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