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  • On Going into the Field
  • William R. Roff

The following paper, also by Bill Roff, describes his fieldwork experience for his first book, The Origins of Malay Nationalism. The research was done years before his work at the Pahang palace archives - Ed.

In the late 1950s, as is still the case today, anthropologists starting to work in foreign parts would speak of 'going into the field' (a strange metaphor, when you think about it) and their research was—and is—referred to as fieldwork. Though not trained as an anthropologist, I had consorted mainly with anthropologists at the Australian National University, where I was a graduate student. What follows, therefore, is some account of my first few months of fieldwork in Malaya.

I arrived in Kuala Lumpur by train in the late afternoon and was met by John Bastin, who had been my first supervisor when I went to ANU in the spring of 1959 but had shortly afterwards been appointed foundation professor of history at the then new University of Malaya. Greeting me off the train and leading me to his car, John said that that evening he and his wife would take me to the venerable Selangor Club, once reserved for Europeans only but now, at least since independence in 1957, open to all communities—though still seen as an elite institution. John asked me if I had a dinner jacket. Dinner jacket? I had no idea what one was and certainly didn't possess one. 'Oh well,' said John philosophically, 'in that case we'll have to sit behind the band.' In many respects I've been sitting behind bands ever since.

The Bastins had booked me into the Majestic Hotel, one of only two I think at that time deemed fit for Europeans, the other being the rather dreary Station Hotel. The Majestic was certainly not dreary, but it was expensive, far too expensive for my limited scholarship allowance. So I had to get out. But where to?

It had long been my hope that I would find some way to live with a Malay village family in order to learn the spoken language properly and acquaint myself with Malay mores and customs. In the event it turned out to be rather easier than I had expected. Someone, I can no longer recall who, introduced me to Cik Fatimah Musa, the social welfare officer for Selangor. We met and talked, she gave me dinner and I explained to her what I wanted to do, saying that although I was a historian I wanted at the outset to behave like an anthropologist. She said that she would do what she could to help.

Cik Fatimah had a good friend in Kampung Jawa not far fromthe small town of Klang. A minor member of the Selangor royal family, Tunku Laksama was extremely helpful and arranged through the ketua kampung for a meeting of family heads to see whether anyone would be prepared to act as host to a foreigner, [End Page 103] namely to me. As I heard later, there was considerable discussion of the issues involved—some saying, for example, that this fellow will run off with either your daughters or your sons. But one of the family heads, Tuan Haji Abdul Karim bin Mohammad Noor, said that in principle he and his family would be prepared to help, but needed to meet their intended guest in order to decide.

The family invited me for an afternoon visit when I met them all for the first time. Haji Karim directed the proceedings. Their main concern, it turned out, was whether or not I would want to eat Malay food. In reply, I said that there were few more attractive cuisines than Malay, so I would be delighted to eat with them. (In the event, the eldest daughter, Embong, was the finest Malay cook I ever came across.) The other question that naturally arose was what sort of terms of payment might be involved. I was ready to pay rent of some sort, but they wouldn't hear of that; all that they wanted was a contribution to food costs, which I readily agreed to. It was decided...


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pp. 103-109
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