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An Unknown Hand

An Unknown Hand

An Unsolved Murder in Colonial Malaya

The biggest Christian cemetery on Penang Island is Western Road Cemetery and includes graves of Commonwealth servicemen and police officers killed during the Malayan Emergency (1948-60). Their headstones are a standard design but in the same section is the grander tomb of John St Maur Ramsden who:

 

                                                      DIED BY GUNSHOT FROM AN UNKNOWN HAND

                                                            AT CALEDONIA – PROVINCE WELLESLEY

                                                                                   JUNE 8th 1948

 

The coroner’s findings were:

‘Shot by an unknown person with a double barrel gun…There is no evidence against any particular person.’

PENANG1930s (2)

Malaysia’s Penang state consists of Penang Island location of the capital George Town and Seberang Perai, formerly Province Wellesley, on the Malay Peninsula. By 1915 the Ramsden family controlled over 55,000 acres of rubber plantations in the Nibong Tebal area.

John Ramsden was the eldest son of Sir John Frecheville Ramsden (1877-1958) known as Chops. Chops’ father inherited his baronetcy, two Yorkshire country estates, virtually the whole of Huddersfield and in 1874 acquired title to a Malayan sugar plantation. Caledonia was one of the first plantations to shift from cultivation of sugar to rubber which became Malaya’s principal export crop.

Chops (2)

Sir John Frecheville Ramsden (1877-1958) known as ‘Chops’. He had a strong attachment to his estates in Kenya but never visited Malaya entrusting John to oversee their reconstruction. Within a few years of John’s murder he liquidated all his Malayan companies.

99doors (2)

The Big House, Caledonia plantation was built in 1917 for the General Manager at the time. It is often called the 99 doors mansion although this name was not in use at the time.

MURDER

On the evening of June 8th 1948 John Ramsden, Managing Director of the Penang Rubber Estates Group, was shot twice in the back of his head as he walked upstairs. The Tamil estate watchman and three Malays heard a shot and found his body slumped behind the stairs. Hunter Crawford, manager of the neighbouring Byram Estate, also heard the gunshots and rushed to the scene. A fluent Malay speaker he took charge and immediately contacted Nibong Tebal police station.

Crawford was a pre-war rubber planter who had worked with John since 1946 to restore buildings and replant fields damaged during the Japanese occupation. Captured by the Japanese he had been interned on Sumatra and resumed his career after the war.

In England at 9.45am on June 9th a message was brought to Chops at Muncaster in Cumbria where the family seat had been moved from Yorkshire in 1917. The Associated Press had rung up with the news that John had had an accident and they wanted to speak to his wife. The story made the front page of the London evening newspapers describing the deceased as: ‘heir to Sir John Ramsden – England’s richest baronet’.

MURDERSCENE

The main staircase. At the time of his death John Ramsden was living alone and it would have been easy for the murderer to enter and flee the scene.

Wachaines (3)In charge of the investigation was William Arthur Campion Haines, Chief Police Officer of Penang & Province Wellesley. Born in 1899, Haines joined the Malayan Police after service in the Royal Flying Corps during World War One. When the Japanese invaded Malaya in 1941 he was seconded to the Australian Imperial Force, captured by the Japanese, and interned in Changi.  He retired in 1950 and before his death in 1991 submitted his memoirs: ‘A Time to Remember (1920-1950)’ to King’s College London.

For an old Malayan hand like Haines the Ramsden killing was straightforward albeit sensitive due to the victim’s background. Reporting directly to the Commissioner of Police in Kuala Lumpur he was under pressure to provide answers to Sir Edward Gent and the Colonial Office in London.

Search of the crime scene found two spent 16 bore shotgun cartridges under a hedge outside the house and the murder weapon was identified as belonging to a Malay who kept it in the victim’s bungalow. Finding his shotgun missing he reported the loss to police on the evening of the 9th. Whether the killing was pre-planned or in the heat of the moment was not established. At the coroner’s inquest Dr. Loudernernam gave evidence that Ramsden sustained the fatal injury from a pellet hitting the back of his skull.

The police moved quickly with six Malays and Javanese detained for questioning on June 9th. Regarding the motive Haines felt confident enough to brief the local press in time for their morning editions on the 10th:

‘We are satisfied that the murder is not connected with assassinations of employers in other parts of Malaya and does not come within that category of murder.’

He added that the motive was obscure but it was not connected with any recent trouble on the estate. The body was brought to Penang mortuary and on June 10th John Ramsden was buried at Penang’s Western Road Cemetery.

The Straits Times 10th June 1948 duly reported under the heading: ‘Director Killed at Home’:

‘Political motives are not suspected in the murder of Mr. J. St. M. Ramsden.’

