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Blog #5. Kuching, Sarawak, Malaysia. January 1964.

Updated: May 1, 2020

The Johnson clan (minus the dachshund, Copper, who was found a new home in Mid Sussex,) arrived in Kuala Lumpur in late November 1963, about a day before the assassination of President JFK in Dallas, Texas. While 5 year old Charlie had no recollection of the event, his parents, like the rest of the world, were shocked and saddened by the news.


It had been a long flight: decades later Charlie would fly non stop from Kuala Lumpur to London in about 13 hours, to attend his English grandmother's 100th Birthday Party, but in 1963 the flight from London to KL had taken the best part of 24 hours with stops (according to Charlie's 'BOAC Junior Jet Club' log book) in Düsseldorf, Beirut, Bahrain, Bombay (as it then still was known), and Colombo, on board a Comet 4, and it was his first ever jet flight.


Petaling Jaya, or 'PJ', as it was known, was then a brand new satellite city of Kuala Lumpur, and was where Conch Oil provided a temporary house, which Charlie could remember was located adjacent to a large building site. There are not many other memories of Kuala Lumpur that stood out, but some of the neighbouring attractions on Peninsula Malaya definitely did. There was a short holiday up in the Cameron Highlands, much favoured in Colonial days by the British, as a welcome retreat from the heat of the city, and there was a visit to the spectacular Batu Caves, with their myriad steps and a giant golden statue.


One other trip that Charlie remembered clearly was one taken down to the beautiful wide expanse of beach at Port Dickson, where he got a very bad case of sunburn, playing under the midday sun, turning not just tomato coloured, but rather a deep plum red, which required seemingly gallons of calamine lotion to ease the pain and at least a week of sleeping on his tummy, under the mosquito net. This was a pattern he would alas repeat more than once as the years and decades progressed, in various continents: Noel Coward's very apt lyrics about Mad Dogs and Englishmen staying out in the Midday Sun were all too often forgotten.


After a Christmas and New Year spent in PJ, it was time for a much shorter flight, aboard a Focker Friendship, operated by Malayan Airlines, the forerunner of Malaysian, from KL to the small city that was going to be their home for the next 21 months, and which Joe and Pam had struggled to find on a map a few months earlier. They were headed for Kuching, the somnambulant administrative capital of Sarawak, which was (and still is) the largest of the three territories that make up the northern third of the world's third largest island, Borneo.


Sarawak, and Sabah to the north, had both acquired the status of self-governing States when the Federation of Malaysia had been declared six month earlier, while, wedged between the two new Malaysian states, the micro Sultanate of Brunei was to remain a self-governing British Protectorate for another 20 years, until gaining Independence in 1984.


Joe's job was to be the last ever caucasian Marketing Manager for Conch Oil in Sarawak, before a Chinese-Malaysian national took over the position, and it covered the whole of the vast territory. According to Google, when Charlie checked in late April 2020, the area of Sarawak, which has not changed since the '60s, is 125,000 sq kms, or 48,000 sq miles. In comparison England is 50,000 sq miles, so it was definitely a big patch to be responsible for!


Kuching's population, which nowadays exceeds 570,000, was then less than 50,000, and the heart beat of the city then, as now, was the Sarawak River, upon whose north and south banks the city straddles, located some 20 miles upriver from where the river flows out into the South China Sea. Back in 1964 there were no bridges across the muddy brown river as there are today, and hand-rowed sampans were the only means of transportation between the two halves of the city.


Charlie's memories of Sarawak were much clearer than they were of Mid Sussex, but did not take the form of any chronological order. Rather they were more comparable to random images, like bold brush strokes painted on a vivid colourful canvas, but not joined up. When he returned to revisit the place in 1986, aged 27, some 21 years after the family had left to return to Britain at the end of 1965, he was amazed by how much he actually remembered, although, like his memories, his mental map of the city was fragmented and disjointed.


The first image that came to mind when Charlie cast his mind back to Kuching, sitting at his computer in Sydney 56 years later, was that of Bujang, Tomah, Tina and Matt. Just as Godwin and Moses had 'come with the house' back in Nigeria, so Shell house in Kuching came complete with with the services of one Bujang bin Haj Sa'at, as its live-in resident cook and steward, whose own family lived elsewhere in Sarawak.


It wasn't long after the Johnsons' arrival that a mutually beneficial arrangement for both families was reached, whereby Bujang's elegant wife Tomah arrived to live-in too, along with their two children, Tina, who was in her early teens, and young Matt, who was perhaps a year and a half older than Charlie, and who almost straight away became his best buddy.


