On January 27th the author Andrew Barber was invited to Penang’s Eastern & Oriental Hotel to discuss his novel ‘Fortress Penang’. Andrew is a former British diplomat, living in Malaysia whose previous books include: ‘Penang at War’, ‘Kuala Lumpur at War 1939-1945’, ‘Malaysian Moments-A Pictorial Retrospective’, ‘Colonial Penang 1786-1957’ and ‘Doris Van Der Stratten’. Andrew turned to fiction during the lockdown and the E&O Hotel was the ideal venue for his book launch about a British spy in wartime Penang.
The E&O is a colonial style hotel established in 1885 by the Armenian Sarkies brothers who opened Singapore’s Raffles Hotel in 1887 and the Strand Hotel Rangoon, Burma in 1901. The hotel went into decline after World War 2 and was closed for renovation from 1996 to 2001. The front wing of the hotel, now its Heritage Wing, was refurbished in 2019 with the historical features restored.
On arrival guests are greeted by doormen in khaki uniforms and pith helmets as they enter through revolving wooden doors. Inside the echo dome ceiling was designed for its acoustics when orchestras used to play in the lobby. Pigeon hole message boxes set in dark wood panelling face the front desk and after checking in guests climb the sweeping staircase or take the Waygood-Otis lift, the first in Malaysia and manually operated until the 1990s. Views from the rooms look out across the Andaman Sea and Straits of Malacca to Butterworth and the mainland. The E&O also boasts the world’s longest hotel seafront with a curving seawall and three cannons originally from Fort Cornwallis facing out to sea. On the lawn between the Heritage Wing and the Victory Annex is the oldest and largest Java tree on the island planted before the hotel was built and a popular spot for wedding photos.
Dining options include Sarkies, the Palm Court, Java Tree, Planters Lounge and Farquhar’s Bar. The latter is named after Sir Robert Townsend Farquhar (1776-1830) of the East India Company who was Lieutenant-Governor of Prince of Wales Island (Penang Island) from 1804-1805. Described as ‘a handsome vintage cocktail bar’ it serves the most expensive Carlsberg green label lager in Asia apart from the Mandarin Oriental’s Captain’s Bar in Hong Kong. It is also one of the few bars still serving stengahs –made from a half measure of whisky and soda water over ice – the drink of choice for British colonials. At the entrance is a collection of framed black and white photographs of famous guests including Tunku Abdul Rahman the first prime minister of Malaysia, Lee Kuan Yew former prime minister of Singapore and artists and film stars such as Sir Noel Coward, Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin, Michelle Yeoh, Somerset Maugham and Rudyard Kipling.
The Hollywood star William Holden was a guest and frequent visitor to Malaysia after he came to film his 1964 movie ‘The 7th Dawn’. In 1975 a Star reporter took him to the Tunku’s beachfront home in Batu Ferringhi to discuss wildlife conservation and recorded the meeting.
Between the Palm Court and the lobby is a seating area with a black and white photographic display selected from the collection of journalist and photographer Harrison Forman (1904-1978). Forman was an American photographer and journalist whose collection of over 98,000 images and diaries covering Tibet, the Sino-Japanese war, Chinese Civil war, German blitzkrieg on Poland and Malaya were donated to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Over 2000 images were taken in the early 1950s during the Malayan Emergency to illustrate his diary: ‘Jungle Forts’. These included Gurkha and Fijian troops, daily life on isolated rubber plantations and jungle forts built amongst the aboriginal people of the interior.
Despite international borders remaining closed the hotel’s business has clearly recovered and it is a popular choice for crazy rich Asians, local staycationers and expat retirees particularly ladies who enjoy dressing for dinner and posting photos of their food.
My only knowledge of Penang during World War 2 was that despite being declared a fortress it fell to the Japanese uncontested after the island’s European population had been secretly evacuated. Contemporary historians contend that the moral collapse of British rule in Asia occurred not at Singapore but at Penang. I have to admire authors who spend years or even a lifetime researching specific periods or events but myself I’m too easily distracted by the next tale. Too many books too little time.
Guarding the rubber estate of Geo Mcullough during the Malayan Emergency
(Source: Harrison Forman collection, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries)
“What the Marines taught me was that you can do anything. If it’s there, you can do it. You can do everything you want to. Once you get rid of this idea that you need money, you can do anything.”
