Tag Archives: Penang

A heroine, an eccentric, a Muslim attack and a paradise

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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

 

 

 

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Filed under army, colonial life, cookery/recipes, history, Japan, life and death, the thirties, Thoughts on writing and life, travel, uncategorised, Uncategorized, world war two

Coronation, luxury, opera and Latin

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The Runnymede Hotel from the sea

A life – another instalment of my autobiography before I revert to my normal blogs

The Queen’s Coronation was big in Malaya and it was big for me too! On our drive down to Taiping to join my father and his regiment for the celebrations we passed through one kampong after another, with a richly coloured Coronation arch festooned with flowers and streamers and pictures of the Queen welcoming us into every village … everyone seemed to be involved.

When we had arrived from the train and ferry at the Runnymede Hotel several months before, it was discovered that the porter who picked up the trunk with my clothes in it amongst other things, had disappeared with it. This meant that my new summer dress and my new and unworn swimming costume had gone, and I now had little more than the clothes I stood up in- a well-used green striped skirt cut down from a summer dress of my stepmother’s two years before, and a green air-tex shirt.

My stepmother had coped with this disaster with insouciance, but I was in despair since I knew my clothes were unlikely to be replaced any time soon. I managed to make a new skirt with some fabric given to me, and as time went on, different people bequeathed dresses which they said they no longer wanted and which I learned how to alter to fit me.

But the loss of the swimming costume was a misery in the tropics where everyone swam most days. Now in Taiping for the week of the Coronation, I was staying with a couple whose daughter was in hospital with appendicitis, and after we had visited her once a day, these two lovely people took it upon themselves to spoil me. Not only did they buy me a swimming costume, but a pair of shoes – I had been managing with some humiliatingly ugly tartan cloth ones my stepmother had bought for me in the local Chinese market. The wife also gave me one of her dresses and let me try on all her evening dresses and her makeup. It all felt wonderful.

When I turned up for the Coronation Parade and re-joined my parents in my new finery, I saw my stepmother looking rather coldly at these kind people and I, but my cup was overflowing, and I didn’t worry.

After the festivities and two weeks holiday spent amid clouds and cool forests at the top of a mountain called Maxwell Hill we all went back to Penang, where I waited another three months before being accepted into the boarding school in the Cameron Highlands. Apart from my school terms I spent eighteen months living beside the water in this beautiful environment.

Each day began with the long walk between pillars which seemed as big as those on the portico of St Paul’s Cathedral, but in this case, they were holding up the huge ballroom, about a hundred feet long. At the end was the dining area, where the Chinese maitre d’hotel met each family and conducted them to their regular table with as much flourish as though they had been pre-war English milords, miladies, famous writers and intrepid tourists in the thirties. (He had probably been on the staff then himself, having somehow survived the Sook Ching massacres -the wholesale killings of the local Chinese – by the Japanese during the war) My step-mother was one of the ladies he met with particular deference and a favoured smile.

Our service was always quicker than less favoured mortals. It had nothing to do with my father’s mediocre rank or mediocre income. I supposed it had something to do with my step-mother’s unbending dignity and courtesy -she ‘nothing common did or mean’… it took me a while to see that others did do mean things, I was so used to her being, as my father’s sergeant -major put it -” a lady.” (Which didn’t mean to say I found it pleasant living with her. She might not manage anything common or mean, but she had ways of dealing with people like me who she didn’t like!).

After a hearty English breakfast beginning with cereal, ending with toast and marmalade, and bulked out with sausages, bacon and egg in the middle, coffee or tea, we all filtered back up the stairs to our rooms. The amahs had already tidied them and made the beds, so we prepared ourselves for the day – for the wives, a little shopping, ending at the Cold Storage Co. for feasts of iced coffee and sundaes in blissful icy air-conditioning to which I was sometimes invited. Or it might be a trip to the swimming pool, and hot curry puffs and ginger beer shandies in deck chairs round the pool… having no swimming costume I just sat around enviously.

Wives who were happy to leave their toddlers with an amah would sit on the hotel verandah by the sea, just by the huge flame tree where the children took turns on the swing, while their mothers played canasta or mah-jong. Or they just gossiped over coffee.

Husbands sometimes managed to get back for a weekend with their families every few weeks. One regiment stationed at Alor Star had its hands full with constant bandit activity, and at the last minute their leave would be cancelled for an emergency. A mock groan was the only outward sign of disappointment the wives allowed themselves when the message came, and when one young woman, newly- pregnant, couldn’t bite back her tears of disappointment before the others noticed, there was much comment at her lack of control.

There were some who didn’t follow the regular routines of the others… they were outsiders, who didn’t join the regimental groups or the more exclusive cliques. They may have been free spirits, and seemed to have busier, more satisfying lives than the daily routines of the others, but, sometimes too, I felt their loneliness.  The other women wordlessly disapproved, as though being an army wife was being part of a team that the outsiders were refusing to join.

