider myself very fortunate to have visited a place about which only a handful of Americans have even heard---and fewer still have ever seen.

Remember that, for the entire time I lived in Asia, China was totally off limits to Americans. No American could visit the People's Republic of China. The United States had no diplomatic relations with Beijing. We could not import Chinese-made goods. What we knew of the PRC we gleaned from a handful of experts like Edgar Snow in Red Star Over China or Harrison Salisbury in Orbit of China. China experts and diplomats like John K. Fairbank informed us a little about Mao. Yet, few Americans were really interested in the cultural revolution that was underway in one of the most populous nations in the world.

Having taught in a Chinese secondary school in Tawau for almost two years, I learned something of the allegiance many of my students paid to the Chinese mainland, if not to Mao Jedong himself. I smiled at their occasional jokes about the Nationalist government on Taiwan. I learned, too, that many of my Overseas Chinese friends in Sabah wished to be buried on the mainland because they still considered it their homeland. I acquired an enduring fascination about China.

Since no American could enter China, I tried to get as close as I physically could. When I booked flights out of Hong Kong to Taipei or Tokyo, I'd request window seats on the left side of the plane so that I could peer down into Fujian Province. That may sound strange now, but THEN China was a great, politically isolated nation---a real mystery to Americans.

I took other steps to get as close to China as I could. I wasn't possessed by great expectations that anything would actually happen on these ventures. I simply wanted to be able to say that I had SEEN China, even if it was from afar. Once while in Hong Kong, I hired a taxi to take me to the Chinese border in the New Territories. We drove to a point where I could clearly see a guard tower with loudspeakers mounted on the roof, and the red flag waving atop a flagpole. I snapped a couple of photos, and we turned around. The taxi driver was much more anxious about our being near No Man's Land than I was. We hightailed it back to the safety of British Hong Kong. Now, though, I had a photograph of the real China.

In Kowloon, between the Star Ferry terminal and the Peninsula Hotel, the People's Republic of China opened a huge emporium that attracted tremendous attention. It represented the first Chinese foray into public relations in the Crown Colony of Hong Kong. The latest news from China was posted behind the plate glass windows along the sidewalk, and crowds always clustered there to scan the headlines. Inside the store was a huge array of Chinese-made goods. We Americans knew that buying Chinese goods was forbidden if we planned to take them back to the States. Some of us felt a little guilty even stopping at the showcase windows to ogle all the merchandise. Were we being observed? Again, for an American at that time, it was one of few vicarious ways of getting "close" to China.

In the spring of 1968, I took the hydrofoil from Hong Kong to Macao. The American Consulate General in Hong Kong warned Americans not to go to the Portuguese colony on the Chinese mainland because Red Guards were known to be present there. It was, after all, near the height of the Cultural Revolution. I was warned not to go to Macao because I was traveling with a maroon American official passport at the time, not a standard tourist passport. Still, I went to Macao so that I could see China in the distance.

When I arrived, I was jostled by several Red Guards in the port area as I took a photo of Mao on a large billboard. Several other passengers on the hydrofoil saw my plight, surrounded me, and ushered me to safety. For the rest of the day, I was more circumspect in using my camera. I always checked first to assure that there were no Red Guards in the vicinity.

Eventually, I found a site that provided an excellent vista of Guangdong Province and the broad Pearl River. I gazed up the length of the river, imagining that I could almost see Quangzhou (Canton) in the distance to the northwest. Before I returned to the hydrofoil, I bought a copy of Mao's Red Book, thinking it might provide a measure of safety if I flashed it as I walked back downhill to the port area. The return trip was uneventful, but I had seen the People's Republic again. Mission accomplished.

By Joseph S Cooper ( - on Saturday, February 24, 2007 - 12:18 am: Edit Post

Regarding your input for Dr. Monroe Gross, formerly of the United States Peace Corps, I did visit Kota Kinabalu, traveling in from Hong Kong about 1966/57 staying at the Gross house, and had an opportunity to travel with Dr. Gross into the interior with him while he visited Peace Corps volunteers. I remember we hiked through rain forests, over a rope bridge, crossed muddy farm areas where the local farmers had their pigs at feed, and under instructions from Monroe did take off my boots for easier walking. With this I did remember the university paristology courses I took, and had to tuck back in my mind. We finally, arrived at the village where Dr. Gross visited with his volunteer/s, and, were later entertained by the village elder refreshed with drink and buffalo meat roasted on a stick. The elder's grandchild, a baby had been placed in a type of "swing" in the center of the room over an opening in the floor. Later we retraced our route back to Dr. Gross's Landrover. As I recall, during my visit, Dr. Gross always had the unique ability to plan and take interesting trips, walking, or boating, where all concerned utilized their utmost physical stamina and ability. In fact during my career in private industry and the Federal government where my travels took me to major areas of the world, this short trip with Dr. Gross remains in my memory.

By Anonymous ( - on Thursday, April 12, 2007 - 10:42 pm: Edit Post

As a Sabahan educated in the States, I enjoyed reading your recollections of my home state. I recall seeing PCVs during my grade school days and reading your postings reminded of those days, a time when many of us Sabahans still look back to with a degree of fondness and perhaps even an occassional sense of "opportunities lost".

Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the web.

By nooros61 ( on Friday, August 12, 2011 - 11:56 am: Edit Post

TQ for the info shared and i am interested to get some information on this particular issue" A guy nam Mr Dhobi an estate manager in Papar during the period of 1925-1933.He is a scottish by origins" Please contact me at the email below :

By Gus Breymann ( on Thursday, November 12, 2020 - 10:34 am: Edit Post

I am interested in hearing from those who posted above. I think I may know one or two of you if you lived in Teck Guan Villa in the late 1960s. Anyone may contact me by posting a friend request on Facebook.

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