A Chinese Rajah — Story of Liu Shan Bang

Siniawan in the 1970s — Courtesy of Joseph Juek.
Siniawan in the 1970s — Courtesy of Joseph Juek.

Sarawak may be the Land of the Hornbills, but there is more than meets the eye when you look into its colourful yet turbulent past.

Did you know that Sarawak had a Chinese Rajah for a day on February 19, 1857?

He was the leader of a Chinese Insurrection Liu Shan Bang who raised an army of 600 men, burnt down the Astana and Kuching town.

Liu’s shrine at Jugan near Siniawan — Courtesy of David Kuek.

The leader of a group of Bau gold miners, they were members of the Chinese secret society, a sect who organised themselves into gangs called “Kongsi”.

Originating from Sambas on the coast of Dutch Borneo — the Kongsi were often involved in business rivalry over the lucrative gold and opium trade.

In the 1820s the more powerful Chinese of Montrado ousted Chinese of Pemangkat who had to flee from Sambas to Sarawak.

Entering Sarawak through Sarawak’s “Gumbang” mountain at the Dutch Border (Kalimantan border) in Bau district, a few Chinese settled at Pengkalan Tebang where they panned for alluvial gold and nuggets.

Later on, the group moved to the foot of “Mau San” mountain which is the present site of Bau where they found large deposits of gold.

Educationist, historian and professional photographer Joseph Aloysius Kuek.

As word got around, more Chinese from Sambas and the Indonesian village of Sanggau-Ledo flocked to “Mau San”.

In 1830, Liu who was 30, joined the miners at Bau and assumed leadership. He then formed the “Twelve Kongsi” group using Mau San as his headquarters with a self-autonomous government with his flag and currency.

By the time of the arrival of James Brooke who became Sarawak’s “Rajah” on September 24, 1841 Bau had become a small “cowboy town” of gold and miners who locally-brewed “Samsu” (Chinese arrack) and opium was available.

Within 15 years Bau’s population had grown from a handful of miners to 4,000 Chinese who small settlements at Bidi, Paku and Tondong.

To expand their empire and collect more “tax” revenue, the Bau Chinese forced the Chinese of Siniawan who were agriculturalists to join the Kongsi.

According to former teacher-educationist, historian and professional photographer Joseph Kuek, the Bau Chinese’s lifestyle was disrupted when Brooke imposed a “head tax” on the miners, banned the export and trading of gold and antimony and controlled the import of opium entering illegally from Sambas to Sarawak.

An image of Liu Shan Bang.

Having studied the life of Liu Shan Bang Kuek said that he was not the cruel man that Brooke portrayed, but in fact a gentleman who had the welfare of his followers at heart.

According to Brooke historians S Baring-Gould and C BAmfyklde in “A HISTORY OF SARAWAK UNDER RTGHE TWO WHITE RAJAHS (1838—1908) on February 18, 1857 Liu Shan Bang and 600 gold miners decided to assassinate Brooke, capture Kuching and set up a Chinese government in Sarawak.

Armed with “Kwangtau” (Chinese swords), they marched from Bau to a landing place along the Sarawak River and travelled by boats to Kuching where they burnt down the Astana and town at midnight.

Despite capturing the stockade below the Astana and beheading a 16-year-old Brooke officer, they failed to capture Brooke who dived under a Chinese boat berthed at a stream named Sungei Bedil Kecil next to the premises.

Baring Gould and Bamfylde said: “The Rajah had swam across the creek, where he lay exhausted on the mud bank until sufficiently recovered to reach the house of a Malay official.”

In fact it was the Imam of the Majid Besar, Haji Bua Hasan, the second son of Brooke’s loyal officer Datu Patinggi Ali who first came to the Rajah’s assistance and brought him to see his brother Datuk Bandar Mohammed Lana.

Kuek (standing right) as a young photographer.

Spenser St John in “The Life of Sir James Brooke” wrote: “The Rajah as soon as possible proceeded to the Datuk Bandar’s house, and being quickly joined by the English officers, endeavoured to organise a force to surprise the victorious Chinese, but it was impossible.”

The same morning while the Malay community helped evacuate the European women and children, the Chinese summoned Bishop Francis MacDougal and Borneo Company’s Manager L.V. Helms, Datuk Bandar and a European merchant named Rupell to appear in court.

