Our lady doctor

A 1941 photo of Alice Hwang [Right]
with her parents
Last year when we heard that Dr Elizabeth Comber, better known by her pen name, Han Suyin, had passed away in Switzerland on Nov 2, there was renewed interest in her.  

That was because she lived in Johor Baru for about 10 years after she married British Officer, Leon F. Comber in 1952 and he was attached to the Malayan Special Branch here.  Dr Comber was with the Johor Baru General Hospital before she opened Chow Dispensary [after her maiden name, Chow Kuanghu] situated near the former Cathay cinema, which later relocated to the clinic above Universal Pharmacy at Jalan Ibrahim.

In the late 1960s when Dr Comber decided to give up her private practice, she invited Dr Alice Low, her former colleague in the hospital’s Out-Patient Department, to take over the business.  For a while, the two doctors practiced alongside in adjacent clinics before Dr Comber left JB.  


A section of the Statutory Declaration that her mother
made concerning the loss of her birth certificate

I vividly remember walking up the wooden staircase to the clinic upstairs because as children, my sisters and I were Dr Low’s patients.  When Dr Low opened Low Clinic, a private practice with her husband, Dr Jimmy Low, in a shop-lot located close to OCBC Bank at Jalan Tan Hiok Nee, my sisters and I continued to be her patients.

It appears that many mothers agreed that Dr Low was the lady doctor of choice for their daughters because I recently discovered that many of my classmates and their sisters were also her patients.  My friends and I admitted that we were petrified by Dr Low’s stern appearance and loud voice but being offered a sweetie from the colourful jar of quality fruity sweets on her table, more than made up for it!

Dr Alice Low [Right] with her father, Hwang Chih Wu [Left]
and mother, Chiu Su Hsi [Center]
Since her retirement, Dr Low has mellowed much but her memory remains sharp.  When I visited her with my mum and sisters, we shared a meaningful time of reminiscing as we looked at old photos and ancient documents.  While Dr Low may not have a background as romantic as Dr Comber, she too has an interesting and eventful life story.  

Born Alice Hwang on Cebu Island in the Philippines to Hwang Chih Wu and Chiu Su Hsi in 1926, she grew up in Johannesburg, South Africa before going to study medicine in HongKong.


Her father is best remembered as one of the early headmasters of JB’s renowned Foon Yew High School, an institution that will be celebrating its 100th anniversary this year.  She recalls that her father was passionate about introducing English as a subject in the school but unfortunately, the school Board disagreed.  In his disappointment, Hwang resigned from the school and went to work in Pontian but Dr Low is ever grateful that her father encouraged her to master both reading and writing in Chinese and English.


Ancient passport belonging to Alice Hwang
While Dr Comber changed her name when she remarried, Dr Low had but one true love in Dr Jimmy Low.  

They obviously had a strong and loving relationship because she defied her father’s objection to her marriage to Dr Jimmy as he was pure Baba or Straits-born Chinese, who could not speak any Chinese.  It was a clash of strong wills but her father ultimately accepted them and they shared a warm relationship until her father’s demise at age 93.



Our link with this lady doctor and her husband goes back to the mid 1950s when my parents were attached to the Kota Tinggi District Hospital and Dr Jimmy was their resident doctor.  Mum, a former midwife, said that maternity cases that required specialist attention had to be rushed to JB General Hospital and as it was then the Emergency period, she would call the Police Station to request for the sentry on guard at the Ulu Tiram town gates to open them for the ambulance to pass.  She said it was terrifying to travel under the threat of the Communist army hiding in the bushes that border the road – especially at night – but thankfully there was never an attack on the ambulance.

In 1955, Dr Comber’s frank autobiography written into her best-known novel, A Many Splendoured Thing, was made into a movie, Love Is A Many Splendoured Thing, and it went on to win Oscars for Best Song, Best Score and Best Costume with a nomination for Best Picture.  Its award-winning success gained her popularity as well as notoriety for her daring affair with Ian Morrison, a married Australian war correspondent in HongKong. 

Peggy with Dr Alice Low [Left]
Former patients may fondly remember the legendary Dr Comber or Dr Chow as she was once known, as a fascinating Eurasian lady doctor who could speak Hakka, Mandarin, Cantonese, Malay, French and English.  Dr Low remembers Dr Comber looking tall and beautiful, and quite temperamental because she would scold patients or hug them affectionately.  

She noted with a smile, that most of the male patients preferred to consult her probably so that they could tell others that they were patients of that physician who was also the famous author, Han Suyin!



In those days, many child patients were in terror of doctors and Dr Low blamed their parents because parents often used doctors and painful injections, to threaten their children into obedience.  Even as fierce-faced doctors and sharp needles are all part of my childhood doctor memories, I can never forget the antiseptic smell in Low Clinic and the creamy taste of the pink-colour, lightly sweetened cough mixture.  And when I reminded Dr Low of the cold pressure of her metal tongue depressor (that sat in a jar of antiseptic) which she used to examine my sore throat and made me gag, she offered to give that old tongue depressor to me as a souvenir! Aargh!

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Johor Streets on 11 January 2013

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