When their 48 hours detention was up four of the suspects were released but police enquiries against the other two were ongoing. Granting bail ran the risk of them absconding so holding charges were laid and further detention ordered by the magistrate. Ramsden’s driver Embi Bin Hashim, 27, described in the press as his ‘Head Boy’, was charged with ‘Illegal Possession of Ammunition’. On 17th September he was sentenced to 3 months imprisonment but immediately released, the sentence dating from his arrest on June 9th. He pleaded guilty and his counsel told the District Judge Mr. Fletcher Rogers in Nibong Tebal Court that Mr. Ramsden had given him the ammunition.

ZAINRAMJANA charge of ‘Murder’ was laid against Mohammad Zain bin Ramjan, a local plantation worker. In the absence of a confession or eye witness any case against him relied on circumstantial evidence.

On August 28th he was discharged by Magistrate Mr. Tai Hooi Soo. Inspector Jagir Singh said his instructions were that the discharge was not an acquittal and he was ordered to be detained until after the coroner’s inquiry three days later.

On September 1st 1948 Zain bin Ramjan was asked to try on two pairs of shoes in court whilst giving evidence at the inquiry. They were produced by the head of Penang C.I.D. Mr P.H.D. Jackson who said one pair was found near the murder scene. He admitted the first pair belonged to him the other did not. The witness suggested his shoes had been planted there by someone who had a grudge against him. He denied he had been dismissed by Mr. Ramsden and on the night in question was at his cousin’s house in Bukit Mertajam. In evidence he said:

‘I do not know of anyone bearing sufficient grudge against Mr. Ramsden to shoot him.’

The inquest concluded on 3rd September 1948 and with it all legal proceedings regarding the death of John Ramsden.

ASSASSINATION

Within a week after his funeral three European estate managers were murdered by Chinese gunmen at Sungei Siput in neighbouring Perak state. On the Elphil Estate two Chinese rode up on bicycles to Mr Walker’s office and shot him with pistols from a door and a window. At the Phin Soon Estate twelve Chinese armed with sten guns and revolvers tied up Mr. Allison and Mr. Christian before shooting them in a back office. In response The High Commissioner was forced to declare a nationwide state of emergency. Regarded as the start of the Malayan Emergency trouble had been brewing since 1945 with the growth of trade union movements and rise in communist party membership leading to widespread strikes between 1946-1948. Veterans of the Malayan Peoples Anti-Japanese Army retrieved weapons from hiding and the decision for armed conflict had been taken before shots were fired at Sungei Siput on June 16th 1948.

Sungeisiput

Headline story on the Sungei Siput murders, Morning Tribune June 17th 1948.

The political situation in Malaya was tense and in a House of Commons statement on June 12th 1948 Mr David Rees-Williams, Under-Secretary for the Colonies said extremists were trying to upset the economy of Malaya. Commenting in parliament on the Ramsden murder he said that in recent weeks there had been at least 13 serious incidents including 10 murders and three attacks on European estate managers.

Despite the police discounting political motives John Ramsden’s murder became conflated with the communist insurgency.

In a House of Lords debate on June 16th Lord Ailwyn asked:

‘My Lords I beg leave to ask His Majesty’s Government the question which stands in my name on the Order Paper –

‘To ask His Majesty’s Government whether they are now in position to make a full statement regarding the murder of Mr. John Ramsden in Malaya on June 8th?’

The Earl of Listowel replied in part:

‘A preliminary report from the High Commissioner.. stated that the police were satisfied that this murder was not connected with the recent wave of politically motivated crimes.’

Earl Howe:

‘May I ask the noble Earl if he is aware that in the broadcast news at one o’clock today there was a report that three more rubber planters in Malaya had been done to death?’

At the start of the ‘Emergency’ there were around a thousand European planters in Malaya, mainly British, who along with the police suffered a disproportionate number of casualties.

Murder is only a mystery if the motive and killer are unknown and John’s death was largely forgotten until recently. In footnotes and references it was noted that he had been gunned down by communist terrorists.

The diaries of Sir Henry ‘Chips’ Channon, the conservative politician notes that he was:

 ‘killed in Penang during the Malayan Emergency.’

Internet genealogical sites including Debrett’s Peerage & Baronetage record that he: ‘fought in the Malayan Emergency’ and was: ‘assassinated’.

No evidence was ever produced that John Ramsden was killed by communist terrorists.

MOTIVE

Published in 2017 Meriel Buxton’s ‘Poverty is Relative’ tells the story of Sir John William Ramsden (1831-1914) his son Sir John Frecheville Ramsden and their relationship with Huddersfield. Related by marriage she was invited by Chops’ grandson Andrew Feilden to write the book.

John St Maur Ramsden was born in London on April 26th 1902 and educated at Eton and Cambridge. At university in the 1920s he was part of an aristocratic set dubbed ‘The Bright Young Things’ by the tabloid press. This group of young socialites including Harold Acton, Cecil Beaton and the Mitford sisters were famous for their fancy dress parties and scandalous stories of drinking and drug taking. The society photographer Cecil Beaton began his career documenting their activities.

