Agnes Keith’s house in a land below the wind in Sandakan, Malaysia

by Dave from The Longest Way Home ~ October 31st, 2011. Updated on November 10th, 2011. Published in: Travel blog » Sabah (Malaysian Borneo).
Agnes Keith's house on a hill

Agnes Keith's house on a hill (click to enlarge)

Visiting Agnes Keith’s house on a hill in Sandakan, Sabah Malaysia

I first heard of the book the Land below the Wind by Agnes Newton Keith from my research when I was in Sandakan, Sabah, Malaysia. Back in her day it was just known as commonly as North Borneo. Much like many towns or cities that someone wrote about, Sandakan has restored the authors old house overlooking the bay to its 50’s look.

Who was Agnes Keith?

There’s an exhaustive amount of information about Agnes Keith and her Husband in history books, and online, to read. But in a nutshell she was an American journalist who moved, with her English husband Harry, to Sandakan so he could carry out his conservation job for England prior to World War II. It’s all very old school, and very British.

Agnes wrote a book, Land Below the Wind which chronicled her day-to-day living conditions in Sabah during a period when this outpost was very much a part of a shrinking British Empire.

The title of the book is widely used within Sabah’s tourism to promote the state today.

If you enjoy reading about people’s lives from the past, it gives quite an insightful look into that period in Borneo. Including interior jungle treks, and stories from the locals in the area.

The steps leading to Agnes Keith's house in Sabah

The steps leading to Agnes Keith's house

Agnes wrote two other books about their lives in Borneo including  Three Came Home, and White Man Returns again. She went on to write several other novels, but her works about life in Borneo remain best known.

A different life in travel

During the war, whilst living in Borneo,  Agnes and her husband were captured by the Japanese and sent to some of the prison camps. Nothing like the

death marches, and there is some controversy surrounding their living conditions,  but nonetheless it’s something they survived.

The house itself was destroyed during the war, but upon their return they rebuilt a new one on the foundations of the original.

In the 1950’s they finally left Sabah, and the house fell into disrepair. The Keith’s passed away in the 1980’s. Agnes first, and then Harry a few months later.

After a lifetime together it always makes me feel something was, and is, special when a person dies, and then a short time later their partner follows them.

Take a step back in time with a tour of the Keith’s house & decor

Walking into the timber-framed house is like a step back in time to British colonial times set to a 50’s/60’s décor (it was renovated in 2004). Dark wood flooring, cream walls, heavy square wood furnishings and lots of black frames with the occasional wide sweeping curve thrown in.

View from the balcony of Agnes Keith's House

View from the balcony of Agnes Keith's Bedroom

Photographs line the wall from tea parties the couple held, self painted works, and the odd governor’s visit. The open plan downstairs area is parted in two by a large wooden staircase to the second floor where there is a reading room and two other spare rooms. One of which has an en-suite, complete with bath tub and enamel toilet, most likely shipped all the way from England.

The en-suite itself leads to a balcony overlooking a canopy of palms and a view of the bay. One could just imagine yourself drying off here in the warm morning Borneo breeze.

The master bedroom naturally enough has its own balcony and en-suite too. But the center piece has to be the 6’6″ x 6’6″ bed set squarely in the center.

In her book Agnes made mentioned the reason for this.

“The bed is set in the center of everything, including and most importantly positioned to catch the light breezes that pass through.”

Right now, the room has no problem in keeping cool. Air conditioning units are dotted around the house. But unlike many other places in Asia these are rather cleverly hidden. Each one is set low down behind wooden radiator covers. Again, very British in design.

Not a tourist attraction?

The master bedroom of Agnes Kieth's house

The master bedroom of Agnes Keith's house (click to enlarge)

While I would never have gone to Sandakan just to visit Agnes Keith’s abode. I certainly enjoyed visiting the house. A welcome relief from the heat for one. A step back in time into the history of Sandakan and North Borneo for another.

More than the stagnant museum’s in Kota Kinabalu, this house made history seem more alive. More personable. For, me, I think museums could learn from this. Instead of static displays in modern buildings, make things relate to people from the past.

Add personality to museums rather than plain signage, and I think it makes things become a lot more interesting. It pushes your mind beyond facts and figures.

It embellishes them with thoughts of what life was like back then, and why it was that way. It makes one curious. And to me, there is no better teacher than curiosity itself.

Coming Soon:

Big bellies, big noses: Yes, a better primate reserve has been found; and it was a great place to stay a while …

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8 Great responses to Agnes Keith’s house in a land below the wind in Sandakan, Malaysia

  1. hayadith says:

    ..i know about this place.
    yes..I agree with u about the way museum display their things..
    I had the same feeling when I visited the prime minister house (now a museum) when I was in KL few months back. Everything about the house is personal and I can relate to…It feels like ‘home’.

  2. Jan says:

    I think most museums cannot be personal as they display collections from wide spread locations in one place.

    Where as a place like the Keiths, is just their lives. But yes, adding personality to many museums would not be a bad idea at all.

  3. Kristina says:

    I love visiting old homes which have been turned into museums. It’s an insight into the way in which people of that time and place lived. I especially like it if the kitchens are still intact.
    That house looks totally livable as is, 60 years later. Love the bedroom.
    Oh, and it’s so true about couples who have been together dying a few months apart; it happened to my grandparents and my husband’s grandparents. All had been married more than 60 years. After that much time together, you just can’t live apart.

    • No kitchen on display here, though it would have been interesting. Even the bathroom doors were locked … not very well though so flipping an open padlock means you can open them. The bed room was, and is, indeed quite nice. In fact, the whole house is. One could easily live in it today.

      Interestingly, it’s the only place I’ve been where they’ve actually integrated air conditioning in a way that matches the decor. Hiding the ugly white hunks of plastic, in wooden decor. Very nice effect.

  4. Anna's World says:

    So few people seem to be there. Were there many tourists visiting?