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Working with Tom Harrisson

MY COUSIN AND I WERE in charge of setting up the annual Christmas Nativity scene outside St Joseph Church. It was an impressive affair – 6m x 3m, a painted backdrop, enclosed on three sides and a roof with atap sheetings. The whole cast was there – cutout figures of Mary, Joseph, infant Jesus, three Wise Men and sheep. It was a spectacular sight when lit up at night.

The Nativity scene must have attracted the attention of Tom Harrisson who contacted me to see him at the Sarawak Museum. I met him in his office which was pretty dark, with books stacked to the ceiling, stuffed birds and small animals and native artefacts on tables, benches and floor.

Tom needed an artist to paint a series of backdrops for the Museum’s showcases. The cases had fauna exhibits mounted on branches, with glass encasing the remaining three sides. My job was the paint a specific scene for each exhibit. It was a fantastic job opportunity that I could not miss or refuse so I, the only student throughout Sarawak to obtain Distinction One for art in my Senior Cambridge Examination in 1958, took up the challenge.

I got to work. A small section near the main museum staircase was cordoned off as my studio. Tom would check in every morning, giving instructions on what to add into the current scene to finish it off. He seemed generally pleased.

One morning, two gentlemen visited me and we had a chat while I worked. To my surprise, this resulted in an article about my paintings the Singapore Nanyang Siang Pau newspaper. What a surprise! Unfortunately, it was written in Chinese and I could not read it, and I did not try to find out what the fuss was all about.

Once the showcases were done, Tom had a bigger job for me – the Painted Cave of Niah. The cave was large and my task was to copy the cave paintings down. Using cellophane sheets that were about one meter square, I divided them into grids of six inches square and propped it against the paintings on the wall with slivers of bamboo.

Similar grids were also drawn on sheets of masonite before I commenced copying down the walls according to scale. It was quite tricky; I had to lie down or crouch to draw, and drag the panels along as I progressed.

Life in the cave was mundane after dark apart from some natter after dinner, which was usually tinned food with rice, some ikan bilis, salted fish and the occasional cave bat. Bats were caught by blasting a few buck shots into a dark part of the cave ceiling and waiting for a few minutes for the bats to fall. They were collected in a large aluminium pot and boiled, guts and all. When cooked, we divided them among us, peeled of the skins and entrails, and consumed them. I do not remember if I enjoyed the bat morsel.

Tom did not always stay with them in the cave. If he was, there won’t be bats for dinner and the generator would have been switched off by 9pm. One night when he did stay, there was a great commotion in the wee hours. Tom’s voice bellowed out across the stillness of the cave: “Could someone choke that snorer to death?”

Quick sketches of three fellow museum staff during the time when Paul was doing a lot of technical illutrations of excavated artefacts for Tom Harrisson’s reports in 1960.

After a bit of scramble to establish who the condemned man was, I was told to turn over and not sleep on my back.

Once the Painted Cave was duly painted, I returned to the Museum, doing odd jobs, technical illustrations of excavated artefacts for Tom’s reports, and assisting in making a bird nest collecting model under the main Museum staircase with the Museum head taxidermist. I also did quick sketches of native headsmen, who turned up at the Museum in full costume when meeting with Tom.

Another interesting assignment Tom gave me was to spend a weekend at Talang Talang Island to witness and draw the turtle egg fight festival. Tom also asked me to design and produce a turtle flag which he would often proudly fly whenever he travelled on his speed boat.

After about two years of museum work, Tom called me up out of the blue and said that he was going send me to an American university in the Philippines to study architecture. I was completely flabbergasted by his offer. In my wildest dream, I never thought of ever being offered a scholarship anywhere.

In February 1961, I ended up going to Melbourne, Australia, under the Colombo Plan Scholarship to study Building, after Tom decided that he didn’t like the American university system. When I was in Australia, he introduced me to his close network of contacts to look after me.

Later on, I also found out Tom told a friend that I was like a son to him. He did have a son around my age who was in and out of a mental institution in England.

This illustration of the Sarawak River with Kuching Main Bazaar/Waterfront visible in the background was found in November 2018 at the Segu Bungalow where Tom Harrisson resided.

Tom was loud, vocal, and ran the Museum like a sergeant major, accepting no nonsense from anybody and sparing nobody an occasional verbal lashing. At the same time, I noticed that Tom never held long term grudges or animosities towards his subordinates.

And while I was mostly unscathed in his time at the Museum, I clearly remembered the one occasion I could not catch Tom personally so I left a note on his desk. Not long after, I got called up by Tom and chastised in front of the staff: “Are you deaf or dumb? If you want something from me, speak to me directly.”

I was devastated upon learning that Tom, together with his wife (Belgian sculptress Baroness Madeleine Christine Forani), perished in a road accident in Thailand in 1976.

With over 30 years of experience in building-related industries, Paul Kuek continued doing artwork, participating in selected group exhibitions and collecting some awards and commissions along the way. He graduated from RMIT University (Melbourne) several times over in fields that honoured both his artistic passion and the museum curator who sent him to Australia.

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