Chin Peng, Leon Comber and Han Suyin

Who was Chin Peng’s opponent in Malaya? Chin Peng’s rival was the former British intelligence officer Dr Leon Comber.

“It struck me that if there is anyone alive who knew Chin Peng “professionally” it had to be Dr Leon Comber.”

This revelation above came from the human rights activist and Malaysian politician Tunku Abdul Aziz in the New Straits Times. In his column, Tunku Aziz described Chin Peng as an enemy of the state and Chin Peng was not a patriot who fought for Merdeka (Merdeka is a Malay word for Independence).

Men of the Royal Air Force Regiment on foot patrol in Georgetown, Penang. They are passing beneath a Chinese banner that celebrates the victory over Japan. © IWM (CI

Men of the Royal Air Force Regiment on foot patrol in Georgetown, Penang. They are passing beneath a Chinese banner that celebrates the victory over Japan. The Chinese banner reads: The whole world celebrates world peace. © IWM (CI 1673)

A bit harsh? Tunku Aziz continued to describe Chin Peng as an alien. Now I could not help but imagine Chin Peng as a green man with three heads and six arms who possessed supernatural power and travelled through time and space across the lush jungle in Malaya.

“He was an alien. The CPM (Communist Party of Malaya) was an essentially Chinese show. Malays steered clear of communism…”

By Tunku Aziz on Not a patriot who fought for Merdeka

Who is Dr Leon Comber?

Dr Leon Comber was a former Special Branch officer in Malaya who reached the rank of acting Assistant Commissioner of Police. He came to Malaya as part of the re-occupying forces that took over as the Japanese surrendered. The name “The Special Branch” would make many Malaysians tremble. It was the government’s supreme intelligence organisation responsible for political, security, and operational intelligence.

Leon Comber was at the forefront of the colonial forces’ battle against the Communist Party of Malaya (CPM) and its guerrilla army, the Malayan National Liberation Army (MNLA). He even learnt Cantonese to understand his enemies. He trained both British and Malayan officers and took great risks. In 2008, The Star newspaper interviewed Dr Leon Comber, the officer who loved Malaya.

Dr Leon Comber, the British officer who loved Malaya.

Dr Leon Comber, the British officer who loved Malaya.

Dr Comber met Chin Peng in 1999 at Canberra.

Chin Peng's book: My side of history

My side of history by Chin Peng

“I met Chin Peng in 1999 at a conference at Canberra. There was no animosity. He was like a towkay (Janet’s note: towkay means ‘boss’. This word is derived from the Hokkien language of Chinese.) He spoke English, Malay and Chinese. He seemed forthright but who knows what he held back,” says Comber. “In retrospect, he was probably gathering information for his so-called history.”

From Dr Leon Comber’s interview with The Star in 2008

I almost screamed when I saw the name of Dr Leon Comber being mentioned in Tunku Aziz’s article last week. Of course I had heard about Dr Leon Comber, but it was through literature. He was the second husband of the Eurasian writer Han Suyin, who died last year. Han Suyin was born Rosalie Matilda Kuanghu Chou (周光瑚: Zhōu Guānghú). In Malaya, Han Suyin was famously known as a medical doctor as Dr Elizabeth C.K. Comber, or Dr Chow. There were a few varieties of her Chinese pen names: 韩素音/韩素英/汉素英.

I wrote about Han Suyin in January telling you where HAN Suyin was in Malaya in the 1950s. For those nostalgic souls who could not get enough of the romance in the award-winning film Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing, the film was based on her autobiographical novel of her tragic love affair with journalist Ian Morrison, who was killed in the Korean War. Han Suyin actually shunned away from the publicity and avoided the film that brought her instant fame, as she was busy practising as a medical doctor in my hometown Johor Bahru in the south of Malaya at that time.

HAN Suyin, image from Chinanews

HAN Suyin, image from Chinanews

Han Suyin is remembered as a prolific writer, whose works included The Morning Deluge: Mao Tsetong and the Chinese Revolution 1893-1954  and Eldest Son: Zhou Enlai and the Making of Modern China (1994).  Blogger Justin Choo is an avid reader of Han Suyin’s fictions and historical accounts, and he wrote a brilliant well-balanced review about Han Suyin’s works and shared fascinating facts about her life.

