Shortly after his encounter with the snake, James left my employ suddenly when the smouldering relationship between him and Kong Miew erupted into physical violence.
Apparently amongst all the imaginary Walter Mitty talents to which James laid claim, he did have one real talent, which he was putting to commercial use. He was a trained ladies’ hairdresser.
On Saturdays, his day off, he had established a hairdressing salon on the veranda of Titi’s shop in Klagan. Since he was still unable to speak Malay, James had a glossy poster, which he hung up on the wall, showing Filipina beauty queens with different hairstyles.
Each Kadazan belle would point to the style she wanted, and James would do the needful. Word of James Lloreno’s establishment spread up and down the river and ladies flocked to Klagan on Saturday mornings from near and far.
James was, however, not the only person in our household who was putting past skills to commercial use. Kong Miew, even in Kluang, had a reputation as a home dentist. When he came over to Borneo he brought with him, among his cherished carpentry tools, a few extra, somewhat mysterious, shiny steel implements which turned out to be his dental kit.
Like James, Kong Miew disappeared on Saturday mornings to Klagan, usually with his crony Ibrahim. Our nearest dentist was in the town of Sandakan, and very few of the local people had ever even visited him.
Before Kong Miew’s arrival, Ibrahim as the local medicine-man had the responsibility for dealing with all toothaches in the area. In addition to various jungle herbs, his main cure was a hair from the whiskers of a leopard, which he tied around the aching tooth. Whether this was a success or not, I am not sure.
Surprisingly, far from resenting Kong Miew’s advent, Ibrahim had teamed up with him. Together on Saturday mornings, they ran a little dentist’s business in Klagan. Ibrahim was the anaesthetist. He provided a squirt of some local joy-juice, which amounted to the pain-killing treatment, and Kong Miew then did the extractions.
I saw both my household entrepreneurs in operation one Saturday when I had business in Klagan. It was quite impressive. James had found an extremely ancient, rusting, hairdressing chair, rescued from some long-forgotten salon in Sandakan. He also had a large old-fashioned hairdryer rigged up ingeniously with a tangle of fraying cables to Titi’s diesel generator.
One lady sat contentedly on an upturned box with this dangerous-looking contraption on her head, while James busied himself, scissors clicking, with a second lady in the hairdressing chair. A dozen or so ladies squatted around watching him admiringly, commenting on every flourish of his scissors. James was in his element.
Kong Miew and Ibrahim had established themselves in Ibrahim’s blacksmith’s forge at ground level next door to the hairdressing salon. Kong Miew had built a rudimentary dentist’s chair rather on the lines of an adjustable deck-chair you might find on the beach at Brighton. Privacy was assured by means of a canvas sheet, which prevented passers-by observing the proceedings.
They proudly invited me to observe their operations. Ibrahim poked his fingers around his victim’s mouth and inserted mysterious potions. Kong Miew with a flick of his left leg brought the deck-chair with a shattering jolt into a recumbent position. Straddling the patient’s chest, he delved into the unfortunate man’s mouth with his shiny pliers.
Both hairdresser and dentist were obviously fulfilling a useful role in the community, in addition to exercising some entrepreneurial initiative. I was quite proud that my small household was able to supply such services.
On the day of James Lloreno’s final departure from the scene, I was reading on my veranda at about 4.30 on a hot Saturday afternoon. The Filipino canoe drew up at the jetty a bit earlier than usual. James leapt off. He rushed up the steps looking flushed.
“Boss, I got very bad news from my family in Zamboanga. My father kidnapped by gang of rustlers. My mother send message that I come now. You pay me my wages up to now, Boss, and I go with this canoe.”
There was little I could do. Fortunately I had some money in my wallet and I paid James his outstanding wages and a fairly handsome bonus in addition, in thanks for the many musical evenings he had treated us to.
He ran to his quarters behind the kitchen and began a whirlwind packing, glancing all the time downstream. He finished in less than five minutes and passed a series of plastic bags, boxes and cases to his friends in the canoe. Another glance downstream and they cast off.
James waved. “I left your dinner for tonight in the fridge, Boss,” he shouted breathlessly. “Kentucky Cockerel!”
They had not been gone for more than a few minutes when Ibrahim’s canoe came into view from the direction of Klagan. Kong Miew sat in front, looking particularly miserable. He had a towel round his naked shoulders. His hair was wet and he wore only a pair of shorts. He leapt out brandishing a parang: “Where is that xxxxx Filipino? I’m going to kill him!”
I noticed a peculiar odour coming from his direction. On ascertaining that James Lloreno was no longer in the house, he hurried back to the river with soap and towel.
I never got the full story, but from what I could piece together, our two dentists had a particularly difficult and noisy extraction session with a fat and very vocal Chinese. When Kong Miew stepped back, holding the tooth aloft, he was greeted with a ripple of applause from James’ customers up on Titi’s veranda.
From there, looking down over the top of the canvas screen, they had been having an excellent view of the entire performance. There was some suspicion that the enterprising James had been charging his waiting customers a few cents extra to watch the fun. Blows had been exchanged and in the fracas, James pushed Kong Miew backwards into an open sewage pit.
And so we said farewell to the redoubtable James Lloreno, to our musical evenings and to our chicken dinners. The Sombre Spirit of Sadness settled again over the Labuk Valley, particularly in the hearts of the Labuk belles. Hairstyles were never quite the same again.
Many years later, one of my last acts as Chairman of UPI in London was to present a shiny new dental centre to the estate for the use of the whole district. The only proviso I made was that it should be called the Kong Miew Dental Centre in memory of my old friend.
Datuk Leslie Davidson
Author, East of Kinabalu
Former Chairman, Unilever Plantations International
This is the second part of an edited chapter from the book published in 2007. The book can be purchased from the Incorporated Society of Planters; email: firstname.lastname@example.org