The Story of Saudin

[SAUDIN BIN LABUTAU is an aborigine of North Borneo, and a member of the Murut tribe of native hill people. He comes from Kampong Ambual, a Murut village in the interior which harbors about thirty of his people. Isolated by days of walking from coastal contact with civilization, Kampong Ambual is self-supplying and self-sufficing. Saudin has lived most of his life in this small hamlet, where his experience of sophistication was probably a mild carousal induced by too much native-made rice beer during the harvest season.
A few years ago Saudin came to Sandakan, the capital of North Borneo, and was here employed by Mr. and Mrs. Martin Johnson as animal boy to take care of the wild animals captured and purchased by them during their recent year of film making in North Borneo. Saudin then accompanied the photographic expedition on its return trip to the United States as a caretaker to the animals on the voyage, and remained in New York for three months under the Johnsons’ charge.
I was recently engaged in the struggle with home mail when our ‘boy,’Arusap, interrupted me to say that Saudin had returned from my country with news of its strange doings. We called him in, and my husband and I spent all morning listening to his comments about what he had seen. Saudin told his story in Malay, which is not the Murut tongue, but is the language most generally used in Borneo. In translating, I have stayed within a limited vocabulary in order not to lose the simplicity and verity of Saudin’s story. — AGNES KEITH, Translator]

WHEN I came to Sandakan from Kampong Ambual, I thought that Sandakan was a big place. But when I went from Sandakan to Singapore, I thought that was a very big place, probably the biggest place there was. Of the great size of Singapore I was not surprised, because many Malays come to Borneo from there and tell much about it. Then we went from Singapore to Capetown, and that was even more mighty. So I asked men, was America as great as that? And men answered me that it was even greater. And now that I return to Borneo from America I think that Sandakan is only as big as the end of my little finger.

We left Singapore on a very big boat. White men did the work of natives on this boat, and spoke a language which was not English. We sailed to Colombo, a place I did not know of before, but a very fine place indeed, and I bought bananas and coconuts and ate them there. Then the boat sailed on again and we came to India. I did not see very much of India because the animals were sick and I was busy taking care of them. Sally, one of the orangutans, was very sick in her stomach and everything she ate came out like water, and she died. So I could not go into India, but I think it is only a small place, probably like Kudat, and that all the natives had come down to meet the boat.

After India we sailed on farther and farther, and the waves became very tall, and the captain said to tell men that a storm was coming. I saw black mountains ahead, and I said, ‘We are running into mountains!’ But men said, ‘No, that is fog.’ And it was fog. In the fog we met a very cold climate, and taller and taller waves, and a stronger and stronger storm. The boat threw itself from side to side for many days. I was very sick, and the animals were very sick, and nine small monkeys died, and the orangutan from Kudat died, but I did not. But I was very glad when we arrived at Capetown, which is Africa.

In the distance I could see that Capetown was white and shining, and the only thing that I knew that was like that was the stone-water that white men use and call ice. So I said, ‘There is ice on everything there!’ But men said, ‘No, that is the houses and the streets shining in the sun.’ And so it was.

Mr. Johnson took me to land at Capetown, and there the man said I could not land because I was Chinese. I said I was not Chinese, I was Malay. Then I could land. But always it was like this and men would think that I was Chinese. I never told men that I was a man of the Muruts because it seems that nobody knows about Muruts, but all people know about Chinese. So I said I was Malay because some people know about Malays.

In Capetown it was a very cold climate, and both the animals and I shivered. I had a shirt and trousers and this is a great deal for a Murut to wear, but it was not enough. Mr. Johnson asked me if I had any more clothes, and when I said no he took me to a store and bought me many clothes. He bought me shirts and trousers, and short coats, and a very long black coat which hung down to my feet and had big shoulders and was very handsome, and a hat and nine neckties. He told me that I must close my shirt and tie up my necktie around my neck when I was in Capetown, as this is the custom there. All my new clothes cost nineteen pounds, nine shillings, and sixpence.

We left Capetown and the ship sailed on until we came to Dakar, which is also Africa, but is very hot. So I said to men,

‘ Why is it so cold in one place and so hot in another place?’ And men said, ‘Well, because it just is that way.’ So I said, ‘Yes, probably that is just the way it is.’

This time we were on the ship many days, and then we came to America. When we were going to land the Customs man said to me, ‘You are Chinese; you cannot land.’ So Mr. Johnson said, ‘No, he is Malay, and I will send him back to Borneo in three months.’ The Customs man said, ‘Can you speak English and read and write?’ I said, ‘Yes, a little.’ He said, ‘Read this,’ and handed me my passport. I could not read it, but I remembered what was on it, because Mr. Johnson had told me, and so I said what was on it to the man. Then the man said, ‘O.K. Come into America!’


So we entered into America and went to a very great village with a thousand thousand lights. It was night when we arrived, but when I looked up at the sky above this village it was very bright and red and sparkling and there was light everywhere. And I said, ‘Is this morning?’ And they said, ‘No, this is New York!’

