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Heritage Snippets from Sarawak
By Alex Teoh
An account of the 1st Malaya Borneo Exhibition 1922 in Singapore
Set in the early twentieth century, exactly a century ago, the British Empire was at its peak. After the First World War, the British colonies’ economic outlook was promising. Trade boomed with healthy demand for goods following wartime shortages and recovery efforts.
Global demand for primary produces like rubber and tin grew. By 1930’s, British Malaya supplied more than half of world’s rubber. Similarly, tin was in great demand for the tin canning industry. Other economic products like coconut, oil palm, pineapple and spices were being developed and cultivated.
To showcase the economic development and achievement of British Malaya and Borneo, the first regional exhibition was held in Singapore. Conceived by the Governor of Straits Settlement (while on a trip touring Borneo) Sir Laurence Guillemard, the exhibition was an international trade fair with displays of the commercial industries, minerals, arts and crafts, and the local flora and fauna.
The first Malaya Borneo Exhibition opened on 31 March 1922. It occupied a 68-acre (27 hectares) site bordered by Telok Ayer Market, Mount Palmer, Anson Road, McCallum Street and the coastline of Singapore.
Stated in the exhibition official guide book, its objective was to “…bring together, for the first time in history, representatives of all classes from the two important Malayan countries under British influence, Malay Peninsula and Borneo, so that by personal meeting, by interchange of ideas and discussions of matters of interest to each, considerable mutual benefit might be derived by all, and a revival of local trade possibly stimulated”.
The exhibition also hosted various cultural, entertainment and competitive events. Cultural performances included mayong and menora dance forms from Kelantan, boria theatre from Penang, mek mulong theatre and wayang kulit shadow play from Kedah and regimental band music. From Borneo, Dyak, Kayan and a party of 40 Sulu dancers performed on stage.
It was also Singapore’s first experience of the thrills and spills of an amusement park, with featured rides such as Ferris wheel and carousel.
For the commercial exhibits, major businesses like Fraser and Neave, Robinson and Co., Sime Darby and Co. and Borneo Co. participated and bagged awards for their best products. From Borneo, a large model of the Sarawak Oil Fields property at Miri was displayed. Borneo Co. boasted a model representing the total amount of gold extracted from mines in Sarawak over the last 24 years.
Other events at the exhibition were a photographic competition, stamp exhibition, dog show and outdoor events like football matches and boat races. A zoo comprising animals from various collections including two young orang utan and a long-nosed monkey from Borneo.
To commemorate this exhibition, special postage stamps were issued. Stamps of Straits Settlement, Kedah, Kelantan, Terengganu, Brunei and North Borneo had the words “Malaya Borneo Exhibition” overprinted on the face of the stamps. It was only available during the duration of the exhibition and was reported to be sold out.
This colonial spectacle also coincided with the visit of the Prince of Wales (Prince Edward, who ascended to be King Edward Vlll in 1936) to Malaya and Singapore. The Prince of Wales was on his 8-month Royal Eastern tour which covered India, Burma, Ceylon, Hong Kong and Japan. The exhibition guide book highlighted that the exhibition would show the Prince the “…natural resources and possibilities of Malayan countries under British influence, and to illustrate as far as possible some of the characteristic features of these countries and their people”.
To that end, plans were made for members of the Malay, Dyak and Murut communities to created life-size replicas of their traditional houses for display. A Dyak longhouse of ten doors was erected by Batang Ai Dyaks from Simanggang at the exhibition grounds and inhabited by them. However, the Murut house from North Borneo did not materialise as there were difficulty in getting enough men from the interior.
The Arts and Crafts Section was one of the most popular exhibits at the fair, featuring some 20,000 items made by or belonging to the indigenous communities of Malaya and Borneo. Many of these items were also available for sale.
It was reported in the press that the Borneo exhibits drew great interest. On display from Sarawak were 6 cannons, Sword of State of Sarawak, Dyak and native parangs, lace works by children of St. Teresa’s Convent, tortoise shell, rotan works, wood carvings, Kayan tattoo blocks, bark cloths and much more. British North Borneo exhibited 3 large brass langoeys, tree bark chowat and bajus, Sulu armour coat, burial jar, Dusun grave cover, tobacco produce and cigars. Brunei showcased silverware, brassware and embroidery. A unique attraction was a pair of straight tusks from a rouge elephant, shot on the east coast of BNB. It measured 5 feet 2 inches and weighed 53.5 pounds.
A host of 170 Dyak and 60 Kayan, Kenyah and Tegal warriors in full ceremonial attire, accompanied with background gongs and war cries, staged multiple performances to welcome the Prince and the guests-of-honour including HH The Rajah of Sarawak, The Governor of North Borneo, The Sultan of Brunei, The Sultan of Johore and the sultans of the Unfederated Malay States. During one of the performances, the Kayan chief presented the Prince of Wales a complete outfit for war. The Dyak maidens holding human skulls moved to rhythm of the “head dance”. It is reported that more than 30 skulls of their enemies were brought to Singapore.
A 3-minute silent recording of the Prince of Wales’ visit to Singapore, including the unveiling of the Cenotaph (near the Padang), the official opening of Malaya Borneo Exhibition and Dyak performances can be viewed at
The Prince of Wales in his speech at the welcoming ceremony said: “I am glad also to find with you, from distant Borneo, His Highness the Rajah of Sarawak and His Excellency the Governor of the pioneer State of North Borneo – the representative of British’s ideas and British endeavour in that fascinating and mysterious island. It has been my desire to see something of these wonderful Eastern lands whose history reads like romance”.
The Malaya Borneo Exhibition closed on 17 April 1922 after multiple extensions. Running for only three weeks, it attracted more than 300,000 visitors. It was claimed a success with good ticket receipts.
After the Prince’s visit, the Prince of Wales sent a congratulatory message on the success of the exhibition and an invitation to the upcoming British Empire Exhibition to be held at Wembley Park, London in 1924.
[Information based on notes from ‘Guide to the Malaya Borneo Exhibition 1922 and Souvenir of Malaya’, ‘Report of the Sarawak Museum 1915-1923’, and ‘Sarawak Gazette’ and Singapore newspapers published in 1922. Photographs by the author.]
Alex Teoh, a friend of FOSM, is a paper and book conservator of rare manuscripts, collectible prints, antique maps and antiquarian books. His focus is on the local material culture of the written text in Southeast Asia. His interest is also in the material culture and documentary heritage of Borneo.
“Heritage Snippets from Sarawak” is a fortnightly column.