Saturday, March 15, 2008

Stories of People Connected with the Borneo Company

The Borneo Company Limited had a fairly big building right opposite the Masland Church, on Island Road.

While it operated as Borneo Company in Sibu, it was almost like an icon in the business world.

In the 1950's the Manager of the Borneo Company together with the Manager of the Standard Chartered Bank were the celebrities of Sibu. No social function would happen without their presence. Such was their economic significance. And for a long while these two managers were English, appointed from the London offices.

The Borneo Company developed one of the best houses in Sibu, situated along Tun Haji Openg Road. As students we would all get the gossip whether the "mem" would be having a party or not since we cycle in and out of those roads. And one of our school mates was actually related to the Manager's cook. It was fun listening to the gossips.

But today, many young people of Sibu would not know much about this company. Perhaps it is no longer important. As they say, "It's history." But somehow, I feel that it is important to know this historical period of Sarawak, how our economic life was interwined with world development. Borneo Company was already global at that time.

Another interesting personal recollection from my memory bank regarding the Borneo Company was the interesting personnel connected with the Borneo Company. One such colourful person was Mr. Chiew Hock Siew and the other was the older Mr. Chiew, who was known as Panjang. Both spoke excellent English.

Mr. Chiew Hock Siew was a heavy drinker but he was an absolutely interesting character. He wore what I considered a colonial attire : white shirt,long stockings,nice leather shoes, nice leather belt. He could drin like a fish. Legend has it that he even kept a small bottle of whiskey in his office drawer. What amazed me at that time was his great ability to speak English like an Englishman.

He would come around our school,which was just opposite the Borneo Company, to pick up his children. And he would speak to some of the parents in his perfect nicely accented English. We as young children were very impressed. Our Headmaster Mr. Wong Kie Mee would also exchange a few words with him and they would have a good laugh.

I suspected that at that time all these laughter must be related to their love for drinking. Perhaps almost everyone in Sibu knew that the late Mr. Wong Kie Mee and his brother the late Mr. Wong Kie Ing were famous or infamous for their alcoholic adventures.

The older Mr. Chiew or Panjang was an old Borneo Company hand. (This is a very old colonial word). Panjang's life was indeed remarkable as he spent his whole life working for Borneo Company as a travelling salesman. He went far and wide in Sarawak,especially the interior, even though, according to one story, he was actually born and raised in Singapore.

He met his Melanau wife at a Bangsawan in Mukah. He was so taken by the beauty of his wife that when at the end of her singing, every one threw coins at her, he threw his pipe. She was amazed by this unusual act, that she picked up the pipe and sort of fell in love with him. What followed was a very romantic Chinese-Melanau love fit for a drama series.

According to his son, Panjang was a very "obedient servant" who would go out and distribute about to be expired goods to the longhouses, free, under the orders of the English Manager who did not want to waste the goods, This was not dumping of expired goods. This was charity as the goods would still be good for three months. In fact, to day, very few business men would do this. They would quickly pass the nearly expired goods to the rural people and sell them as quickly as possible. Even with alll the Enforcement Officers around, there are still many such commercial culprits. Some are even known to have scraped off the expiry date!! Of course we do have some lelong goods along the five foot way. That is still in practice.

Panjang went on to buy some property , bought by the gold owned by his Melanau wife, and his own savings, in Sibu, especially around the Roman Catholic Church but unfortunately he was cheated by some developers in his old age in the early 70's. He was invited by some contractors to have a business share. But things did not turn out well for him. His young son then was just too young then to help him. It is a pity that the family lost their property in this way. Otherwise the family would have been one of the richest in commercial land today. (Source of this story: His son and I went to the same school in Sibu for quite a number of years.)

The Borneo Company Limited was formed in 1856 to "exploit" the business opportunities in Borneo (Sarawak). It was also active in other parts of Asia.

James Brooke was a man who believed in business and connections, as it was the lifestyle at that time in Britain. He was nevertheless fairly well connected . After he successfully established himself as Rajah in 1842, he started to manage Sarawak like a vast estate and planned for its commercial development. Trade was foremost on his mind.

James Brooke , after he was given adequate advice, enlisted the help of Ludwig Helms, a Danish merchant who was operating out of Singapore. Helms incidentally was well connected to a Glasgow-based merchant house of MacEwen & Co. which had branches in Singapore, Batavia and Manila. MacEwen's office in Singapore became Brooke's agent while Helms managed Brooke's business in Sarawak.

The BCL thus became very much involved in importing and exporting, banking, production of agricultural commodities, mineral exploitation, and development, with a lot of political support from James Brooke.

The first motor car came to Singapore in 1896.But the BCL started selling imported cars in Singapore and Malaya only in the 1920's. Five years later, due to the vast business it had to handle,its subsidiary, Borneo Motors Limited was incorporated in 1925 to import and sell cars. Car sales subsequently became one of the most important businesses of the Borneo Company.

After World War II, the company's business expanded to cover other products. In 1967, BCL merged with Inchcape Group of UK. As a result, the Borneo Company became a subsidiary of Inchcape, while Borneo Motors Limited was split into two separate entities - Borneo Motors (Malaysia) Sendirian Berhad and Borneo Motors (Singapore) Limited.

In the 1980s, the company was agent and distributor for a wide range of pharmaceuticals, consumer, technical, sports and leisure products. Meanwhile, Borneo Motors was involved in the distribution of motorcars and trucks and motor-related products and services. They were selling leading brands like Austin, Rileys, Vauxhall, Bedford, Chevrolet, Oldsmobile, Cadillac, Chrysler, Pontiac, Buick and Leyland.(1)

Source :(l) Joshua Chia Yeong Jia

3 memories:

AlisonBuda said...

After independece, The borneo Company becomes Sebor a combination of Sarawaak Economic Development Corportion (SEDC) and Borneo Company (Bor). SE+BOR

sarawakiana said...

Thank you. I started off my blog as "stories/memories from 1950 - 1970) I have already included some 80's stories and earlier stories...

Sebor is a little out of my range now. But perhaps I will have to put in a paragraphy about what happened to Borneo Company with due respects to our my esteemed friends in SEDC.

Thank you. Your responses are always warmly welcome.

sarawakiana said...

The Borneo Company was a very valuable company as far as Sibu was concerned. The British manager was very benevolent and the salesmen were often seen giving away their almost expired stuff (three months before expiry date).

I remember many would queue up for the milk powder.


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