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Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Sandakan & the ancient legends of Kinabatangan / Ong Sum Ping

A small but busy town on the Sulu Sea. Many Philipino and Bajau-Sulusk villages on stilts along the coast - or are they modern-day slums - and a commercial centre dominated by Chinese-Sabahans. This is the heart of the old birds' nest trade, and many Chinese traders go further south to Tawau area to get timber for export.

Just south of here is the Kinabatangan River, Sabah's greatest river and a rather legendary one. It was said that Kinabatangan means "The Great Chinese River", after a little-known Ming Dynasty official (sometimes described as diplomat, adventurer, trader or prince) Ong Sum Ping who came here in search of treasures and he established what murky Portuguese and other reports as a "Chinese province" or settlement. There were may conflicting reports about what exactly Ong did. Other reports say that:

- He is Chinese-Muslim, might have arrived with Admiral Zhenghe, founded the Kingdom of Brunei and converted many coastal tribes to Islam.
- He set up a Chinese state in Kinabatangan and married his daughter to a sultan of Brunei.
- He came to Borneo in search of the dragon's pearl on behalf of the emperor, found the pearl but decided to stay in Borneo instead.
- He did a good deed for the sultan of Brunei and was made governor of Sabah-Kinabatangan and ruled the province for many years. His descendants intermarried with the descendants of the Kadazandusun tribes and formed what is today the fair complexion Kadazandusun people.

Whatever is true, Ong Sum Ping is the only Chinese with a Brunei street named after him. There is a tomb in Brunei attributed to him and it is said that his personal belongings are treasures of a local mosque. Some say there is even a plaque somewhere dedicated to "Commander Huang" (黄总兵). Ong is probably an imporant personality in Brunei and Borneo history and one that is too sensitive to discuss in open in the racially sensitive era of today. This reminded me of what I came across on my visit to Semarang, Java, last year, where there is evidence of the Chinese role in the Islamic conquest of Java.




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