Harold Stephens 1926-2021
In January 2021 Harold ‘Steve’ Stephens a Bangkok based travel writer died at the age of 94. He was described as ‘a modern day Marco Polo’, ‘the man you wished you’d met’ and ‘a friend of the old Asia with a unique approach to life’. Steve was born on a farm in Pennsylvania, fought on Okinawa with the United States Marine Corps, met Ernest Hemingway, studied with the future Jackie Kennedy, doubled for Marlon Brando in Mutiny on the Bounty, built his own boat and wrote countless stories for the Washington Post, Bangkok Post and Thai Airways. In a February 1989 edition of the Bangkok Post he asked his readers: ‘What became of all those great bars in Asia?’. Despite the passage of over 30 years and a global pandemic he would have been pleased to know that a few of his favourite watering holes are still open for business.
When the war ended Steve was with his unit on Guam but instead of heading Stateside they were ordered to Northern China to take the surrender of Japanese forces. Unlike most of his squad he was thrilled to be one of the last of the China Marines and experience the old China before Mao’s communists took control in 1949. It was a time of foreign armies, gunboats on the Yangtse, civil war, rickshaws, cabarets, taxi dancers, blood alley bars, white Russians, bound feet and opium dens. Not until 1987 was there to be another foreign run bar in China when the Shekou Sports & Social Club aka the Snake Pit opened.
Shekou, literally snake’s mouth, is part of the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone and in the 1980s joint oil ventures with Western companies including Shell, Chevron and Texaco commenced. Off duty engineers and oil men started a Hash House Harriers group in 1984 but tired of drinking at local noodle stalls they opened their own bar innocuously designated a sports club. One of the founding members, “Steel” George was renowned for his antics – he would remove his glass eye, put it on the bar and on his way to the bathroom say “watch my beer while I’m away”. It was around this time when the Hong Kong handover was under discussion that Deng Xiaoping made his famous comment to reassure Margaret Thatcher about the colony’s future: “The horses will still run, stocks will still sizzle, dancers will still dance.”
Ships of the US 7th fleet had been calling at Hong Kong since the war’s end and when Steve went ashore in 1948 it was a sailor’s hangout with a handful of waterfront bars. US forces stationed in Vietnam made port visits from 1963 until 1971 reaching a peak of 200,000 personnel a year and the Hong Kong Tourism Authority estimated a GI spent an average of US$ 200 per visit. The appearance of a single aircraft carrier in the harbour was enough to swamp the bars in Tsimshatsui and Wanchai. Reduced visits continued after the 1997 handover until 2019 when the Chinese foreign ministry suspended visits by US ships and aircraft.
Doug Holtz, a 2nd Lieutenant in the 101st Airborne later General Manager of the American Club described a typical run ashore:
‘My first stops were to check in at the old President Hotel and find a tailor shop. Twelve shirts, three sports coats, a mohair topcoat and eight or ten pairs of slacks were the basic load for most visiting officers. If you were really smart, you also picked up a solid gold Rolex watch for US$50. Then it was off to Wanchai and a visit to the wonderful world of Suzie Wong.’
The Liberty Bar, Mermaid Bar, Neptune Nightclub, Crazy Horse Saloon, Pussy Cat Club, Boston Restaurant, American Peking, America Custom Tailor and Ricky & Pinky’s Tattoo Parlour were just some of the businesses that sprang up to cash in. Most were girlie bars with over priced ladies drinks along with a handful of old-fashioned pubs like the Old China Hand, Bell Inn and the Horse & Groom.
Old China Hand bars are still open in Kennedy Town and on the island of Peng Chau but the original tavern was at 104 Lockhart Road on the premises of the old Lily Bar. Lily’s restored portrait found in the debris of the demolished interior was hung on the side wall of the Old China Hand. Also found were two traditional Chinese door gods that were set into the brickwork directly outside the entrance to the bar. Ronald Atkin of the Observer in his book ‘Great Bars of the World’, mentioned the Old China Hand as one of only four Hong Kong pubs eligible for inclusion.
Across the harbour Hong Kong’s longest running pub – Ned Kelly’s Last Stand on Ashley Road will soon celebrate its 50th anniversary. In 1972, before opening of the Tsing Yi cargo area, godowns lined the waterfront and Kowloon was a grittier area with sailors from the world’s navies roaming the streets. The neighbourhood is now unrecognisable but once through Ned’s swing doors little has changed with the same scuffed wooden benches, draught beer, meat pies and Dixieland jazz now belted out by Colin Aitchison and the China Coast Jazzmen.