Hugo Vickers in his ‘Cecil Beaton; The authorised Biography’ described one of Beaton’s parties:

‘On the last day of October 1925 he attended a wild fancy-dress party in Cambridge given by his Harrow friend Jack Gold. Jack had got into what Cecil thought a ‘select set’ including Sir Richard Sykes, Maurice Bridgeman, John Ramsden, Philip Dunn and Lord Charles Cavendish. For the party Cecil put on a pink chiffon and a bustle drinking champagne and cocktails.’

Vickers quotes from Beaton’s diaries:

If I had been sober I should have paid more attention to the silly Ramsden. He is so smart and dances with the Duchess of York. I was so tight and pleased with myself…I was in a state rushing with Philip Dunn and John Ramsden after me from one couch to another and then falling over a sofa and being smothered with kisses from Philip Dunn and John Ramsden saying, ‘Oh Philip, I shall never speak to you again. Oh Cecil, Oh Cecil I thought your shingle was too marvellous…’

Vickers notes:

‘All these men later married and most of them undertook respectable occupations…. John Ramsden…was assassinated in Malaya in June 1948.’

Buxton concludes that he was probably bisexual and found the pressures on him to marry and produce an heir deeply disturbing. In 1935 John Ramsden married Lady Catherine Heathcote-Drummond-Willoughby (1906-1996) and their daughter Carola was born in 1938. They were divorced in 1947 and he had returned to Malaya from home leave in England three months before his murder.

Johnramsden

John St. Maur Ramsden (Source: Ancestry.com). Photos provided by the family are included in Meriel Buxton’s book ‘Poverty is Relative’. 

Buxton’s research didn’t include Malaysia but in the same year Lynn Hollen Lees Professor of History Emerita at the University of Pennsylvania published: ‘Planting Empire, Cultivating Subjects, British Malaya, 1786-1941’. She describes the social hierarchy and working conditions with John Ramsden’s death and liquidation of the Penang Rubber Estates Group providing a dramatic conclusion.

Professor Lees conducted site visits and oral interviews with surviving plantation workers including one witness who remembered Ramsden. A Tamil lady Muniammah, who worked on the Caledonia plantation in the 1940s, was living in a corner of the abandoned mansion. She remembered John as a nice man who was kind to the estate children and described a private golf course and airfield adjoining the big house. She spoke of a Malay woman who lived as his mistress and a brother working as his driver who resented their liaison. Others said Ramsden was gay and only employed young, handsome Malay houseboys, the sort who had been arrested by the police.

To a modern reader John Ramsden’s sexual orientation would be irrelevant the emphasis more on colonial exploitation or abuse of  position. In an age when homosexuality was illegal the threat of blackmail was enough to ensure family secrets were honoured. The inscriptions chosen by his parents for John’s tomb are telling; a son and heir cruelly gunned down for no reason with his honourable war service recorded on the other panel:

                                                                  JOHN SAINT MAUR RAMSDEN

                                                         SERVED IN THE GREAT WAR 1939-1945

                                                               FIRST IN THE ROYAL AIR FORCE

                                                                    LATER IN THE ROYAL NAVY

                                                              ON THE NORTH ATLANTIC PATROL

                                                              AND AFTERWARDS IN THE PACIFIC

                                                          PRESENT AT THE SURRENDER OF JAPAN

                                                                LIEUTENANT R.N.V.R ON BOARD

                                                                         H.M.S. INDEFATIGABLE

PENANGSTJOHNS (2)

St. George’s Anglican church, George Town, Penang completed in 1818.

In addition to John’s grave there is also a large screen behind the altar of St. George’s Church in George Town. A tiny brass plaque in Latin at the bottom reads in translation:

‘To the greater glory of god and in memory of their beloved son cruelly murdered at Province Wellesley, John Ramsden Baronet and his wife Joan, his parents, have dedicated this monument 1952.’

The inconspicuous plaque, in a classical language only understood by a small number of colonial officials doesn’t even mention their son’s name. The church won’t allow viewing or photography of the plaque.

99mansion

The Caledonia plantation was converted into a palm oil estate in the 1960s. The Seberang Perai Municipal Council have pushed for the mansion’s conservation but without success as it sits on private land. Most bloggers are interested in it only as a backdrop for haunted house stories.

Ramsden (2)

Western Road Cemetery on Penang Island. The first time I learnt about the murder of John Saint Maur Ramsden was when visiting the grave of Charles Nevill Godwin, the most senior police officer killed in Malaya. The mysterious inscription caught my interest and before searching the internet I’d jumped to the obvious conclusions: aristocrat, remittance man, black sheep of the family, first European victim of the Malayan Emergency.  

