An Unknown Republic in Borneo

[I was asked by BT to write about the Lanfang Republic. I was not sure how to approach that subject as resources on this is very thin. I had to borrow heavily from a number of on-line articles but I thought I balanced it when I finally wrote about it. Credit for the story goes to the people who had kept the republic alive in the digital world. Here is the story of the Lanfang Republic and this was published in my Golden Legacy column in Brunei Times on 23 May 2011.]


The Lanfang Republic
by Rozan Yunos

If one can travel through time, one interesting destination is 18th century west Kalimantan in Borneo. More than 200 years ago, this part of the Borneo Island was well known for its mineral deposits which were mostly gold and tin. There were already a number of sultanates established in this part of the Borneo Island then. Every single one needed labour to work in the mines.

There were three sultanates at that time. The boundaries of the Sultanates were not clearly defined. This led to frictions and battles between the three sultanates exploding from time to time. Along the coastal area, the Javanese and the Bugis settled down in the sultanates. At the same time, the three Sultans’ control were confined to the coastal areas, and towards the interior, the local aborigines Dayaks were not under the control of any of the Sultanates and aligned themselves with whomever they wanted to. In Kuntian, Pontianak was Sultan Abdul Rahman; in Mempawah was Sultan Omar; and in Singkawang was Sultan Panembahan.

Interestingly enough according to Kao Chung Xi writing in the book entitled “Hakka people - Jews of the Orient”, Sultan Panembahan believing that Chinese workers are hard working, brought in 20 Chinese from Brunei. Sultan Omar in Singkawang, also having heard about Chinese diligence, leased land to the Chinese under the lease land system to encourage them to explore in his territory. Thus the three sultans were very much aware of the pioneering spirit of the Chinese migrants. The three Sultans competed to offer them attractive leases for them to explore and work the gold and tin mines.

In 1740, the number of Chinese in the area was very small. By 1770, that number has multiplied to more than 20,000. The Chinese established a number of Kongsi (company) both as a business cooperative venture and for mutual protection against hostile outside forces including other rival Chinese kongsi.

One such kongsi was formed by a Chinese Hakka named Low Fan Pak. Low Fan Pak also known as Low Lanfang, came from a small village in the Chinese Hakka Meixian County of Guangdong Province in South China. Lam Pin Foo writing in an internet article noted that Low was both an educated man, skilled in martial arts and admired for his brain and brawn. However, failing repeatedly to pass the highly competitive Imperial Examinations, he knew he could not make it in the Chinese Civil Service and decided on a new career in Borneo. He managed to borrow enough money for his long journey, accompanied by a small group of ambitious fellow villagers to seek a better life.

Under Low’s leadership, the Lanfang Kongsi became very prosperous and they were able to build a new township near Kuntian. It was now easy to facilitate trade for the members and their families too.

With the expanding mining industries, the Sultans in the area also saw increasing wealth from their land concessions. Sultan Omar of Mempawah decided to build a new grand palace and expand his sultanate to enhance his standing. However Sultan Abdul Rahman of Kuntian was offended and fierce between the two Sultans ensued. Sultan Abdul Rahman also managed to convince Low’s Langfang Kongsi to join in attacking Sultan Omar and easily defeated him. Even though Sultan Omar managed to join forces with the Dayaks to launch a counter attack, – that too was easily repelled by Sultan Abdul Rahman and Low Fan Pak.

The role of Low Fan Pak in the victory raised his profile and that of the Lanfang Kongsi. The other Chinese kongsi in the area and neighbouring districts all wanted to align themselves with the Lanfang Kongsi. Low Fan Pak was now the most well known of all the Kongsi leaders. He became the protector of a very much larger kongsi now.

Sultan Omar and Sultan Panembahan both agreed to sign a peace treaty with Lanfang Kongsi. Surprisingly Sultan Abdul Rahman too thought it was in his best interest to come under the protection of the Lanfang Kongsi. As a result, Lanfang Kongsi now have better terms for their mining rights. They had more land mining concessions. Most importantly, Lanfang Kongsi now governed a much bigger area than it was used to.

Low Fan Pak now suddenly had a very extensive area to look after and by some counts, there were close to one million people within its borders. Like it or not, Lanfang Kongsi had become a government. It had to look after a large and significant population. That means looking after their livelihood, welfare and security.

Low Fan Pak was 57 years old. He enjoyed tremendous popularity and he could have taken any title he wanted. He did not style himself Sultan. He would prefer to be elected as Lanfang’s founding president (Ta Tang Chon Chong) and he was duly elected. He also ensured that their new constitution also required that, since the Hakkas formed the majority of the administration and the population, future presidents must be elected from the Hakkas.

Even though the borders and the authority were not clearly defined, many described the Lanfang Kongsi as a modern Republic, much earlier than the USA, which became a republic in 1777 or France in 1780. The town of Ceh-Wan-Li where the Kongsi was sited became the new Republic’s capital. According to Lam Pin Foo, similar to modern countries, Lanfang was divided into provinces, counties, towns and villages. Lanfang set up judiciary and legislative assemblies and other functional departments. There was no army. Every able bodied person was required to defend Lanfang if the need arises.

Low Fan Pak died in 1795 when he was 57 years old. He had served as president for 18 years. His successors managed to run the state until 1884. In that year, the Dutch occupied the lands of a nearby sultanate and Lanfang was drawn into the conflict. After four years of fighting the Dutch emerged victorious and many Chinese fled to Sumatra and elsewhere. The Dutch allowed a Chinese to be the figure-head of the area for but for all intents and purposes, the Lanfang Republic was over.

Many wondered whether Brunei had connection with this Lanfang Republic. Other than providing the 20 able bodied Chinese to Sultan Panembahan, nothing much is known about Brunei’s connection. Perhaps Lanfang was not a real state but merely a state within a state as noted by a book entitled “Sojourners and Settlers: Histories of Southeast Asia and the Chinese” edited by Anthony Reid and published in 1996.

The tales of Lanfang Republic survived because Yap Siong-yoen, the son-in-law of the last kongsi leader wrote an adulatory and only account of the kongsi which was translated into Dutch in 1885. Although the text shows the leading role of Hakkas in the region but another Dutch author, Schaank writing a book entitled “De Kongsis van Montrado” published in 1893 has shown that it is not always reliable. There were also other gold mining settlements, much larger than Lanfang but unfortunately left no written accounts. Lanfang Kongsi functioning as a governing state was therefore not unique and perhaps there were more ‘republics’ formed during those years.



Anonymous said…
Resources on the Borneo 'kongsis' are hardly very thin! There must be at least twenty books by American, Australian and Singaporean academics, quite apart from often inaccurate digital plagiarisations.

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