A life – another instalment of my autobiography before I revert to my normal blogs
The last holidays were spent in Kota Bahru, where my father had been exiled after another stoush with another commanding officer. In his game of snakes and ladders with his career, he was heading towards the top of the ladder again, when he landed on a snake, picked an unnecessary and unreasonable point of principle with the colonel, and slithered down the board again, missing out on a medal, ending up with a mere mention in dispatches and a posting as far away from the regiment as possible.
Kota Bahru, up on the east coast near what was then the Siamese border, was idyllic, with long, unspoiled beaches edged with casuarina trees, and gaily -painted fishermen’s boats lined up beneath them. The men wore piratical- looking turbans in bright oranges and reds and blues, and the women’s clothes were richly- coloured unlike the drab, brown batiks of the sarongs on the rest of the Malayan peninsula. Thanks to a mixed Siamese/ Malay heritage, the women here were famed for their beauty, combining the voluptuousness of the Malay with the sculptured bone structure of what are known as Thais now.
We lived in a pink stucco house near the mouth of the river, some way out of the town, and not far from the airfield which had seen hard fighting when the Japanese landed. The house looked across at a peaceful little kampong beneath the trees. Great clumps of purple water hyacinth often drifted slowly down river, and we watched the bronzed, brown bodies of children jumping and playing in the water. Early in the morning, or at dusk, the girls would stand and discreetly bathe beneath their sarongs, and their grandfather sat and fished all day, a still, meditative figure across the water.
The house still bore the machine gun holes from twelve years before when the Japanese had made their sudden appearance from the sea at dawn in December 1941. The hub of the community we were now part of, was the Kelantan Club, where Europeans gathered to meet each other. They were a mix of the local judge and policemen, diplomats and doctors, nurses and rubber planters, and representatives of various historic far eastern trading houses.
The rubber planters had mostly lived here since before the war, and were in many ways, thirtyish Somerset Maugham characters. They had all been interned together at Changi Camp in Singapore during the war, and those who had survived were a close -knit band of brothers.
There was Ted Kurtain, famous for swearing, whose waterfall and rock pool was a favourite picnic spot for the favoured few, including us. His closest friend was a dignified quiet man, Hugh Jackson, who had had a Thai mistress for nineteen years before the Japanese came. She waited for him during the war years he spent in Changi, and they were re-united when he came back to his rubber plantation.
Deaf to the misgivings of his well- connected English family, he sent his mistress to a Swiss finishing school, and then married her. On visits to his spacious bungalow, filled with books and English china and antiques, she entertained us as though it was an English country house party. She was beautiful, dignified, her grooming immaculate, and exquisitely dressed.
Alf, one of the two eccentric local police chiefs, had a head as bald as Yul Brynner’s, and underneath his intimidating exterior was a gentle, kind and lonely man. When his mandatory leaves came around every three years, he took a boat to Aden where he disembarked and bought a flock of goats. These he would drive north up the Arabian Peninsula, using the goats as food and currency, and when he reached Port Said took a boat to Liverpool.
Here he would spend a fortnight with his sister before returning to his post in the East. The other police chief was a much younger Englishman who had converted to the Muslim faith and kept his distance from we alcoholic and godless infidels!
As well as the Kelantan Club, the other meeting place was the Palm Court Hotel, a complete contrast to the old wooden club house with its planter’s chairs and rattan furniture. Palm Court was all concrete and tiles and chrome, and run by Mammy, a giant White Russian lady in late middle age. She wore ankle length caftans before they had been invented, had frizzy, short hair and thick pebble spectacles. But behind her facade of jolliness, I noticed loneliness and sadness.
When writing a blog, 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 those years before the war, Luba would have felt safe in this seemingly impregnable British colony. She married a Russian rotter, who bankrupted them both and left her. Then after their grim appearance in Kelantan, the Japanese reached Singapore, and in that mayhem of murder and bombings, killing of patients in hospital beds, raping of nurses, and killing of all Chinese, somehow Luba got to the dock and managed to board SS Kuala. It was overloaded 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, bleeding, drowning, trying to hold onto rafts and floating debris, the Japanese machine-gunned them in the water.
Those who survived terrible thirst, hunger, horrendous wounds, madness and burning sun to make it to shore, 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 fresh water, after three hours in the sea. “My fat be blessed for that!” Luba told a reporter after the war.
A few days later the SS Tandjong Pinang arrived at Pom Pong Island from Sumatra to rescue the small band of between a hundred and a hundred and fifty survivors from the original five hundred. 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 somehow ended up in India, via Ceylon, where she made her living cooking for thousands of U.S. troops in Delhi, before returning to Singapore after the war.
While in India, in February 1943, Luba 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, escaped, drowned or 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.
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, telling their story – a story that no one else was able to share with the world for another three years when the war ended, when a pitifully small handful of survivors could then tell of their sufferings.
In an archival story I found a reference to her 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”.
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 death, abandonment and poverty, loneliness, bombings, torpedoed ships and dangerous journeys was the person most people thought was a joke.
