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Chinese pioneers on the Sarawak frontier, 1841-1941

Chew, Daniel (1983) Chinese pioneers on the Sarawak frontier, 1841-1941. PhD thesis, Murdoch University.

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There are compelling historiographical reasons for writing this thesis. There has been an unceasing interest, past and present, shown in the Brookes as the white Rajahs of Sarawak, by writers, historians, Brooke officials, travellers and missionaries. Most of these works deal with the idiosyncracies of Brooke rule, the subject of fascination being how a European dynasty single handedly tamed and ruled a tropical country inhabited by warlike, headhunting Ibans. The historical study of other ethnic groups in the country has been largely ignored, as if their past was of little or no consequence. One such group was the Chinese, today as numerically significant as the Iban, and politically and economically more crucial.

It has only been in recent times that studies of the ethnic Chinese have been made, although not all of them have historical themes. The pioneering anthropological study of the social structure of the Chinese in the present 1st Division was undertaken by Tien Ju-Kang in 1948/1949. This was followed by Craig Lockard's M.A. thesis, 'Chinese Immigration in Sarawak, 1868-1917' completed in 1967, and his Ph.D. dissertation, 'A Social History of Kuching, 1820-1970' in 1973. Richard Fidler conducted anthropological fieldwork on the bazaar Chinese of Kanowit in 1970/1971. A geographical study of the Sibu Foochows was undertaken by Diu Mee Kuok in 1971. The Sibu Foochow pioneers were also part of a wider study by Vinson Sutlive in his anthropological researches on the Ibans in Sibu. The rural Chinese of the 1st Division have been considered in a cultural geography of the region in 1973, by Gale Dixon. John Chin, in 1981, published a general overview, 'The Sarawak Chinese', covering similar ground as Lockard and Tien.

Among these works, only Lockard and Chin have taken a historical approach, Lockard in particular, dealing with the mechanics of immigration and with the social and economic history of Kuching, which includes comprehensive treatment of the Chinese. However, there has been a significant omission of the rural Chinese in the studies of these two writers, even though in terms of past and present reality, a high percentage of Chinese are still to be found away from the main towns and urban centres. This thesis deals with the social history of the Chinese in Sarawak at a broad level, but with certain qualifications. It is rurally inclined, away from Kuching, and comprises selected local, regional cases. It is necessary to move away from the capital to complement the existing knowledge of the Chinese in Kuching. An understanding of the experiences of the rural Chinese is imperative before one can put in perspective the role of the Chinese in Sarawak society and history. Further, such knowledge will help to throw light on two principal themes in 'Overseas Chinese' history and historiography - Chinese-indigenous relations, and the relationship of Chinese with colonial regimes.

The study is thematic in nature, dealing with four broad economic themes; mining, trading, planting and wage labouring. These themes also happen to coincide with geographical regions; mining in the Bau district, trade in the Lupar, Rejang and Baram rivers; planting in the Lower Rejang region centred around Sibu; and wage labouring in the Sadong coal mines and the Miri oil fields, this study, as far as possible, archival records, together with oral evidence, are used to reconstruct the pioneering experiences of the Chinese, mining gold in water sluices and running streams; trading in river-front atap shop- In houses and in kajang-covered sampans plying the rivers; planting in small three to four acre rubber gardens and pepper/gambier plots surrounded by tropical jungle; and labouring in underground, water-logged coal-mines, and on dangerously ignitive oil wells fronting the South China Sea. On two other levels, this thesis will delve into ethnic relations, between Chinese settlers and indigenes, and the various responses of the Chinese pioneers in different combinations of time and space to the white Rajahs.

The manifest presence of the ethnic Chinese in different parts of Southeast Asia has sparked off a great deal of interest in them, especially since the end of the Pacific war, during the period of decolonization and indigenous nationalism. There are works which treat Southeast Asia's Chinese as a collectivity while there are others which approach them on a regional basis. Books concentrating on urban and rural areas have appeared, as have writings with geographical and economic themes. There are also the more specialized works which deal with limited aspects of Chinese social organization and culture. In a comparative context, in the conclusion. I will relate my own study to these other works concentrating on Chinese pioneering experiences, Chinese-indigenous relations, and the relationship between the Chinese and colonial regimes.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Murdoch Affiliation(s): School of Social Inquiry
Notes: Note to the author: If you would like to make your thesis openly available on Murdoch University Library's Research Repository, please contact: Thank you.
Supervisor(s): UNSPECIFIED
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