Where was HAN Suyin in Malaya in the 1950s?

What do you think enhance a city? What element would exude fragrance and charm? For me, it’s the presence of art, the spirit of a writer who once lived there.

If you were to visit me in England, I would take you to the nearest city Winchester, England’s historic city, adorned with magnificent architectures. It’s where you’ll find the little house where Jane Austen had lived before she died. We would walk along the water meadows, abundant in wild flowers and butterflies.

Before I came to England, in Johor Bahru, the city where I was born in Malaysia (previously Malaya), a lesser known story was developing. HAN Suyin, the Eurasian writer noted for A Many Splendoured Thing in 1952, lived there for about 10 years. This novel was later made into an award winning film, starring Jennifer Jones and William Holden, in 1955, and HAN Suyin instantly became a household name. The novel was based on her love affair in Hong Kong with the war journalist for The Times in London, an Australian named Ian Morrison, who died later reporting in the Korean war.

A Many-Splendoured Thing, by HAN Suyin 韩素音 (image from Amazon)

A Many-Splendoured Thing, by HAN Suyin 韩素音 (image from Amazon)

HAN Suyin 韩素音 was a medical doctor. She was born Elisabeth Chow Kuanghu (Zhou Guang-Hu 周光瑚) in 1917 in Henan, China, to Zhou Yuan Dong and Marguerite Denis, her Flemish-Belgian mother. She arrived in Johor Bahru, Malaya, in around 1952 from Hong Kong with her second husband, the former British intelligence officer Dr Leon Comber.

Han Suyin used to work in this hospital in Johor Bahru, south of Malaya. View from the hospital grounds looking over the Johore Straits which separate the mainland from Singapore Island. © IWM (TR 3488)

Johore Bahru General Hospital: Han Suyin used to work in this hospital in the south of Malaya. View from the hospital grounds looking over the Johore Straits which separate the mainland from Singapore Island. © IWM (TR 3488)

Han Suyin practised in the General Hospital, where I was born less than 20 years later. Later, She ran her own clinic called Chow Dispensary, which was later relocated to Jalan Ibrahim (meaning Ibrahim Road) above Universal Pharmacy. In the 70s, long after the writer had left, the few shops and houses there were destroyed by fire. Now, the place which carried the memories of her has been turned into a car park.

HAN Suyin, image from The Hindu

HAN Suyin, image from The Hindu

I remembered this road in Johor Bahru well, of course, as the school bus would take me away from the deprived village, where candlelight was not for romance as power cut was far too frequent. The bus took me to a school in the trendy city adorned with emporiums, cinemas, tailors, and money-changers. The aroma of freshly roasted coffee brewed in a muslin bag filled the air. Squared frozen butter sprinkled with sugar was sandwiched between toasted bread. One bakery still baked their bread using charcoal. The tropical heat was merciless; the spread of freckles on the darkened skin was merciless. Every inch of my skin felt sticky. Deafening prayers and chants from the mosques transmitted through loudspeakers a few times a day, louder and louder they seemed each time. Aroma, humidity, noise.

HAN Suyin, image from Chinanews

HAN Suyin, image from Chinanews

Today, the older generation in Johor Bahru still remembered Dr Chow, a kind and elegant doctor who spoke Mandarin, Hakka, Cantonese, Malay, French and English.

HAN Suyin 韩素音 was her pen name. In Chinese it means ‘The clear voice of the Han people.’

HAN Suyin died on 2nd November last year in Lausanne, Switzerland, aged 96. You can find many photographs of HAN Suyin in this post written by her family.

In my another post Chin Peng, Leon Comber and Han Suyin about Malaya, I wrote about Han Suyin and her British husband Leon Comber during their time in Malaya during the Malayan Emergency from 1948 to1960. She portrayed human suffering under the British rule and her book And The Rain My Drink  (餐风饮露 cān fēng yǐn lù) had hurt her relationship with her husband.

Han Suyin opened up to the world a window for the west to see and hear about the closed and mysterious China in the last century. She also poured her passion onto Malaya for the world to feel its pulses in the most tumultuous years. Though many critics were skeptical about her political stance, the world should be thankful for her openness and her incessant efforts in sharing her perspectives, through many fictions and historical accounts for the world to cherish today.

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19 thoughts on “Where was HAN Suyin in Malaya in the 1950s?

  1. llehting

    Jane Austen is a great writer. I am very very fond of her writings since teenage, especially Pride and Prejudice which I have read for so many times yet still enjoy it so much.
    A writer with great humor. The way she described characters and personality always make me laugh. It would be great if I can visit her little house one day with the scenery that you have described.

    Reply
    1. Janet Williams Post author

      Dear llehting,

      Thank you for your comment.

      Jane Austen’s Winchester residence gives you some information about Jane Austen in Winchester.

      Winchester is close to where I live and I visit it regularly. It’s a historic city; absolutely classic and beautiful. John Keats wrote the ode, ‘To Autumn’, based on Winchester too. Keats’ Walk in Winchester

      Visit me and I’ll take you there. I can also take you to see Winchester Cathedral, where she was buried. We took a photo last month in the cathedral.

      Reply
    1. Janet Williams Post author

      Dear Scribedoll,

      Thank you. I wrote this piece because most documents available only focused on HAN Suyin’s passionate love affair in Hong Kong, her 3 marriages and her close link with Chairman Mao and many powerful figures in the PRC government. Her time in Malaya (including Singapore) has been largely ignored in the western media. Her contributions in medicine and education (a keen supporter of Nanyang University in Singapore) are equally important, at least to the people in Asia.

      Reply
  2. marshland

    An interesting piece. Being a typical male, I know zilch about Jane Austen. My wife is from Deventer in Holland and we went to an Amnesty International meeting there and inside the converted chapel was a tiny museum dedicated to a girl, who briefly lived in Deventer, hardly known in Holland never mind outside, called Etty Hillesum. She, like Anne Frank, was a Jewess who hid from the Nazis, wrote a diary, mostly in Westerbork transit concentration camp after she was caught, then sent to Auschwitz to be murdered. Her diaries were only published in 1981. I’ve been to Westerbork. It was minus 4°c, light snow blowing in a strong breeze and it is haunting, the railway line alone makes you go quiet, retract into yourself and forces you to think alone, to imagining the thousands of Jews & Gypsies being thrown off the trains, then standing at appel for hours on end in those conditions without winter clothes, barefoot. Although it is 67 years on, it is still difficult to forgive the Germans, knowing some of the perpetrators are undoubtedly still alive.

    Reply
    1. Janet Williams Post author

      Thank you for this interesting fact. I have never heard of Etty Hillesum either. In teaching history, perhaps much emphasis was on symbols. Since Anne Frank is a strong symbol, other characters may have been overlooked. It’s interesting that my topic about HAN Suyin with an introduction about Jane Austen is linked to your thought about Etty Hillesum and the wars. At first I was wondering ‘how on earth did he make this ridiculous link on my artistically creative post?’ But now I can see your point. Thank you for showing your insight here. It’s much appreciated.

      Reply
    1. Janet Williams Post author

      Dear Jamie,

      Sorry for my late reply. Thank you so much for your visit and various comments. It’s very encouraging. In my hometown, there’s been some cultural events recently to recall HAN Suyin’s life and contributions in Malaysia and Singapore.

      Reply
      1. Jamie Dedes

        You are quite welcome, Janet, and it is wonderful to know that somewhere on this earth her worthy memory is being celebrated. Does this heart good.

        In gratitude,
        Jamie

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