The White Rajah

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James Brooke (29th April 1803 – 11 June 1868)

The picture is from a painting by Sir Francis Grant in 1847

Sarawak, the name brings forth ideas of head hunters and ‘daring do’ from comics that I read in the 1950’s.

Little did I know that one day I would sail up the Sarawak River to the town of Kuching on the island of Borneo.

Sarawak had been James Brooke’s & his descendants fiefdom since about 1841 – until . .

In April 1942 the Japanese captured Sarawak, and for three years they ran the place as part of the Empire of Japan.

The Japanese surrender to the Australians in 1945, and Sarawak became a British Colony.

In May 1961 the PM of Malaysia, Tunku Abdul Rahman, put forward a plan for a greater Malaysia, which included Singapore, Sarawak,  Sabah & Brunei. In 1962 eighty percent of the population of Sarawak & Sabah voted to join Malaya to create Malaysia, along with Singapore.

Indonesia and the Philippines didn’t like the creation of Malaysia. So Indonesia  encouraged discontent with the communists of Sarawak and trained them in military tactics, and also supplied armed ‘volunteers’ to causes problems for Sarawak and the newly created country of Malaysia.

The fighting began in 1963 with infiltration forces from Indonesia in to Sarawak. By this time the British were involved in support of Malaysia, who had only gained independence from Britain a few years earlier in 1957.

Later Australia & New Zealand became involved in support of Malaysia.

Knowing little of the details that I know now, I flew in to Singapore to join LST (Landing ship tank) Frederick Clover in April 1966. The company, British India Steam Navigation Co, held the contract to man various LSTs based in Singapore, Malta, Aden etc and I’d drawn the straw for Frederick Clover, based in Singapore.

If you wish to see other photographs of the LST and why I fired a machine gun click on the highlighted letters.

CloverFrederick Clover, alongside in Singapore, her bows open to accept military cargo for Borneo. The photo is old and not very clear.

meAs you see she was an old ship, built in 1945. The captain’s chair had to be lashed down to make sure we didn’t lose it in a strong wind. My hair isn’t moving because our top speed was 10 knots . . . .

3rd mateAt least we had a compass. Although we could have found our way to Borneo using the echo sounder by following the empty beer cans from our previous trips. At that time being Green meant you were sea sick, not environmentally aware.

TroopsWhile we were alongside in Kuching the ‘Auby’ moored astern of us. She was to take a Gurkha regiment back to Singapore. The Auby was a cargo ship of about 1700 tons , with facilities for a few passengers in the for’d accommodation. I can only assume the soldiers traveled as ‘deck cargo’. The Auby carried about 31,000 troops in and out of Singapore during the ‘confrontation’. The picture is not all that clear but the troops can be seen formed up on the quay.

In 2011, Maureen & I attended a reunion in Singapore of cadets from HMS Conway Training College, so after the reunion I thought it would be an ideal time to take Maureen to Kuching and a spot of ‘I remember when’ for me.

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While in Kuching we did a river cruise in a small boat, which allowed me to photograph the quay, (see above), which I think is the same one in the photographs showing the Gurkha troops.

IMGP3782r  Our boatman and his boat that we used.

We stayed at the Pullman Hotel, which overlooked the town.

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IMGP3766rThis one shows the Sarawak River

Kuching is also known as Cat City – there are a number of anecdotes as to why Kuching got its name. It used to be called Sarawak until James Brooke arrived by sea and asked his guide the name of the place, while pointing to the small town. The local guide thinking that James was pointing at a cat, answered ‘Kuching’, which is the Malay word for cat i.e ‘kucing’.  Against this story being true is that the local Malays who live in Kuching call a cat a ‘pusak’

Another story is that the town is named after a river called Sungai Kuching, which means Cat River. Another idea is that it is named after mata kucing, which is a fruit grown in Malaysia, Indonesia and the northern parts of Australia. The name means Cats Eye.

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The mata kucing fruit looks like a lychee.

So with a name like ‘Cat’, Kuching turned itself in to a tourist attraction by becoming the Cat City.

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe above cat statues are outside our favourite restaurant.

