Reflections at an English tea house in Borneo


At an English Tearoom, Sabah ,Borneo.

The Agnes Keith house sits on a hill in Sabah Borneo. Agnes was an American author who married the British Conservator of the Forests and lived in Borneo in 1936. Their old house is preserved as a tourist attraction. She lovingly writes of the house that, ‘All day in the sun the sides of our house, the doors and windows, lie open to let the beauty in. Royal Sulu sarongs hang at our doors, chrome yellow, cerise and purple. They blow out into the colour of the garden’. From the house, I could see all the way down to the Sulu sea. The Sulu sea in the distance, an expanse of deep blue, with huge tankers and ships dotted in primary colours like toy boats sitting on the water line.

I walked around the house eager to discover the writer who had made this Borneo state of Sabah famous with her book, Land Below the Wind. A title now used when describing Sabah. The house itself was colonial style made of wood, with beams out the front framing its beautiful wide porches and verandas. Inside dark hardwood floors and handmade wooden furniture sat in the middle of the rooms. I knew from her book that she had those pieces of furniture made from wood, sourced from the forest, designed and cut to order. I also read about her silk dresses housed in her large wooden wardrobes which now stood empty around the edges of what was once her bedroom. I stood on the balcony imagining Agnes standing there, ‘The Northeast Monsoon blows from the Sulu Sea it comes to us over five miles of jungle, sweeping up the damp breath of the trees.’

I opened my eyes onto a road and a city that has swallowed up the jungle. A place where now only hardy plants shot up between launderettes, grocery shops and money changers. The Borneo Agnes described was disappearing.

I walked down to the water fall where my five year old was admiring baby turtles clinging to the rocks in a decorative statue. The car parking bays had neatly painted white lines and just next to the car park there was a breadth of grass and a one-storey wooden building that ran along its edges. Intrigued we walked down and stumbled upon an English tearoom. I imagined Agnes sat here when she wrote of the party on the lawn with, ‘…medals and uniforms, Headmen and Orang Tua’s …drinking tea and eating cakes together.’ This place seemed not to have changed at all. Except I didn’t see any indigenous people there. Wooden cabanas sheltered us from the sun and were positioned so we could see the Sulu Sea. We ate scones with cream and jam, sampled slices of traditional English cakes and teas. The grass was cut short. The wild jungle was cut out of the manicured grass. The hedges were trimmed into perfect shapes. No wilderness crept into this place.

I stepped outside from the ‘Outpost of the Empire’ and down on the grey concrete I saw two deep blue, beautifully created, symmetrical butterfly wings, ripped in half.


Published by Shereen Malherbe

Shereen Malherbe is a writer & author. Her novel, Jasmine Falling has been voted as one of the top 20 Best Books by Muslim women. Her second contemporary fiction novel, The Tower, was published by Beacon Books on April 2019. Her first children's book, The Girl Who Slept Under The Moon is out now.

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