The ‘glamorous, scandalous’ times of Banglo Segu

The architecture of the bungalow has a number of Malay-inspired features such as being raised on wooden stilts.

IF the walls of Banglo Segu could talk, the stories it could tell about the people who passed through her doors and slept under her roof would be more than enough to spawn dozens of screenplays for the next Hollywood blockbuster or BBC prime time series.

Sitting modestly on a small hill along Park Lane in Kuching opposite a now disused WWII air raid shelter, the building is widely believed to be the holiday cottage of the Third White Rajah Charles Vyner Brooke — where he would take his many European mistresses.

However, it would be a disservice to the building’s colourful history if that is all it is known for.

In fact, it was a common point linking key people and events in Sarawak’s history as it witnessed the end of the White Rajah’s dynasty, and the birth of a new destiny for Sarawak as a sovereign country, and finally as part of a new nation called Malaysia.

Dr John Walker, senior lecturer in the International and Political Studies Programme at the University of New South Wales Canberra, has written and researched extensively on Sarawak’s early history and authored a book — ‘Power and Prowess: The origins of Brooke kingship in Sarawak’.

During a recent talk about Banglo Segu’s history, which most appropriately, was held on the open verandah of the building itself, he took the opportunity to delve into  its origin and place in Sarawak’s history as well as highlight arguably lesser well publicised details surrounding the people who built, visited and lived in it.

The talk, hosted by the Sarawak Heritage Society (SHS) and Friends of Sarawak Museum (FOSM), drew a small but enthusiastic crowd of the curious as well as local history buffs who filled the verandah from end-to-end.

City of sin

The first thing Walker pointed out was that Kuching during the time of the White Rajahs was much less conservative than many people would think.

Based on various accounts of visiting British dignitaries, officers and citizens, there is ample evidence to suggest plenty of shenanigans were going on within the social circles of the British officers and other western expatriates during Vyner’s reign — so much so that at least one individual disgustedly described Kuching as a ‘city of sin’ due to the loose lifestyle and vices of many of its European administrators and elites, which appeared to exceed even the acceptable standards of those in their home countries.

Marriage was hardly a deterrent for the colonial administrators to take on the local women as their mistresses or wives, Walker highlighted.

Whether because of unbridled promiscuity or otherwise, the state’s crude administration and weak financial system was of great concern to the British government — so much so that by 1940, they wanted to establish a British Advisor in Sarawak.

“So perhaps, if they hadn’t all been running around sleeping with each other, and doing more work, there wouldn’t have been a cessation. That’s just a thought,” Walker said wryly.

Vyner himself was said to be a womaniser and slept with the wives of his European officers and acquaintances — his various affairs described in detail by his wife, the Ranee Sylvia, who claimed to know of all his affairs as her husband would show her the love letters he received.

She herself appeared to take an active interest in her husband’s extra-marital affairs, despite declaring them as his “little foolishness”, Walker said, quoting excerpts from the Ranee’s own writings.

However, one cannot help but feel she was not as flippant about the matter as she claimed. She appeared to be eager to show herself above such concerns but glimpses of envy and insecurity leaked out from between the snide put-downs of Vyner’s lovers and apparent insistence on the special closeness of her relationship with Vyner which these poor other women would never understand nor experience.

She also partly blamed Vyner’s promiscuity on herself as a ‘frigid woman’ but as Walker pointed out, she may have good reason to be so as her father, Reginald Brett, Second Viscount Esher was a “terrible, terrible paedophile” who abused her own brother and sister, and also her brother’s friends.

Her childhood experiences notwithstanding, the Ranee did little to stop their three daughters from following in their father’s example. The three women would use their feminine charms to play the flirts — something which the Rajah did not appear to mind and only got involved if it affected his officers’ duties, Walker noted.

Hatch (not seen) points out photos in his album.

Rajah’s love nest?

Given the prevailing relaxed moral attitudes of the time, claims of the Banglo Segu being Vyner’s love nest would not seem out of place.

It is thought the bungalow was originally built at Kampong Segu (now known as Kampung Benuk) at Penrissen in the early 1900s, after which it was relocated to its present site in Kuching.

However, Walker explained he had reason to believe this was actually not the case.

“The Ranee’s account of her husband’s womanising and daughters’ affairs — which I have quoted at such length — are important for the history of the Segu bungalow for one vital reason — she did not mention it.

“Believed by so many to have been built specifically so that Vyner could conduct his liaisons away from Kuching’s prying eyes, it is clear from Sylvia’s account that he conducted his affairs in town — in a bungalow near the Astana and in a graveyard,” he said.

Walker believes Banglo Segu may in fact, have been built by Vyner’s father, the Second Rajah Sir Charles Brooke, as there were accounts written by various individuals describing a bungalow built by Charles at Kampung Segu, which appeared to collaborate each other based on details such as its location near Charles’ rubber estate.

According to those accounts, Charles’ bungalow served as an administrative and tax collection centre for the area. Furthermore, its location was not easy to access, which throws suspicions on its suitability as a rendezvous where Vyner and his mistresses could nip down there quickly and return to Kuching unnoticed.

Last month, Deputy State Secretary Datu Ose Murang and his wife Datin Valerie took Walker and FOSM executive director Louise Macul to visit the original site of the bungalow at Kampung Benuk.

