The Han Suyin connection

ON busy Jalan Ibrahim, a vacant plot bordered by a hedge is now a car park.  A row of double-storey shops once stood there and No. 24 used to be Universal Pharmacy on the ground floor with Chow Dispensary upstairs.  My mum’s sister, Aunty Polly, was a sales assistant at this busy pharmacy.

I remember how Aunty Polly would come home reeking of medicine and perfume because the pharmacy was well-stocked with a wide range of imported medical, beauty and personal care products. 


Aunty Polly at the counter of Universal Pharmacy
Through her, I became acquainted with brands like Cutex, Kleenex and Kotex, and I especially enjoyed trying out her samples of Max Factor lipsticks and tiny tubes of perfumes. Sometimes when I was ill, I was taken to the doctor who practised above the pharmacy. I can still picture the smooth finish of the wooden staircase but I have no memory of the doctor.

Years later, when I started reading voraciously, I discovered that this was where Dr Elizabeth C.K. Comber also known as Dr Chow, once had a medical practice. 

If her name does not ring a bell, the award-winning song and movie, Love is a Many Splendored Thing, might strike a chord.  As for me, I was simply thrilled to discover this exciting link between Johor Baru and Dr Comber who wrote A Many Splendored Thing under the pseudonym Han Suyin. 

She’s a medical doctor and a novelist who wrote in French, Mandarin and mostly in English.  She was born Elizabeth Chow Kuanghu (Zhou Guang-Hu) in Henan Province, China in 1917 to Zhou Yuan Dong and Marguerite Denis, her Flemish-Belgian mother.

She obtained her first degree at Yanjing University Peking and an honours degree of science in French from Brussels University. After graduating from London University as a medical doctor, she started working in the Hong Kong Government General Hospital.

In Hong Kong, she was known as Elizabeth Tang, the widow of General Tang Pao Huang, a one-time Chinese military attache in London. Here, she had a passionate affair with Ian Morrison, an Australian correspondent of The Times of London. It is said that everyone in Hong Kong knew about the affair because they met openly and were inseparable.

The affair lasted several months but ended abruptly with Morrison’s tragic death on the frontline while reporting on the Korean War. She poured her grief into writing A Many Splendored Thing, a novel that was semi-autobiographical.  The book was her greatest success and the most scandalous.

Original Movie poster:
Love is a many splendored thing
In 1955, Twentieth Century Fox made a movie based on her novel with Jennifer Jones and William Holden in the lead roles and changed the title to Love is a Many Splendoured Thing. 

Fans of this classic movie would know that the male lead was changed from an Australian correspondent to Mark Elliot, an American journalist.  With beautiful sets and scenery, gorgeous costumes, fantastic photography and a romantic score, the movie won Oscars for best picture, best song, best score and best costume.

It had some romantic scenes set dramatically in the high grassy, windswept hills of Hong Kong but the most famous scene must be where Jones and Holden are swimming in Repulse Bay.  The sentimental theme song was one of the first songs written for a movie to reach No. 1 in the charts that year. The lyrics sung in the distinctively mellow voice of Nat King Cole, may seem soppy today but in those days, it was very romantic.




Here are some lines that might make you roll your eyes in disbelief:

“Love is nature’s way of giving, a reason to be living,

The golden crown that makes a man a king

Once on a high and windy hill, in the morning mist,

Two lovers kissed, and the world stood still.”

Writing the novel seemed to have brought peace to her and months later, she met Leon Comber, a Malayan Special Branch police officer during the 1948-1960 Emergency.  They got married and relocated to Malaya.

She was based in Johor Baru for 10 years and practised medicine in her first clinic, Chow Dispensary, near the former Cathay cinema.  The clinic later moved above Universal Pharmacy.  Many of her former patients still remember Dr Comber or Dr Chow, the Eurasian doctor who could speak Hakka, Mandarin, Cantonese, Malay, French and English.

So the next time you pass that spot opposite Johor Central Store along Jalan Ibrahim, just picture Universal Pharmacy and the GP and novelist Han Suyin, who used to see patients in her clinic there.

This article was first published in The New Straits Times, Johor Buzz on 15 December 2008

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