Warning – this is a long but true detective story about an extraordinary woman.
Back then, cloudless skies were silent, roads empty, white beaches fringed with thick belts of filmy foliage of casuarina trees. Gay painted fishing sampans were lined up at the top of the sands, sailed by fishermen who looked like story book pirates. They wore brightly coloured turbans round their heads, and were lean and handsome.
The women, recipients of both a Thai and a Malayan heritage up there on the border, had the fine sculptured features of the Thais, and the soft voluptuousness of the Malays. They were famed for their beauty, and like their men folk wore richly coloured clothes – sarongs in bright batik patterns of red and turquoise, and orange and cobalt blue, unlike the drab browns of other Malayan batiks.
We lived not far from that long empty beach, one of many in this part of Kelantan, the most famous called: ’beach of passionate love’. (I know the Malayan name, but am not sure how it’s spelled) Our pink stucco house sat on the edge of the river, the river up which the Japanese had sailed in their motor boats early on the morning of 6 December, an hour before they attacked Pearl Harbour. Modern communications might have altered the events which took place on that fateful day, but in this remote corner of Malaya the invading Japanese were able then, unmolested, to rake the house with machine gun fire as they chugged inland.
The line of bullet holes was still there twelve years later when we lived there. We looked across to a small kampong, where a handful of wooden houses thatched with palm, were raised on stilts beneath the coconut palms, and where the grandfather sat motionless all day fishing, and his granddaughters bathed in the green river at sunset every night without taking off their bright sarongs.
Not far from this scene of primeval beauty, was the sleepy town of Kota Bharu, and it was here that the woman I called Mammy ran the newly built Palm Court Hotel. I wrote in a blog in April last year: ” Here too, lived Mammy, a giant White Russian, over six feet tall, wearing thick pebble specs for her short sighted grey eyes, and wearing the first caftans I ‘d seen over her enormous frame, all in brilliant colours and garish patterns . Mammy ran the local hotel where everyone gathered in Kota Bharu, and was a local joke too. As a seventeen year old I didn’t think she was such a joke. She and her husband had escaped the revolution in Russia … and so on …..
Eight months later, I had an e-mail from a man who wanted to know if I knew more about her. He told me she was Madame Luba Ruperti, and had been on not just one, but two ships crammed with women and children sunk by the Japanese as they escaped from Singapore and she was a very important link in the unrecorded story of what had actually happened on those hellish days just after the fall of Singapore.
He sent me all the information he had about her, and from his lists, and delving into the internet and other sources, I pieced together the remarkable story of this unusual woman. Luba Ruperti was a White Russian born in 1896. She fled with her parents from the Bolshevik Revolution in 1918 via Shanghai to the safety of British Singapore, after her sister had been killed by a revolutionary mob.
In 1925, when she was nearly thirty, she married another White Russian, Alexander Ruperti, formerly a Lt Commander in the Imperial Russian Navy, but three years later, newspaper reports show him becoming bankrupt, and he disappeared. Luba, now alone, became a fixture of the social scene attending parties and dances, and opened a hat and dress shop to make her living.
In those years before the war, Luba would have felt safe in this seemingly impregnable British colony. But some weeks after their grim appearance in Kelantan, the Genghis Khan-like hordes of murdering Japanese ( no exaggeration – among their atrocities was tying British soldiers together with barbed wire and setting them alight) reached Singapore. Here they invaded from the unprotected landward side.
It was in that mayhem of murder and bombings, killing of patients in hospital beds, raping of nurses etc. that somehow Luba got to the dock and managed to board SS Kuala, an overloaded ship with five hundred or so other women, children and babies, including a number of Australian and New Zealand nurses.
The next day the Japanese sank the ship, setting it on fire and mothers threw their children overboard trying to get them into the rafts below. As women and children struggled in the sea, wounded, drowning, trying to hold onto rafts and floating debris, they were machine-gunned in the water. Those who survived terrible thirst, hunger, horrendous wounds, madness and burning sun to make it to shore several days later, were machine gunned in the water and as they staggered over rocks and up the beach into the shelter of the trees. They had reached Pom Pong Island which had no food, and only a tiny source of water.
A few days later the SS Tandjong Pinang arrived from Rengat in Sumatra to rescue the small band of between a hundred and a hundred and fifty survivors from the original five hundred, but hardly had they embarked than the Japanese were back, and sank this ship too. Luba was one of only handful of survivors of this second disaster.