In a 2018 survey Time Out magazine ranked Singapore second to last on a list of 32 of the “world’s most exciting cities” rated worst for culture and worst for drinking apart from Dubai. It’s an old argument amongst expats in the Far East and those who know the country best either love it or hate it. Steve loved Singapore choosing it as the ideal harbour to build his schooner the ‘Third Sea’. Today The Raffles Hotel is the only one of his old haunts still standing with Bugis Street, Bill Bailey’s Coconut Grove, Boots & Saddle and The Pub long since demolished.
In 1987 the Raffles Hotel was declared a national monument but by then it had fallen out of favour with tourists who preferred the more modern hotels along Orchard Road.
The author William Somerset Maugham (1874-1965) was a famous guest and inspired the character Kenneth Toomey in Anthony Burgess’s novel ‘Earthly Powers’. In 1924 the novelist Toomey disembarks in Singapore seeking inspiration for a travel book:
‘Singapore duly smelt of boiling dishrags and catpiss. I stayed at the Raffles Hotel which Willie Maugham, under their later notepaper heading, was to laud as breathing all the mystery of the Fabled East. The mystery lay perhaps in the provenance of the meat for the curries. The lounge was as big and bare as a football stadium, ringing with the frustrated thirsty crying ‘Boy!’ The boys or waiters were ancient soured Chinese wandering unheeding forlornly under the ceiling kipas or fans’.
This older, shabbier Raffles Hotel can only be seen now in movies like ‘Pretty Polly’ (1967) starring Hayley Mills, ‘Saint Jack’ (1979) with Ben Gazzara or the TV drama ‘Tenko’ (1981).
In 1989 the Raffles closed for two years of renovation with its bar re-located from the lobby to an adjoining shopping arcade. Today it is no longer the ‘Rendezvous of Planters’ more an instagram backdrop where tourists pose for pictures sipping pre-mixed Singapore Slings. Along the stairs to the Long Bar is a series of ‘Did you know…’ murals explaining the cocktail’s history, the bar’s plantation style and encouraging visitors to sweep their peanut shells onto the tiled floor. The last one mysteriously declares: ‘Dutch archaeologist Prof Pieter Van Stein Callenfels could knock back 10 Singapore Slings in one sitting!’.
Callenfels was the antithesis of Indiana Jones and famous real life archaeologists of the 1930s like Roy Chapman Andrews. Six feet four inches tall, 25 stone in weight with a waist long beard he was as passionate about eating and drinking as anthropology and archaeology. After graduation in Holland Callenfels took up a post in the Dutch East Indies civil service but soon parted company with his employer after disappearing for four days on a drinking bout. He was later re-employed as an archaeologist and conducted extensive research of the caves in Perak. At the bar of the Taiping Club a reinforced, enlarged stool was made specially for him whilst at the Ipoh Club he was served beer in a chamber pot usually dressed in curry stained pyjamas. He died in Colombo just before WW2 and was fondly remembered by Victor Purcell in his autobiography ‘The Memoirs of a Malayan Official’.
By contrast the long bar of the Royal Selangor Club in Kuala Lumpur is almost unchanged since the day it opened. The tudor style club house also known as ‘The Spotted Dog’ opened in 1884, three years before the Raffles and survived floods, fire and Japanese occupation before being awarded royal status in 1984. It is the home of the original Hash House Harriers founded in 1938 and on 30th August 1957 independence was declared on the padang fronting the club. Sporting events are no longer held on the padang but members can watch games on satellite TV in the bar a section of which is still off limits to women today.
The Selangor Club is private but a short walk along Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman was the Coliseum Café & Bar open to the public but sadly closed in 2021 just before its centenary. Opened in 1921 and famous for its Hainanese cuisine including chicken chop and sizzling steaks the café was a regular haunt of rubber planters, tin miners and government servants. The bar was entered through swing doors and also served as reception for a handful of rooms whilst the café was in a separate adjoining room. During the Malayan Emergency the bar had a wild west saloon atmosphere with handguns hung on the hat racks or worn in holsters at the bar. Although the Coliseum HQ is no more its three other outlets remain operational with some of the classic furniture and fixtures salvaged for display.
(Source: The Coliseum Cafe)
Penang, one of the oldest towns in Asia, was a regular port of call for Steve when sailing the Malacca Strait and Andaman Sea. The Hong Kong Bar on Chulia Street is still open but struggles to compete with trendier bars and since her brother Peter passed away Jenny Tan cuts a lonely figure serving the occasional drinker. This family run bar was opened in 1953 and became popular with British and Australian servicemen and sailors. Originally with dark wood panelling it was decorated with military shields, plaques, signed photos and bush hats donated by personnel from the RAAF base at Butterworth. A fire gutted the bar in 2004 and much of the collection was destroyed including dozens of autographed photo albums. In the old days the bar was so busy that drinkers spilled out into the street and sat in trishaws parked outside.
