Thursday, 23 February 2017

Love in the tropics :A young soldier fell in love with a local lass and proposed everyday for over five years until she relented

Over the years, I have met a lot of ex-servicemen from the British Army and spoken to them about their experience in the jungles of Malaya; defending the country against the communists and during the konfrantasi with Indonesia.  Some brought back wonderful memories of friendships which they still treasure, some still recite the pantuns they learnt and memorized behind sandbags, and some brought back wives to be their life long partners.

With love in the air, this being the month for Valentines, I went searching for some couples whose love blossomed in the tropics to see how they have fared in the cooler climes.

Suffice to say, I got more than I bargained for; love stories that defied all odds and worth turning into a Mills & Boons series. Who wouldn’t swoon listening to stories of undying love of a young soldier for an 18 year old Chinese girl to whom he proposed almost everyday until she relented years later, who wouldn’t cry reading jottings of love from someone who couldn’t read or write to her soul mate who saved her from a series of life’s misfortunes, who wouldn’t sympathise with the lass who was beaten with a broom for going out with an ang moh!  Yes, all for the love of an ang moh kui, the red haired devils in uniforms that set many hearts a flutter!

Last week, I travelled up to Colchester, once the capital of Roman Britain, to meet up with the first couple, John and Ruth Fitt, both 71, to hear their love story.

John Fitt joined the army, the Royal Green Jackets, at the age of 15, to see the world.  When he was posted to Penang three years later, his meeting with the long haired and petit Cheng Say Muan, also 18, was only the start of a life long adventure that would take them around the world.

“My friend had asked me to go to this White House restaurant and bar in Penang Road.  That was when I saw her.  Her hair was right down to her bum,” he said pointing to a black and white picture of the lass he now calls Ruth.

“My jaw dropped, my heart was beating so fast and the first time I spoke to her, I asked her to marry me,” he recalled the moment as if it was yesterday.

The gobsmacked lass, whose family owned the restaurant, obviously thought the young soldier was either mad or drunk, for she had met so many drunken Australian and British soldiers who frequented her father’s bar

Everyday since they met, she was bombarded with, “Will you marry me?” She gave in five years later and they were married on 30th May 1967.

 “When he was away, he would send piles of letters and every line and every page would be filled with “I love you” said Ruth of her besotted beau.

“When you are in love, you are a complete idiot, aren’t you? You tend to do idiotic things!”  John defended as they sat in their sitting room surrounded by memorabilias, souvenirs and pictures; testimonials of their journey in life together.

As the stories unfolded, with John and Ruth trying to tell their own version of the story, each finishing each other’s sentences as it is wont to be with long married couples, John’s admission of being an idiot didn’t stop there.

“He stalked me everywhere.  He bribed trishaw pullers with five sens or ten sens to tell him where Miss Long Hair was,” protested Ruth lovingly while John just smiled coyly remembering his mischiefs.

It would be months before Ruth would agree to go out, and a lot longer before they would hold hands.

“We had to meet secretly, at the cinema for the midnight movies. I would buy the tickets first, gave them to her and we would meet inside the cinema.  One of her sisters would meet her outside and they would walk home,” John continued, adding that just by being nice, he won over the approval of her siblings, her mother and even her grandmother.

However, the biggest hurdle and challenge was her father, a respectable member of the Hainan community on the island, who considered marrying an ang moh as akin to ruining his reputation.

“My father didn’t mind us being friends, but not to marry,” added Ruth whose work as a baby sitter with an Australian couple at the Australian base in Butterworth, helped true love on its course during the turbulent times.

By then, Ruth was offered a place in Australia to do nursing, sponsored by her employers.  When John received orders to be posted to Munster in Germany, she found herself at a crossroads.

Her grandmother found her crying in her room and offered her the best advice that she needed.

“She liked John who was kind and caring, so she advised me to go with John,” said Ruth.

The decision to marry started a conspiracy that would involve more willing sympathisers across several continents.

The day of their marriage at the registration office in George Town and the dinner that followed was one that was tinged with sadness as her father, who wasn’t privy to what was going on, wasn’t there.

“All my siblings, my mother and aunties were there, but not my father.  When my employers left for Australia, my father thought I left with them to do my nursing course.
But we left two weeks later, as husband and wife. I also left letters for my father. The letters would be sent to Australia to my former employers and they would be posted back to my father with the Australian stamps and postmarks!” explained Ruth of the web of conspiracy.

But Ruth knew she needed to tell her father who still thought she was in Australia.  With the help of her mother, they came up with the story that Ruth had accompanied her Australian employers to Germany, where she ‘accidentally” met John again and they had married.  By then she was 23, and although her father was heartbroken, he accepted that explanation.

A few years later, the couple went back with their first born, Dan, and her father’s heart melted.  They then had a daughter and Penang is now a favourite destination for the family.

As a final evidence of their devoted life together, the couple took out a cake; the first tier of their wedding cake which had travelled halfway around the world with them and had remained unopened.

The whiff of smell, akin to old cheese, filled the air as they finally got the almost 50 year old cake out of its container and ceremoniously cut it for me to witness. They laughed and giggled; the love smitten 18 year old ang moh soldier and his Malayan bride.

This article first appeared in the NST on 12 Feb 2017

Monday, 20 February 2017

Love in the tropics : No English no Problem

This being the 60th year of Independence, I am compiling stories about the British presence in Malaya and later in Malaysia and how that has affected our lives.  They went there as soldiers, expats etc. What have they brought back with them?  Some brought back memories, friendships, some found their life partners there.  I tracked down some soldiers, now in their seventies who found true love in the tropics.