The few the Japanese captured on shore ended up suffering and usually dying in the terrible conditions of internment. Luba got away, and ended up somehow or other in India, via Ceylon. Here in February 1943, nearly a year later, she gave her great gift to all those who had died, suffered or survived. She had compiled a long list of the names of the people who had boarded the SS Kuala at Singapore and who had survived to board the SS Tandjong Pindang.
In the chaos and panic during the bombing of the docks in Singapore as frantic passengers tried to board the ship, no records had been taken. No-one knew who had boarded, who had escaped, or who had survived. Families would never have known if their loved ones were still alive in some corner of the world. Luba must have started compiling her lists during their terrible ordeal on Pom Pong island, as there was no way otherwise that she could have known so comprehensively who was there, the names and the children.
It was an act not just of heroism in those hellish days, but of responsibility and altruism in conditions when it could very well have been everyone for himself. Her act of witnessing and recording rescued both the dead and the living from oblivion, and told their story – a story that no one else was able to share with the world for another three years, when the war ended and a pitifully small handful of survivors could then bear witness to their sufferings.
Typically, the next we hear of the resourceful and penniless forty-seven year old Luba is as manageress of the Woodland Hotel, an army hostel in New Delhi, (the rundown hotel is still there) and it was here that she gave her vital and historic list to the military authorities. When the war ended, Luba gave up her secure and safe employment in India and returned to Singapore … where she had several unsuccessful business ventures. When I came across her, as an ignorant seventeen year old in 1955, she was running the newly- built smart Palm Hotel in Kota Bahru, where all the Europeans and rich Chinese went for their fun.
She was over six foot tall, frizzy-haired and be-spectacled and wearing caftans before they’d been invented. She was irrepressible, jolly and welcoming… she may have felt it came with the job. In an archival story I found a reference to her later being back in Singapore by 1958, and by the mid-1960’s nearing seventy, she was: “utterly dependent for her living by making and selling exquisite dolls dressed in the costumes of old Russia, complete with tiny earrings, bracelets and rings on the dolly fingers,” according to quotes from a story in the Singapore Straits Times. The same archival entry comments that: “she appears at this stage of her life to have been still the exuberant woman who had lived through so much fear, chaos and loss without losing her innate spirit”.
I found a mention absolutely characteristic of her when I came across an obscure story about the food Jews created for their festivals in various remote outposts of the world. The story included the celebration of the seder festival in New Delhi, and on the menu was a dish created for them by Madame Luba Ruperti – Boeuf Strogonoff of course – what else from a White Russian … Luba, still in the thick of things, still making a difference to her world with her generosity and commitment to life.
There are many families who may not even know their great debt to this feisty open-hearted woman… who never seemed to be defeated by the perils and tragedies of her extraordinary odyssey from Czarist Russia to post- Colonial Malaya, via Shanghai, Singapore, Indonesia, India and back to Singapore, surviving abandonment and poverty, loneliness, bombings, torpedoed ships and dangerous journeys. I like to think that more than half a century later, some of us will remember her and revel in the thought of her undaunted courage, resourcefulness, intelligence, and joie de vivre, and marvel at the human spirit.
Food for threadbare gourmets
Leafing through piles of old clippings I came across the infallible strawberry jam recipe I thought I’d lost. As I read it I decided to start making this delectable treat again. If one is going to sin with sugar, it might as well be in the most delicious way.
To four pounds of freshly picked strawberries, you need six pounds of sugar (horrendous I know), one and a half teaspoons of butter and an ounce of tartaric acid. Mash half the fruit in a buttered preserving pan and add all the sugar. Add the rest of the hulled strawberries, bring to the boil and boil hard for six minutes. Add the tartaric acid and boil for another six minutes. Remove from the heat and let stand for twenty minutes, stirring occasionally. Bottle in sterilised jars and cover. This makes nine one pound jars, so you could halve the ingredients and just make a small amount. It stays a lovely bright red.
Food for thought
I don’t know who wrote this but I like it.
If a person is living out his destiny, he knows everything he needs to know. There is only one thing that makes a dream impossible to achieve: the fear of failure.
PS if anyone can tell me how to stop word press closing up my paragraphs, I’d be eternally grateful, Valerie