Rocking the Home Team with a Lot of Hot Poop in WW II Malaya

I was looking through digitized materials in the Australian National Archives when I came across this “mirror typed letter” that was sent to Captain J. L. Chapman, a member of Force 136, a branch of the British Special Operations Executive that fought behind enemy lines in Malaya during World War II.

Chapman 1

As one can see, it is impossible to read, but when held up in front of a mirror, it looks like this:

1 - Copy

Here’s what it says:

Dear Chappie,

I don’t know that this will reach you but here goes; Penghulu is worried stiff about those RODS you gave him. That Bastard Babu (or maybe Havildar) tipped off the boy scouts about the Ladies from Bristol. The scouts turned on the heat and demanded the roscoes. Pungie gives with the oil and weaves the following fantasy; Quote; The roscoes were under cover at the Yankee joint in prep. for a son of Paradise shindig. No Nips, no roscoes. Check your oil if they buttonhole you. Otherwise Pungie will be written off. I gave with the jive that the roscoes were a Christmas present from my watery cousins and would be dished out to Pungie only in case of the old nip one-two.

I have been rocking the home team with a lot of hot poop. Sorry I can’t beat my gums about it but will give you the office in Singapore. Needless to say, old cock. You pukka sahibs have had it. Regards to all the lads. Good luck.

P.S. I am sealing this epistle with wax. Please read and destroy.

chapman pun

I have no idea what this means, but I do see slang and humor. Slang and humor are difficult for outsiders to understand, but I never imagined that they could be used as a secret code during wartime, but obviously they can.

Pua Kumbu and Digital Knowledge Mobilization

On a recent trip to Malaysia I visited an exhibition on Textile Tales of Pua Kumbu at the University of Malaya Art Gallery that really impressed me.

Pua kumbu are textiles that are woven by the Iban people on the island of Borneo. (“Pua” is the Iban word for “blanket,” and “kumbu” means to wrap.)

Pua kumbu were traditionally used by the Iban for various ritual purposes. That, of course, makes these textiles important, but what makes them even more significant is that each pua kumbu has a story woven into it that the weaver can “read” by viewing the cloth.


For those of us today who have no connection to the traditions of the Iban, however, “reading” pua kumbu and understanding the ideas that they contain is all but impossible.

However, the Textile Tales of Pua Kumbu exhibition made this possible by employing “polysensory and immersive digital media” to educate visitors to the exhibit about how pua kumbu are made, as well as about their significance and the tales they contain.


The exhibition opens with a video projected onto the floor. The beginning of the video takes viewers into the interior of Sarawak where many of the pua kumbu in the exhibit were produced.

To view the video, one has to walk right up to the edge of the area where the video is projected, and in doing so, one gets the sensation of actually entering the video and boarding the boats that take one upstream into the interior.


Upon “arriving,” the video on the floor goes blank, but the story continues on the adjacent wall where the image is so big that one has to take a few steps back in order to view it all. Here again, one gets the sense of being immersed in the video rather than simply viewing it.

This opening video provides historical information about the Iban and their tradition of weaving pua kumbu.

Once that video ends, visitors then proceed to another room where there is another video which shows a master weaver “reading,” in Iban, stories from pua kumbu.


Accompanying these readings are animated interpretations of the stories.

The animated figures in the stories are almost geometrical in shape. This at first may seem merely artistic, but then one quickly comes to realize that these geometric shapes match and mimic the geometric patterns on pua kumbu themselves.


After learning some of the stories that are on individual pua kumbu, visitors than proceed to another room where a large pua kumbu is laid out. This pua kumbu contains one of the stories that is “read” and animated in the previous room.


Further, next to the pua kumbu is a device, similar to an iPad, that viewers can slide alongside the pua kumbu. At certain points one can see on the screen a detail from the textile. If one then presses the screen, what is an abstract detail on the pua kumbu then gradually transforms on the screen into a more realistic image of what is represented there.


The exhibit then proceeds on to another room which contains information about the area where the pua kumbu in the exhibit were woven, and then on to another room with a video about how pua kumbu are made.

This video is projected onto a curved wall, and on either side of the screen are two large pua kumbu. In fact, however, viewers soon realize that those two textiles are part of the screen as well, as images from the pua kumbu “fly out” of the textiles into the screen, creating an interaction between the video and the pua kumbu on display.


There is much more that one could say about this exhibit, such as the fact that one can download an app to ones smartphone so that when one holds the phone up to a photograph on the wall, a video will start playing on the smartphone about the contents of the photograph, etc.