One of Han Suyin's autobiographies: My house has two doors, in Chinese.

One of Han Suyin’s autobiographies: My House Has Two Doors, translated into Chinese.

Before Han Suyin ran her private clinic Chow Dispensary at the upstairs of Universal Pharmacy in Johor Bahru in the south of Malaya, she worked at the Johor(e) Bahru General Hospital where I was born many years later. You can imagine my surprise when I found two photographs of this hospital on the website of the Imperial War Museums recently. The significance of this hospital during the colonial time was therefore beyond doubt. Should I feel honoured to have been born in this hospital, as the world’s first class museums so cherish its historical value?

According to a WordPress blogger nachmeinemeinung, the Johor Bahru General Hospital keeps two plagues on the walls of the main entrance of the hospital. The plaques list the names of the medical and auxiliary staff of the hospital who died during WWII.

The Johore Bahru Hospital, Malaya MALAYA (Circa 1950s). © IWM (TR 3489)

The Johore Bahru Hospital, Malaya (Circa 1950s). Exterior shot of the buildings and the view from the hospital grounds looking over the Johore Straits which separate the mainland from Singapore Island. © IWM (TR 3489)

I also found a picture of Han Suyin’s first husband on the website of the Imperial War Museums. In 1938, Han Suyin married her first husband Tang Pao-Huang (Chinese: 唐保璜), a Chinese Nationalist military officer. He was later killed in the Chinese civil war in 1947.

Han Suyin's first husband, who died in the Chinese civil war. © IWM (Art.IWM ART LD 4503) Tang Pao-Huang

Han Suyin’s first husband, Tang Pao-Huang, who died in the Chinese civil war. ©IWM (Art.IWM ART LD 4503)

In 1952, Han Suyin married Leon F. Comber, a British officer in the Malayan Special Branch. Their marriage lasted seven years.

In 1956, Han Suyin published And the Rain My Drink, a novel set against a backdrop of the Malayan Emergency.

Dr Comber’s career suffered as a result of the publication of this book by his wife and he left the police force in the same year.

Han Suyin's book "And The Rain My Drink" reflected human suffering during the Malayan Emergency.

And The Rain My Drink

“The novel portrayed the British security forces in a rather slanted fashion, I thought. She was a rather pro-Left intellectual and also a doctor. I understood the reasons why the communists might have felt the way they did, but I didn’t agree with them taking up arms.”

From Dr Leon Comber’s interview with The Star in 2008

It is rumoured that the Chinese translation of And the Rain My Drink (餐风饮露 cān fēng yǐn lù) was incomplete because the British government banned its translation. However, I could not find any evidence to support this claim, which has been circulating in the Chinese community around the world. The rumour is that only half of this book was translated, by the famous journalist Li Xingke (李星可) in Singapore and was published by The Youth Book Co.(青年书局). The common belief was that the second half of the book was banned.

Royal Air Force Regiment medical orderly, Corporal L Cooper, takes a clinic for Chinese, Indian and Malay residents of Penang Hill where he is based with a small garrison detachment of one officer and 30 men. © IWM (CF 1021)

Royal Air Force Regiment medical orderly, Corporal L Cooper, takes a clinic for Chinese, Indian and Malay residents of Penang Hill where he is based with a small garrison detachment of one officer and 30 men. © IWM (CF 1021)

I hope you have enjoyed the trails that I have taken you in this post. In the deep, dense jungles of Malaya where Chin Peng commanded his armed men and women, Leon Comber never stopped pursuing the British number one enemy with his might. History was so tangled. Now, when you enjoy the glorified romance of Love is a Many-splendored Thing by Han Suyin again, you may imagine her life in Malaya, as a respectable doctor, wife to a high-ranking Special Branch officer, a romantic yet politically controversial writer, and a friend of Chairman Mao.

The Chin Peng series was inspired by Blog Exercises: What story should I share? by Lorelle VanFossen. You can find more Blog Exercises on . This is a year-long challenge to help you flex your blogging muscles.