IMGP3786rcThe James Brooke on the water front.

IMGP3955rIt is also a bar, and you do not have to order food.

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Of course we ordered lunch – Laksa – beautiful, and for me a cold beer helped it down.

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The following year we returned to Kuching with two other couples, and it wasn’t a hardship to revisit many places again.
During one evening in the James Brooke restaurant I overheard an accent that I recognised – it was a Liverpool accent. The four men having their evening meal worked as contactors for an aircraft company and flew around the world fixing problems. Because Maureen originated in Liverpool it didn’t take long for us to get chatting.

I asked one fellow where he lived on Merseyside and he told me Birkenhead. I mentioned that I came from Lower Tranmere in Birkenhead, and we then swapped details of the exact area. It turned out that he knew where my childhood street was, because he lived quite close.

The following night we met him again and he said that he had phoned his father in the UK, who was retired and still living in Lower Tranmere, and told him of meeting me. It turns out that his father was our milkman, and he used to deliver milk to my home when I was a child. Talk about a small world.

During my remember when holiday I couldn’t understand why the river never dropped as the tide turned.

FrederickCloverDressed overall for the last voyage to Singapore before the ship would be sold.

Generous meals, as the guest of various army units, helped to break the boredom of being in an out of the way port. We were not there to make a profit through trade, but in support of our own troops, a huge difference.

When we heard that the ship was to be sold on our return to Singapore, we decided to have a farewell dinner along with a number of army officers. Tables were booked at the local Chinese restaurant and all the ship’s officers left the ship, leaving just a watchman. It was a quiet night with little river traffic so we felt a single watchman was enough. The majority of the crew were allowed shore leave, because they would soon be out of work once we reached Singapore.
The evening went well until we returned to the ship and found her lying at a strange angle. What had happened was that the tide had gone out and the river had dropped causing the ship to settle in the mud. Being flat bottomed she would have settled upright if the watchman had slackened off the mooring lines – he’d not done so, and Frederick Clover was lying with a very large list away from the wharf – her mooring lines were bar tight with the strain.
There was little that we could do but wait for the tide to turn and raise her back to normal, which fortunately is what happened.

So during our holiday I asked why I hadn’t seen the river drop as the tide went out – it was all down to a barrage that had been built at the mouth of the river in the late 90’s, which controlled the flow of the river. The gates would be opened each Friday afternoon to flush out any rubbish etc.

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They do have the facility to allow small fishing boats to enter the river – which means that they must have a lock system.

At least I wasn’t going mad, because I was sure that the river would drop as the tide changed.

WhiteIf you are interested in Sarawak and the island of Borneo, but don’t wish to read a great tome, try the above book, which is an easy and interesting read.

The wife of the third Rajah, Sylvia Brooke,  who wrote her own autobiography in 1970, also wrote a synopsis of the life of James Brooke, which was bought by Warner Brothers film studio.
Errol Flynn wanted to play James Brooke, but in the script that he wrote, after reading the synopsis, he had James Brooke arriving in Borneo with a young woman dressed as a boy.
Sylvia Brooke refused to allow Flynn’s story to go any further, because there wasn’t any ‘love interest’ when Brooke arrived in Borneo. According to Sylvia Brooke James Brooke was the first white man to set foot in Borneo – which I find hard to believe.

Finally when Somerset Maugham visited Sarawak, it was suggested that James Brooke’s life would make a good film, but Somerset Maugham said, no it wouldn’t, because there wasn’t any love interest.

James Brooke’s life was full of love, he inspired love and felt love, so perhaps it is time for the right actor to take up the challenge and recreate The White Rajah.

Singapore 1963 and all that . . .

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I was a deck cadet on the above vessel in 1963.

Arriving in Singapore on Saturday the 14th September 1963, the cadets were allowed to go ashore and have a swim at the Seaman’s Club. The ship was anchored off the wharf area, and we would take a small junk and be rowed, usual by a female using the single paddle at the stern of the junk, from the ship to Clifford Pier near Change Alley. Sunday the 15th was a day of rest for us, as well as all of Singapore, because that was the day the festivities would start. On the 16th September 1963 Singapore would join Malay to create a new country called Malaysia. The British were no longer in charge of Singapore.
Singapore in the 1960’s was as ‘foreign’ as one could get – it was a mixture of British, Malay, China, Indonesia, and everywhere else in between – it was Asian, and I loved it from the minute I set foot ashore on Clifford Pier.