Steve in the Hong Kong Bar.
THE PHILIPPINE ISLANDS
On November 24th 1992 US marines lowered the Stars and Stripes at Cubi Point Naval Air Station at Subic Bay in the Philippines ending 94 years of American military presence in the country. Steve was a regular visitor chasing stories, climbing volcanos, diving on sunken wrecks and sailing this archipelago of 7107 islands. Most of the bars run by ex-GI’s like Eddie Woolbright’s Log Cabin and Bar in Cebu are long gone while the Tap Room at the Manila Hotel is temporarily closed. A handful of old school bars run by modern day sunshiners linger on near the old military bases where Steve would have enjoyed a cold San Miguel.
Only in the PI – tissue paper twisted round the opened bottle.
Steve and his family settled in an apartment in the Sathorn area of Bangkok from where he planned his adventures and contributed to the Bangkok Post and Thai Airways publications. He also had a long association with the Oriental Hotel and its Bamboo Bar culminating with his book ‘At the Oriental Hotel’. The hotel opened in the mid-nineteenth century as a hostel for seafarers and one its earliest guests was the author Joseph Conrad. Since the end of World War 2 it has regularly been voted the best hotel in the world and the Bamboo Bar remains one of the most popular venues in the city for live jazz.
In Steve’s day it was the haunt of expatriates, journalists, tourists and GIs seeking a respite from Vietnam. Forgotten entertainers included the Australian songstress Shirley Simmons, the talented pianist Sam Scott and the American nightclub performer and actor Maurice Rocco. Rocco had a residency at the bar and lived in Bangkok for the last 15 years of his life. On March 24th 1976 his maid entered the apartment and found Rocco naked on his blood-stained bed with his throat slashed. The murder weapon was a Malay dagger kept as a souvenir. The case was unsolved but witnesses reported seeing him return in the afternoon with two long haired Thai youths. The Raffles, the Oriental and the Manila hotels have today been restored and renovated beyond recognition, their signature bars live on but rely on tourists and social media influencers more than regular drinkers.
Despite lockdowns and curfews the Bamboo Bar is in no danger of closing but the future of the Madrid Bar on Patpong Road is less secure. Opened in 1969 it is one of the oldest bars in Bangkok famous for homemade pizza and as a hangout during the Vietnam War for CIA spooks and Air America pilots including Tony Poe reputedly the model for Colonel Kurtz in the movie Apocalypse Now. Hopefully it will re-open and not fade away like Lucy’s Tiger Den, Mizu’s steakhouse, the Bobby’s Arms and Washington Square.
The Madrid Bar
The oldest pub in London – The Seven Stars (1602) survived the Great Fire whilst New York’s Fraunces Tavern (1762) former headquarters of George Washington is the Big Apple’s oldest. Along with countless other bars, taverns and saloons across Europe and America they are historically significant buildings, part museum part licensed premises. By contrast Steve’s great bars of Asia were birds of passage opened to cash in from homesick expatriates, old china hands and the huge military build up in South East Asia after World War 2. Whether these bars were ever great is debatable but for the nostalgic drinker they retain a faded charm referenced both in literature and trashy novels. They will be remembered longer than the constantly changing gin palaces, skybars, speakeasies and hip spaces announced on the annual World’s 50 Best Bars List.
Coliseum Bar at 2.44
The Madrid Bar – gone and probably soon forgotten.
Not a bar but worth a mention. At one time the oldest non-Thai restaurant in Bangkok, opened by a stay behind Japanese soldier and first home of Thailand’s Foreign Correspondent’s Club.
Mizu’s Kitchen famous for its grubby tablecloths, sizzling Sarika steak and ‘exotic smells’ predominantly rat urine.
Before ‘Irish’ bars took over. The Bobby’s Arms, Bangkok entered via a carpark.
Before my time – the famous Lucy’s Tiger Den 1971 – 1985 run by A.J. ‘Tiger’ Rydberg, a retired ironworker from California.
The Texas Lone Staar Saloon, Washington Square, Bangkok. Free roast dinner for customers on sundays.
Jakarta’s Tanamur bar and first disco in S.E. Asia.
In 1960 Paramount Pictures released the musical comedy ‘G.I. Blues’ starring Elvis Presley and Juliet Prowse. Elvis played a tank crew soldier in West Germany who forms a band and pursues a nightclub dancer played by Juliet Prowse. Some scenes were shot in Germany but most of the picture was filmed at Paramount studios in Hollywood.