SOURCES

Poverty is Relative (2017) Meriel Buxton

Planting Empire, Cultivating Subjects: British Malaya, 1786-1941 (2017) Lynn Hollen Lees

Cecil Beaton: The Authorised Biography (1985) Hugo Vickers

‘Director Killed at Home’ The Straits Times 10th June 1948

‘Estate Manager Shot Dead on Staircase’ Morning Tribune 10th  June 1948

‘Funeral of Mr. Ramsden’ The Straits Times 11th June 1948

‘Murder Charge’ The Straits Times 10th July 1948

‘Mr. Ramsden: No Charge’ The Straits Times 28th August 1948

‘Ramsden Killing: Story of Bungalow Shot’ The Straits Times 31st August 1948

‘Witness Told To Try On Shoes In Court’ The Straits Times 1st September 1948

‘Ramsden Inquest Finishes’ The Straits Times 3rd September 1948

‘Head Boy Gaoled’ The Straits Times 17th September 1948

Penang Heritage Trust Newsletter Issue No. 101 / April 2012, ‘Mystery of Rubber Estate Manager’s Murder’, Leslie A.K. James

Snail Mail

Snail Mail

Penang’s colonial era post boxes

According to the Royal Mail there are around 115,500 post boxes across the UK so that 98% of the population live within half a mile of one. Roadside post boxes were introduced following the introduction of adhesive stamps for pre-payment of postage in 1840. The growth in demand for postal services and the need for more convenient places where letters could be deposited led novelist Anthony Trollope, a General Post Office (GPO) official, to recommend cast iron pillar boxes and regular collection times. His scheme began in the Channel Islands in 1852 and since first installation boxes have usually carried the insignia or cipher of the monarch reigning at the time of placement. More than 60% of current British post boxes carry the EIIR mark of Queen Elizabeth II with those from the short 1936 reign of Edward VIII the rarest. About two dozen contractors have been engaged for their construction and the makers name is usually inscribed at the base.

Brightonpavillion

Not India or Malaya but opposite Brighton’s Royal Pavilion in UK. 

Royal Cyphers

Royal ciphers (Source: Daily Mail)

By the end of the 19th century there were over 33,500 post boxes and many more throughout the British Empire which along with the railways, steam-ship travel and the telegraph relied on an efficient postal system for communication.

British manufactured post boxes are found in British Overseas Territories and some remain in Commonwealth countries such as Cyprus, India, Malta, New Zealand and Sri Lanka along with Hong Kong, the Republic of Ireland and other territories formerly administered by the United Kingdom. Most produced after 1905 were cast iron and cylindrical. In Cyprus pillar boxes painted yellow after independence are still in use. In Malta in the 1980s royal ciphers were ground off the pillar boxes in Valletta and Floriana but most others remained intact.

After the 1997 handover of Hong Kong to China all post boxes were painted light green and the new Hongkong Post logo added. Of the 1,148 iron mailboxes across Hong Kong 59 still bear royal ciphers.

In 1867 the first stamps of the Straits Settlements colony, comprising the four individual settlements of Penang, Singapore, Malacca and Dinding, were issued followed by the individual Malay states. Penang Island, the earliest settlement, had been acquired from the Sultanate of Kedah by the British in 1786.

Malayastamp

The oldest portion of Penang Island’s Georgetown has been designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO since 2008 recognised as having:

‘a unique architectural and cultural townscape without parallel anywhere in Eat and Southeast Asia’.

In addition to the well preserved pre-war buildings and shophouses there are eight colonial era post boxes of which  seven are still used for collection.

E&O POSTBOX

Upper Penang Road opposite the Eastern & Oriental Hotel. GR royal cipher (George V 1910-1936) and manufacturer’s name Andrew Handyside & Co. Ltd. at base.

LEBUHGATCHULIA

China Street Ghaut outside the Customs Building. Ev11R royal cipher (Edward VII 1901-1910).

BEACHST

Beach St. VR royal cipher (Queen Victoria 1837-1901) and manufacturer’s name Andrew Handyside & Co. Ltd. at base.

MACALISTERROAD

MacAlister Road outside Penang State Museum. GviR royal cipher (George VI 1936-1952) and manufacturer’s name McDowall Steven & Co. Ltd. at base.

PENANGHILLPOSTBOX

Penang Hill. VR royal cipher and manufacturer’s name Andrew Handyside & Co. Ltd. at base. Letter slot is sealed and it originally was located outside the fire station on Beach road.

AYERITAM (3)

One of two cylindrical postboxes on Ayer Itam Road without royal ciphers. Manufactured by Carron Company.

DATOKRAMAT

Dato Kramat Road junction of Siam Road. Rectangular post box with GR royal cipher possibly wall mounted previously.

The two other colonial post boxes I’ve seen in Malaysia are at Ipoh and Lumut but there are probably others to be discovered.

Ipohtrainstation

Ipoh railway station – the ‘Taj Mahal of Ipoh’. The second floor used to house the Majestic Hotel.

