Loke Wan Tho and the Governor of Sarawak’s Visit to Ulu Baram and Tinjar River

A Pictorial Journey of Baram’s Hospitality and Some Longhouse Celebrations

Guest author Alex Teoh looks at photographs of a 1953 tour of the Baram and Tinjar rivers in Sarawak’s Fourth Division, piecing together a pictorial account of the trip from official documents, publications, and assistance from native elders. The photographs are part of the Loke Wan Tho private papers collection at ISEAS Library. Visit our website to find out more about the collection.

Nestled among the private papers deposited at the ISEAS Library in the 1970s, are a number of photographs that are part of the Loke Wan Tho Private Papers collection.

Loke Wan Tho (1915-1964) was the millionaire film magnate who built and helmed the Cathay organization in Singapore, Malaya and Borneo. He was also a philanthropist and pioneer in bird photography [1], having published books on ornithology in India, Malaya and Singapore.

Despite Loke’s corporate commitments, he enjoyed the pleasure of living in the country and out-of-the-way places. His passion for adventure and photography brought him to New Guinea (1952), Sarawak (1953) and Cambodia, Thailand, and India (1957).

The Loke Wan Tho Private Papers consists of his expedition diaries, correspondence, newspaper clippings and photographs. The photographs comprise more than 40 large gelatin silver photo prints of Sarawak. However, some of these images lack captions and details.

With the help of the internet, references to the Sarawak Gazette (the official Sarawak government publication), the Sarawak Museum Journal, publications by Sarawak colonial officers and ethnographers (see notes and reference list below), and information from a conversation with native elders, the context of these images can now be better documented.


In 1950, the Cathay organization went on an acquisition campaign to establish their cinema empire in Borneo. By the 1960s, Cathay’s cinemas were in the major towns of Kuching, Sibu and Miri in Sarawak, Brunei Town (now Bandar Seri Begawan) and Seria in Brunei, and Jesselton (now Kota Kinabalu), Tawau and Sandakan in North Borneo (Sabah) [2].

Loke’s investment and business reputation may have helped him forge links with the colonial government of Sarawak and a friendship with the Governor, Sir Anthony Foster Abell, who served as the third governor of Sarawak between 1950 – 1959. As part of his duties, he toured the colony, calling on community leaders of urban settlements and penghulu (headmen) of rural longhouses [3]. These journeys were part of the Governor’s role to better understand the country, its people, and their customs and aspirations.

In early October 1953, Loke Wan Tho travelled for over a week with Sir Anthony to Ulu Baram (i.e. the upstream area of Baram River) and Tinjar River in the remote areas of Sarawak’s Fourth Division. Loke’s photos appear to be a straightforward record of the trip and celebrations in the longhouses, rather than staged for photo-taking or re-enactment of past practices. As this was an official trip by the Governor, some of these photos were featured in the 1953 Sarawak Annual Report [4].

A Pictorial Journey

Approximate locations of some places visited on the Governor’s trip up the Baram and Tinjar Rivers. Due to the remoteness of the area, some of the other places visited by the Governor are still yet to be available on Google Maps. Click to explore the locations further on Google Maps. Made with Google’s My Maps.

The map above shows the approximate locations of some places visited by the Governor’s party, including Kuala Baram, Marudi and longhouses along the Baram and Tinjar rivers. The Baram River is the second largest river in Sarawak and the Tinjar River is one of its larger tributaries. Baram is mainly inhabited by Orang Ulu (upriver people), comprising the Kayan and Kenyah (made up of subgroups including the Badeng, Berawan, Lakiput, Sebob), Kajang, Kelabit, Lun Bawang, Penan, Punan, and others [5].

The following highlights of the trip are assembled from published reports in the Sarawak Gazettes of “The Visit of His Excellency the Governor to Marudi and the Tinjar River” [6]. The photos from the Loke Wan Tho collection at ISEAS Library are ordered chronologically according to the journey.

Kuala Baram (Miri) and Marudi

Sailing on the vessels Lorna Doone and Mermaid, the group included the Governor (Sir Anthony), the Resident for Fourth Division (Mr A.F.R. Griffin), the District Officer of Baram (Mr Alastair Morrison and his wife, Hedda Morrison), Mr Loke Wan Tho, the Governor’s Private Secretary, two Native Officers (Wan Hashim and Tinggang Malang), and Penghulu (Headman) Gau Jau.

Starting at Marudi, the trip’s activities involved formal welcomes to towns and longhouses (often with the firing of Brunei miniature cannons), meetings with community leaders, presentation of awards, and visits to schools and new development projects. These were usually followed by grand meals of local delicacies.

In the evenings, film screenings by the Government Information film office entertained the local audience. This was followed by festive music and dances, along with generous amounts of tuak or borak (rice wine).

Long Teru (Berawan community – Penghulu Lawai and his wife Kasi’s longhouse)

At the longhouse of Penghulu Lawai and his wife Kasi, the guests were greeted with a song of welcome, sung by Kasi herself who was known as “the powerful hostess of Long Teru” [7]. This song would have been “filled with extravagant compliments couched in poetic language. At the end of the song, the guests were required to down a large tumbler of potent distilled liquor, made from rice wine, in one gulp” [8].

Loagan Bunut (Bunut Lake)

Their next stop was Bunut Lake, the largest natural lake in Sarawak. Before leaving for the next destination, the guests were treated to a special send-off, the smearing of their faces, hair and clothing with mud and splashes of river water.