But in spite of Mammy’s joyful welcome at the Palm Court, most people preferred the relaxed, slightly ramshackle atmosphere of the Kelantan Club. Everyone turned up for the weekly cinema show on Friday when an old black and white film was shown on an ancient and not very efficient projector.
On Saturday nights, we enjoyed Scottish dancing, and there was a full complement of balls to mark every possible occasion. At Christmas I was asked to paint two huge festive murals on the walls, with red-coated Father Christmas, reindeers, sleighs, snow and the rest.
The most enjoyable part of this creative endeavour was at lunchtime when all the chaps would drop by to chat and share a fresh lime with me… to be the only unmarried female under forty in a town crammed with young men was a fate worth enjoying! None of these nice young men ever crossed the line with a naive and ignorant seventeen- year -old schoolgirl and they treated me with respect and consideration.
By contrast, one evening we left our peaceful riverside to go into Kota Bahru and watch the colourful Sultan’s Birthday Torchlight procession. My small fair- haired brother sat on my father’s shoulders so he could see. When we’d finished watching we turned to go back to the car, and as we pushed our way through the tight throng of mostly Malay men I felt a slight ripple as though they were converging on us. With my brother high on my father’s shoulders acting as a beacon, they pressed up against us as we struggled along in single file, my father, I think, unaware of what was happening behind him. My stepmother clung to him and behind her, I clutched her hand tightly.
I became the focus of this angry hostile crowd. They had hands and knowing fingers so hard I felt I was being punched as they prodded, pinched and poked me, finding soft places that no-one had ever found before. I was terrified and humiliated at the same time. When we got to the car and out of the melee I was too shocked and shamed to mention this ordeal to my parents.
It was only fifty years later, yarning with my brother, that I talked for the first time of what had felt like a shocking and unprovoked attack by angry hostile Muslims… was it my sex, my race or my religion which provoked it – or all three?
One memorable day the British Resident invited us to join him and General Bourne to sail out to the deserted Perhentian Islands. Thousands of brilliantly coloured and richly patterned tiny tropical fish swirled through the clear turquoise waters, so clear that thirty feet deep looked like three. A solitary fisherman climbed a coconut palm for us to drink the ice- cold coconut milk in the heart of the great green globe. No other soul was there. It seemed like the most beautiful place on earth, untouched, unspoiled, a pristine, perfect paradise.
Yet now, it’s impossible to find a photo of the islands which doesn’t have hotels and boats and people and jumbled sand from footsteps on every silver beach. Shortly after this idyll, we returned to Penang and the Runnymede, which felt like home, before setting sail for England in a Blue Funnel ship, where we enjoyed utter luxury once more.
I look at old photos of that time and the memories return so vividly – my stepmother wearing a purple linen dress which looked wonderful with her black hair and pale skin, sitting in a rattan chair chatting to charming Tungku Abdul Rahman, the ‘father’ of Merdeka. They both held the inevitable cigarette between their fingers, he with his de rigueur glass of orange juice for a Muslim in the other hand, the orange juice fortified, my stepmother told me with a laugh, with a big slug of whisky.
There’s my father, hot, tired and unkempt, squatting on a beer box in the jungle stripped to the waist, about to eat his bread and cheese and drink his beer, the food he had dropped into the jungle instead of army rations… nearby butterflies hovered over the sweaty socks he’d just taken off, savouring the delicious pheromones.
And my small half- brother and I, me standing to attention in a new dress I was so thrilled with, at a parade on the padang at Kota Bahru, and he, sitting cross-legged at my feet, looking puzzled, not sure what he was supposed to be doing.
Penang is like most thriving eastern cities these days… as busy, crowded, built up and polluted as any western city – no longer the elegant peaceful place I once knew. Yet back then as we sailed away from Penang, and it faded into the misty blue distance my heart hurt so much that I couldn’t bear to say good-bye to all that beauty, and I promised myself I would return. But I never have.
To be continued
Food for threadbare gourmets
Re-cycling is one of my favourite hobbies, whether it’s re-cycling from the rubbish tip or leftovers from the fridge. In this case, I had a cup of leek and potato soup left over from the day before. Waste not, want not – I checked out a pea soup recipe, and found that leeks were one of the ingredients.
I also had a big cup of steamed cauliflower in the fridge, so tipping it into the soup, I added a good gob of garlic from a jar, a couple of cups of good chicken stock, salt and pepper, and when hot, two cups of frozen peas. When the peas were cooked in a few minutes, I whizzed it all smooth in the stick blender, and hey presto, we enjoyed a delicious pea soup that took only five minutes or so to cook.
I love croutons that always cheer up a soup, but didn’t have any good sour dough bread for them, only soft white sliced sandwich bread bought for sandwiches. I simply cut a slice into four and fried the pieces in olive oil. Sprinkled with salt, they were better than croutons, crunchy and satisfying.
Food for thought
Nothing living should ever be treated with contempt. Whatever it is that lives, a man, a tree, or a bird, should be touched gently, because the time is short. Civilization is another word for respect for life…
Elizabeth Goudge , writer