Over the years since I learnt about the ‘Land Below the Wind’, Sabah, I read and heard a couple of reasons leading to this sobriquet. The most common was due to the state lying below the typhoon belt of East Asia and never being battered by typhoons, except for tropical storms.
However, my recent visit to Rumah Agnes Keith in Sandakan, Sabah enlightened me about the history of a renowned American writer Agnes Keith and how Sabah’s majestic nickname was first used by the writer, who wrote a book titled Land Below the Wind describing her experience living in Sandakan for almost two decades.
While Land Below the Wind is a description by mariners for all the lands south of the typhoon belt, Keith reserved the title for Sabah in her book she penned in 1939.
This woman’s name has been mentioned in historical events that Sabah holds as the one person who made a permanent connection between the country and Land Below the Wind. She was also said to be one of the earliest to put Sabah on the map.
Keith or Agnes Newton Keith agreed to relocate to Sandakan in the eye of the storm of World War II, with her husband Henry Keith whom she married in 1934 from Illinois, United States (US). Her husband was a British official assigned as a conservator for forest conservation in Sandakan.
Agnes began to write again under the persuasion of her husband. She published seven books during her lifetime with some becoming bestsellers and being turned into movies.
Henry provided a house constructed on a hill where they lived for many years until the house was destroyed following the war. They rebuild the house after the war ended in 1946. It became the first permanent government timber dwelling, and they renamed their new home ‘Newlands’. They stayed there for several years before it had several other owners.
After being left with no further occupants, the house was restored in 2001 as part of a collaboration project between the Sabah Museum Department and Federal Department of Museum and Antiquities. It was named Rumah Agnes Keith and was opened to the public on April 26, 2004 as a museum. The house itself provides insights to life during the administration of British North Borneo and is furnished with a reproduction of colonial furniture and antiques, while the gallery on the first floor tells the story of Agnes, her books and her family.
During my visit, as I made my way through the beautiful and well-maintained garden’s pathway leading to the house, a staff member at the house greeted me and other visitors warmly and politely asked us to take off our shoes before entering the house.
Stepping foot in the house brought back memories of visiting my late granduncle’s house in Kampong Sungai Liang, where my mum would allow me to sleep over during school breaks as I was very close to my late grandaunt. The furniture settings, living room and dining hall may be of the British colonial architecture but it is similar to my grandmother’ house from years back.
The ground floor displays the typical living setting of the 1940s including the furniture, framed photo arrangements on the walls and a few antiques items used during those days.
The upper level of the house is the most interesting. It confirms how Sabah got the sobriquet of Land Below the Winds. Making my way first through the gallery corner on the upper level, I browsed through the memoirs and news clippings on displayed. Agnes was reportedly happy with this new home despite having encountered mysterious incidents throughout her years of living in the house, which were based on her own writings. It is said the same mysterious experiences were encountered by a number of owners as well.
Agnes described her house as having the finest view in Borneo and shared about their devoted but erratic domestic staff and her day-to-day adventures.
She wrote with humour and affection for the Borneo people and her love of animals, and also illustrated her books with amusing pen-and-ink sketches.
During the first few months of Japanese occupation of British Borneo, the Keiths were allowed to stay at their own residence. However, Agnes and her son George were imprisoned on Berhala Island, an island near Sandakan, on May 12, 1942.
The mother and son spent eight months in a building that was once the Government Quarantine Station, where they were imprisoned along with other western women and children while Henry was imprisoned nearby. Agnes and her son were transferred to Kuching, Sarawak and imprisoned in Batu Lintang Camp and her husband followed suit.
Many inmates of the camp, although punishable by death if caught, kept diaries and notes about their imprisonment and one of Agnes’ fellow female internees, Hilda E Bates, mentioned her in a diary entry.
Hilda wrote that a noted American novelist, Mrs AK, was among the outstanding personalities’ of her companions in the camp, who proposed to write a book on their life at the camp and noted that Agnes was much sought after by the Japanese Camp Commandant after reading one of her books about Borneo.
Agnes kept her detailed account of life in the camps, writing on scraps of paper and anything she could get her hands on, and hid it in cans often buried at night in little George’s toys, in the toes of shoes.
She would often wake up in the middle of the night to dig up the cans and keep them in ‘safer’ keep, which successfully evaded the periodic searches by the guards.
Land Below the Wind was Agnes’ first book in the then North Borneo, which became the unofficial motto of Sabah, while her second book Three Came Home has been cited as one of the sources for cinematic and television depictions of women in Japanese camps during World War II.
In Three Came Home, among her quotes was, “It was a good life, it was a life of joy to remember, it was my first four years in Borneo; it was the Land Below the Wind.”