This piece about Kim & Keith appeared in my column "Postcard from Zaharah" in the NST last Sunday.

Love in the Tropics - The story of Keith & Kim Marshall
The couple who went to separate cinemas on their first date and still together after 52 years!

Goh Kim It, 78, or Kim and her husband of 52 years, Keith Marshall, 77, had their studio taken pictures, letters and wedding anniversary tributes to each other all ready for my perusal.  A self made booklet entitled ‘Kim’s Story’ was also on the table.

“I had to write this story for her.  It is her story and it had to be told,” said Keith who was a 22-year old soldier with the transportation unit of the Royal Army Service Corp when he went to Malaya in 1961. He was based at the Terendak Camp.

I had travelled to Doncaster in South Yorkshire to meet the couple who had agreed to tell me how the seeds of love that were sown in the tropics, bloomed and blossomed in the cooler climes of the northern hemisphere. They had demonstrated how language was no barrier when cupid struck.

“When I came back here (to England), I came home.  For her, this is another country, another culture,” he added leafing the typewritten manuscripts that he had painstakingly documented, of his wife’s life from the time she was a four-year old girl growing up in a farm in Johor during the war, through her turbulent life in an arranged first marriage and their fateful meeting that led Kim to a whole new world she had only heard from stories told.

The couple then took me down memory lane to the night of their first meeting when they went out on a blind date.   Keith was much needed to make a foursome for a friend who couldn’t afford to take two girls out.  Kim, a baby sitter for an Australian couple, was only chaperoning her friend.  

Apart from going to the studio to take pictures as was the norm it seems for couples out on a date, not much else was happening between the two.

Kim & Keith on their first date

“She couldn’t speak much English, I couldn’t speak Chinese, so we sat and just nodded and smiled.  After the visit to the studio, we went to the movies; I went to see Cleopatra and she went to a Chinese movie,” and they both fell about laughing recalling the absurdity of being in two different cinemas on a first date!

There was a chemistry between the two that had quite an effect on my tear ducts. A part of me felt I was intruding into a very private and sacred space, a part of me wanted to share and celebrate their undying love together.

Keith read out loud Kim’s letters that were written by Kim’s employer, the wife of the Australian soldier.  The letters were written during their three months of separation while waiting for Kim to fly to England to be married.

He then read out her declaration of love penned by their daughter, on their golden wedding anniversary and she looked at him lovingly as he did so, breaking into laughter once in a while.
“It wasn’t easy not being able to talk to each other properly. However, the feeling was coming together, slowly but steadily,” explained Keith.

Kim who only knew life on a farm looking after her siblings couldn’t read nor write. Dyslexia was also a problem but not a hindrance for her to express her love for the kind and caring soldier who swept her off her feet, albeit the threatening stance of army regulations and of course the stigma of marrying an ang moh, the foreigner.

“I grew up during the war.  I still remember the Japanese coming to the village.  One day, they took my father and because I was with him, they took me too.  I must have been about four.  Some people were shot dead” said Kim, the memories still lingering in the deep recesses of her mind. 

 Keith had asked her to marry him just before he left for Thailand in 1963. The army then sent people from the church to talk to Kim as she was still married although they had been apart for a long time.

“I had already been told the army would not let me marry in Malaya. So, I had to get everything organised to marry in the UK. She had to go to hospital to get clearance health wise and lots of other things had to be done.

“But to get into town to get these things done, I had to give my word not to marry illegally, as far as army was concerned. I was given an hour for each trip to town.  I guess we could have married there but I would have been jailed for contravening orders,” explained Keith.

Disentangling herself from her first marriage, and with the help of her kind Australian employer, and without the knowledge of her siblings, Kim flew to England in December 1964, to join Keith who was sent home much earlier before the date of their planned marriage in Malacca. He had borrowed some money from his grandmother to pay for her flight ticket.

“When he went away, I told him whenever he missed me, look at the moon and I will also look at the moon and will remember him,” said Kim who was told that Keith, the ang moh kui would forget her the minute he stepped foot on English soil.

Kim brought with her two bowls, chopsticks and two wedding dresses.  When Keith met her at Heathrow airport, she couldn’t recognise him as he had put on weight.  She was only convinced when he showed her his ring with her name engraved on it.

They took the bus to the registry to be married and took the bus back, a simple and cheap ceremony.  The reception at the pub that evening offered more excitement as Kim was awestruck by the snow that fell during the night.

Keith was only getting £8 a week while waiting to leave the army before joining the colliery working in the coal mines.  He began taking another job to make ends meet, while Kim, when they moved out from her in laws across the road, to their own home rented from the Coal Board, did what she knew best.

“I grew vegetables and Chinese salads and then took them to the shops and exchanged for goods that I wanted. I missed rice and the only rice available was rice for pudding,” she recalled.

Kim won not only the affection of her in laws but also her neighbours who helped her with her gardening.  However, adapting to life in a different culture was not without any nerve wrecking experience which they now looked back with laughter.

She learnt very fast not to wash clothes and dry them out in the cold as they wouldn’t dry or to be mindful of the materials that she washed.

“I had to wear my wedding suit to the colliery because she washed my work trousers and it shrunk!” said Keith.

However, life counting every little penny and living on just eggs soon passed and they acquired the house which they now beautifully extended and decorated.  They occasionally went home to Malaysia for holidays and Kim became less homesick as she began to find friends from Hong Kong and even from Malaysia and Singapore who had migrated with their soldier husbands.
“Keith is a very kind and loving man.  I am very lucky,” said Kim,  her turbulent past truly behind her but only documented in the manuscripts for her children and grandchildren to read one day.