Long Jegan (Berawan community – Tama Arek Sabai’s longhouse)

The Berawans are gifted craftsmen and artists, known for their carvings, paintings, beadworks, and weaving. They are also fine dancers and talented musicians.

Long Tejoi (Sebop community – Penghulu Balan Lipau’s longhouse)

The visitors were welcomed to the festivities with decorations of tobacco rolls strung on threads and hung as dangling tassels on a framework shaped like a house (see image SA61 below).

Accompanied with music from the sape (musical lute) and mouth flute, a number of dances were performed, including one with a Kenyah musician leading a long line of dancers up and down the verandah of the longhouse.

Long Buroi, Dapoi River (Sebop community – Rumah Tinggang Keling)

Here, the Governor’s party was treated to a dinner banquet attended by 200 persons, all seated on the floor, followed by an all-night party.

The longhouse at Long Buroi was celebrated for its wood carving. Note for example the carved animal head in the background of Image SA33 below, on which a man is resting his arm. Also of note in the same image are the headdress made of coloured beads, heavy brass ear pendants and bead decoration worn in the top part of the ear.

When it was time to leave, the guests were again given the traditional “adat” send-off by maidens, with their faces and clothes streaked with black finger marks and heavy splashing of water.

Long Tah, Nibong River (Penan community – Rumah Tama Lorai Nagan)

After a night of festivities, the guests found that their breakfasts had been eaten by dogs during the night. So, they had to settle for coffee and biscuits [9].

The group returned to Marudi and Kuala Baram, where Loke went bird-watching with the Governor and climbed the Baram Lighthouse.

After the trip

In 1954, Loke shared his journey in Sarawak with a larger audience of the British Empire through a photographic article entitled “In The Remote Baram River District of Sarawak, Borneo: Wild Dances By Pagan Tribesmen” and “Entertaining Their Village Neighbours: Beautiful Female Dancers From The River Baram District of Sarawak”. These articles were two full pages in The Illustrated London News [10].

More on the peoples of the Tinjar River

As a point of reference, in 1956, the BBC broadcast a documentary about the communities along the Tinjar River. Narrated by the then-curator of Sarawak Museum, Tom Harrisson and film producer, Hugh Gibb, The Borneo Story: Peoples of the Tinjar River is a 30-minute documentary film featuring the Kenyah and Berawan people in Long Jegan and their crafts, music, and customs.

With the context identified, this Sarawak photo collection can now stand as a rich record of the long-vanished lives and landscapes of the remote Ulu Baram and Tinjar. Even though these may not be the oldest images of the upriver region, they will supplement the visual record of Sarawak, including the Orang Ulu photo collection in the Sarawak Museum and Pustaka Negeri Sarawak.

About the guest author

Alex Teoh is a paper and book conservator of rare manuscripts, collectible prints, antique maps, photo albums and antiquarian books. His focus is on the local material culture of the written text in Southeast Asia. His interest is also in the material culture and documentary heritage of Borneo.
Image at left: The author at Pesta Orang Ulu 2018 festival in Kuching, Sarawak.


The author would like to thank the following for their kind assistance and excellent references:
Jayl Langub, Dora Jok of Sarawak Museum, Louise Macul of Friends of Sarawak Museum, the Sarawakiana team of Pustaka Negeri Sarawak. A special mention to the team of librarians in ISEAS Library for their cooperation and encouragement to undertake this research.


[1] Loke Wan Tho, Loke Wan Tho’s birds with extracts from his diaries and from A company of birds (Mumbai, India: Bombay Natural History Society; New Delhi: Oxford University Press, c2008), 9.
[2] Lim Kay Tong, Cathay, 55 Years of Cinema (Singapore: Landmark Books, 1991), 193.
[3] Ho Ah Chon, Sarawak Historical Events 1946 – 1960 (Kuching: Pustaka Negeri Sarawak, 1992), 28.
[4] Sarawak Government, Sarawak Annual Report (Kuching, Government Printing House, 1953), 144-145.
[5] Jayl Langub, Our Hosts, The Orang Ulu. Gawai Dayak Celebrations 1995 Souvenir Programme (Sarawak: Dewan Suarah Miri, 1995), 25.
[6] Sarawak Government, Sarawak Gazette October 1953 (Kuching: Government Printing House, 1953), 181-184.
[7] Alastair Morrison, Fair Land Sarawak: Some Recollections of an Expatriate Officer (New York: Cornell University, 1993), 90. ISEAS Library call number: DS597.38 M88
[8] Peter Metcalf, They Lie, We Lie: Getting On With Anthropology (London: Routledge, 2002), 73. ISEAS Library call number: DS600.45 B4M581
[9] Sarawak Government, Sarawak Gazette, 183.
[10] Illustrated London News, 25 December 1954, 1152-1153.

Other References

  • Balai Seni Lukis Negara Malaysia, The Loke Legacy: The Photography Collection of Dato’ Loke Wan Tho (Kuala Lumpur: National Art Gallery Malaysia, 2006).
  • Christine Horn, Orang Ulu of Borneo, Photographs from the Archives of the Sarawak Museum (Kota Kinabalu: Opus Publications, 2012).
  • Guy Arnold, Longhouse and Jungle: An Expedition to Sarawak (London: Chatto and Windus, 1959). ISEAS Library call number: DS600.82 A75
  • Sarawak Museum, Sarawak Museum Journal, December 2016 (Kuching: Sarawak Museum Department).
  • Tom and Barbara Harrisson, “The Borneo Story: Peoples of the Tinjar”, filmed and narrated in 1956, video, accessed 19 February 2023, https://vimeo.com/6556464.

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