Gong Gong says

This is a posthumous blog of our father's (Lim Kok Ann) life. When our father passed away on 8 March 2003, he left behind an unpublished autobiography. We'd like to celebrate his life by sharing his autobiography through this blog.


"I have dredged these anecdotes from memory just to pass the time; if they amuse my grandchildren their purpose will have been served; if they provide any instruction, it will be a happy coincidence; that they are disjointed is probably to be expected.

Aurora was the name of my grandfather’s house in Kulangsu.   Amoy, where I spent the first five or six years of my life.   I still have vivid memories of events that took place when I was barely three years old.

Lim Kok Ann
October 1996"

Saturday, November 15, 2008

3:12 The Bird’s-nesters of Gomantong
In the long vacation of the next year, 1957, Hale asked me to make a field trip to visit the bird’s-nest caves in North Borneo jungle where it was reported the natives were suffering a febrile illness. We describe such a condition as a PUO (pyrexia of unknown origin). The Ebola virus was yet unknown, else I would have been more circumspect in the undertaking.
Note: Ebola virus, associated with African jungle monkeys, causes a highly contagious and often fatal haemorrhagic fever. No cure is known and whole villages were wiped out in the late 1980s.
I was most eager to do what I had heard Carleton did in New Guinea and got my gear together. My baggage included a tent, cooking equipment and food, and I packed - of all things - a kerosene operated refrigerator to store blood samples. I also brought a microscope (to look for malarial parasites in the blood), anti-malarial drugs and various other medicines for coughs, diarrhoea and fevers, as well as blood collecting equipment, syringes and test-tubes. That I did not bring a kitchen sink was possibly an oversight. Hale had previously visited Sarawak and had returned with a technician on the staff of the Sarawak health authorities for training in Singapore. This was Stephen Malunjun who accompanied me to Sandakan and served as my assistant on the field trip.
My task was simple enough: I had to take blood samples from the sick natives, store them in the fridge until I could get them to the hospital in Sandakan where the serum could be separated if necessary. If I was lucky I might actually discover a new virus (in which case I might be unlucky if it was something like the Ebola virus!). Hale cautioned me not to over-pay the natives who would carry my baggage, “They love best to be paid with cigarettes,” was his advice. It was my first field trip and it was unfortunately doomed to failure from the start because of inadequate back-ground information of what we were trying to accomplish.
The edible bird’s-nest is made by swifts (scientific name: Collocalia) that live in mountain caves, where, clinging to the rock face, the bird makes a nest with its saliva. Some species of swifts strengthen the nest with their feathers making dark nests; those that do not, make the preferred white nests, which when dried, is sold by the tael (Chinese ounce). The swifts mate and make nests four times a year, and are life-long companions, according to legend. Because of the high infant mortality associated with bird’s-nesting, the government allows collection of bird’s-nests only for three of the birds’ mating seasons. The Gomantong caves were located in the mountains north of Sandakan and before the war were exploited by residents of a nearby village. During the Japanese occupation, the Malay villagers had taken refuge in Sandakan where they had established a new base.
The commercial exploitation of edible bird’s-nests was a government monopoly in which the right to collect nests in a certain locality was contracted out, usually to a village elder who had made the highest bid. The successful contractor then sub-contracted the right to exploit particular caves to his people who paid him an agreed portion of their earnings. At the caves, the workers climbed up to their assigned cave(s)and picked the nest from the rock face, the best time to pick the nest being before the eggs were hatched and before it was fouled by chick excreta. The collected nests were tied in neat bundles and brought to the “gudang”, a well-built government store house near the caves where they were weighed by the government supervisor who lived there and each worker credited with what he had collected. The government would subsequently pay the contractor the value of the nests collected and he would settle with his sub-contractors. The bundles of nests were then carried through the jungle to Sandakan by the workers themselves, each being paid by weight for what he carried and according to its value, the white nests being worth more than the dark nests. A hundred catties was not an unusual load for a worker to carry through eight miles of jungle and paid about twenty dollars, additional income to what he had already earned by collecting the nests.
My first disillusionment came when I had a meeting with the village chief and discussed what I should pay the porters that I had assumed he would supply. I was a bit taken aback when the chief said he would have to ask his men. If there was to be any bargaining, I had to bargain with them direct, for they were free agents and not his employees. No question of payment by cigarettes - they had to be paid in dollars. I had to hire, too, a motor boat to carry my baggage to Gomantong. No, the chief would not be going because the work was for young men, but not to worry, his people would look after me well, for I was going to be their doctor, yes? Some slight misunderstanding here was apparent. I learned later that for a couple of years or so, the workers at the cave site had been asking the government to send a (male) nurse to the site so that their sick could be treated there instead of having to be brought back to Sandakan. They thought that I was the medical aid they had asked for.
The journey to the Gomantong caves began with a four hour trip by boat to the river at the edge of the foothills of the caves, then continued with an eight mile walk along jungle tracks to the camp site which consisted of a number of open huts along a stream, next to a well-built government storehouse. Stephen and I set up our tent, got the fridge running and made our evening meal. It was camping just like in the Boys Scouts. The next morning I held my first clinic and saw a small number of patients, most of whom I treated with a cough mixture and with aspirin where they still had fever. I took blood specimens from all of them, faithfully recording their names, sex and ages, and I examined blood films for malaria parasites. No, they had been at the caves only a week or two and did not have any illness when they arrived. No, there were no other people living at the camp-site, only the workers who had come to collect the nests. Their families were all back in their village in Sandakan, except for some women who had come to take care of their men.
