Saturday, July 21, 2012

Snake Charmers, Fall Colours and Burning Battleships

A snake handler from Kuala Lumpur in the 30's. It's off a YouTube Video.

When I was 15, I was in our garden in the burbs of Montreal with my father, and I found a rather rare garden snake and picked it up and waved it in front of my father's face.

He recoiled a few steps saying, "Take it away."

I laughed at him I seem to recall. My 6 foot three dad being afraid of little snakes. How weird. But it was only later that I put it together.

He had been born in Kuala Lumpur, the son of Rubber Planters in Selangor State, and from the minute he could walk he had been warned of the dangers of snakes. He was told by his Mother or maybe his Nurse to always  carry a stick and to brush the path in front of him at all times.

Anyway, like most Children of the Raj in his day, he was sent away at 5 to school in England.  I write about it in Looking for Mrs. Peel. It's about my grandmother's life in Colonial Malaya and her experiences during the Second War War, as Women's Camp Leader at Changi Internment Camp.

When I started researching her life, back in 2003, there wasn't a whole lot of stuff on YouTube. Today there is.

There are a couple of home-made travel videos that show Merdaka Park, where the Royal Selanger Club still is situated. There are even a couple of videos from Old KL, one from 1939 and one from 1961.

And there's a great deal about the Malayan Emergency, the Cold War Story that for the most part has been neglected. So no wonder when my Grandmother visited Canada for the first and only time in 1967, I wasn't impressed. Malaya was just some crazy far away country that didn't even have a pavilion at Expo67.

The Royal Selangor Club today. Somewhere in some video archive there's a copy of a 1951 March of Time about the Malayan Emergency where my grandmother, also Dorothy Nixon, is seen scoring cricket in front of the Club (I assume) for Selangor. I read about it on the web, but I can't locate the specific episode. And somewhere in the Selangor Club, today, are cricket books with my grandmother's neat and meticulous score-keeping. (My aunt saw them.)

KL in the 60's, when my grandmother was living there and working as the Librarian at the Kuala Lumpur Book Club. Montreal must have seemed so 'ordinary' to her. The city had been fixed up for Expo, but it was still rather dull. I think anyway. (Even with the famous Underground City under Place Ville Marie, covered in both the National Geographic Magazine and on Walter Cronkite's show The 20th Century.)

My grandmother certainly wasn't impressed with Montreal.. read my play. But she did think the fall colours in the Laurentians were very beautiful.

Above: A shot of hills near KL. Recent. When I researched the play I had to rely on descriptions from books about Malaya. I mention "Misty Blue Mountain Tops" in my play.. so I got it right!

 Smoke from the hit of the Repulse or Prince of Wales ships in Singapore Harbour. I guess it is Japanese footage. Dec 10, 1939, a date that will live in infamy for some, even over December 7.  (I recently met a woman who worked as a volunteer in Singapore, taking care of the wounded survivors of the boats. She told me all the cots were coated in a sticky goo, as they had been intended for the deep jungle.)

It wasn't until Boxing Day that Kuala Lumpur gets bombed, or more precisely the Pedang, where the Selangor Club is. At the book club building, near the Royal Selangor Club, my grandmother hides under a desk. Later she helps drag the 4 dead out of the rubble. She wrote this in her memoirs and I included it in Looking for Mrs. Peel.

Thailand had a beautiful pavillion at Expo67, Malaysia did not. But I sleuthed out the reason. Malaysia was actually the 24th country to sign up for Expo, with the Prime Minster Tenku Abdul Rahman coming to the Expo site in 1964 and standing on the plot of earth where the Malaysian Pavilion was to be built, which would have been beside China's I think, right at the entrance of Expo, if my memory serves.

 But then there were 'race' riots and Singapore separated from the country. I'm guessing that upset all the plans for a pavilion.

Although perhaps this is the reason why: their pavilion at the New York Fair in 64 had cost overruns I see.