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27 thoughts on “Chin Peng, Leon Comber and Han Suyin

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  7. chennicole2013

    This is sooo interesting! To think that Han Suyin practiced in your hometown and that you were born in the hospital where she practiced. About the time my children were born, she was my favorite author. She had a way of mixing history and fiction that was easy to read and understand. While I was nursing my daughters, I read “The Crippled Tree,” “Birdless Summer” and “A Mortal Flower,” autobiographical works that cover the period from her birth through 1948.

    I enjoyed seeing the photo of her first husband. While I was reading her books, I wondered what he looked like.

    Reply
    1. Janet Williams Post author

      Dear Nicki,

      I’m so pleased that this post resonates with you. When I did some digging at the Imperial War Museums and found the photograph of Tang Pao-Huang, I felt like I had found gold. I also read that their marriage was not a happy one. In many Chinese sources that I read, Mr Tang was described as an old-fashioned and abusive husband, and he didn’t like the fact that Han Suyin was a writer. She didn’t fit in the society, and she was not a subservient wife. However, I am not sure of the truth in all these negative statements.

      Reply
      1. chennicole2013

        I read her autobiographical books forty years ago, but I do remember liking Tang Pao-Huang at first and then being disappointed with him.

    1. Janet Williams Post author

      Three Heads and Six Arms — a Chinese idiom: 三头六臂 (sān tóu liù bì). Figuratively speaking, if someone has 3 heads and 6 arms, he is got to be remarkable, talented, and resourceful. Do you think Doctor Who has got 3 heads and 6 arms too?

      This expression has its origin in Buddhism. 哪吒 Nézhā in the Journey to the West (The Monkey Story) transformed into something with 3 heads and 6 arms to fight the Monkey, so the Monkey, who was outraged, also turned into 3 heads and 6 arms to fight him back. Who won in the end? You guess.

      Google Translate gave me a simple translation of 三头六臂: Superhuman.

      Bing Translate is more thorough, though a bit sexist:

      “(with) three heads and six arms; have three heads and six arms (like the deity of old, formed from a lotus, who had three heads and six arms); superhuman powers: 别说是女人当不来, 就是三头六臂的男人, 还撑不住呢。 No ordinary woman could manage it; no, not even a man with three heads and six arms!”

      Reply
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  9. KL

    谢谢将Leon Comber,韩素音与陈平串联起来,将我们带回历史现场。

    《与陈平对话——马来亚共产党新解》2004年英文版,2012年底马来西亚出版了中文版,陈平与Leon Comber等多人将各方的“情报”摆在桌面,以故事的心情来看,绝对exciting。以当事人而言,比猫儿还多了许多条命。在一个为理想而奋斗的年代,只有立场,没有对错。

    韩素音的一生也是一个传奇。我有一位朋友花了长时间研究韩素音,在老人家去世前数月,还拜访过她,晚景只剩下不良于行的老人家和一位家庭帮佣。您或许对下述链接有兴趣。

    Leon Comber on Han Suyin – Part 1: 梁康柏谈韩素音 — (1)

    Note: Janet’s translation of the above text:

    “…… Han Suyin was a legend. A friend of mine spent years studying Han Suyin and also visited her a few months before Han Suyin passed away…”

    Reply
    1. Janet Williams Post author

      Thank you for the link to the interview with Leon Comber written in Chinese. It was well written and it gave me a better understanding of Dr Comber.

      You mentioned Han Suyin was a legend. I think Leon Comber is also a legend in his own right. There are more for us to find out. Thank you for sharing.

      Reply
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  17. bandus21

    Hi,

    I chanced upon your blog when I was searching for additional details about Dr Leon Comber, and find your posts everything about the Malayan Emergency very enjoyable to read. Never have I seen any other other blogs so focused about the Emergency period and added a personal touch to it by adding your childhood experiences during those turbulent years in Malaya.

    I first seen the name of Han Suyin in my English book during my high school years, but unfortunately I wasn’t able to read her works. Leon Comber and Chin Peng became familiar to me only after watching a 2-hour documentary covering the 12-year long Emergency period. Little did I realize that these three people are connected to each other when I searched Han Suyin in Google and saw that she was once married to a British police officer (Comber) that is hunting down the number one terrorist!

