How about a film about love unfulfilled or trust misplaced?

Local assistants help to pack up film equipment on the east coast of Borneo circa 1928. — Martin and Osa Johnson Safari Museum, Chanute, Kansas, USA

Local assistants help to pack up film equipment on the east coast of Borneo circa 1928. — Martin and Osa Johnson Safari Museum, Chanute, Kansas, USA

OUR friend Jason Brooke has brought some good news lately. The Brooke Gallery Project of which he is the director is in its final touches before the grand opening. I’m sure all the History buffs in town are looking forward to visiting the gallery – the gold mine of information about Sarawak and its people. The general public, especially the younger generations of Sarawakians, will learn a lot about their country before the formation of Malaysia.

It seems that the ties between the Brookes can never be severed by time and space. And Jason has a lot to do with this happy state of affairs. His grandfather Anthony Brooke would have been our monarch and he a Tuan Muda had the imperial Japanese forces not devastated our economy or had his grand-uncle Vyner Brooke, the Rajah, after the Japanese occupation, and after resuming power, not ceded the country to the British Government in 1946 as a Crown Colony after 100 years of independence.

Jason also brought the good news about making a film about the White Rajahs. A Hollywood company is said to be involved in this project.

Hollywood screen writers have known about Borneo as a potential location for film shoots for many years. For instance, in 1928, Martin and Osa Johnson of Kansas zoomed into Kuching in a light aircraft carrying film making equipment. They had lunch at the Asana with Ranee Sylvia, wife of Vyner, and no doubt one of the subjects of conversation was film-making.

A number of businessmen have been talking about producing films about Sarawak or using Sarawak’s scenery as the background. I remember watching the film called ‘Gadis Rimba’ starring Romai Noor and Lulu at the Rex Theatre (present LCDA parking centre) 40 years ago. The Iban maiden – was it Luli or Lulu, I cannot remember …

Then a couple of decades ago I saw the film ‘Farewell To The King’ starring Nick Nolte. I must have missed other films shot in Sarawak.

Then there was the film, a commentary, on the Sarawak Centenary celebrations in 1941.

In her autobiography ‘Queen of the Headhunters’, Oxford University Press, Singapore, 1970, Sylvia writes about going to see people at Warner Brothers in Hollywood with the view of making a film about the ‘Great White Rajah’ – about the life of James Brooke. While the Ranee was talking to Errol Flynn about making that film, one of the points made by Errol was that for a film to be viable as an economic venture, it must contain a love scene. If he were to act the part of James Brooke, that is. Apparently, the Ranee had some other ideas. That, or so she said, many years later was the reason the film on James Brooke did not materialise.

For those who insist on a love story, one is recorded in ‘The Expedition to Borneo of HMS Dido’, Oxford University Press, Singapore, 1991 – basically a compilation of Brooke’s diaries, written by his good friend Admiral Henry Keppel.

At the time of the first visit of James Brooke in 1839 to Sarawak, there was a rebellion mounted by the Siniawans (Malay Datus) based at Lidah Tanah and certain Land Dayak groups in the area. They were against the oppressive rule and economic exploitation exerted by Pangeran Mahkota, the most powerful official in Rajah Muda Hasim’s administration.

In one of his trips outside the town, James had made friends with a chief by the name Si Tundo, an Illanun from Magindanao (Philippines). During the rebellion, Si Tundo was working for Pangeran Mahkota based at Sadung. Si Tundo was brave; he was handsome. He had fallen in love with a girl “belonging to an adopted son of Marcota”. But he was not allowed to marry her unless he could produce enough money for a dowry. Si Tundo hadn’t much. However, efforts were being made to collect as much as possible but in the end the amount collected fell short of the required sum. Problem for our hero.

So Si Tundo and his girlfriend eloped!

That was most disrespectful of him. Feelings of the ruling elite were deeply hurt and this amounted to a crime. A scheme was devised with which to teach Si Tundo a lesson: make it impossible for him to acquire enough money for the dowry and therefore he would be unable to marry the girl whom he dearly loved.

One day, Si Tundo and a companion were summoned to the house of an official, Orang Kaya De Gadong, purportedly to discuss a way out so that he might be able to marry his love. Politely, he was asked if he would be happy to part with his keris (dagger) to make up for the shortage of the amount of a standard dowry. He agreed – anything at all for love. And no sooner than he handed over his keris than four burly guards came out of nowhere and pounced on their prey! His body was thrown into the river.

This story, I thought, would be good plot for a film; a story told by James Brooke himself as a tribute to poor Si Tundo. Is this what Errol Flynn wanted? Only – and this may not suit Hollywood even in 2016 – they did NOT live happily ever after.

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