I was so astonished by New York that I just wanted to look and look and look at it. I forgot all about feeding the animals and my work. Every night men had their names put in the sky with bright lights so that they would not be forgotten, because there are so many people in New York that it would be easy to forget some of them. All the time there was a great noise made by motorcars and buses and trains. There were trains above me on bridges, there were trains below me, and there were more trains that were below the trains that were below. Always the trains were very full of people. I think if the trains all stopped and the people got off them there would be no space in New York for all the people. So the people take turns living in the trains. I used to walk and walk because I was afraid to get on those trains to ride, as I did not know how to get off or where I should be when I did, or if I might have to live on one.

The streets were very clean. They washed and polished them every morning. I thought there could be no sickness there with everything so clean.

The buildings were very tall. Sometimes I had to go up and down in what men call an elevator. This is a little room that you get into, and very suddenly it goes up. And when it stops your stomach does not stop. But when it goes down you feel that everything has gone out of you. It is much worse than an airplane. I was always afraid in it, but said nothing, because I thought men would say, ‘He is just a jungle man!’

In winter there is a very cold climate in New York. Often I shivered and was cold although I wore many clothes and my handsome black coat. All men wore heavy clothes and coats like mine which hung down to their knees. But truly I was astonished at the women! They did not wear many clothes except around their necks, where they wore the skins of animals. They wore very little under this, because the wind would show me. Their stockings were just like nothing. Truly I was astonished that they did not feel cold.

In New York we put Mr. Johnson’s animals in Central Park Zoo, and I went there every day to take care of them. At first Mr. Johnson went with me so that I would not be lost, and later I could go alone. But I was always afraid of the motorcars. I walked a great deal, up and down the same street and never far away, as I was afraid of being lost. At night I did not go away at all, because When lights were in the sky all things became different and I was confused.

One day he told me to go to a cinema. When I went in it was daylight, but when I came out it was dark. It was only five o’clock and in my country that is still daytime. But in New York in wnnter that is nighttime and the lights are on. When I looked up I could see nothing but very tall buildings and a red glow at the top of the buildings, and no sky. All men were hurrying from here to there, all trains made noises, all lights blinked, and I became confused. I walked and walked, but could not find the place where I lived. Mr. Johnson had written a letter for me telling who I was and where I lived in case I should be lost some day. And, as I was lost then, I looked in my coat, and was much astonished to find that the letter was lost also.

I went to a policeman and asked him how to go to Central Park Zoo, because if I couid find that I could find my house, which was near it. The policeman said it was twelve blocks away, so I said, ‘Thank you very much,’ and walked on some more. Then I asked another policeman and he said nine blocks farther, and I walked some more. But the next policeman I asked said, ‘Here is Central Park Zoo!’ And there I was at the Zoo, but I did not recognize it with the lights on. So then I found my house, which I think was very good fortune, because I had indeed been lost.

One day newspaper men came to talk to me, and they said, ‘Do you like New York? What do you like the best?’ And I said, ‘Yes, I like New York, and I like best the red electric light signs that run like streams of fire, and the lights that chase each other around like small animals.’

One day I was out walking and I came to a large place with many horses in it. I said to a man with a uniform, ‘Can I enter?’ And he said, ‘You must buy a ticket.’ I said, ‘I will buy a ticket. Now can I enter?’ And he said, ‘Sure!’ So I entered and I saw large and wonderful horses, and handsome men with beautiful colored uniforms. They played music and the horses danced to the music. I think the horses in New York are smarter than are the policemen in my country. So I struck my hands together the way other people did, with astonishment and joy. When the playing was finished all the people wanted to leave at once in a great hurry, and everybody pushed everybody and I fell down. A man picked me up, and I said, ‘Thank you very much,’ and went home.

I went also to see boxing and wrestling. Boxing is all right, but wrestling is too rough. In my country we do not act like that unless we wish to kill men.

One day a man fell down in the streets and lay there wounded. Everybody just looked at him and walked on. So I looked at him and walked on too, because I was afraid if I stayed near him people would think that I had wounded him. Afterwards I told Mr. Johnson and he said, ‘ People get killed here every day! ’

I was out walking one day and met a man who was drunk, the same as a man is in Borneo when he drinks too much rice beer. The man said, ‘You are a Filipino like me!' I said, ‘No, I am a Malay.’ He said, ‘No, you are a Filipino!' I said, ‘You are drunk. You had better go home. Don’t you know that people get killed here every day?' But he did n’t go home, and he wanted to fight me because I was n’t a Filipino. So I ran and stood by an important man in a uniform who stood at the door of a hotel. I stood very close to this important man, and as he would n’t let the drunken Filipino come to the hotel he could n’t fight me.

Mr. Johnson took me to eat at a place where you put money in a hole and take out a plate of food. The different holes have names on them to tell you what foods are concealed within. We had vegetable and potato and meat all cooked together in a flour wrapping which they call a pie. I think this place was very cunning indeed, because the hole to receive a ten-cent piece was so small that you could not put in a five-cent piece, and the hole for a five-cent piece did not answer if you put in a one-ccnt piece.

