East Malaysian state of Sabah, in northern Borneo, has become a favoured holiday destination for outdoorsy Hongkongers. Diving and snorkelling on pristine reefs, whitewater jungle rafting and strenuous hikes on Mount Kinabalu, Southeast Asia’s highest mountain, are popular recreational pursuits and only a short flight away. Less well known are the earlier connections between northern Borneo and Hong Kong, which significantly changed the region’s ethnic composition and ultimately led to indirect – and then direct – British rule.

For centuries, northern Borneo had come under the Sultanate of Sulu (now absorbed into the southern Philippines) and the Sultanate of Brunei. The western section, Sarawak, was eventually ceded by Brunei to the Brooke family, the legendary “White Rajahs” who ruled from 1841 until 1946, when the territory became a separate colony. In effect, the Brookes sold Sarawak to Britain.

From 1881 until 1946, North Borneo – the northern part of the island excluding Sarawak – was administered by the British North Borneo Company.

As well as generating a profit for their shareholders, chartered companies were responsible for infrastructure development and administration in the territories they controlled. Other 19thcentury chartered companies included the British South Africa Company, which was largely responsible for investments and expansion into Central Africa, and the Royal Niger Company, which had extensive assets in West Africa. All were modelled on the by-then defunct British East India Company.

The two founders of the British North Borneo Company had Hong Kong connections: Alfred Dent was associated with Dent and Co, a long-established China Coast firm that had gone spectacularly bankrupt in 1867; and Gustav von Overbeck, an Austrian businessman who had served as viceconsul of Prussia in Hong Kong (1856-66), had been a business partner with Dent and Co.

North Borneo, then, was very sparsely populated by Muruts, Dayaks, Bajau and other indigenous peoples. To help develop its new territory, the company sponsored assisted emigration from Hong Kong. Most early settlers were hardy, hardworking Hakka people who had moved in large numbers throughout the 1850s down the East River to the Hong Kong region to work as quarrymen. As cheaper building materials became more widely available at the end of the 19th century, these landless labourers had to find alternative sources of employment, and the opportunity to settle in Borneo was eagerly seized.

Active in Shau Kei Wan and Sai Ying Pun, which had large Hakka populations, the Basel Mission assisted with migrant selection. The majority of those chosen were, unsurprisingly, Christian converts. Today, a significant proportion of Sabah’s Chinese population are Hakka followers of a Lutheran sect with distant family connections to Hong Kong.

By the 1930s, Sandakan, a timber port on North Borneo’s east coast, was known as “Little Hong Kong”, partly because of its sizeable Chinese population and the obvious comparison with another polyglot harbour town sprawling scenically up a hillside. Regular direct sailings connected the two ports: with shorter voyage times than to Singapore, Hong Kong was considered to be the closest big city to North Borneo.

Well into the 1950s, wealthier Sandakan residents regularly visited Hong Kong for shopping excursions, more specialised medical treatment and – especially during the winter – short breaks in a temperate climate with all modern amenities.

For more on Hong Kong history and heritage, go to scmp.com/topics/old-hong-kong