While this might sound like the set-up for the recent Oscar-winning Korean movie 'Parasite', which depicted a toxic symbiotic relationship between two families of unequal social status, it was in fact the complete opposite. Pam got help in looking after Charlie, and had company during the daytime while Joe was away at work, sometimes for days, while Tomah, (who was from a native Iban Dayak tribe, as opposed to Bujang who was ethnically a Malay), and who hailed from way up country, a long distance from Kuching, was now able to live with her husband, earn extra income for the family, and could enrol her children at school in the city.


Although Joe's command of Malay was, by his own admission, woeful, in contrast his wife and his son soon started to absorb the local Sarawak kampung dialect of Bahasi Malay like sponges, and indeed by the age of 6 Charlie could almost speak it like a native.


It was to be a genuine regret of his that once the family returned to Britain in the mid Sixties, and he encountered new European languages to learn at school, he forgot almost every word of Malay that he had ever learned, except for the useful concept of 'panas' and 'pedas', meaning heat-hot and spicy-hot, which never needed an explanation in Malay, but always did in English. There were also a few strong admonitions that his mother persisted in using throughout his school years in the UK, when she didn't necessarily want anyone else to know what was being said! These had been used by Tomah on Matt around the house, and they worked equally effectively when used by Pam on Charlie, be he aged 5 or 15!


In actual fact some 20 years after leaving Sarawak, when Charlie returned to travel through Malaysia and Indonesia as a young adult, and worked in Bali for a while, he was amazed by how much Bahasi came back to him, usually when accompanied by a cold beer, which somehow seemed to aid the linguistic flow, and reduce any residual linguistic inhibitions!


Meanwhile, back in the early to mid 1960s, Pam learnt her Malay from Tomah, when accompanying her to local markets to shop for herbs, spices and fresh vegetables, and at Bujang's side, when he cooked up wonderful concoctions with these market-bought ingredients. It was there she learnt his trick of cooking perfect separate grained rice, a skill she later passed on to her husband and both her children in later years back in England, and how to make delicious curries, with all the trimmings, a culinary skill which would become the basis for the Johnson's style of entertaining at home in England for many decades to come.


Charlie and Matt conversed together in both English, which Matt was learning at school, and in Malay, and when the family were invited to Bujang's brother's wedding in a kampong just a few months after their arrival, it was Matt and Tina, (whose English was more advanced), who acted as translators when the Johnsons were introduced as honoured guests to all the extended families on both the bride and the groom's side. That was the first of many weddings that Charlie was to attend in his life, and was probably the most vivid and memorable of them all.


While Matt and Tina were attending a local Malay school, Charlie found himself enrolled at The Lodge Preparatory School. A quick Google search in 2020 shows it to be one of the most prestigious secondary schools in Malaysia nowadays, with exclusively Malaysian students, but back in the early 60s it was a Prep school for the younger children of the expatriate community in Kuching, who were comprised of mainly British and Australians. After Prep school age expat children were expected to board overseas in either the UK or Australia respectively, as no secondary teaching was at that stage available to them locally.


A glimpse at his school reports from The Lodge, (which Charlie had found in 2014, when he had helped his father move out of the old family home in Sussex, nestled amongst a treasure trove of other fascinating documents that may prove to be very useful were he to ever attempt a blog), paints a picture of a keen reader with really dreadful handwriting, comments which appeared in pretty much all of his subsequent school reports during 11 years of education in England, (reports which he fortuitously found too when helping his Dad move).


In 2020 there wasn't much about his time at the school itself that he could really remember. One event that he could clearly recall was when the fearful head mistress, an overweight bespectacled Yorkshire woman called Mrs Grimm, who put the Fear of God into the students by her mere presence, had made the whole school watch during Assembly as she laid into a hapless, somewhat older, student with a bamboo cane. That definitely made an impression.


He could also recall his mother confronting Mrs Grimm, and giving her a very strong piece of her mind indeed, for having the temerity (it was the first time Charlie had heard the word) to phone her at home and demand that she collect Charlie and send him home from some school concert rehearsal (perhaps the 1964 Christmas Concert?), for not wearing proper school uniform. It was a Saturday, and thus not a school day, and the only variation from the school uniform in six year old Charlie's outfit that day was his shirt, which instead of being regulation white was sky blue and had a bright red dragon on the pocket, which his Mother had particularly selected for the occasion. The details one remembers!