MAJESTICIPOH

Dindings Pillarbox Lumut (2)

Letterbox in Lumut with royal cipher removed. Inscribed ‘McDowall Steven & Co. Ltd. London & Glasgow. (Source: thriftytraveller.com) 

Sgphilatelicmuseum (1)

Singapore Philatelic Museum. The ciphers on all post boxes were removed when Singapore gained independence in 1965. 

Malaypostman (2)

Eastern Fantasies

Eastern Fantasies

Goodwood Park Hotel’s Eastern Fantasy & Raffles Hotel’s Shanghai Lily

Today a white Russian is a sweet tasting, 1960’s cocktail made from vodka, coffee liqueur and cream. Apart from vodka the drink hasn’t any Russian origin. Culturally more significant in the 20th  century were the White Russian émigrés. They were supporters of the Tsarist government deposed in the 1917 Russian Revolution and enemies of the ‘red’ Bolsheviks. Many were members of the armed forces, the nobility or pro-establishment public figures. Those who could escaped to Europe. When Vladivostok in the east fell to the communists most whites fled across the Chinese border to Harbin. In 1924 Peking recognised the new Soviet government leaving stateless those who refused the offer of Soviet citizenship. Many then headed to Shanghai and other treaty ports in China. Treated as second class citizens they ended up working in service, the lucky ones as policemen, security guards, private bodyguards, seamstresses, music teachers and language instructors. For those without marketable skills conditions were often pitiful as Charlie Chaplin noted on his 1931 visit to Shanghai:

‘I came across a number of titled aristocrats who had escaped the Russian Revolution. They were destitute and without a country; their status was of the lowest grade, the men ran rickshaws and the women worked in ten cent dance halls. When the second world war broke out, many of the old aristocrats had died and the younger generation migrated to Hong Kong where their plight was even worse.’

In Hong Kong most remained stateless managing to escape internment during the Japanese occupation. Traces of their stay remain through the Queen’s Café in North Point, Cherikoff’s bakery in Prince Edward and Hongkongers fondness for borscht soup. After the Second World War the White Russians moved on again to America, Australia, Canada or elsewhere.

In Shanghai one of the most famous White Russians was Georgii Avskent’ievich Sapojnikoff, an ex-officer in the Russian Imperial Army with a pronounced limp from his wounds in World War One. He worked as a cartoonist on the North China Daily News under the pen name Sapajou. The paper was regarded as the mouthpiece of the British controlled Shanghai Municipal Council and it was a measure of Sapajou’s social acceptance that he was a member of the exclusive Shanghai Club famed for having the longest bar in the world. For 15 years he published a daily cartoon along with several albums containing sketches of Shanghai life that are now highly collectible. Despite being a stateless refugee Sapajou was a dapper man about town popular with the ladies who regarded him as a distinguished Russian gentleman. After the war and the communist takeover of Shanghai in 1949 he was evacuated by the United Nations with other White Russians to a displaced persons camp on Tubabao in the Philippine Islands. Already seriously ill he died shortly after arrival.

Sapajouself

Sapajou – self caricature of the artist at work.

Schifflong Bar (2)

The Long Bar in the Shanghai Club, cartoon by Friedrich Schiff. The mahogany L-shaped bar was 110.7 feet by 39 feet. It had a strict hierarchy with the Bund facing end reserved for the richest tai-pans.

Born in 1913 Vladimir Tretchikoff was another talented White Russian who became one of the world’s richest and most famous artists. Self-taught, Tretchikoff painted portraits, still life, and animals, the subjects inspired by his wandering lifestyle in China, Singapore, Indonesia and later South Africa. Popular with the general public, he was nicknamed the ‘King of Kitsch’ by art critics and is best known for his works that were turned into reproduction prints.

Vladimirtretchikoff (2)

Vladimir Tretchikoff (1913-2006) painting Miss Wong in 1950.

Orphaned at a young age he moved from Harbin to Shanghai working as an art director and illustrator for an American advertising and publishing company. After marrying a fellow Russian émigré the couple moved to Singapore where he worked for the Straits Times. On the outbreak of World War 2 Tretchikoff was a propaganda artist for the British Ministry of Information. Escaping the fall of Singapore in February 1942 his ship was sunk by the Japanese en route to South Africa. The 42 survivors rowed to Java but were captured and imprisoned in Serang. Tretchikoff was released on parole after convincing the Japanese he was a stateless anti-communist. In Batavia (now Jakarta) he met a Eurasian lady Leonora Schmidt-Salomonson who became his lover and one of his most famous models posing for Eastern Fantasy in 1943.

Easternfantasy (2)

Eastern Fantasy 1943 by Vladimir Tretchikoff. The traditional Indonesian kris (wavy dagger) and bible on the table symbolising mixed heritage are often overlooked.