In real life Elvis served in the U.S. Army from March 1958 to March 1960 with the 3rd Armoured Division in Friedberg, West Germany. Elvis was worried about the career break but returned home a bigger star thanks to Colonel Parker and his RCA producer continuing to issue records when he was overseas. Elvis’ military service also increased his fanbase amongst an older audience who in the 1950’s had seen him as a menace to society.
THE TWO KINGS
The King of Thailand Bhumibol Adulyadej was 32 years old when he set off on a seven-month world tour to 15 countries with his wife Queen Sirikit. First stop was Honolulu including a visit to the Pearl Harbor war memorial followed by a week in California. The itinerary included a family trip to Disneyland, meeting with Walt Disney, a tour of Paramount studios and photos with Elvis on the set of G.I. Blues. Elvis was presented with a silver combination cigarette lighter and case inscribed; ‘King Bhumibol Adulyadej – To the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll’. Although the Thai King enjoyed Elvis’ style of popular music he was in fact a King of Jazz.
Also known as Rama IX, he was born in the United States when his father was at Harvard and after school in Bangkok continued his studies in Switzerland. One of the King’s great passions was music and he became an accomplished saxophone, clarinet, trumpet, guitar and piano player. He wrote his own jazz compositions starting with ‘Candlelight Blues’, formed a jazz band on return to Thailand and peformed with Benny Goodman. At the time of his death in 2016 he was the second longest reigning monarch of all time and one of the most revered in his country’s history.
On arrival at Bangkok airport first time visitors are sure to notice the amount of royal portraits on display and signs proclaiming ‘Long Live the King’ in Thai and English. Towns and cities throughout Thailand also display the national flag alongside photos and paintings of the King and Queen. Royal images bring good fortune and those of King Mongkut (Rama IV) and King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) who were associated with the modernization of Thailand are also on display. Formal images are placed side by side but less formal images such as King Bhumibol Adulyadej playing with his pet dog are popular. A poorly colourised picture of the two Kings at Paramount studios is hung on the wall in many bars, restaurants, coffee shops and guesthouses across the country as well as Thai communities worlwide. Seen for the first time it is easy to spot when travelling around Thailand.
Thanks to royal patronage Thailand has a lively jazz scene including the Bangkok and Hua Hin Jazz Festivals founded in 2003. In Bangkok, The Saxophone, a jazz and blues pub was opened in 1987 named after the King’s favourite instrument. Elvis impersonators have been making a living since the King began his career and the more professional prefer to be called Elvis tribute artists. The famous story that Elvis himself entered a lookalike contest in Memphis singing ‘Unchained Melody’ and came third is probably a myth although some said the judge recognised him and played along. In Thailand Elvis impersonators attract audiences not only to enjoy the music but also to commemorate a famous meeting of two kings.
THE QUEEN OF THE NAGAS
Serpent like statues slithering along the contours of the entrance steps stand guard outside Buddhist temples across South East Asia. These mythical half human, half cobra like creatures are the Naga who inhabit the Mekong river, protect the gods and deter bad spirits. Every year the Naga fireball festival takes place at the end of Buddhist Lent in late October or early November on the Nong Khai riverfront. The highlight of this festival is when glowing, red fireballs shoot skywards from the river which local people believe is the breath of a giant serpent living in the depths. Scientists suggest it is a natural phenomenon caused by the release of methane rich swamp gas or tracer rounds fired by Laotian soldiers across the river. Although fierce in appearance the Naga is revered as a protector and only malevolent to humans if crossed. The Thai people pray and give offerings to many spirits and gods hoping for good fortune and prosperity in their homes and businesses. Spirit houses are carefully sited outside whilst inside images of the royal family are prominently displayed alongside their own ancestors, buddha statues, maybe a lucky waving cat or other statues and images meaningful to the home owners.
The famous Queen of the Nagas photo like the two Kings photo is another popular picture seen in bars, restaurants, guest houses, markets and homes around Thailand. The English caption on the photo reads: ‘Queen of Nagas seized by American Army at Mekhong River, Laos Military Base on June 27, with length of 7.80 meters’.
During the Vietnam war the United States Air Force (USAF) operated from eight airbases in Thailand whilst in neighbouring Laos a more secretive war was carried out by special forces troops and CIA operatives. In 1973 the Paris Peace Accords were signed initiating a withdrawal of the United States military from South Vietnam and on 30th June the last American to be conscripted into the armed forces began his training. Udon Thani not far from Nong Khai and the Mekong river was the closest U.S. base to Laos.
