Malay for colonials

September 24, 2011

malay grammar inside cover by Brian Spittle

A nice illustration of Changi POW humour on the inside cover of Maxwell’s Manual of the Malay Language, one of the Malay primers my father brought back from Singapore. Books were widely circulated in the camp and in this case it’s clear that at least three others had taken a crack at Maxwell — there’s another name on the facing page — before passing him on.

As I surmised in the previous post, the intended readership of these language primers would have been the British colonial elite. But I’ve only just pieced together how important this must have been in Maxwell’s case. As indicated on the title page, he had been both a barrister in London and Assistant Resident in Perak, northern Malaya. Reading this I couldn’t help forming the stereotypical image of a Victorian gentleman-scholar somehow transplanted as colonial administrator. And for all I know that may have been the case. But there’s a little more to it than that. Perak was a pretty volatile place in the early 1880s when Maxwell took up his post. The previous Resident had been assassinated only a few years previously, his local unpopularity magnified by a spectacular disinterest in learning Malay. Pointedly, the resident who replaced him was fluent in Malay, as was Maxwell clearly. Presumably he represented a new breed of administrator.  If so, his book was not simply the work of an amateur linguist but part of a concerted strategy to instill the administrative class with at least a basic knowledge of Malay.

All the same, expressions such as “Bring me my hat and riding whip” and “Are you deaf? Can’t you hear what I’m saying to you?” would seem to indicate that this more enlightened approach to colonial relations still had its limits.

I’m not sure when my father decided to learn Malay though my sense is that he didn’t get down to it in earnest until the move to Kranji in May 1944.  At any rate, most of his Malay language notes date from his last dismal year in captivity.

Not that he did date them, or many of his other notes for that matter.  But everything was carefully numbered which in itself became an index of his changing condition and state of mind.  Paper, along with just about everything else, was in very short supply at Kranji and he was reduced to writing on every scrap he could find.  Such was the new state of parsimony that each side of an envelope would now be counted as its own page.

Still, the Malay language primers he was using must have given him some puzzling moments.  They had obviously been written for the pre-War colonial elite and didn’t try to disguise it.  Expressions such as: “What an idiot you are!  I tell you to bring water and you bring oil!” and “Does Madam know that dinner is ready?” would have had limited applicability in a POW camp.

Or anywhere else for that matter.  When my wife and I visited Singapore a few months ago I took a look at these books to see if they might be helpful but had much the same problem.  Foreign language phrase books are almost completely useless in real life situations it seems to me but when was I ever going to tell someone that “People say that he is a great opium-smoker” or that “The cleverness of Europeans is very great indeed”?  Not often presumably.

My father was quite proud of his working knowledge of Malay.  As a child I remember him breaking into it from time to time and being greatly amused by our puzzlement.  No doubt he quite enjoyed asking us whether his dress shirts were finished.

Changi Village then and now

January 22, 2011

Changi Village is quite a bustling little place these days.  There’s a hawker center, a hotel and a golf club.  You can also watch Premier League games in at least three or four restaurants along Changi Village Road though of course at any one time it’s going to be the same game.

It would have been a much sleepier place in 1942, just one of several kampongs or hamlets dotting the Changi coastline.  Still, though the pre-war photograph my father brought back doesn’t indicate it, changes must have been evident even then given the construction of the British military base.

What I had not expected is that quite a few of the old army buildings are still standing.  Take a stroll up Netheravon Road past the sailing club and you suddenly come across the old army hospital half hidden in the trees.  Turn left up Hendon Road and you’re in the heart of what I take to be Kitchener Barracks.  The buildings seem deserted now but look essentially as they must have done when they were part of the POW camp.   Which immediately raises the question:  how much, if any, of Roberts Barracks is left?  Inexplicably, I had neglected to find this out before the trip.  Now it becomes the burning question.

Changi Village pre-1942

Changi village today

Changi hospital


April 11, 2010

An extract from a two-page note.