They met a local who recalled he had been told the bungalow had been built by a Malay man, called Abang Ajee, from Kuching Public Works Department (JKR).

Other elders they met remembered the bungalow had been used by the Japanese during WWII to store food and other supplies they had requisitioned from the Bidayuh in the area, and that after the war, the colonial government used Segu as a police barracks.

Other details which led Walker to suspect Banglo Segu was built by Charles is its Malay-inspired architecture, which contrasts with Vyner’s modernist style which other researchers have previously noted.

“In architectural terms, this was an unusual building for the Third Rajah to build. Unlike his father, the Third Rajah encouraged high-tech solutions like the suspension bridge at Satok which was opened in 1926. The bungalow conforms closely with the architectural traditions which emerged during the reign of the First Rajah and which were maintained by the Second until the closing years of his rule,” he said.

Of note also, Walker shared, Barbara Harrisson, wife of former Sarawak Museum curator and polymath Tom Harrisson (1947 to 1966) had told Macul Banglo Segu was built around 1880 by the Second Rajah.

This is probably one of the strongest points in support of the bungalow being built by Charles instead of Vyner as the Harrissons had lived there for many years.

Banglo Segu’s ceiling and wall panels are richly painted with figures and motifs from Orang Ulu folklore.

Second home

Walker also credited Tom Harrisson as the reason why Banglo Segu was relocated from Kampung Benuk to Kuching.

In 1947, the latter persuaded the Sarawak government to move the bungalow to its present location, mainly because he wanted to have his Kelabit wife with him, according Walker.

Since Tom Harrisson and his Kelabit wife were not married under European law, it would have created too much of a scandal if she were to stay with him in the government rest house — even for Tom Harrisson, known to have an irreverence for protocol, Walker said.

Tom Harrisson was generous with the bungalow, often lending it out to others to stay while he was away. Thanks to his close ties with the Orang Ulu community in northern Sarawak, it was a popular stopover for many of them when they visited Kuching for various purposes.

Among those who adopted the bungalow as home away from home was the prolific Kenyah artist and Renaissance man, Tusau Padan who reportedly had a fondness for eating black dog meat and raised a few on the premises for this purpose.

Tusau and his fellow Orang Ulu artists were also responsible for the vibrant and breathtaking murals depicting figures and motifs from Orang Ulu folklore on the bungalow’s ceiling and walls.

Almost lost

Following the departure of Tom and Barbara Harrisson from Sarawak, Banglo Segu fell into severe disrepair as termites, the elements and general neglect wrought their damage.

The bungalow received a valuable lifeline in the person of Dr Timothy Hatch who stayed there from 1977 to 1986. He was present at the talk by Walker and shared his experiences about living in the bungalow, much to the delight of those present. He knew Tusau and even brought a photo album filled with old photos of the bungalow from during his time there.

“Like everyone who stays here, I think, you fall in love with it. There’s just something about this place that you can’t get away from really. So I was determined to do something about the bungalow,” he said, explaining his part in restoring it.

Despite the difficulty, he persisted for six months, wearing a path between various government agencies to pester and plead with them to do something. He finally managed to persuade JKR to allocate some funds so that much needed restoration work could be carried out.

Hatch said that JKR “did a fantastic job” replacing the collapsed and leaking atap roof. The deteriorating termite-eaten floor and wood panelling was replaced and JKR brought in painters to try to get them as close to original as possible.

He opined that the painted panels now on the ceilings and walls are not the original ones painted by Tusau and his fellow artists, but reproductions of the originals, given the extent of the damage caused by all those years of neglect.

Much to his dismay, during a subsequent renovation in the mid-90s, the contractor scrapped and smashed two magnificent Thomas Crapper & Co toilets with brass chains and ceramic handles inset with daffodils which had been installed in the bungalow since the Rajah’s time.

He is grateful Banglo Segu still exists today but he fears for its future as he does not think there will always be people who would stay there to justify its existence — a valid concern.

A close-up of the details on one section of the painted ceiling.

Indeed, the bungalow has withstood the test of time — but for how long? It is increasingly fenced in by creeping commercial and residential development on all sides.

This begets concerns as to what are the future plans for this place — whether there is adequate legal protection and unflinching enforcement of preservation of heritage buildings and how much we are willing to invest in terms of strengthening local authority and expertise in heritage protection and preservation.

As the talk by Walker so aptly demonstrated, Banglo Segu is an intriguing building and resource from which to dive into topics, people and events that were crucial milestones in Sarawak’s history.

For the time being, it serves as accommodation for visiting scholars and guests of the Sarawak Museum Department. However, making that its main and sole purpose would arguably be under-utilising its wealth of historical significance and makes its future less certain as it would be difficult to justify its continued existence in its current form.

It should play a more active role in educating the public, sparking public involvement in heritage conservation and awareness, and inculcating pride in local history. There is also a need to create more opportunities and funding for local researchers to delve into its cultural and historical uniqueness.

Sarawakians came very close to losing Banglo Segu at least once — so we should make the most of the opportunity in hand to ensure it does not happen again.

Anything less than our earnest efforts would certainly be a wistful fate for the once purported love nest of a White Rajah.

Macul shows old photos of Banglo Segu sourced from the Sarawak Museum archives.

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