This is my mother’s childhood home. It’s about a hundred years old now and may be rebuilt, so I am grateful to have seen it like this.
The homestead is in Beaufort, Sabah, a town about an hour and forty minutes drive south of Kota Kinabalu. It sits slightly below the town centre, near the bank of the Padas river, which winds through Beaufort, cutting it in two.
Here you can just see it from the other side of the river.
My mother wasn’t born there. She was born in a house next to it, but that house burned down. Here is the burnt site on the left.
In the late 1800s my maternal grandfather came to Sabah, which was then British North Borneo. I don’t know exactly where he first landed (maybe I’ll learn more about that later), but he did end up in Beaufort, clearing the jungle for the British — the White Rajas of The Chartered Company. He was one of many Hakka Chinese men arriving in North Borneo at that time.
In those days, Beaufort was a pioneer’s fantasy — verdant jungle frontiers ready for exploration and cultivation. The local hazards? Malaria, and some local Borneo headhunters. Oh, that’s so fierce! I love that we came here! 💪
The Chartered Company raised money by issuing debt paper, voraciously bought up in London by stock investors who gathered in coffee houses. We were entering the era of the car, and rubber would become the new gold.
The Chartered Company planted rubber and other commodities in vast estates. They needed to move that wealth out of the Sabah interior to the port at Jesselton, then on by sea to England. Together with the British Colonial Office, they started the North Borneo Railway Project, and the railway was the main artery in and out of the interior. It’s still the only mode of transport for some people living in those areas today. (The link above is an archive written by rail and train enthusiasts. It’s a great read!)
So my grandfather was connected to the Brits and the railway. That’s how we ended up in Beaufort. In time, he was released from his work contract and acquired land of his own. He and my grandmother, a Christian missionary, raised a family of eleven children, of which my mother was the eighth child.
Fire was an omnipresent leveller. When I was a child in London, I remember Mum telling me that — between living in the first and second homes on the river — they were in a townhouse at the end of a row of shops in Beaufort town. The house overlooked the Padang, which would have been a bit like “the village green” in those days.
This is where it would have been, right at the end of the shops. The Padang is on the right. I’m guessing it’s more functional these days.
Mum said, when she was about nine years old, the children were all woken up in the middle of the night. Everyone was frantic. The house was on fire! The children ran out onto the Padang, and their mother told them to hold on to each other tightly and not let any child go astray in the darkness.
Mum said there was so much hot smoke and billowing flames against the night sky, and she was crying because she saw her mother running back towards the house with a pillowcase in hand! Why was she doing that?
She was going back to retrieve their property deeds. If they burned, the family would lose everything. Thankfully, my grandmother was successful, both in finding documents and emerging relatively unharmed. After that, the family moved back to the river.
I loved seeing this house. It was a lucky day in my life.