The Queen of the Nagas photo is real with a hoax explanation. Rumours spread that the men holding the fish died after eating its flesh and the plane carrying them and the fish back to the USA crashed. Others saw it as an omen and symbolic of defeat in the Vietnam war after killing of the Naga Queen who inhabited the river. The truth is that the picture is real and was taken on September 19th 1996 at the Naval Special Warfare Centre at Coronado in California. The body of a giant oarfish 23 feet long and weighing 300lbs was found dead on the beach by Navy SEALs out running. The picture was printed in the US Navy publication ‘All Hands’ in 1997. It was examined by marine biologists from the Scripps Institute of Oceanography who concluded from the injuries that it had been hit by a propeller.
Giant oarfish are distributed around the world in temperate and tropical waters growing to great lengths. They sometimes wash up dead or dying onto shores also being reported in Japan and North East England. Sometime after 1997 the photo was doctored and a fake caption added. It may have been intended to stir up anti-American feeling but soon gained popularity and spread across Thailand often sharing wall space in bars and guesthouses with the two Kings.
Thanks to Karl Spencer from Hong Kong who provided information on another Shanghai Municipal Policeman (SMP) who came to Hong Kong after release from a Japanese internment camp in October 1945. He was a similar age to the publican Jack Conder who kept in contact with many of the ex-SMP in Hong Kong.
Alexander Seddon Anderson was born in Queenstown, New Zealand on May 31st 1906 but little is known about his early life except that his father was a local farmer. Anderson joined the Shanghai Municipal Police as a Constable in 1933 and was promoted to Sergeant in 1936. Too young for service in WW1 he may have had prior military or police experience since he came to Shanghai as a relatively older recruit and was posted to the mounted section mostly made up of Sikhs. In 1940 he married an Australian stenographer called Frances Bertha Hamre. Anderson was awarded the Shanghai Municipal Council Emergency Medal in 1937 for service in protecting the International Settlement during the Chinese – Japanese conflict
Inspector Anderson (date of promotion unknown) was interned by the Japanese with his wife in Yu Yuen Road in February 1943 and moved to Yangtzepoo in April 1945. His employment contract had been terminated by the Japanese on March 7th 1943. Unemployed on release he joined the Hong Kong Police Force.
On Christmas Day 1946 Inspector Anderson was on duty as the Officer-in-Charge of the Mongkok Police Station in Kowloon when he attempted to arrest three drunken sailors at Nathan Road and Argyle Street. During a fight he sustained serious injuries and later died in Kowloon Hospital. As OC he was probably in uniform and accompanied by a group of officers although the details of the incident aren’t clear. The three seamen from the RMS Arundell Castle were Robert Stanley (26) of Liverpool, Frederick Franks (19) of Worthing and James Johnstone (32) of Glasgow. All were later holding charged with manslaughter but the case result is not known. His funeral was held on 27th December 1946 and he is buried at the Hong Kong Cemetery in Happy Valley.
In August 1936 the Warner Brothers film ‘China Clipper’ was released starring Pat O’Brien and Humphrey Bogart. It was inspired by the life of American aviation pioneer Juan Trippe founder of Pan American World Airways and capitalized on public excitement generated by the first commercial transpacific airmail flight the year before. The China Clipper was a four-engine flying boat that took off from San Francisco on November 22nd 1935, flying via Honolulu, Midway Island, Wake Island and Guam to deliver 110,000 pieces of mail to its destination in Manila. The mail bags were symbolically transferred from a stagecoach to the flying boat and Trippe announced:
‘Captain Musick, you have your sailing orders. Cast off and depart for Manila in accordance therewith.’
On arrival in Guam the Captain discovered the arrival celebration in Manila was scheduled two days later. Someone in the public relations department had confused the international date line and they were forced to delay flying the Guam to Manila leg by one day. On Friday 29th November 1935, watched by a crowd of 100,000, the China Clipper circled the city before landing in the bay where she was tied to a floating pier. A welcome arch was set up in Luneta park followed by a ticker tape parade and Manila Hotel banquet with the table arranged in outline of the flying boat.
The China Clipper was the first of three Martin M-130 flying boats delivered to Pan Am followed by the Philippine Clipper and the Hawaiian Clipper. Collectively they were known as the China Clippers.
Within a year Trippe extended his route first to Macao and then to Hong Kong after landing rights were negotiated. The route is recalled by the Hong Kong Peninsula Hotel’s 30th floor China Clipper lounge reserved for guests flying between the rooftop helipads and Hong Kong’s Chek Lap Kok airport.