Seated in the Rajah’s chair was the “head chief” (Liu Shan Bang) who re-designated the responsibilities of the civilians — Helms and Rupell were to take charge of the foreign quarter while Datuk Bandar, the Malay community. Liu was the supreme leader in a government run by the Chinese Kongsi.

However, after a day in Kuchng Liu discovered that the Rajah was still alive and abandoned the idea of making Kuching the seat of his government.

Liu realised that if Rajah Brooke teamed up with his nephew, “Tuan Muda” Charles Brooke who had thousands of warriors under his command, the rebels would be defeated.

On February 18, 1857 Liu Shan Bang and 600 gold miners decided to assassinate James Brooke, capture Kuching and set up a Chinese government in Sarawak.

By this time the Datuk Bandar had rallied the Kuching Malays and pursued Liu and his group of followers.

Kuek in his book “Bau — A Pictorial Record” wrote: Liu Shan Bang decided to return to Bau on February 24, after setting up a de-facto government in Kuching, but on the way back was attacked by a small group led by a small group led by loyal Rajah’s Malay supporters.”

“Liu regrouped at Jugan in Siniawan, hoping to prevent the Rajah from advancing further. His plan failed as he was heavily outnumbered by the Rajah’s Iban force. Fierce fighting ensued and Liu was killed.”

Liu, described as a six-footer and a Kung Fu exponent who could take on three people at one time, was shot dead on February 24. He was later buried and it is believed that a large stone was placed at the spot where he was killed.

By this time, Charles’ Iban warriors had caught up the remaining rebels and chased them up to Bau where more people including innocent by-standers were randomly killed.

Bau Massacres

As the rebels retreated many were killed at Buso (hence the name which in Malay means stench) where their bodies were left to rot. The slaughter continued at Bau where a group of 125 Chinese women and children suffered a tragic death.

Apparently, the women and children were families of the Chinese farming community living around the Bau district who had hidden in the cave to avoid being detected.

“When the Iban warriors discovered that some of the Chinese had taken refuge, they stacked wood at the narrow entrance of the cave to smoke out its occupants.”

“Sadly, the women, some men guarding the group did not come out for fear they would be beheaded by the Brooke’s soldiers and all died from asphyxia,” said an information.

Kuek added: “It was stated that about two thousand people were killed while the remaining few hundred Chinese women and children hid themselves in the Ghost cave at the settlement (Mau San gold mining village). They too were killed either by fire or suffocation from smoke inhalation.”

Charles Brooke in “Ten Years in Sarawak” said that the rebels carried an effigy of their deity called a “Joss” (idol) as they fled towards Gumbang Hill in their bid to escape.

The women and children stayed close to the joss which the rebels used as a “lucky” charm which was protected by brave guards.

Only 100 of the original 600 rebels eventually made in back to Sambas through Gumbang.

However, Baring-Gould and Bamfylde said that all but 30 of the survivors were killed by family members of the Chinese members who were forced to join the rebels.

Later, a temple was erected by the Chinese community at Jugan, a kilometre from Siniawan, in honour of Liu who was elevated by the community to a deity named “Shin”.

Called Shan Teck temple, a memorial plaque was placed there to remember the Liu and his brave followers made their last stand.

It is said that before he died Liu buried large cache of gold somewhere in the jungle behind the temple.

As such the temple is visited by gamblers and fortune-seekers, to ask the deity for a four-digit good number or indicate where the treasure was stashed

However, Chinese worshippers who still revere Liu still visit his temple during the annual “Cheng Beng” festival of the dead to pray for their souls.

Kuek in his “Profile of Liu Shang Bang” asked: “If Shan Bang was successful in the assassination of Sir James Brooke, what would that part of Sarawak have been?”

“Would Bau then be renamed “Republic of Twelve Kongsi” or Republic of Liu Shan Bang and later under the Qing Dynasty, like the “Republic of Lanfang in Singkawang (which was part of the Sambas kongsi in West Kalimantan)…who were finally brought down by the Dutch in 1884.”

But that was one more episode during Borneo’s infamous Communist Insurgency when dissidents from Sarawak teamed up with the Partai Komunis Indonesia (PKI) to topple both Indonesia and Sarawak.

However the 27-year insurgency which started in 1963 and ended with a memorandum of understanding in 1990, and has allowed for the peace and security which the people from both countries now enjoy.