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Clifford Pier – still there today, but it is now a museum, I think.

First thing we always did on crossing the road, known as Collyer Quay, was to visit Change Alley – at that time famous for money changers. Now it is an upmarket, air-conditioned shopping area. The picture below was taken in 1970.

06 singapore 1970s change alley

With ‘Sing’ dollars in our pocket one could not go past the Cellar Bar, which was below street level (obviously), and a cool, quiet place (being late morning) for a cold Tiger beer. It would liven up at lunchtime and in the evening.

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To illustrate how important the Cellar Bar was to the seafaring fraternity, I will jump a head from 1963 to 1966.

After I’d finished my time as a cadet, and passed the exams for a Second Mates ticket I was sent, in April 1966, to Singapore to join an LST (Landing Ship Tank) as third mate. The Company had the contract to supply officers and crews for the various LSTs controlled by the British Ministry of Defence around the world. From 1962 to 1966 Malaya and Indonesia had been fighting an undeclared war, which dragged Britain, Australia & New Zealand in to this ‘confrontation’.
I joined LST Frederick Clover, which was built in 1945 as LST 3001, and named ‘Frederick Clover’ after the war, gross tonnage 4225, so not a particularly large vessel.
Our duties were to carry supplies and troops (the troops to and from) Borneo in support of the fight against Indonesia.
There were other LSTs on similar runs to Borneo, and the officers used to socialise at the Cellar Bar whenever their ship was in port. One day I asked, at the naval office, when a particular LST would be in port, because the third mate in this LST was a friend of mine. I was told that they couldn’t tell me because I wasn’t security cleared, and the movement of the LSTs were on a ‘need to know’ basis. I even explained that I was part of the LST fleet, but as I was still a merchant seaman, rather than Royal Navy, they couldn’t help me, although I’d signed the Official Secrets Act in case I gave away the top speed (10 kts) of the Frederick Clover.

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Not a problem, my next stop was the Cellar Bar and I asked the girls behind the bar if they knew when my friend was due in Singapore. They were quite happy to tell me the name of his LST, and that he was due into Singapore the following day!, so much for ‘need to know’, and naval security.

 

Let’s move back to the celebrations of Singapore joining Malaya, to create the new country of Malaysia.

Early evening we visited Bugis Street for something to eat – the place was already ‘jumping’. Bugis St was famous for the food stalls, beer halls and ‘girls’, although many were not female, but males dressed as females. The ‘trans’ girls would parade up and down the street in their finery and offer to sit near or on someone’s lap while photographs were taken. For this service ‘she’ would charge a small fee. If they worked the street for a number of hours they would earn a very good living. It was known that certain first tripper boy seamen, around fifteen or sixteen years old would be caught up with the whole ambiance of Bugis St and slide off with one of the very attractive ‘attractions’. It didn’t take long for his mates to see the young first tripper running like mad towards them, as if the hounds of hell were after him. His introduction to Bugis Street nightlife was not what he expected.

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Early evening for food and beer.

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Around mid-night the ‘girls’ would show up.

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Anybody wish to take my picture?

How to tell the difference between the ‘she’ men and real women? The real women couldn’t afford to dress as well as the ‘she’ men. I was always told to check the Adams apple on the ‘women’ – but I never got that close!

In the 1980’s Bugis Street was closed due to the building of the MRT station. Later the Government realised that they had killed off a major Singapore ‘attraction’, so they opened ‘new’ Bugis Street, which is across the main road (Victoria Street),  and is now an open air market stall area. Regardless of the promotional effort Bugis Street is ‘dead’.

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The picture shows Bugis Street today (the original area not the ‘new’ street)

 

 

The celebrations went on for a few days, but the ‘marriage’ of Singapore and Malaya didn’t last. It was all over by the 9th August 1965, when Singapore became an independent state. This was still in the future.