In the 1930s flying by China Clipper was the height of luxury comparable to train travel on the Orient Express with prices to match. A one-way ticket from San Francisco to Hong Kong cost US $950 but included silver service dining and the chance to rub shoulders with the likes of Ernest Hemingway, General Douglas MacArthur, Major General Claire Chennault of the Flying Tigers and various Hollywood stars.
In 1975 to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the historic flight a memorial plaque was erected on the seawall near the Manila Hotel. The Manila Hotel was built on reclaimed land opposite the old walled city of Intramuros and opened on July 4th 1912. General Douglas MacArthur was the most famous occupant but the hotel and his penthouse suite were set on fire by the Japanese during the battle of Manila and only retaken by U.S. troops fighting floor to floor.
The hotel has another link with aviation history in the Far East. In 1946, according to legend, a wartime pilot Roy Farrell was drinking in the hotel bar with a bunch of correspondents when he came up with a name for his fledgling airline – Cathay Pacific Airways.
Pan Am’s commercial flying boat era ended with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour. By the end of December 1941 all of their pacific bases apart from Honolulu and Macao were occupied by Japanese troops and the remaining flying boats requisitioned by the Navy. Advances in aircraft design saw plans to operate the Atlantic and Pacific routes after the war shelved in favour of the land based, four-engine, propeller driven Douglas DC-4. Of the original clippers nothing remains today apart from photographs and models; the Hawaii Clipper disappeared en route from Guam to Manila in 1938, the Philippine Clipper crashed in Northern California in 1943 and the China Clipper crashed in 1945 in Trinidad & Tobago. Although operational for only a short period the China Clippers caught the public’s imagination during the depression and came to represent a golden age of travel. They were the most luxurious planes ever to fly, crossing the Pacific in six days rather than three weeks by ocean liner.
The boom in airfield construction during the war caused a worldwide decline in the use of seaplanes. Both floatplanes and flying boats are however still flown in remote areas such as Alaska and the Caribbean usually in specialist roles. The Philippines, an archipelago of 7107 islands, has a few seaplane routes with Air Juan the first commercial seaplane operator. Their terminal is located at the Cultural Center of the Philippines Complex within sight of the Manila Hotel across the bay.
In the Poblacion area of Makati, housed in a restored Art Deco building, is the small, boutique Clipper Hotel. Rooms are designated as cabins, decorated with vintage style travel posters and there is a Pan Am bar on the ground floor.
A short walk from the Clipper Hotel, along Makati Avenue, is the Ayala Triangle Gardens another important site in the history of Philippines aviation. The Ayala Triangle gardens is a two-hectare public garden in the Makati Central Business District owned by the Ayala Corporation. It was once part of the 42-hectare Nielson Field, Manila’s pre-World War II airport. The airport was decommissioned in 1948 and the runways converted to roads forming the Triangle’s boundaries: Ayala Avenue along its southwest, Paseo de Roxas along the north-northeast and Makati Avenue to the east-southeast. At each corner of the triangle is a statue dedicated to a Filipino hero: Benigno Aquino Jr., opposition leader to President Marcos, Gabriela Silang, leader of an independence movement from Spain and Muhammad Kudarat, a Mindanao Sultan who fought the Spanish. Overlooking the gardens are banks, hotels and office buildings including the PBCom Tower – the country’s tallest office building, the Ayala Center, the Peninsula Hotel and the Somerset Olympia which houses the Old Swiss Inn, a restaurant first opened in 1946 on Roxas Boulevard.
Looking down on Ayala Triangle Gardens. Peninsula Hotel on the right.
Nielson Field was named after a New Zealander, Laurie Reuben Nielson, a businessman and aviation enthusiast who convinced a group of investors to finance an airport on land leased from the Ayala Corporation. In July 1937, Nielson Airport was inaugurated and Philippine Air Lines (PAL) first flight took off in March 1941 for the short flight to Baguio. Due to the threat of war with Japan commercial flights were suspended in October 1941 and the airport requisitioned by the U.S. Army Air Forces (USAAF). During the war extensive damage from bombing was caused by both the Japanese and Americans but international flights resumed in 1946 until 1948 when the airport relocated to its present site adjacent to Nichols Field in Pasay.
The control tower of Nielson Airport was designed in Art Deco style to resemble an airplane from above and along with the passenger terminal was preserved as the Nielson Tower. This is the only low rise, pre-World War II structure still standing in Makati. It was the home of the Filipinas Heritage Library until 2014 when it became the Blackbird Restaurant offering high end dining and cocktails inspired by the China Clipper’s menus.