Whether notification about the requirement of a school uniform on this particular Saturday rehearsal were made known to parents, adult Charlie will never know, but he does remember his mother calling Mrs Grimm a bully, in front of the awestruck other students, and telling her that she should be ashamed of herself, and he remembered the two of them then sweeping out of the rehearsal and driving into town for an ice cream and a sampan ride on the river. Pam was magnificent! No further recollections of the play, nor indeed Mrs Grimm, come to mind, but Charlie noted from The Lodge reports that by 1965 there was a new headmistress.


There were a few friends that Charlie recalled: his Australian form mistress's son, Douggie, was tall, slim, freckled and handsome, and just perhaps laid a seed deep in Charlie's subconscious to seek out tall, slim, handsome Aussie playmates later in life; then there was Brian, with a permanent crewcut, who lived not far from Shell house; also a girl called Kathy, whose father worked in the civil service; and there was Hugh Jones, known as Hughie.


Hughie is likely to appear in subsequent blogs, covering the years when both Charlie and Hughie attended different schools in Sussex, from the mid 60s to the mid 70s, as is his elder sister Jill. The reason for that is that their parents, Constance and Barclay (Bark for short), struck up a friendship in Sarawak with the Johnsons that at time of writing has lasted 56 years. Sadly both Pam and Bark have now died, but Constance and Joe are both still very much alive and in regular, albeit currently socially distanced, contact.


Constance, their mother, at time of writing confined to home, aged 89, under Covid-19 lockdown restrictions in England, was the first person that Charlie contacted by phone, from Sydney, in April 2020 to ask if she'd mind appearing in the blog, inviting her to choose her nom-de- internet, which she duly did, followed by Hughie and Jill, both also enduring UK coronavirus restrictions, with the same request. More of the Joneses in due course.


Outside of school there was plenty of excitement for a five and six year old boy to enjoy. The Sarawak Club was the place where kids met at weekends, and where their parents socialised and played sport. The club had a large swimming pool, in which swim carnivals used to take place, which the Aussie kids always seemed to win. It was where Charlie learned to swim, not fantastically, while out on the golf course Pam won a few pewter mug trophies, one of which Charlie had brought back with him to Sydney after his father's house moving clear-out in 2014. It was also the first place that he experienced an open air cinema.


Another great activity was family trips down river to the beach. At the mouth of the Sarawak River stood an impressive landmark, jungle clad Mount Santubong, beside which was a magnificent sandy beach. There were chalets which could be rented out if booked far enough in advance, and Charlie could recall plenty of laughter-filled weekends there with the aforementioned Jones and Johnson families holidaying together.


The journey down the river was full of wonderfully tropical sights, unusual boats, and a half sunken ship, which had keeled over while either being loaded or unloaded and lay rusting in the mud on one of the banks. The smell of the fumes from an an outboard motor was something Charlie always associated with those riverine trips, as was to be, for the next 20 years or so in England, the sight, scent, heat, sound and feel of swaying palm trees, warm sea water and sandy beaches, covered with shells, which contrasted enormously with the reality of the cold shingle beaches he'd encounter in Sussex in his upcoming school years.


Bako was another beautiful beach, nowadays part of a National Park, approached by a relatively lengthy road trip, which entailed a river crossing in a rickety old ferry in both directions. A third favoured destination that he was able to recall, and indeed visit, along with the two aforementioned beaches, when he revisited Sarawak as an adult in 1986, was the waterfalls at Bau. Swimming in the rock pools below the falls, with laughing Malay, Chinese and Iban families, as well as the ex-pat families who flocked there, were happy memories.


One of the reasons Charlie's father, Joe, didn't really bother to learn Malay was because he didn't need to. The oil industry in Sarawak at the time was almost entirely run by the Chinese, with whom the language of business communication was always English, and another set of memories Charlie has is of accompanying his father to sundry Conch Oil storage facilities, sometimes after being picked up after school during the week, or on other occasions at the weekend, which might include a Saturday morning or afternoon.


Talking of being picked up from school, one of Charlie's more mortifying memories was when one of the back wheels of Joe's then-car, a big company-owned Rover, somehow managed to roll into the huge wide and deep storm ditch which ran in front of The Lodge, right beside the school gate, just when all the kids were being collected. His father claimed to have no memory of this event, but it was definitely another fragment that Charlie recalled, although he had no memory of how the big old beast was eventually extricated from the storm ditch.


It was on those adventures to riverside oil installations in the company of his father that Charlie acquired a perhaps slightly unhealthy fondness for the smell of petrol and gasoline, and of old empty oil drums: in many ways smell is one of the strongest senses for memory reminders. He'd also enjoy reading Tin Tin books and sundry other exciting adventures, sitting in the car, sometimes for seemingly ages, while Joe was conducting business at these facilities. Kuching had a fabulous Children's section in its public library, and with no TV available at all, reading became his main form of entertainment.


