To picture Miri when the township came to know oil, we have to project ourselves into a very different past. When the original Shell men arrived, it consisted of 20 scattered houses and a few shops. These included a bazaar, a gambling farm, a pawn shop and an Arab shop. The trade of Miri consisted chiefly of jelutong, brassware, belachan and budu.
There were two Chinese provision dealers (one of whom, Towkay Kiah Huat, was the father of a future Kapitan China.) Their chief stock in trade was corned beef, tinned milk and much to the solace of those early expatriates, Key beer. Eggs were sold for 1/2 or 1 cent, bananas fetched 1 cent each, whilst the price of a chicken could leap from 15 cents to 25 cents, unless you were prepared to bargain with the 'punjut'. The only fresh meat was wild boar, buffalo, venison and pigeons.
There was no market, only a little hut where crowds waited daily for the arrival of the fishing boats. It was a cut-throat affair. As soon as the Customs Officer had weighed the fish, he had scarcely any time to put them down before the crowd rushed in to snatch anything they could lay their hands on, from a small shark to a good ikan bawal. In the ensuing scrimmage, hands often bled and fights broke out.
Communications were bad. For shipping, going over the bar with a good sea running was a dangerous and no assistance would have been forthcoming had an accident occurred. A life line was run the whole length of the 'perahu' (a small boat) in case it capsized. The rougher the sea, the quicker the transfer had to be made from ship to shore, the captain being always anxious to get under way as soon as possible.
If the whole maneuver appeared dangerous by day, it became infinitely more dangerous by night. Should the steamer appear after dark, that was the misfortune of the Miri dwellers. If they failed to disembark passengers, goods, and mail immediately, they might awake at dawn to see the vessel once again steaming away round Baram Point.
More often than not, the captain took the decision to bypass Miri. Homesick expatriates standing on the wharf eagerly awaiting their mail from home stood helplessly by as they watched it sail out of their reach.
Between September and March, Miri tended to be cut off. Supplies had to be stored - without the benefit of such modern luxuries as an ice plant. One of the major worries in setting up an oil camp was that during the monsoon season it might be impossible to obtain rice and other provisions for the increased population.
There was of course no telegraph system. For urgent messages, a special runner came from Labuan, via Brunei, taking four days and nights by the sea beach. There were no roads, only dirt tracks - and no street lamps. Everyone was warned to carry a hurricane lamp at night, under penalty of arrest. There were not even rickshaws, and when one of the Europeans rode on a bicycle, the whole kampong turned out in amazement to watch him.
Miri settlement had been wrested from the jungle - and was only held on sufferance from it. Wild pigs used to run around, even under the bungalows, looking for tit bits. Leopards were not unknown. The place was cockroach infested - they got into your clothes, they ate the gum of your envelopes. You were obliged to share your bathroom with out-sized centipedes and spiders. Rats swarmed at nights. And the favorite sport of the monkeys was to hurl coconuts at cook boys and crockery alike.
Dysentry and malaria were common hazards. The only doctor was on Labuan Island. A visit to the surgery meant a 120 mile journey along the coast, or a chance call by one of the paddle steamers. It could mean a wait of 10 days for professional medical attention. A small First Aid kit was kept in camp with medicine for coughs, cholera and colds. The great stand by was castor oil - administered alike to the wants of the labor force be it 'susah hati' (heart burn), 'sakit perut' (stomach ache) or 'sakit kaki' (leg pain).
Later, the first general hospital was built on the site of the present Number 2 slipway. If the Medical Officer got ill himself, it was not uncommon for the General Manager to roll up his sleeves and assist the dresser in charge to treat the ailments of the workers.
Operationally, those first Shell men setting an oil camp in a remote location, were presented with innumerable problems of a kind we have long since forgotten. All the necessary drilling equipment and supplies, for instance, had to be manhandled to the site. Heavy machinery had to be unloaded at sea, from ocean steamers into small boats capable of negotiating the treacherous bar at the mouth of the Miri River. There was no Government launch to assist the landing. Equipment and men travelled in 'perahus' or open 50-ton wooden tongkangs propelled by 8-12 long poles. If the steamer arrived at night, they had to arouse the kampong (village) in order to man these.
They quickly discovered that the 'Singkeys' or coolies tended to get sea sick at the slightest swell. Their unloading methods were crude and it was not unusual for the oil technologists to lend hand as stevedores.
It is all the more remarkable, therefore, that despite the initial shortage of labor, the absence of wharf, and without benefit even of a crane, items weighing up to 5 tons were got ashore. The largest single unit was a boiler. To land it, they resorted to the stratagem of turning the 50-ton wooden boat on its side and rolling the boiler out on poles.
And so the Miri field got under way. By the end of 1911, production had reached 260 tons.