Remembering Han Suyin

The Rotary Club of JB recently held a
tribute to Han Suyin
I first received an invitation from Dr S. Shanmugam to be his guest at their Ladies Night, a special event of the Rotary Club of Johor Baru dedicated to the memory of Han Suyin who passed away in Switzerland on 2 November 2012.  When I received a second invitation to the same event from Dr S. Sivamoorthy, I had to rush from an earlier event to get there on time.  These past presidents of the Club must have read my piece on the Han Suyin connection with Johor Baru and felt that their event would also interest me – and they were right.

As Dr Shan introduced Dr Elizabeth C K Comber or Dr Chow Kuanghu (Zhou Guang-Hu), who’s better known by her pen-name and alter-ego, Han Suyin, the audience learnt more about this Eurasian lady doctor who lived in Johor Baru for about 10 years.  He shared some interesting insights into her life in JB, how she was acquainted with some of their members and a frequent visitor at Club meetings.  She was an exciting and intriguing personality and I was not surprised that most of her ardent admirers are men!

These photos are courtesy of Dr Shan
The presentation was made more interesting with visuals that Dr Shan compiled from his personal collection and pictures he borrowed from others.  As he continued his commentary on the next slide, I recognised that Black & White photo of my aunt who worked with Universal Pharmacy where Dr Comber had her clinic upstairs and did not hesitate to correct him. 

It was a rare photo of the pharmacy at No. 24 Jalan Ibrahim and when he borrowed it from another source, Dr Shan was unaware that it belonged to me.  I appreciate the opportunity to clarify this miscommunication as the audience must know that the young lady in the photo is my Aunt Polly and not Dr Comber!

The Fiat Marvellete that Han Suyin used to drive around
in JB when she was practising medicine in a clinic above
a pharmacy at No. 24 Jalan Ibrahim
Other than this little hiccup, I enjoyed the presentation that traced the life of this doctor with a passion for writing mostly autobiographical fiction and non-fiction and who published many volumes that recount most of her life and family and China, her beloved country of her birth.  I don’t know about Dr Shan and other fans of Han Suyin, but I am fascinated that she used to live in Johor Baru in the late 1950s and had a medical practice here.  She lived in a bungalow along Jalan Inderaputera, drove a Fiat Marvellete, registration number JE 4306, and often hosted guests for dinner and drinks at the Johore Hotel just five minutes from her house, which she thought was an “excellent” place. 

A scene from "Love is a Many Splendoured Thing"
with William Holden [Left] and Jennifer Jones in lead roles
She became famous almost overnight with the film “Love is a Many Spendoured Thing” based on her novel, “A Many-Splendoured Thing” about her affair with another woman’s husband in HongKong and in her third book “…And The Rain My Drink,” she was not only bold but very brave to write against the British military operations in Malaya during the 1952 to 1956 Emergency. 

Excerpts from this book, first published in 1956, were read aloud in the presentation and I was captivated by how she described the Johor Baru of yesteryears.  Her writing style is rather convoluted by modern standards but her words are so picturesque that they compel readers to visualise her characters and scenarios!

The opening line of the first chapter reads: “Peacocks as comets catapult across the tarmac road in a tail-flurry of blue-green and gilded palm-frond feathers, to drop staggering, clutching, swinging their meek sharp heads upon the wire fences which ring the Sultan’s Zoo.”  This vivid description gave me a sharp visual of the state zoo along Jalan Gertak Merah, now renamed the Johor Zoo.  While the ancient fences may have been rebuilt, there are still some relics left standing on the side that faces Jalan Skudai.

Our family photo taken at the lily pond in Istana Gardens;
Peggy is seated next to mum [2nd from Left] and the
"arrow-spending cherub" statue is seen above my head!
The reading of brief excerpts whet my appetite for more and made me scan my copy of “…And The Rain My Drink,” to discover more of her charming descriptions of Johor Baru.  It was thrilling to read, “In the Sultan’s gardens the verdigris statue of an arrow-spending cherub springs from the centre of a water-lily pond where stagnate black-scaled timorous fish.”  In my childhood, the Sultan’s gardens – fondly called Istana Gardens – was one of our family’s favourite leisure parks where we posed for many family photos and while it is now closed to the public, I just hope this water-lily pond with the “arrow-spending cherub” standing in its centre, will be preserved when the park reopens.

Another picturesque narrative read: “In the hollow by the bridge which spans a rank, weed-overgrown canal, pullulant with miniature silver minnows flashing coral dots along their flanks, lies the sonorous prison, whose glistening wall tops are embedded with glass chips.”  It is exciting that Han aptly described our infamous Sungai Segget as the “rank, weed-overgrown canal” and exercised her literary license to link it with the “sonorous prison” located along Jalan Yahya Awal, a fair distance away.  This struck a familiar chord because I recently researched material to write on “The Great Wongs of JB” (NST Life & Times, 7 Feb 2013), and learnt that Wong Ah Fook was awarded the contact to build JB Prison in 1882 according to the design by Sultan Ibrahim ibni Sultan Abu Bakar.

Some of Han Suyin's books that are now collectors' items
There is a sense of wonder and nostalgia as I read how Han wrote about people and places in Malaya and while they are entwined with the characters in her novels, I can still identify with the charm and beauty of this bygone era.  I cannot speed-read her books because her narrative simply compels me to pause and visualise what she described.  I hope you are intrigued enough to read her books and reminisce on the way of life, way back when “children stand sucking lollypops; Malay Government clerks snore on marble benches, intent Chinese hawkers shake noodles, sliver meat and chicken, spread pepper and ginger and chilli on hot rice cupped on sliced banana leaves; Indian snake charmers sadly flute their round baskets where invisible snakes sleep.”

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Johor Streets on 13 March 2013

2 comments:

  1. would you know the house number she lived in at Jalan Indera Putra?

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  2. Hey Chua & Yin, Thanks for your query and sharing an interest in this special lady. Regret I don't know the house number she lived in at Jalan Inderaputera. I understand many old buildings in that area have been demolished to build new blocks of apartments.

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