Bedtime would generally include some book reading with, or by, one or other parent, with Charlie tucked up in bed under the mosquito net, with the fan whirring gently. His mother, who had been a smoker since her teens, used to quite often have a cigarette to hand during these evening reading sessions, and another memory that Charlie could clearly recall, which may perhaps have lain at the base of his own twenty-something year addiction to cigarettes in later years, was asking her to "Blow me a fire fly, please, Mummy". This would entail her taking a drag on the cigarette, with all the burning embers burning bright red, an action which never failed to thrill him, followed by a "Good night, Sleep tight, and don't let the bugs bite".


A few childhood accidents occurred in Kuching, which left scars, or battle wounds, that lasted a lifetime. Whilst learning to ride a bike down the Shell House driveway a spectacular tumble led to some major lacerations on his left knee and a visit to the clinic to get stitches, an event which would occur more than once in future Asian travels, although on those occasions the bikes would be motorised, and the speed of impact with the tree and the bemo respectively would be faster. However those mishaps were still more than 2 decades ahead.


Another injury occurred when Charlie took it upon himself to try and iron his favourite shirt (the one with the red dragon on the pocket, of course), and managed to drop the scalding hot iron on the top of his left hand, the one that produced the messy writing which was the despair of his teachers at the Lodge. This managed to melt at least one layer of skin and attach its smeared remnants to the iron. A lot of screaming ensued, as did another visit to the clinic, and the residue scar is exactly in the pointed shape of the tip of an iron to this day.


Time flew by, as it always does when life is fun, but before the Johnsons were ready to return to life in Britain, and bid adieu to the tropics, there was a family trip up to Hong Kong to fit in. Joe's old boss from Enugu days, Ron, and his wife, Jane, Charlie's godmother, were now living there, still with Conch Oil, and a holiday to go and stay with them was organised.


To be honest, the only thing Charlie could remember about the whole Hong Kong holiday was somehow getting himself locked in a toilet, and needing to be rescued by a fireman, who came in through a skylight in the roof. No idea whose toilet it was, or why he got stuck, but that smiling Chinese fireman descending by ladder from the skylight was definitely real!


It was the journey to and from Hong Kong that Charlie remembered much more clearly. The first and last parts of the trip, hopping up the north coast of Borneo and back, aboard an ancient blue and white liveried Borneo Airways Douglas DC3 'Dakota', in both directions, were thrilling. The Dakota, which in contrast to the Malayan Airlines Focker's big oval windows, had small rectangular windows, and landed at a series of grass strip airports at Sibu, Bintulu and Miri, nowadays all substantial cities with tarmac and modern jet-serving terminals, before calling in at Brunei, and then its ultimate destination Jesselton, the State Capital of Sabah, which was later to change its name to Kota Kinabalu.


From there a connection was made on to a Cathay Pacific Lockheed Electra prop plane, which was meant to smoothly connect them through Manila, in the Philippines, to Hong Kong, but in the event Mother Nature intervened, with a typhoon hitting Hong Kong, resulting in an enforced stay over in Manila. The fact that these details were still clear in Charlies' memory more than 55 years later made his adult self realise that a career in the travel industry was probably an inevitability.


When, a year or two later at Prep School in England, Charlie found himself having to do fielding in some distant position of the cricket field, during an endlessly boring game, he would imagine he was the pilot of a Dakota in Borneo coming in to land on the grass strip. This was probably why he missed as many catches as he did, as it was hard to concentrate on a silly game of cricket, when one's mind was back in the tropics, adventure-bound.


Alas, it did eventually come time to leave Kuching at the end of September 1965, and time as well to say farewell to Bujang and his family. Needless to say it was a very sad parting for both families. A Chinese family replaced the Johnsons at Shell House, but Tomah decided not to stay on after the Johnsons departed, returning to her ancestral home, but not before presenting Pam with a vast array of spices, packed into a steel kwali rice cooker, which went on to form the basis of at least a decade's worth of future Sussex-cooked curries. Whether Bujang and the children stayed on, history doesn't relate because sadly, inevitably, the contact was lost after one initial Christmas Card exchanged by mail that Christmas, although Charlie would endeavour to find out the family's whereabouts two decades later.


For the meantime, though it was time for the Johnsons to be wished 'Selamat Jalan' as they flew to Singapore to start their next travel adventure, aboard the P&O liner, the Oriana, on the journey back to Britain, back to reality, and headlong into the Swinging Sixties.


TO BE CONTINUED.

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