One time a man gave me some wine to drink. I drank a little, and then I remembered about the many motorcars and trains outside, the great noise and confusion, and the people who got killed there every day. And I was afraid I might be hit, lost, or killed if I drank any more, so I did n’t drink any more.

Mr. Johnson took me to a club where they were going to talk to people about Borneo. When we arrived he told me that I must stand up and talk to them in Malay. I said that it was useless for me to do so because they did not understand Malay. But he said that I must speak in Malay and then he would tell them in English what I said. I was afraid and ashamed because there were many people there and I am not practised in speaking to many people. But, although I shivered as with cold, I talked, and I told them about my village with only thirty people in it, which was so small that I was astonished that they wished to hear about it. And when I finished they struck their hands together to show that they were pleased, and I sat down and Mr. Johnson talked. He showed them a roll of his film about the bird’s-nest caves at Gomantong, and the proboscis monkeys, and the walking fish. Afterwards people came up to me and said, ‘We liked what you said tonight. What did you say? Was that Chinese you were speaking? Are you Chinese?' So I said, ‘No, I am Malay. Thank you very much.'


Mr. Jim, who used to drive the flyingship in Borneo, was in New York too, but he did not live there. One day we flew from New York to his home in a very large flying-ship, much larger than Mr. Johnson’s, with many people in it. I was not afraid because I was used to flying before, but it was very different from flying over Borneo. In my country I looked down on jungle trees and rivers of which I am not afraid, but here I looked down on buildings and trains which would be difficult to fall upon with comfort. In New York there were snow and ice on the wings of the flying-ship. It was very rough weather, the same as on our boat before coming to Capetown, and I was sick, but I did not vomit. We went many miles before coming to Mr. Jim’s village, but I do not remember the name of this village. We went into his house and his people gave us food and drink. But I was ashamed to eat with them because I did not know how to eat the food cleverly as they did, because all my life in my country I was accustomed to eat with my fingers. It is difficult to carry the food with those small weapons to the mouth. I did not wish to be rude by not eating the food after their custom, so I pretended I was not very hungry, and I went to bed soon. The next day we returned to New York.

One day Mrs. Johnson came to the hotel to take me to talk to some women. I was following after her, but for one minute I looked away and when I looked back I could n’t see her. Then I saw her again and followed her until she turned upon me with anger. Then I saw it was n’t Mrs. Johnson, but a strange woman. So I feared I was lost again, but Mrs. Johnson ran after us and she said to me, ‘Why do you not follow me?’ I said, ‘I thought I was following you, because this other woman looks just like you.’ And Mrs. Johnson looked at her and said, ‘Humph! I don’t think so!’

For two weeks I was sick. They took me to the hospital, but I did n’t stay there because I was afraid to, as people were dying there. So I got up from the bed and walked back to my house and was sick there. My bowels were like water, because I had dysentery. The doctor came to see me many times and after two weeks I was well.

One day Mr. Johnson said to me that in two days he must put me on a ship to return to Borneo. I was very sad to hear this because he was very good to me, and America was so astonishing. I cried like a child and I could n’t eat anything. First I thought that I would stay in America and work, but the next day I thought, ‘Well, never mind; if he says I must go, I will go.’

This was the day before the New Year, and he bought me a watch for a present. I went to Times Square that night to see the New York people make a holiday. There were so many people that I was frightened and wanted to return to my house. I could not return because we were like fish caught in a fish trap. Men blew things in my ears that made the noise of goats. I said to them, ‘Don’t do that!’ And they said, ‘Don’t you like that? Don’t you do this in your country?’ And I said, ‘No!’ I wanted to go home to bed, but I could n’t go home all that night. I could n’t go home until one o’clock in the morning, because it was New Year in New York and you can’t go home on New Year in New York.

That was the first day of the first month, and I was sad because I had to sail for Borneo that day. Mr. Johnson took my hand and said ‘Selemat belayer’ in Malay, and I said ‘Good-bye’ in English, which I think was polite. Mrs. Johnson took me to the Dutch ship Kota Djandi, and I felt so sad to leave them that I forgot to take my two blankets, two pillows, and my rubber shoes, but I remembered my nine neckties and my big hat and my black coat.

So I sailed for home, and when the ship arrived at Singapore I took a letter to a man there from Mr. Johnson. The man took the letter, and after he read it he said, ‘Don’t you know that this man is already dead? He fell in a flying-ship many days ago, and he is already dead.’

And I just looked at him and I could not talk at all because I felt so sad and terrified. I could not believe that it was so. But I asked many men, and all men answered me that this was true. Then I cried like a child for two days and could not eat or sleep. And now I know my heart will always be sad for this man.

Now I will go back to my village and see my people. I will buy more buffaloes and plant more rice. When the harvest season comes I will harvest my rice, and I will drink rice beer and take a wife. But although I wall live as all men do here, never will I forget America.