At the end of the war Tretchikoff was reunited with his wife and daughter in South Africa after discovering they had been evacuated on an earlier boat. It was there in 1952 that he painted his Chinese Girl modelled by Monika Pon-su-san, who was working in a laundry near his home. The painting is one of the best-selling prints of the twentieth century believed to have sold more prints than either Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa or Vincent van Gogh’s Sunflowers. The original painting sold for £982,050 at Bonhams auction house in London in March 2013. Vladimir Tretchikoff died in Cape Town in 2006.

Chinesegirl

The Chinese Girl (popularly known as The Green Lady) 1952. Trechikoff was immensely popular with the public but scorned by art critics. Bonhams Magazine, Spring 2013 ‘Love it or loathe it’.

Vivian Bath, owner of the Goodwood Park Hotel in Singapore had bought Eastern Fantasy from the artist in 1948 for $450. The hotel on Scotts Road opened in 1900 as the Teutonia Club for members of the expatriate German community. During the First World War it was seized by the British government in Singapore and auctioned off in 1918 to the Jewish Manasseh brothers. In 1929 the building was turned into a hotel and during World War II was occupied by senior officers of the Japanese Imperial Army. After the war the Singapore War Crimes Court conducted trials in a tent on the hotel grounds and Ezekiel Manasseh’s Australian stepson Vivian Bath bought out the brother’s shares becoming sole proprietor.

In 1989 the hotel’s Rhineland style tower block was gazetted as a national monument and the Eastern Fantasy hangs in the tower’s boardroom. The life size painting’s model remained unknown until 1989 when a Dutch / Indonesian lady Mrs Leonora Schmidt then 74 visited the hotel -(‘Semi-nude portrait poser answered – 46 years later’, The Straits Times 21st October 1989).

Known to Tretchikoff as Lenka she met him in Java in 1942 posing for the painting the following year. She revealed another link with the hotel having worked there as an interpreter when it was the headquarters of British war crimes trials. She returned to Indonesia in 1949, married and went to live in Holland.

The Raffles Hotel on Beach Road is also a national monument re-opening in 1991 after two years of extensive renovation. The famous Long Bar was relocated from the lobby to a new adjoining shopping arcade losing its character in the process. According to the hotel’s publicity the polished wooden furniture, cane and rattan chairs and mechanically operated palm leaf fans were inspired by the décor of 1920’s Malayan plantations. The tiled floors make it easy to sweep up the shells of groundnut shells swept off the mahogany bar top. The bar also takes its inspiration from 1930’s Shanghai when the Shanghai Club on the Bund housed the original Long Bar now recreated at the Waldorf Astoria Shanghai.

Raffles Singapore 5

The Long Bar at the Raffles Hotel.

Like a western saloon the centrepiece of Singapore’s Long bar is a slightly risqué painting of a reclining female named by the hotel as Shanghai Lily. Shanghai Lily was in fact the character played by Marlene Dietrich in the 1932 Hollywood movie ‘Shanghai Express’.

Shanghailil

Shanghai Lily & the Singapore Sling.

The Long Bar is one of the world’s famous bars but most of what is written about it is pure marketing fantasy. It took several visits to realise it was more a shopping arcade backdrop to take pictures sipping expensive, pre-mixed cocktails than a real bar. There are no longer any ship’s captains, rubber planters or remittance men letting off steam amongst the potted plants on the verandah.

The Goodwood Park Hotel relies on the reputation of its fine dining more than its bar scene and wandering around I couldn’t spot Tretchikoff’s painting. The hotel staff confirmed that Eastern Fantasy was owned by the hotel but sadly no longer on public display or available for private viewing.

Sophialoren

‘A Countess from Hong Kong’ 1967 starring Sophia Loren & Marlon Brando. Charlie Chaplin’s final film based on the life of a former White Russian aristocrat. It was filmed entirely on sets at Pinewood Studios in UK and panned by critics on its release.

 

 

 

 

 

Chips with Everything

Chips with Everything

COLBAR: A taste of 1950’s Singapore

 

Colbar

Colbar Eating House & Milk Bar.

Apart from their Chinese dishes the Colbar Eating House & Milk Bar in Singapore serves chips with everything. Opened in 1953 the café is popular with food bloggers who identify it as ‘British-Hainanese’. Serving mixed grill, pork chops, omelettes, cucumber sandwiches and fish and chips the British influence is obvious. Menu oddities include boiler prawn and chips, ox liver sandwiches and chicken merry land (fried chicken, fried egg, fried tomato, beans and chips with a battered banana on top). For non-locals the Hainanese influence needs some explanation.

In the 19th century Singapore was the main entry port for waves of Chinese immigrants recruited to work in Malaya’s plantations and mines. Many stayed and since the first official census the Chinese have always been the largest ethnic group in Singapore. Hokkien speakers arrived first followed by Teo Chews and Cantonese each forming their own clan associations and triad groups to protect their welfare and livelihoods. By the time immigrants from Hainan landed the only jobs available were as domestic servants or cooks for the army and hotels. The Hainanese quickly mastered western cooking including how to incorporate strange condiments like Lea & Perrins Worcestershire sauce, HP sauce and mustard into their dishes.

