Many years ago – 1902 in fact – my grandmother travelled from Singapore to Penang in the first car ever to arrive in Singapore. It took an entire week and each night my grandmother and her lady travelling companion sought refuge and a night’s sleep in various friends’ houses dotted along the route. In those days Malaya, as it was called, was saturated by the Brits. They were running the country, ‘educating’ the masses and setting up businesses .
Colonial life could be very comfortable. There were plenty of servants, no modern technology – just prolific letter writing – and people had time to be very social. So it wasn’t surprising that my grandmother had plenty of friends to stay with along the way. When she was not with the Ponsonby-Smythes or the Etherington-Smiths, there was always The Eastern and Oriental, run by the famous hoteliers The Sarki brothers.
The little car – registration S1 – suffered a couple of mishaps… a ditch visit… but as Granny said “there were plenty of coolies to pull our lovely little car out ” … and a couple of non starts… which only needed manpower pushing and there were plenty of eager hands in those days. Otherwise the journey of the two single ladies was a safe one. Indeed people came out to wave and smile all along the way! So extraordinary was their journey, that the two ladies wrote a diary about their travels and it was published in booklet form. I still have the booklet!
So here we are in the 20th century and my intrepid friend and I set off in a hired car to do the same journey – but the other way – Penang to Singapore. How different was our journey!
I must explain that after Independence the Malaysian government insisted everyone spoke Malay which, delightful though it may be, is not a well known language. The result is there are now about four or five generations who do not speak English at all unless they have reached higher education.
Petrol stations were not shown on our rather out of date GPS so the only answer was to ask someone. I pride myself on my acting ability – indeed I was RADA trained – but could I mime filling up the car to anyone? No! Four or five people looked at me incredulously. Why was this lunatic blonde woman doing an impression of a teapot? Finally it struck me. I should find someone very elderly. As luck would have it a wizened antediluvian man wearing not much more than a loin cloth cycled towards us. I leapt out of the car and motioned for him to stop. “Do you know where the nearest garage is?” I asked. “3km down road” came the reply!
Once we had refuelled we set off, bound for Kuala Lumpur. The roads are excellent. I wish I could say the same for the drivers – especially the motorbike boys! Apart from the fact that they pass you on both sides at the same time, almost scraping the paint off, they also do acrobatics. A group of about 16 bikers came past us with one of them lying on his tummy driving with his feet out behind him like a flying angel.
The service stations are pristine clean and usually have a prayer room – I now know why! There are loos – both squat and conventional, fruit sellers, cake stalls, toys, sarongs, plastic ducks and inflatable everything – well this country was the largest producer of rubber.
When driving, the car behind drives absolutely on your tail. Several people told us we were mad to drive – it certainly is safer to fly – but we wanted to see the countryside and I had a very special meeting to go to. That was the meet up with my old school friend who I haven’t seen since I was 9 years old, 67 years ago!
We arrived in Kuala Lumpur in time to walk around the landscaped gardens by the Petronius towers. The lake in front of the towers has dancing fountains. As you can see from the photo above, they are a rainbow of colour and look quite magical. Although Malaysia is a Muslim country, Christmas was definitely being enjoyed by all. There were decorations in abundance. Everything overstated and looking as if it has come from a sickly sweet picture book.
My old school friend had arranged for her oldest son, now head of the creative side of a well known advertising company, to pick me up from my hotel and take me out to a little fishing village. It was such a thoughtful present to give me because as a visitor to Malaysia these days you just don’t get a chance to see the real working life of people that live out in the little villages. My father used to call it”getting your knees under the table” ie really seeing the nitty gritty of life with no pretence.
We drove for about an hour and a half to the coast during which time I saw a ravishingly beautiful newly built Hindu temple and clusters of little houses most of which are now made of brick and cement – sadly you see very few bamboo and wood houses on stilts anymore. Ecologically they fitted into the landscape so much better. At one point we went past a church, Hindu temple and a Chinese temple all side by side. Now there is progress for you! There were animals in the fields but sadly no more water buffaloes – my favourites, such sweet faces. And very few dogs.
We smelt the fishing village before we arrived. I went into the market and saw huge prawns, every sort of crab, and masses of fish – none of which I could name. There have always been very poisonous snakes in the rivers and coastal waters of Malaysia. During the war when service men were trying to escape capture, it was one of the biggest hazards. No wonder the fishermen wear outsize gum boots. I think I would want marigold gloves for pulling the nets in. Having inspected the army of fish lying on ice slabs we went to sample them. I was the only European in the restaurant which was obviously a favourite place for families for lunch and was pretty full. I had potato leaves cooked in garlic and nutty fishy tofu with soy, and fried fish… delicious. Every edible bit of every animal and plant is used in Chinese cuisine. We could learn a thing or two about waste from them.
That evening I dined with my old school friend, her husband and all their children. Her children of course, like mine, are now grown up and have their own children. What a pleasure it was for me to be welcomed into this loving family home. My sweet friend, still as pretty as ever, had laid on a feast for me and her very extended family. We had such fun and I was so interested in what all her children were doing with their lives. Every one of them had done well but also had a social conscience and was giving back. The coincidences in our lives were so extraordinary. I have two sons who are in advertising, a daughter who is an artist and I was an actress and singer. She has a son who is a singer and actor and he is about to start touring in the King And I in the UK (I have promised to be his proxy mum when I return home). She has two other sons who are in advertising and another child who studied art!
I was thinking what really binds us all together though is our love and deep interest in people and, as we both have 75th birthdays this month, the enjoyment of being alive! Both of us are interested in education for social betterment and helping people. Ranging from refugees and displaced persons (three of us from CountryWives sent van loads of clothes this Christmas to Calais), to drug addiction, battered women and the abuse of children. That just about covers it all really.
So why should these two little girls who sat together at school aged six years old, one Chinese one English, have such strong social consciences? I wonder was it the wise old French nuns that taught us to care for others? We saw people working selflessly very early on and maybe it just soaked in like some sort of osmosis and has now come out in our later life when we have more time.
I would not change my life one bit. I love my freedom and the fact that I can travel and learn how other people live; feeling that I am still needed and that there are still things I can do which are useful. My meeting with my old friend was pure joy and I am so grateful that we have managed to round the circle of friendship that all started with a chance conversation at a children’s party in Sydney!
PS We arrived in Singapore but not without incident – no, the car did not go in the ditch! My friend got arrested for taking one bottle of not very good wine into Singapore! More about that next time…