After a generous lunch with several courses from soup or a starter through to pudding and cheese in the great dining room, the hotel would fall silent. Every-one retired to their room for a nap – including, I suspect, all the staff -because the place was deserted between two and four. Except for the amahs and house-boys, who were busy whitening  shoes and doing the dhobi, washing, ironing, and starching our full-skirted cotton dresses – Horrockses were the prettiest and most sought- after. Some wives had their dresses made up locally but you could tell at a glance when fashion trends took about two years to reach us.

During this silent two hours in the afternoon, the various teenagers in the hotel would coalesce, playing tennis, giggling, talking, and sharing, I remember, the whole series of books on Tarzan in the jungle. Unfortunately for me, I quickly became bored with them and Tarzan, and after a few weeks was back on my own, stemming boredom with what my stepmother dismissively called, my highbrow pleasures- whatever poetry and history I could find, all and any literature. This left me indifferent to Tarzan.

Some childless friends of my parents who lived in Penang permanently took a fancy to me, and began inviting me to their fascinating house filled with books and art. They introduced me to opera on their new-fangled long- playing records and took me to a film of Faust. I was hooked and took back with me to school a precious gift from them of a 78 record of Joan Hammond’s standard, “Oh, my beloved daddy”. I never got to play it. It warped in the heat during the way up from Tapah on the journey to school in the Cameron Highlands.

Between four and four-thirty, all over Malaya, in rest-houses and residencies, homes and hotels, the amah knocked on the door of every bedroom, and deposited a tray with a pot of tea, a plate of rich tea biscuits and a clump of the tiny, sweet, Malayan bananas. This we would consume at leisure, dressed in a cool cotton housecoat, and if we were lucky, enjoy for an hour the coolness of convection rain which fell at the same time every day, in sudden sheets. The coolness lasted only as long as the rain, and then the sun would return, and steam would rise and it would feel hotter and stickier than before.

Simultaneously with the tea-tray, the house-boy would deliver the clean laundry, our stiff, rustling, starched dresses, and white shoes cleaned with white Meltonian polish. After a shower, we dressed for dinner, and descended the stairs for the ritual of salted pea-nuts in cut glass saucers and drinks before dinner. Sometimes one of my father’s friends would ask if they could include me in a round of Pimms, which I thought the height of sophistication, but usually it was lemonade for me, or better still, a delicious fresh lime.

And then for the third time in a day, the long walk down the pillared ball-room for another stately meal at our own tables, before sitting on the veranda under the stars in the warm tropical night, sipping coffee with dreadful tinned and boiled milk from tiny, old fashioned coffee cups. The scent of frangipani hovered amidst the inevitable cigarette smoke, and sometimes a sampan with a single fisherman would drift silently past where the sea lapped against the garden wall, and as he scooped his net, or dragged his oars, a shower of gleaming phosphorescence would show us where he was on the dark water.

During the months I was waiting to be accepted into boarding school in the Cameron Highlands, my parents arranged tutoring for me in the mornings. To keep up with my Latin, I attended a Chinese convent where they had a Latin class every morning at seven o’clock, so I set out to walk through the deserted streets at six thirty. I nearly died  of embarrassment as no European was ever seen actually walking at that hour in the morning, and everyone stared at me.

It was a pointless exercise, because I couldn’t understand the accents of the Chinese nuns reading Latin. I was completely defeated, and never kept up with the place in Virgil that we were supposed to be translating.

I came up against this problem again, during my French oral exam for School Certificate the following year. We were laboriously ferried down from school to Tapah, with all the palaver of armoured transport, troop carriers, guns and all, and on to Ipoh to visit a Chinese convent where the nuns spoke French, and were accredited to examine us.

This was a ponderous joke, which we all mutually recognised but never acknowledged, because they knew that our school-girl French was not up to understanding their Chinese -French, and they couldn’t understand our clumsy Anglo- French. So they gave us the benefit of the doubt and we all passed our French oral.

To be continued

Food for threadbare gourmets

When we’d eaten all we could of the roast chicken at Easter, I boiled up the carcass. The resulting jelly was too good to put in a soup. I made a risotto with it instead. I pre-cooked an onion in the micro-wave, and then tipped ut into a frying pan, lubricated with chicken fat from the roast chicken. Three chopped mushrooms and a teaspoon of garlic (from a jar!) went in next, and adding more chicken fat, I poured in a cup of Arborio rice.

When it was translucent I added a glass of good white wine, and before it had all boiled away started adding the chicken stock which also had small chunks of chicken from the carcass in it. There was enough to cook the rice completely, and when I started to run out at the end I added some milk… then cream, then a good knob of butter. When the rice was soft, I stirred in a couple of table spoons of freshly grated parmesan, and covered the pan for five minutes.

When we tucked in, I nearly swooned with greedy delight… each grain of rice glistening with stock and butter and cream was sumptuous. It didn’t even need any more parmesan, it was so delicious. I will never cook risotto again unless I have real chicken stock… bouillon cubes just don’t cut it any more!

Food for thought

 Always say “yes” to the present moment. What could be more futile, more insane, than to create inner resistance to what already is? what could be more insane than to oppose life itself, which is now and always now? Surrender to what is. Say “yes” to life — and see how life suddenly starts working for you rather than against you.                               Eckhart Tolle, spiritual teacher

 

 

 

 

 

 

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