However, what should be clear is that this exhibit does an amazing job of using digital technology to enable one to gain a deep understanding of both tangible and intangible culture.


The cultural and historical information in the exhibit is the product of a couple of years of research on the part of Dr. Welyne Jeffrey Jehom of the Department of Gender Studies at the University of Malaya.

The digital presentation and enhancement of that information, meanwhile, is the product of the work of Professor Harold Thwaites, the director of The Center for Creative Content & Digital Innovation at the University of Malaya, along with members of his team from that Centre.


A press release about the exhibition that came with the brochure sums up nicely what impressed me the most:

“This exhibit showcases for the first time, via various forms of digital capture and innovative media communication methods, the intangible culture and heritage of creating this textile craft of East Malaysia.

“Professor Harold Thwaites explained, ‘this exhibition is a cutting edge knowledge mobilization from High Impact Research at UM that goes far beyond just journal articles.’

“All too often in University research projects, the culmination of the work is somewhat traditional, resulting in a number of journal articles, talks at conferences or academic publications of various kinds, shared with a special audience only.

“Here in Textile Tales of Pua Kumbu the goal is to take research beyond the academic sphere and bring it to the public sphere.

“Public interactives presented in the form of exhibitions, can serve to mobilize knowledge much faster than more traditional modes of ‘publication.’ It creates and presents to the public, a living, digital, cultural imaginary of intangible knowledge, that heretofore could only be experienced by a very few people.”


I couldn’t agree more with the need to move academic knowledge out of its restrictive and limiting world of specialists and journals, and to use digital technology to do so. This exhibition does a wonderful job of demonstrating one such way to do this.

For more information about the exhibition, consult the following facebook page: http:/

And for more on pua kumbu, see:


Finally, I would like to thank Professor Thwaites and Dr. Jehom for taking the time to talk to me when I visited the gallery, as well as the kind graduate student who showed me around the exhibition.

Viewing the Past: The Belle of Penang

As it became clear that the Chinese Communists would gain control of the mainland in 1949, many members of Shanghai’s film industry relocated to Hong Kong.

Hong Kong already had a thriving film industry, much of which was produced in Cantonese. Nonetheless, with the arrival of people from the Shanghai film industry, even more films started to be produced, including increasing numbers of films in Mandarin.


However, with the mainland cut off from Hong Kong, there was not a big enough market in Hong Kong to support such a large film industry. Therefore, in the 1950s the producers of Hong Kong films started to seek to attract viewers from the Chinese population in Southeast Asia.

They did this in part by making movies about Chinese in Southeast Asia, and by also making movies in Southeast Asia.

One of the earliest such films was a Cantonese movie that was released in 1953 called “The Belle of Penang” (檳城艷).

The following video goes into more detail about this movie and its place at that time in the efforts of Hong Kong film producers to gain viewers among the Chinese in Southeast Asia.

This video contains clips from the movie, “The Belle of Penang,” as well as from the following videos: “Singapore – The Lion City, 1957,” “Old Hong Kong Sheung Wan, Opium Smoking, 1952” and “Old Singapore 1951, Cathay/Oriental Theatres.”

The music is “The Belle of Penang” (檳城艷) by Fong Yim-Fen/Fong Yim-Fun (芳艷芬), the actress who played the role of “the Belle of Penang.”

Remixing the Past: Shoveling Lunatics in Colonial Malaya

I was looking through a book called An Illustrated Guide to the Federated Malay States. This book was published at least three times (in 1910, 1911 and 1920), and is a kind of guidebook/travel guide for the Malay Peninsula at that time.


This book provides a lot of interesting information, such as the following comments about the main mental institution in Malaya (in a chapter entitled “Notes for Travellers”):

“The Central Lunatic Asylum for the Federated Malay States is at Tanjong Rambutan, not far from Ipoh, in Perak. The most prevalent form of lunacy in Malaya is melancholia, a quiet form of insanity which permits the patients being kept together in association and employed in useful spade labour, either in or near the hospital, an occupation to which to which they have all been accustomed before their mental powers failed. Many a madman has had to thank this daily round and common task of digging for his recovery.”


I’m not sure why a traveler to Malaya in the early twentieth century would need to know about the local lunatic asylum. . . but it is amazing to see how successful it apparently was, and to learn how simple the key to that success was – getting prisoners to spend their days shoveling.

I would be interested to learn what exactly it is that the inmates at the lunatic asylum were shoveling. Were they digging dirt in order to complete some building project? Or were they just sent off somewhere and told to “Start digging!”?

