Saving heritage or getting rid of the colonial past?

When I lived in Tunisia and I dug in the garden (which had the most magnificent roses I’ve ever seen), I was likely to turn up broken Roman tiles and marble pieces. There was even a carved capital of a Corinthian column on the steps to the front door.

In that house, I could look up from my computer and stare out of my study window to see the ruins of Carthage in the distance. I was writing the Heart of the Mirage at the time, which is set in a Roman-type ancient world, so the vibes were good…!

I love wandering around ruins and imagining what was once there. And yet I know that if I had lived in times long ago, and there had been such ruins in my neighbourhood, I would have been the first person out there pillaging for building blocks and carvings for my own house. After all, if one can build with Roman marble, why not?

Ialso have a certain ambivalence about spending money preserving the past, when we don’t spend enough preserving our natural environment. Sorry, the rainforest will always come before an old house as far as I am concerned. I think we should remember our history as much as possible, yes – but our environment is our future, our health, our legacy to our children. It is all important. More so than an old house.

So it is with considerable surprise that I find that I have played a part in doing just that – saving a beautiful old house from pillage and rot and the ravages of the tropical climate.

When we journeyed to Sebatik Island, south-east Sabah, I was intrigued by the fact that we stayed in Kampung Wallace Bay. I wondered if it was named after Alfred Wallace, the explorer and naturalist who came to the same conclusions about evolution as Charles Darwin. After all, the Wallace Line – which divides the natural world of the Greater Sundas and South-east Asia from the Australasian flora and fauna – travels down the Bornean coast just a mile or two away from Sebatik.

But a chat with a local convinced me that Wallace was the name of the guy from the North Borneo Timber Company in charge there at one time. The same local man who took my sister and me to see the so-called “Wallace House” at Wallace Bay.

And what a beautiful house it is: built of the best of tropical wood from top to bottom, even ceilings, with a view over the bay – visible from its verandahs and french doors in three directions – all of which had me gibbering with envy.

It was also being slowly plundered of its wood, and being attacked by termites. Apparently though, we were so enthusiastic in our praise that others took up the torch of conservation…and it looks like this glorious building, symbol of a colonial past and colonial rapine, will be preserved.

Which brings me to another point. When the lovely Bok House in Kuala Lumpur was being pulled down very recently, one of the KL bigwigs remarked something along the lines of – why should we bother to preserve something that has no significance in our history. It was just a rich man’s house, all part of the colonial past (although the owner/builder was not a colonial).

But the colonial past is our history, whether we like it or not. We shouldn’t forget it. Ever. It makes us value our freedom all the more. And perhaps we should hang on to its symbols, as reminders.

When I first came to Malaysia, aeons ago, there was a monument in Malacca town, a war memorial in fact, to the brave gurkhas who had died defending the Brits from the wicked rebels in the aftermath of the murder of James Birch, the British Resident in Perak in 1875… I think that was the essence of it, if my memory serves me rightly (it doesn’t always!). I thought it was wonderful that this monument to British chutzpah had survived independence and Malaysian pride.

Can anyone tell me if that memorial is still there somewhere? It was in the lovely little park – long since irresponsibly vandalized by development – near the Stadthuys.

Photos show the Sebatik Wallace House from the back – couldn’t get one of the front because the slope down to the sea was so overgrown. The sunset is the evening view from the direction of the house.


Saving heritage or getting rid of the colonial past? — 18 Comments

  1. Gorgeous house!!!!! Brilliant location!!!! I’d save it too, no questions asked.

    Do *not* start me on the whole PC angle. *g*

  2. I lived in this house – or one next door – from 1954 to 1956. My father built it when working for Wallace Bros who were timber extractors based on Sebatik and at Kalabakan on mainland Borneo. There should be the remains of a swimming pool nearby. I also think it should be saved.

  3. I too lived in this house from about 1969 to 1974. It is very sad to see it in such a state of disrepair & would love to think of it restored. It was definitely not around in Alfred Wallaces day as is being suggested. There was a pool to the rear of the house (on the left as you approach the house) that was shared by 3 houses in the vicinity. My brother & I had the bedroom by the balcony

  4. We stayed there too when my father was first posted there in 1976. It was called the Rest House and was beautifully decorated with English furniture and linens. It was part of the Executive Compound of the North Borneo Timbers Berhad company then the concession owner. There was a cook called Mr Rao from India and we were served by a Filipino House Boy called Lincoln. The garden was beautifully maintained by a gardener. There was a swimming pool adjacent to it. My dad was assigned another beautifully maintained house named 'Forest Lodge'. Visiting my dad during our school breaks were some of the best times for us kids. Forest Lodge used to be home to Mr Patrick Cassel and family. After they moved to Tawau their house was assigned to my father. There were many visitors from USA, and England who were either suppliers or buyers of timber. My dad was in charge of the sawmill there.

  5. I was born in Wallace Bay in 1963, now im 50's just joint the Discovery Tawau. My project in to confirm wether the english house in your article is really owns by the journelist Mr. WALLACE. And the answers is Yes. Confirmed by Malaya Universty of Sabah. Tq.

  6. I was born in Kg. Wallace Bay in 1963, in year 1982 im joint The North Borneo Timbers Bhd as a Sales &Shipping Clerk until NBT closed down in year 1985 but I was transfered to Sabah Softwoods Bhd until now and my position as a Sr. Executive Marketing

  7. Thanks for the updates…

    I wonder what has happened to the house now? It would be great to know if anything was done to save the place after our visit.

  8. Who was this Wallace journalist? Who did he write for? I still believe that Wallace Bay was named after the British company called Wallace Brothers who were the principle shareholders in North Borneo Timbers which started to develop the Sebatik facility in the early 1950s. I lived there between 1954 and 56 but am not sure if this was our house – there were about 5 houses for the expatriate staff – plus another 5 or 6 in Kalabakan. There might be some confusion with the Wallace Line which dates from 1859 and I do not think that Alfred Wallace went to Sebatik. On another note, is anyone aware of the extraordinary discovery of Sung dynasty china dug up just above the high tide level in the 1950s. I think that this is now in the KK museum.

  9. After speaking with the locals, I don't think there can be any doubt that the Bay and the house were named after Wallace Bros, connected to the North Borneo Timber Berhad. Is it possible that one of these brothers was also a journalist?

    This house was definitely the biggest house in the area, on the prime piece of real estate, and it did have a swimming pool, now just a dip in the ground. I still don't know if any decision was made to preserve the house.

    Unfortunately, shortly after we were there, the politician who was passionately interested in Sebatik was defeated in an election…

  10. Yes it was definitely built by the wallace brothers who ran the timber business. If you Google you can find an excerpt from the British archives.wallace line would have been named after sir alfred Wallace who was not related to the Wallace brothers of NBT.angeline

  11. In the Pick to attend to encounter Children Wallace Bay on 5/6/7 June 2015 Please go to Anak-Anak Wallace Bay Face Book.
    All Children of Wallace Bay will be present at the meeting in memory of the glory era of NBT (North Borneo Timber) The 60s to 80s. Heritage house is still intact and is now in use as a mini museum.

  12. I came here to search why my village’s name is so rare bcs my village is full with malay people and my village is located on a remote island and is almost unknown but its name is in english LOL, and as a people of Wallace bay, I am very honored after reading your blog!!!! Thank youuuu!!!

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