On February 15th 1946 PAL resumed domestic operations with five Douglas DC-3s until the last one was retired in 1978. Post war the market had been flooded with surplus transport aircraft and the DC-3 helped many airlines to get off the ground. The distance from the Manila Hotel to Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA) is around 10 km passing along the waterfront promenade of Roxas Boulevard and through the Ermita and Malate districts. During the American and Commonwealth period they were wealthy residential areas but few of the pre-war mansions survived the devastation of the battle of Manila in 1945. Casa Tesoro built in 1901 was originally a vacation home for the landed gentry and still stands on Mabini St. In 1995 the building was renovated and rented out to antique shops and a bar – the Dakota Cabin Café Bar with its retro-aviation theme and airline memorabilia.
In addition to surplus aircraft and jeeps which became the ubiquitous jeepneys, U.S forces left behind a huge quantity of Marston matting that was re-purposed as fencing. Marston matting or pierced steel planking (PSP) was used by Army engineers and Seabees (CB’s, Construction Battalions) to construct temporary runways during the island-hopping campaigns in the Pacific. It is still a common sight in the provinces and can even be spotted in the backstreets of Poblacion close to the Makati Central Business District.
The Philippines is a predominantly Christian country with over 80% of its population professing allegiance to Catholicism and the oldest church – San Agustin in the walled city dates from 1607. On a taxi ride to NAIA the driver passes by Our Lady of the Airways Parish church located on Chapel Road near the airport’s perimeter fence. The church with its distinctive red belltower and aircraft propeller offers prayers for safe flights and welcomes returning visitors. NAIA the main international gateway to the Philippines is named after Senator Benigno ‘Ninoy’ Aquino Jr. who was assassinated at the airport in 1983. He was opposition leader to President Marcos and his wife Corazon Aquino eventually became President of the Philippines. The airport moved from Nielson Field to this present site adjacent to the Villamor airbase in 1948. Villamor airbase is the headquarters of the Philippine Air Force (PAF) previously known as Nichols Field when it was occupied by the USAAF. The PAF Aerospace Museum is located within Villamor airbase and has an outdoor aircraft park that includes a Douglas AC-47A Skytrain and a Grumman SA-16A Albatross, an amphibious seaplane used for search and rescue
Since 1981 the sandy coloured NAIA Terminal 1 has provided most travellers with their first and last visual impression of the country. It was designed by the architect Leandro Locsin in what became known as the ‘brutalist’ style. Locsin had made his name with the Cultural Center of the Philippines in 1969 and was the favoured architect of dictator Ferdinand Marcos. The brutalist style is characterised by a lack of decoration, bare building materials and exposed, unpainted concrete resembling piled up jenga blocks. It is hard to understand what Imelda Marcos a self professed lover of beautiful things saw in a style whose drab, mildewed cement buildings dominate much of the city. The first sensory impression for visitors is the smell once the aircraft door opens. The unique odour of Manila is a combination of diesel, cooking oil, grease, burning rubbish, exhaust fumes and millions of closely packed bodies stewed together in tropical heat and humidity.
First impressions count and travellers today might be surprised that in the 1930’s Manila was often called ‘The Pearl of the Orient’ until the outbreak of war. William Manchester, an American historian wrote; ‘Of allied capitals in those war years only Warsaw suffered more’. Intramuros was gutted and most of the surviving Art Deco buildings torn down to be replaced with condominiums and shopping malls. The city has never fully recovered and makeshift squatter shacks of scrap wood, cartons and tin roofs known as barong-barong exist alongside the malls and gated communities. Manila is like one of those huge junk shops filled with the unwanted and unloved bric a brac of house clearances. The owner is happy to let you browse and rummage for the odd gem but knows the value and drives a hard bargain. Any thematic exploration of the city’s history requires patience and multiple attempts; there is no subway system, no hop-on, hop-off sightseeing buses only taxi drivers without the knowledge and taxi meters that don’t work. Jeepney routes are hard to fathom and walking only a few blocks leaves the urban explorer drenched in sweat tempted more by an air-conditioned Robinsons department store than another old ruin.
Since 1934 the National Historical Commission of the Philippines has installed more than 1,500 cast iron plaques throughout the country to mark historical landmarks including the Nielson Tower and Nichols Field. This list is a useful starting point to identify and unlock the jumble of sites scattered throughout Manila, a handful of which are true gems and worth the sweat.
In March 2020, after 28 years in Hong Kong, I moved to Penang as a base to travel in the region. The Covid 19 pandemic ended that plan and I spent much of the time re-reading books I had collected over the years. The only new book I bought was ...