A Little Excitement

And so things slowly improved. By 1921 or thereabouts, there were about 40 shophouses in Miri. An English school had been set up near the GCM - the gate pillars of which are still standing - and in the town itself there was a Chinese School with an attendance of 40. Bicycles and motorcycles started to appear on the few clay roads in town. Not long after, motor cars were introduced. This phenomenon brought further changes to the area.

In 1924, the Pujut road was built linking Miri to Lutong. The route was marked out in what was for then a novel procedure. Instead of sending a team of surveyors to hack their way through the dense and dangerous jungle, a sea-plane was flown from Miri to Lutong, spraying white lime as it went, thus marking out the route of the new road.


Construction workers then followed the way of the lime, armed only with axes and 'changkuls' to chop, dig or ward off snakes and other unfriendly animals as and when the need arose.

Working on the oilfields with the old cable tool method was equally slow and no less hazardous. Very often, the discovery of oil was heralded not by the gusher of movie fame but by a column of fire flaring out of the hole in the ground. Since there was no fire brigade, the sound of the siren was a summons to all and sundry to come and help put out the flames. But by and large, it was a booming time. The population continued to increase, or at least the male population did, since few men who came out brought their wives with them - life in Sarawak was too uncertain. It is not surprising therefore that Miri in those early days had very much the character of a wild west town. In 1923 (some say it was earlier) there was a riot reputed to have been sparked off by a woman. No records remain, even in memory, of this local Helen anak Troy. But the riot is well-remembered.

It would seem that a group of men started fighting outside the police station. Stones and other trajectories somehow found their way through the canvas windows of the police station, itself a frail enough building. The Miri police chief, popularly known as 'Captain Bobby', came out to pacify the crowd and tried to persuade them to go home in an amicable fashion. A stone on the left cheek was all the thanks he got for his noble efforts. The police opened fire.

Another, and to my mind duller, version of the story has it that the riot started merely as a result of a brawl. All the same, the police and the Sarawak Rangers were called in to control the crowds. 13 rioters were killed and 24 wounded before order could be restored.

As the years went by, life in Miri became more supportable. Rotary drilling was introduced in 1925, and by the follwoing year most of the oil accumulations in the Miri field had been discovered. Production continued to increase, reaching a peak in 1929 at 15,211 barrels per day. Water supply was improved, more of the jungle cleared, swamps drained and roads built. With the expansion of the field, more and more people were needed to fill jobs at clerical and supervisory level. Most of these were recruited from India, Ceylon, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Penang, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur. Many of them later married local girls and made Miri their home.

Next: Decline and war