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
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.