by Kon Cze Yan
This charming little museum is located on the Kuching Waterfront. It was built in 1912 as a court by Chinese traders to enact their laws and customs. Thereafter it was taken over by the Chinese Chamber of Commerce and in 1993, it became the Chinese History Museum.
James Brooke, the first White Rajah of Sarawak, disliked the Chinese, but regarded them as a necessary evil. The Rajah detested people who had anything to do with money. ‘The Chinaman’, wrote Ludwig Verner Helms, the managing director of the Borneo Company, ‘must have his tea, tobacco, opium and samsu, and when he has ready money he must gamble. He is, therefore, an excellent subject to tax, and from the opium, arrack and gambling farms the Sarawak Treasury was largely replenished”.
And so the Chinese in Sarawak occupied a special place during the period of the White Rajahs. They formed a state within a state. They had their own temples and their own code of laws.
The Chinese now make up about a quarter of the population of Sarawak and are Sarawak’s second largest ethnic group after the Ibans. The museum describes the 3 waves of migration of Chinese into Sarawak. The origin, destination and occupation of each major dialect group are detailed. It also highlights the early prominent pioneers and the current leaders of the community.
The 1st wave of immigration took place in the early 19th century. These were mainly Hakka gold and antimony miners from Kalimantan. The 2nd wave of Chinese immigrants arrived by sea and consisted mainly of Hokkien, Teochew and Cantonese. These traders arrived before the 1st Rajah, James Brooke. The 3rd and biggest wave of immigrants arrived mainly at the invitation of Rajah Charles Brooke to open up land for cultivation and provide labour for the mines.
An information panel on each of the Chinese immigrant groups who helped build Sarawak – Hakka, Cantonese, Hokkien, Teochew, Chao Ann, Henghua, Hainanese, Foochow, Luichew and Sankiang – forms the bulk of the displays in this little museum.
Two large sections of the museum are devoted to prominent Chinese leaders both past and present. Sadly there is no mention of the ‘Uncrowned King of Sarawak’, Wee Kheng Chiang. So influential and wealthy was he that Lady Sylvia Brooke, wife of Rajah Vyner Brooke, bestowed that title on him. When she often told him he was a rascal and rogue, it delighted him so much he would send for a bottle of champagne and drink to it!