    After watching the documentary, I became interested in Malay(si)an history, its connection to the United Kingdom and the British Empire (later on, the Commonwealth) in general. So in my desire to know more about the Malayan Emergency, I looked into my little library, hoping that there be some entry about it. I managed to find a book about Southeast Asia with a full chapter focused about Malaysia and a Filipino translation of the Malaysian short story titled ‘The Return’ written by K.S. Maniam.

    I’ll keep coming back on reading your posts, for they are very fun to read. I hope one day that you will be able to interview Dr Comber like you did to Cockhorse, because it’s interesting to know about his pre-Special Branch career (e.g.: What Indian army regiment did he belong to? What operations he participated aside from Operation Zipper? What decorations did he have after the war? After the Emergency? Was he also a recipient of the Pingat Jasa Malaysia?, etc.)

    Reply
    1. Janet Williams

      Thank you for your encouragement, and I’m glad that you enjoyed reading my posts. You’ve asked some very interesting questions.

      I’ve read a few more books by Dr Comber in England, but I haven’t seen the documentary.

      I’ll continue with my research and try to write more in the future. I’ve been busy with other projects and have taken a short break from this blog.

      I understand that Dr Comber teaches in Singapore. I’m sure many people are very interested in his stories and I do hope that one day he would reveal more in interviews or in books.

      Reply
    2. Janet Williams Post author

      Many thanks for your comment. I apologise for not replying sooner.

      Thank you for reading the posts and I hope you find them interesting, and discover more about the history there. Malaya in those years was chaotic with conflicts. I was growing up in a rather peaceful time, yet I listened to many stories of people’s stories – in the jungle, and consequences of various conflicts of ideologies.

      When I last contacted Dr Comber, he was lecturing in Singapore. I hope one day we’ll find out these questions that you raised. Hopefully he’ll publish a memoir.

      Reply
      1. bandus21

        Hi again, Janet. It’s been a while since last visited here. I am really looking forward for his memoir to publish and it is one of my dreams to see him personally.

      2. ghengsrs

        Intriguing and interesting stories from the Emergency of Malaya Era 1948-1960 especially in reference to Dr.Han Suyin who recently passed on in Switzerland ,Dr. Leon Comber her Ex-Man And Chinese Communist Terrorist Leader Chin Peng of Sitiaawan Perak Malaya ! how could Chin Peng win the War for the hearts and minds of the Malayan people ?they had nothing in common with PRC ‘s Mao Zedong or his Comunism ! And many battalions could he muster from the Malayan People,most of them diaspora SETTLORS from East and South Asia as well as very poor Indonesia ! The decision to murder Sir Henry Gurney British High Commissioner was not strategically proper nor smart ,like the Japanese Attacks on American Pearl Harbour in Hawaai ! Chin Peng was no General or Soldier he was only good at repairing bicycles at his parents Bicycle Shop in Sitiaawan ! he was no match for Field Marshall Sir🐼🐼🐼Gerald Templer and General Briggs ! The winning strategy of winning the hearts and minds of the Malayan People was taken up by founding Premier of Singapore Harry Lee Kuan Yew with exceptional successes resulting in from a third rate to first rate Economic Nation for Singapore !

        ️GH 🐼🐼🐼🐯🐯🐯🐘🐘🐘🐎🐎🐎🐪🐪🐪🐬🐬🐬🐳🐳🐳🎎🎎🎎🎈🎈🎈🌷🌷🌷🎋🎋🎋🗽🗽🗽🎡🎡🎡🌅🌅🌅

        Sent from my iPad

        >

  18. ghengsrs

    Chin Peng was for the most part of his life delusional about political power, miscalculated the grassroots movement of the Chinese People in Nayang/Sing Kia Po quite unlike his contemporary Harry Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore a British educated Barrister who the Chinese Communists like Chin Peng their Leader characterized as an Imperislist Lackey Lap Dog! The spectacular Economic Rise and Rice of Singapore say it all globally what is practical for a post Colonial Imperialist World after the British were persuaded to leave Singapore, Malaya, India and countries like Afro-Kenya !

    Gerald Sr Heng
    Metrowest Boston,MA/ Washington DC, USA

    Reply

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