Prostitution in Singapore was formerly a well-organized business, being practiced chiefly by the French and  Europeans.  The former were connected with hotels which used (prostitution) as a sideline to normal business.  The French girls had their own licensed quarters.  The government later refused to license brothels and turned the prostitutes out.  This change of policy coincided with the arrival of the military & these factors were directly responsible for setting up the present deplorable state of affairs.  Coffee houses, cafes and small dance halls run by the Chinese sprang up in Lavender & other streets all of which were little more than brothels. The health authorities tried to stop it but were more or less powerless in view of the fact that none of the prostitutes were now licensed. The local European population were up in arms. But the army did nothing except to place certain places out of bounds (a measure that was soon defeated by, say, the ‘Blue Circle Cafe’ changing its name to something else) and publishing a list of the prostitutes known to be diseased.  This was also quite ineffective as the average man who frequents such centres is usually three parts drunk, not particularly interested in names, and in any case not prepared to check a long list of names even if he should have the latter with him.

The army, however, have a pretty thorough system of self-cleansing & preventative precautions & VD is of course notifiable in the army.  Venereal disease is treated by all classes as a common sort of complaint any respectable person might contract, such as influenza in England.  There is no moral stigma involved and it is regarded as reasonable excuse for refusing an appointment or not accepting a drink.

Book B, 73-75

The Singapore Grip

March 20, 2010

Singapore pre-1942. Note Malay policeman,

Chinese rickshaw puller and Indian pedestrian.

I’ve just finished reading J.G. Farrell’s The Singapore Grip. You might say that it has taken me a while as I started it about seven years ago. But then it is 568 pages long and not the quickest of reads as might be expected from a novel that includes a bibliography with citations such as K.M. Stahl’s The Metropolitan Organization of British Trade (1951) and P.T. Bauer’s Report on a visit to the Rubber Growing Smallholdings of Malaya (1946).

Farrell’s subject is Singapore during the two or three years before the Japanese invasion. But in selecting characters from the business elite he is able to situate events within the wider context of British imperial policy and decline. In fact, the novel is the third in a trilogy that explores other dimensions of that decline, in Ireland and in India. All told it is a remarkable work.

Farrell is strong on detail and atmospherics. Both come together in his haunting depiction of the panic that gripped the city in the final days before the surrender.

Of course, the Singapore Farrell describes is long gone. I’m not even sure how much my father saw of it.  But the old city certainly comes to life in these pages.   Sometimes you can almost see it or, as in the following passage, smell it.  “There, too, when you staggered outside into the sweltering night, you would have been able to inhale that incomparable smell of incense, of warm skin, of meat cooking in coconut oil, of honey and frangipani, and hair-oil and lust and sandalwood and heaven knows what, a perfume like the breath of life itself.”

I found The Singapore Grip on my father’s bookshelves a year or two before he died. My sense is that he acquired it very late in life when he was perhaps finally coming to terms with his time at Changi and Kranji. It’s unlikely that he read it from cover to cover — the only novel I ever saw him read was Jerome Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat which had him convulsed in silent mirth for a couple of days.  As a young man he’d known that stretch of the Thames like the back of his hand and not so many years after Jerome had described it.

Perhaps he’d dipped into Farrell from time to time.  Certainly, that’s how I approached the book for several years.   So intense were some of the passages that I often had to put it down for a while.  Sometimes I put it down for several months at a time but always came back to it sooner or later.

Farrell tells us that the ‘Singapore Grip’ can mean many things.  Perhaps this is another.

Bird’s Nest Soup

September 27, 2009

This was written fairly soon after my father arrived at Changi and appears among a number of notes about local Chinese culture, including references to such miscellaneous topics as ablution ceremonies, feuding, green tea (easily recognized by its “peculiar smell” and “said to give much energy”) and Chinese cigarettes.  The cigarettes were said to be “good for the teeth” though he was doubtful about that given that “most Chinese” seemed to have poor teeth.

Later in the notes there would be a much more detailed recipe.

Bird’s Nest Soup

This is a great delicacy amongst the Chinese but is very expensive.  Buying by bulk, the birds’ nests cost as much as 12 dollars a kattie (1 1/4 lbs). The nests themselves are very small & are made entirely of the birds’ saliva. Before they are served as food the Chinese keep them in a certain way for a certain time to “season” them.  The nests are said to be a good ‘pick-me-up’ for enemics (sic).  They are great blood restorers.

(Book C, page 116)

Malay house

August 18, 2009

This drawing was done soon after arrival at Changi, probably in March 1942.  In the early weeks of captivity the prisoners were permitted to move quite freely about the Changi promontory.  Given this and the detailed measurements included, it seems likely that the drawing was done then rather than from memory.

Malay house

Book C page 80