Unfortunately, the author of this work does not provide any more details, so I decided to look around in other sources of information to see what I could learn about the Central Lunatic Asylum at Tanjong Rambutan.


As luck would have it, I found some information in the Singaporean newspaper, The Straits Times, but some of the information that I found indicated that the “shovel treatment” at the Central Lunatic Asylum was apparently not always successful.

On 26 November 1939, The Straits Times carried an article entitled “Madman Kills Host: Thought He Was A Goat” that was about a Malay man who escaped from the asylum and killed an Indian man named Peeee.

The Malay “madman” claimed that Peeee had turned into a goat, so he had killed him, and when a rubber tapper passed by Peeee’s house the next morning, the Malay man offered the man some of the meat. . .

When the police later arrived, they found Peeee buried in a shallow grave, with his leg protruding from the earth.


The murder of an innocent person is of course nothing to laugh about, but I do find the naïveté (or the colonial condescension) in the passage in An Illustrated Guide to the Federated Malay States to be funny (to the degree to which it is ridiculous).

So in response to the lunacy of the colonial past, I created a soundscape of “Shoveling Lunatics.” May Peeee rest in peace, and may lunatics no longer have to be treated by the “shovel treatment”. . . unless of course they enjoy doing it.

Swimming with Crocodiles in 1934 Malaya

I came across an amazing movie from 1934 called “Beyond Bengal.” It is the record of an expedition into the Malayan jungle by American “explorer” Harry Schenck.


The film was made with the assistance of the Sultan of Perak.


In the film, Schenck heads into the jungle and sees tigers. . .


. . . snakes. . .


. . . a herd of wild elephants. . .


. . . monkeys (one of which almost gets eaten by a snake). . .


. . . and crocodiles.



This is where the movie gets really crazy. Schenck travels with a group of “natives,” and in the “crocodile scene” some natives fall out of their boats and try to swim ashore while being pursued by crocodiles.


One native, unfortunately, gets bitten by a crocodile. . .


To add yet more drama to the film, viewers are introduced to Ali, a Malay boy who is part of the expedition, and a Malay girl who he falls in love with.

Ali also gets bitten by a crocodile.


His girlfriend witnesses the attack, and is distressed.


But “the natives” pray to the supreme being, and Ali is saved.


I would love to know how this film was made. In 1934, how exactly did one go about filming Malays getting attacked by crocodiles? Surely computer graphics were not an option.

So could it be the case that someone actually convinced Malay boys to swim in a crocodile infested river until they were bitten? How did he/she/they succeed in doing that?

The full movie can be viewed here.

Chinese Rushed in Where Tamil Rubber Tappers Feared to Tread in Early-20th-Century Malaya and Sarawak

I recently read an article in The Sarawak Gazette from September 2, 1929 entitled “The Tamil Cooly” which contained the following passage:

“Though the Tamil is an orthodox Hindu by religion, he is bound down by a whole network of ancient superstitions and is more ghost-ridden than any Dyak. Ghosts and demons play an important part in his life, walking or sleeping; the air is filled with fiends who may appear at any moment and vent their malice upon him.

“For instance, it is by no means uncommon for a Tamil rubber-tapper to refuse to continue in a certain field because there is a ghost there who beats him—the truth being that a small dead branch has fallen on him as he worked. tamil woman “Again, a Tamil lady once came to the writer and solemnly stated that a demon twenty feet high had leapt from the jungle and with horrid screams chased her round and round her lot, finally ending up by kicking her into a ditch where she lay trembling for two hours, not daring to move.

“No amount of reasoning or ridicule could shake the woman’s faith in her unpleasant experience, and it was obvious that her belief was shared by the rest of the labour force. So much so, in fact, that Chinese had to be imported to work that particular section, since no Tamil could be induced to go near the spot.”

Bute Then today I came across an article in The North-China Herald and Supreme Court & Consular Gazette from March 31, 1917 (pg. 703) about Bute Plantations (1913) Limited, a rubber plantation in Malaya.

This article was more or less a financial report about the plantation’s performance over the previous year or so, and it mentioned that one problem that the plantation faced during that period is that “man-eating tigers” had “carried off 40 Tamil coolies.” To quote,

“As regards the working of the estate, bad health and the scare caused by the tigers have been the most serious troubles with which we have had to contend. The district seems to be subject to periodical waves of bad health conditions, but everything that can possibly be done to prevent epidemics is carried out.

