If you are a regular A&G reader, you will know that I am in Malaysia retracing the old haunts of my childhood. It was a happy and very charmed life in the fifties in this wonderful, warm, exotic, smiley place. Everything changed when I got sent back to a satanic boarding school in the UK that I hated! Ever since I returned here (63 years later), I have been trying to locate the whereabouts of my old home in Ipoh.
Why should that be so hard I can hear you asking. Because the Malaysian Government has changed ALL the street names into the Malay language! Now that would be fine if it was a straight translation, but unfortunately they have decided to call many of the streets after worthy Malay gentlemen, all of whom have four or five names – all of which are unpronounceable. A dilemma.
Good old Google provided me with maps but they only had the new names. Not surprisingly Ipoh has increased in size enormously since the fifties! So the map was no use, as the buildings also now have new names, even my school, The Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus, is now called something equally unpronounceable .
I tried to remember what buildings we used to pass on my chauffeur-driven journey to school. I needed to find a straight road with majestic colonial houses, each with its long drive sweeping up to a porch. They were mostly painted white and had brown or green chicks (blinds made of bamboo); the gardens were huge and often had a tennis court. These lovely mansions were built to catch every whisper of a breeze, so they mostly had wide verandas. My parents used to sit out every evening drinking their whiskey. No one drank wine, it was thought to clog the heart. The kitchens were in the back regions of the property, so no cooking smells. The servants’ quarters were ever further away, but usually connected by a covered way to the house.
In those days, our male staff wore sarongs and white jackets. The house girls wore traditional Malay dress, but never with a headscarf, so you could see their luscious wavy dark hair. It seems such a shame that these days you never see the Malay girls’ hair.
At a dinner party here in Penang, I had met a researcher who had grown up in Singapore and gone to the same English boarding school as my brother….what a coincidence! He was my manna from heaven, putting me in touch with Hong, an elderly Chinese architect from Ipoh. So with the help of emails and my childish description of what was near – the Turf Club, Ipoh Swimming Club and a dog leg road with four or five houses – dear Hong was able to direct me to the right part of town!
Imagine my excitement as a girlfriend and I drove the two hour journey from Penang to Ipoh. In the fifties it used to take four hours and you had to go in an army convoy. There was no bridge from Penang to the mainland, so it was the smelly old ferry. Now, there is the most beautiful bridge I have ever seen. Called the S bridge because of its shape, it is nearly ten miles long and snakes its way from the bottom of the island to the mainland, taking a half hour off the journey. It’s a truly awesome feat of engineering.
We did the journey on the motorway and stopped at the service station, LOVELY CLEAN loos, squat of course, but spotless! My knees crack as I squat these days, which is not a good sign, I must squat more often – maybe I will have one put in my home in Henley? On second thoughts perhaps not!
Anyway we made it to Ipoh which was heaving with itinerant workers and Chinese families who had come for Chen Chen, a weekend when families tidy up the graves of their loved ones. I was armed with maps – although not sure why I bothered because I was soon to discover there are no name signs on the roads.We stopped and asked the way…. lots of smiles, but most people weren’t locals. “Wot to do” as they say here.
My girl guiding crept in. Find a landmark you know and work from it. The river, obviously. My very good friend who drove me, was so patient she didn’t mind stopping when I asked her – or turning round – or doing complete U’s in the middle of the road. She totally threw herself into the adventure. Finally after a lot of false starts we found the big road with the mansions, we turned down the road to the Turf Club.We drove slowly down a tree filled avenue. I was bursting with excitement. It must be near. We drove slowly but nothing looked right.
“Look ” I said “there is a house there.” Like a grand old lady the house still had elegance but having been abandoned for many years definitely needed some love and attention. We got out of the car and walked through the long grass (I did not dare tell her it was perfect cobra conditions). I talked loudly (they don’t like noise) as we approached the house and then sighed. It wasn’t my house.
“Upwards and onwards” said my friend, the bit really between her teeth. We climbed back into her lovely air conditioned BMW and drove up the next road. THAT WAS IT. It was my road! And there was my old home! I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry – we had done it. We leapt out of the car, jumped up and down and hugged each other, much to the amazement of the sentry, who was standing behind the sturdy gates of the house. Residence of the Chief of Police said the sign outside the house. It looked very foreboding.
The sentry came towards us, his hand on his gun. Why he should think he might need it, I can’t imagine – two blondes jumping up and down outside the Residence of Police in the hottest part of the day…what could be more normal!
I tried to explain “I lived here in 1952!” He looked at me as if I had arrived from Mars. He didn’t understand a word I was saying. How could I make him understand I wanted to look at the house, without him arresting me and my blonde comrade in arms. The thought of languishing in a Malay prison was not inviting and, I might add, this is a country that still has capital punishment. After a great deal of play acting (thank God I was once an actress) I managed to convince him I was not a septuagenarian terrorist and that all I wanted was to take a picture of my old home. Suddenly we were the best of friends – he even took out his mobile phone and insisted on having photos with us. I guess we made his day – it’s pretty boring being a sentry.
I was so excited to have found the house. It was no longer standing on huge stone pillars with a void underneath… a home for those sleepy cobras. The chicks had gone and my mother’s beautiful flowerbeds had been turned into pavements with rather strangely painted black and white kerb stones. But the house was the same. I could see the window of my bedroom and the steps we used to sit on waiting for the chauffeur to arrive. The badminton court had gone but the garden was still as big and I remembered the wonderful parties my parents used to give – it brought back the smell the frangipani, the sound of laughter and the chink of drinks. Happy memories.
We said our goodbyes to our new best friend, the sentry and made our way to the swimming pool. It was no longer countryside, lorries have replaced the bullock carts, there were no tattooed British squaddies bantering away in army lorries, no motorbikes laden with chickens or pigs, and there was masses of traffic. To my huge relief not much had changed. The front of the pool was still the original building. We marched in and found the lady club secretary. She was Malay, charming and very welcoming. “You must come in and see the bar” she said “we have some pictures from your era , maybe you will see yourself.”
I scoured the old photos and then looked down at the date – 1920! How old did she think I was for Gods sake! We walked round the whole club. I saw faded names of past captains, people who had been friends of my parents. It seemed the same and suddenly I was six years old and competing in a swimming gala. It was lovely to lay my happy childhood to rest. I was so pleased to see a new generation of people enjoying the club. They were Chinese, Indian and Malay – living and swimming happily together. My parents would have been so pleased to have seen it…they worked so hard to help Malaysia be the country it is now.
I owe my good friend who drove a huge thank you. She said it was one of her best days and has offered to do the same thing again when I trace my grandmother’s journey from Singapore to Penang. My Granny had the first car in Singapore in 1902 – its number plate was S1. That will be next time I visit Malaysia… it should be fun!