Sampans, scorpions, and the clash of cymbals

Stories from an exotic childhood

When we arrived in Sarawak in 1968 I had no idea what it would be like, but I was young, barely thirteen. We stayed at the government guesthouse, which was a spare, villa-like building on a small hill overlooking the town of Kuching. I recall the sound of chanting, the clash of cymbals, and strange wailing. Buddhist funeral processions seemed to be a common feature of the street below.

It was hot, and my mother wanted a shower after travelling. A commotion arose in the bathroom when a large, black scorpion crawled out onto the shower floor, tail raised. Help was called, and a man arrived in due course with scissors and a dustpan. He deftly cut off the threatening tail, swept up the offending scorpion and took it away. Scorpions were pretty common in Sarawak, and we came to accept them, with a healthy degree of caution.

My parents set about finding suitable housing for our small family. My mother was taken with the stone villas across the river from the town. She found an empty house, had it renovated, and painted it pastel pink. The windows had louvred shutters that closed like barn doors, and there was a large roll-down bamboo screen on the upstairs veranda. Some of the upstairs windows looked out over the jungle to a mountain in the distance. Ceiling fans moved the moist air around. The entrance had a large arched portico from where I watched the afternoon rainstorms. It seemed like the only cool time was after rain.

My mother bought an African red parrot in the bazaar. He had been confined to a small perch and she had a very large cage built for him. Once he adapted to his more spacious surroundings he clambered around the cage in the portico, and let out loud raucous calls from time to time. My mother called him “Bud”, and Maggie, our Iban house ama used to tell her: “That bud no good!”. Maggie had lived through the Japanese occupation of Malaya in the war. She had a different perspective on birds. When I asked her why the jungle around our house had so few birds, she said: “The Japanese ate them, the pigs!”. It was not the response that I expected.

My brother and I had to go to school, and there were two suitable (boys) schools in Kuching, St. Thomas and St. Josephs, protestant and catholic. We refused to go to the catholic school, and so we were enrolled at St. Thomas. To get to school we were picked up by a minibus that did the rounds of the Malay village near our house before dropping us off at the river. From there, we took a sampan across the enormous, brown, tropical river to the town. The sampans took about 6 passengers each, often less, and were sculled by a sampan man, who lived on the boat. He worked two long crossed oars in a scissor motion, perfectly navigating the current to avoid being swept downstream.

The crossing provided a view of the fishing boats chugging up the river to land at the open air, covered fish market. The sound of their heavy diesel engines and the speed with which the muscly wooden boats sliced through the river fascinated me. In the evening, the sampans would hook up to a mooring near the landing, light a lamp, and sometimes the sampan man would cast a fine circular net to catch small fish or shrimp. The sampan ride was the highlight of my trip to school. From the landing we walked though the town to the school.

The school was a kind of hell for me. All the boys were Chinese or Malay, except for one British kid in my class, who was a bad apple. The Malay boys were distant, but left me alone. I learned what it is to be a foreigner. The Chinese boys were the worst, very assertive, often aggressive, and definitely xenophobic. The didn’t like Americans (although I was hardly American by upbringing). They spoke Hokien, disdained English, and regarded me with hostility. Except for one shy boy, who befriended me. His name was Noel Chai, and he was a quiet, gentle lad with glasses. I am still in touch with him, more than 50 years later, although he long ago left Malaysia for Hong Kong, the Philippines, and now lives in Melbourne, Australia.

I don’t recall learning anything academic that year, except for some history. The textbook focused on Southeast Asian history, and the writing about large Chinese fleets of junks, battles with Korean armies, and colonisation of Japan triggered my imagination. But I did learn one other important lesson. I learned what it feels like to be a minority, an outsider, to be talked about behind my back, and to be an object of ridicule. To this day, when I encounter a foreigner in a room, I walk up to them, introduce myself, and ask them where their family is from. And I have never forgotten the friendship extended to me by the one Chinese boy who was different.

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Sam McClatchie

Fisheries oceanographer. Former lead for the California Cooperative Oceanic Fisheries Investigations program at NOAA (2007-2018). https://www.fishocean.info