“The depredations of tigers is a much more serious matter. The tappers taken at Bute last year were Tamils and resulted in the disorganization and loss of half of this class of labour.

“Early this January a Chinese tapper was killed and this force, taken on to replace the Indian labour, left practically en bloc and the more outlying fields had to be left untapped for some weeks.

“The management has done everything possible to prevent any further losses, traps have been set and the estate is regularly patrolled by armed watchmen. I am glad to say that up to the present no further trouble has been experienced. The labour force is gradually being reorganized, special efforts are being made to recruit more Tamils and we hope to be able soon to dispense with the Chinese labour which will gain reduce costs to a normal level.” OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA In both of these cases, when Tamil coolies refused to work, Chinese workers agreed to do so. Yes, you had to pay them more, but they would do it. And while it is true that the Chinese rubber tappers ran away when one was killed by a tiger, those workers initially agreed to work there after 40 Tamils had suffered the same fate.

Or perhaps they weren’t told that detail when they were hired?

[The image above of the Tamil women and child is from the British Library.]

Mahjong and Dondang Sayang

A few weeks ago I wrote about a new book with accompanying CDs called Longing for the Past: The 78 rpm Era in Southeast Asia.


One of the songs in this collection that I have come to like the most is a type of music from what is now Malaysia and Singapore called dondang sayang. It is a kind of music that was popular among Malays and Peranakan Chinese (a.k.a., Straits Chinese or Baba-Nonya), that is, Chinese who had intermarried with Malays and had acculturated in some ways to Malay culture.


The singer in this form of music sings pantun verses in Malay, a kind of poetry in four lines, and is accompanied by a violin, two frame drums (rebana) and a type of gong. At some point the accordion was added to this ensemble, but originally it was just the above four instruments, and that is what we hear in the wonderful dondang sayang song in Longing for the Past.

I found an article from The Straits Times (2 July 1985, Page 6) that quotes a dondang sayang violinist by the name of Abu Bakar Abdullah who said that “during the heyday of dondang sayang, mahjong sessions would not be held by the Straits-born Chinese – the Babas and Nyonyas – without the accompaniment of dondang sayang music and songs.”

I would love to be able to go back in time and see what that world was like. If you want to hear what it was like, Longing for the Past has a great example of it.

Malaya’s Multiethnic Military?

I came across these images today by using the Online Public Access page of the US National Archives.

RG 306-PPA-101

Apparently the US Information Agency created these posters in 1953.

RG 306-PPA-111

Written in English, Malay (in Arabic script), Tamil and Chinese (someone correct me if I have any of the languages wrong), they present an image of a multiethnic and determined military. Is that really what things were like in 1953?

RG 306-PPA-121

As far as I know, at that very moment Malaya was in the midst of a war. Known as “The Emergency,” this was a brutal 12-year war between the military wing of the Malayan Communist Party (mostly Chinese) and Commonwealth forces, which included Australians, Gurkhas, troops from the King’s African Rifles. . . the list goes on.

RG 306-PPA-131

Seeing these posters made me want to know more about the Malayan military at that time. And I also want to know more about what the US Information Agency was up to.

I’ve seen references here and there about that agency’s activities at that time, but it would be really interesting to get a more holistic view of the things that that the US Information Agency tried to do throughout Southeast Asia in the 1950s.

A Letter from Lord of Thailand Tengku Abdullah Osman

On 21 October 1945, Lord of Thailand Tengku Abdullah Osman sent a letter to “Mr. D. Headley, Lieutnent (sic) Colonel & Chief Commander Civil Affairs, Trengganu Government.” Headley  probably found the letter difficult to read, but the Lord of Thailand’s intent was easy to comprehend.

Before I came across this letter, I had never known that there had been a “Lord of Thailand” by the name of Tengku Abdullah Osman. After a quick google search, however, I was able to get a sense of the background to this letter, but I am still not sure who exactly Tengku Abdullah Osman was.


In the beginning of the twentieth century there was a sultanate on the eastern side of the Malay Peninsula under British protection called Terengganu. The sultan from 1920-1942 was Sulaiman Badrul Alam Shah.

In 1942, Sultan Sulaiman Badrul Alam Shah died of blood poisoning. At that time Terengganu was under Japanese occupation. The Japanese military authorities appointed Sultan Ali Shah, the son of Sultan Sulaiman Badrul Alam Shah, as his successor.

Not long after that, the Thai government took over the administration of Terengganu. The Thais were allies of the Japanese during the war, and the Thai authorities took advantage of this wartime relationship to extend the area of their control in the region.