One of the most famous of their clan was Ngiam Tong Boon, who created the Singapore Sling at Raffles Hotel’s Long Bar in 1915. During the depression of the 1930s many opened coffee shops (kopitiams) in the Beach Road area popularising their fusion food like Hainanese chicken rice, breaded pork chops and chicken pot pies. It wasn’t until the hotel boom of the 1960’s that genuine western restaurants with western chefs invaded the island and became fashionable.

Abbreviated from Colonial Bar the Colbar is a family run business opened by Mr & Mrs Lim on Jalan Hang Jebat that became an unofficial canteen for British Army troops garrisoned nearby. In 2003 the café once described by Time Out magazine as:

‘a glorified tin shed locked in a time warp’

was marked for destruction to make way for a flyover. It was saved by a petition, dismantled and re-located 300m away to its current site on Whitchurch Road in the Wessex Estate.

Wessex Precinct Exterior 1

Wessex Estate (Source: www.jtc.gov.sg)

The Wessex Estate is a quiet, tree covered neighbourhood opposite Queenstown’s high-rise blocks of flats built in the 1960s as a new town. The estate is made up of 26 apartment blocks and 58 semi-detached houses dotted around Westbourne Road, Weyhill Close, Whitchurch Road, Wilton Close and Woking Road. The blocks have the names of British army campaigns and battles including Arras, Corunna, Khartoum, Plassey & Quebec clearly printed on their facades. Built in the 1930s & 40s in the black and white style they housed British non-commissioned officers and their families during the Malayan Emergency. Of the 500 odd black and white houses that survive in Singapore less than 100 are privately owned the rest owned by the government. Managed by the Singapore Land Authority monthly rents vary from around S$5000 to S$25,000.

Wessex Semid Exterior 1

Typical black & white style block. (Source: www.jtc.gov.sg)

The Colbar café constructed from concrete and wooden boards sits on the Wessex village square, un-airconditioned and shaded by trees. Indoor and outdoor seating is available but most customers prefer to sit on the terrace under ceiling fans. Wooden planking from the original location has storyboards explaining the history declaring Colbar:

‘a gastronomical oasis for liver and onions or lamb chops’

Orders are placed at the counter and served by an old Chinese Uncle with a bottle of HP sauce automatically plonked down for western customers.

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The interior dining room usually empty. Overhead fans, formica table tops and photos of the Colbar Tigers an expatriate football club sponsored by the cafe. 

In UK the introduction of national service in 1949 for all men aged 17 to 21 coincided with the start of the Malayan Emergency. For national servicemen Hong Kong was the plum Far East posting. The threat of communist invasion wasn’t taken seriously, working days were short and there was plenty of sport and recreational activities. Singapore came second followed by Malaya provided you weren’t jungle bashing in the infantry.

Richard Vinen in his book: ‘National Service A Generation in Uniform 1945-1963’ described the meals served to army recruits:

‘Food – never notable for its quality in any part of the British armed forces – was revolting’. 

For young men brought up with wartime food rationing and austerity places like the Colbar served up what they had been missing at home together with a few safe Chinese dishes like sweet and sour pork and fried beef with ginger.

Colbar’s selection of Chinese dishes is similar to the cuisine developed by Chinese after the Second World War in the UK to suit British tastes. The rise in the number of Chinese restaurants is attributed to refugees fleeing from the Chinese civil war and also to British servicemen returning from Hong Kong with more exotic tastes. The food was mostly Cantonese with bread and butter, pies and chips wisely included on the menu.

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A taste of home bacon, eggs, chips & beans – SG $14.

‘Milk Bar’ is painted in white on the Colbar’s roof tiles and just like the food the drinks menu hasn’t changed since opening. Lipton and Nescafe are the only tea and coffee choices along with Tiger beer, orange squash, Milo, Horlicks and a selection of milkshakes. In 1950’s Britain ‘teenagers’ were still a new concept associated with the post war boom and the rise of rock and roll. The British academic Richard Hoggart in his ‘The Uses of Literacy’ wrote about ‘Juke-Box Boys’:

‘young men between the ages of 15 and 20’ who ‘spend their evening listening in harshly lighted milk bars to the nickleodeons’.

Politicians debating juvenile delinquency called them ‘milk bar cowboys’ but many would soon find themselves in Malaya which after Korea was the most dangerous posting for national servicemen.

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The last time I visited Colbar on a Saturday lunchtime the outdoor seating was packed with dog walkers, expat, local families and students all tucking in. The clientele may have changed but the food has stayed the same stuck in a 1950’s time warp. I’m still curious whether Mr. Lim and his family eat from their own menu or if they really can’t believe what foreigners will pay for.