Having collected only a dozen or so of blood specimens, I visited the foreman (kepala) who had been pointed out to me as my helper. I told him to line up all his people so that I could take blood samples. It would not hurt at all as he had seen me taking samples from the patients. Carleton had told me that the technique of taking blood was to line up all the prospective donors and not to take any blood until they were all assembled, then to ask each donor to hold a test-tube in one hand and a label in the other.
“Tell them they must not put down what they hold,” Carleton said, “and say that if anything goes wrong the whole thing has to be done all over again.” Well, it was too late to follow that advice, they had seen me taking blood samples already, but I had hoped that the workers were civilized enough not to fear a little blood-taking. I was wrong, for the Malays considered blood a magical thing and to give blood would be weakening. Besides, while they understood that to cure the sick the doctor might have to take some blood, they saw no point in taking blood from people in good health! I explained that I had been sent by the government to do what I had to do, otherwise, I would be failing in my duty.
“Yes, doctor,” my amiable kepala (headman) told me, “We understand that your work is very important and we would like to help you perform your duties. But you must also understand that we are about to climb up to the caves and if we slip because we have lost blood we could have a nasty fall. Come and look, doctor, and see what we have to do.” I had a look, and indeed, theirs was a hazardous occupation. They would climb tip the mountain-side to approach their caves, sometimes with the help of ladders, and make the final approach up a chimney to the rock face usually by shinning up bamboo poles, all without safety nets or ropes. No, I could not take the risk of being blamed for any accident. Seeing my downcast face, the kepala tried to console me. “But wait, doctor, when we have finished our work and it would take only a week or so, we shall be at your disposal, andyou can take all the blood you want.” Upon this I went back to my tent to sulk.
Editor’s Note: my father here is referring to Achilles, in Homer’s Iliad, who, feeling offended, left the battle and went back to his tent to sulk.
A week or so later I noticed some workmen gathering at the gudang and found them tying up bundles of bird’s-nests and having them weighed. They had finished, I thought.
“You have finished your work?” I asked the nearest one, “Can I take you blood now?”
“No, doctor,” replied the worthy, “I still have a couple of caves to look at tomorrow, but my friend here has finished his caves and will be going down to Sandakan tomorrow.”
“Bagus (good),” I cried turning to our friend who cast a hurt look at the former speaker, “then I can take your blood.”
“Ayah tuan (alas, sir) “, replied our friend mournfully, “perhaps that is not such a good idea. I have to carry this 100 catties of bird’s-nest tomorrow through the jungle. If you take my blood, I shall be weakened and may slip and fall. Who will help me then?”
An impasse again. I went to look for the kepala who was most sympathetic.
“Yes, doctor,” he said, “it is true that the jungle walk is very strenuous but we all have to carry the bird’s-nests to Sandakan.” Then he added hastily, “I, too. But, doctor, not to worry, you can come and see us at our kampong (village) when you return to Sandakan.”
“Very well,” I said with as good grace as I could muster, “but how about the women who are here? They won’t be carrying any bird’s-nests, would they?”
“No, doctor,” was the reply, “only men carry the bird’s-nests. But all the women have gone back already (suda balek kampong), as we have almost finished the caves and can look after ourselves. But, doctor, you can see them too, when you return to Sandakan.”
And that was that. I reminded the kepala that I needed porters for my baggage and the kepala said that that had not been forgotten; some of the workers will return to the caves after taking their bird’s-nests to the river. I realized then why I had to pay so much, as it seemed to me, in porters’ wages. They were used to getting paid for carrying bird’ s-nests and had in fact, accepted a reduced rate from me by comparison in return for my medical assistance. Imagine having a refrigerator carried at the cost of carrying bird’s-nests! There was no help for it. I contained myself in patience, told Stephen to pack everything but our tent and personal gear and waited for the porters to say when we could leave the caves. When we reached Sandakan eventually, I went to visit the village headman, our chief contractor.“
How nice to see you,” the headman cried, “thank you for all your help. No, the people you want to see have gone to their kampong - we have a number around Sandakan - or to the town to have a holiday. I can get them together in a few days time if you will come back.”
I was not having any more of this comedy. I told the contractor politely that I could not return as I had to catch the boat back to Singapore. I assured him I would tell the medical authorities of their need for a nurse, at least, perhaps even a doctor at the caves. There was some merit in this for their work was truly dangerous and any serious injury would have to have expert first-aid on the spot.
In my official report I said that there was no PUO at Gomantong, and nobody took ill during the three weeks I was there, apart for a couple of cases of coughs. There was no need for a field trip to study PUO among the bird’s-nesters for they did not live at Gomantong and can be found in Sandakan. Hale was a bit disappointed at the negative tone of my report and that the dozen or so blood samples that I brought back to Singapore did not yield any interesting information. They were blood samples of townsfolk after all, for that was what the Gomantong bird’s-nesters were: Sandakians.

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