Then when the war ended and the British sought to retake their colonial possessions in Southeast Asia, they refused to recognize Sultan Ali Shah. My guess would be that this was in large part because he had come to power with the approval of the Japanese, and the British likely suspected, or perhaps had evidence, that he had been close to the Japanese.

As a result, and presumably under British influence or pressure, the Terengganu State Council dismissed Sultan Ali Shah on 5 November 1945.

osman heading

The letter that Lord of Thailand Tengku Abdullah Osman sent to Lieutenant Colonel D. Headley on 21 October 1945 must be related to this issue. I’m assuming that Headley was granted the task of re-establishing a pro-British government in Terengganu, and I’m assuming that Tengku Abdullah Osman was trying to get on Headley’s good side.

That said, I’m still not sure who exactly Tengku Abdullah Osman was, but I would assume that he was a member of the ruling elite in Terengganu.

I’m also not sure what his letter achieved, because it is quite difficult to follow, but one can guess what the purpose of this letter was. To quote, this is what Tengku Abdullah Osman wrote:


“My best Congratualtion”


I have the honour to mentioned, that which yesterday-evening, were the “Ceremony for two Brother-Army,” was “Death-corpse.” And just have buried in honestly “Silence Memorial.”

Do as, I willingly having prayed of my Mission-Mosque, to those, I addressed, May thee Almighty God-blessing, the “Soul-Heaven” which, to receipt the “Humance” being just going to his end worthy of its “World happies.”

With honestly spiritual in Scouting for, “Britain Army’s.” I have sincerely hearted, just have wishes for “Mourning” with worn dress – for their brotherhoods, two-days time, from instead.

I have the honour

To be Sir,

Your excellency remains.

osman - text

Wow!! I can see that this has something to do with honoring the war dead, and maybe it made sense to Headley at the time, but it’s definitely difficult to understand now. Nonetheless, it is obvious that Tengku Abdullah Osman was seeking to get on good terms with Headley.

It is interesting, however, that Tengku Abdullah Osman held the title of “Lord of Thailand.” Was he granted this title by the Thai authorities during the war when they were administering Terengganu?

If so, and if he was trying to get on Headley’s good side, I would think that such a term would have served the opposite purpose, as it pointed to the fact that certain members of the Malay ruling elite had worked together with the Japanese and Thais during the war.

[This letter can be found in the National Archives of Australia. NAA: A10822, 22 Captain J L Chapman (South East Asia Command – Malaya – Force 136 – Operation Pontoon) – Letter of congratulations from Tengku Abdullah Osman, 21 October 1945.]

Defoliants in the Malayan Emergency

I was looking at materials that are now available online through the National Archives of the UK. Records from the Colonial Office have not been digitized, but “cabinet papers” have, and they contain interesting information about Southeast Asia.

Nat Arc

I came across this report from I think 1951, for instance, that talked about the “chemical defoliation of roadside jungle” in Malaya.

The report began by noting that “It is agreed on all hands that the risks of ambush by bandits can be greatly reduced by defoliation of roadside jungle. A certain amount of this is already being done by hand, but the process is slow and costly and the vegetation quickly grows again. Chemical defoliation would, it is believed, be much more effective.”

road 1

The report then goes on to talk about experiments that had been undertaken. In one case, the vegetation died in 10 days, and upon checking the same place three months later, “no significant regeneration had taken place.”

That was a “positive” result, but the report indicated that there was not an effective means to spray the roadside jungle on a large scale. Here the report notes that some attempts were made to use a TIFA fogging machine, but this hadn’t worked because the “solution [had] emulsified.”


I had no idea what a TIFA fogging machine was, so I looked it up (here, and found the above picture of Princess Anne [?] inspecting a fog machine on the TIFA web site – who are the two Asian guys in the background?), and it turns out that it is a technology that was created to combat the certain diseases by killing vectors for the spread of disease, like mosquitoes.

While this sounds like a benevolent technological invention, it was developed just as World War II was beginning, in other words, just when there was an acute need to keep people healthy so that they could go off to fight and die.

And as this report from Malaya indicates, when that war ended, yet another “peaceful” use for this technology was attempted in the midst of another war. . .

road 2

The report then ends with a summary that indicates that “a suitable combination of chemicals has been found and supplies are available from sterling sources,” and that the use of chemical defoliants is also cost effective.

The only drawback was that “Mechanical methods for large-scale application have not yet been determined. This is now the main problem.”

Indeed, that was the main problem.

report 1report 2