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 British Hainan, Carpmael Road, Singapore.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Not Amused ?

Not Amused ?

In August Bangkok’s Big Chilli magazine opened with the short article – ‘Shocking Fate of Queen Victoria’s Statue’. They reported that the statue formerly in the British Embassy grounds had been relegated to the banks of a dirty klong (canal) along Soi Somkid in Central Bangkok:

 ‘a forlorn and thoroughly undignified sight for such a historically important figure.’

In 1947 the British Mission in Bangkok was re-located from the banks of the Chao Phraya River to a more rural location on the corner of Phloen Chit and Witthayu Roads and upgraded to an embassy. This twelve acres plot of land had been purchased from a Thai-Chinese businessman Nai Lert (1872-1945) whose wealth came from ice making, transportation and real estate including the city’s first bus and taxi services.

A third of the embassy’s estate was sold in 2006 with the remaining portion sold in 2017 to a joint venture of Central and Hongkong Land for a record 20 billion baht making it the highest ever property sale in Thailand. The embassy was relocated to an office tower in Sathorn Road and the war memorial to the British Club on Surawong Road in Silom. Queen Victoria’s statue was included in the sale and although the British Club made a request for the statue it was rejected by the Central Group.

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The British Club Bangkok opened at its current location in 1910. The war memorial on the right was rehoused from the former British Embassy in August 2019.

Queen Victoria (1819-1901) was crowned Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain & Ireland in 1837 and was granted the additional title of Empress of India in 1876. In Asia there are least three other statues of the Queen still standing each with their own story.

A bronze statue of her gazes out over the headstones of the Chiang Mai Foreign Cemetery in Northern Thailand. King Rama V gifted the land in 1898 on conditions that it may be used only for the burial of foreigners and that the: ‘British Consul be the custodian of the land in perpetuity’. The statue was shipped from London to Rangoon in 1903 and then overland by rafts and elephants to Chiang Mai. Her original location was at the British Consulate on the Ping River (now the Anantara Hotel). According to legend she was boarded up during World War II but with two holes drilled near to her eyes. When the consulate was closed in 1978 the statue was moved to its current location.

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“Erected as a token of deep reverence and affection for the memory of their late gracious Queen Victoria by her loyal subjects of every race residing in the Chiengmai, Lakon-Lamphang, Phre, Nan, Sawankalok, and Raheng districts of Northern Siam.”

In Hong Kong a bronze statue was originally installed under a canopy at the centre of Statue Square and unveiled on 28th May 1896 to celebrate the Queen’s 77th birthday. During the Japanese occupation it was taken to Japan for melting down but survived and was discovered after the war. The statue was brought back and placed in Hong Kong’s Victoria Park in 1955.

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The Supreme Court & Queen Victoria’s statue, Statue Square, Hong Kong. (Source: Jamie Carstairs)

In September 1996 Pun Sing-lui, a mainland artist, painted the statue red and damaged the Queen’s nose with a hammer before painting himself red. He was sentenced to 28 days imprisonment after claiming his act was a protest over Hong Kong’s ‘dull colonial culture’.

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The Queen Victoria memorial statue in Georgetown, Penang is located at the Chinese Recreation Club near the junction of Burmah Road and Pangkor Road. The statue was unveiled on 23rd April 1930 by Governor Sir Cecil Clementi. During World War II the Japanese intended to dismantle it but local citizens boarded her up and prevented removal.

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“The Statue of Her Majesty Queen Victoria was erected in 1930 to commemorate her long and glorious reign. The site and the adjacent recreation ground to which the name ‘Victoria Green’ was given were bought by the Chinese Community in 1903 and dedicated for the use of the Chinese community in Perpetuity.” 

I’m familiar with those three locations but not Soi Somkid so I took a walk from Sukhumvit to see how shocking it really was. What I found was a quiet, tree lined soi situated between two high end malls – Central Chidlom and Central Embassy. With its high end condominiums and  Siri House’s trendy restaurants it is in fact one of the swankiest addresses in Bangkok. The pavements are being resurfaced and the trees are under a preservation order. When work is completed and the hoardings removed the Queen’s statue will be the centrepiece of a leafy walkway that leads to Nai Lert’s former home now open to the public as the Nai Lert Park Heritage Home.

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The Nai Lert Park Heritage Home.

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Nai Lert designed six boundary markers built to look like cannons with their muzzles pointing to the ground. The only renaining one is at the Wittayau-Ploenchit intersection in Bangkok.

The Thai people have a well known reverence and deep respect for the institution of monarchy. Their Prime Minister ordered all government agencies and state enterprises to fly the national flag at half-mast for three working days to mourn the recent passing of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II. The old Queen’s statue seems to be in good hands.

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“Victoria, Queen of Great Britain & Ireland, Empress of India. Erected in loving memory by her subjects in Siam.”