Reading Carveth Wells, author of North of Singapore, always delights me. His prose is so well-written, so easy to read, and often lively and amusing.
I’ve just finished his first book on Malaya, Six Years in the Malay Jungle, which I really should have read before North of Singapore – since this book came first. Six Years in the Malay Jungle describes his experiences as a railroad engineer in the peninsula, covering Penang, Negri Sembilan and Kelantan, among other areas. And yes, he was partly responsible for today’s Malaysian trains, the KTM.
Because this book is a personal account, it’s filled with interesting anecdotes and some facts about nature and society in the Malay Peninsula. In this sense it’s less broad compared to North of Singapore, where he travels through Japan, China, Malaya, Singapore, and India. Also, Six Years in the Malay Jungle talks more of rural life, whereas North of Singapore is spent mostly in towns. The mood in Six Years is one of excitement and exhilaration – it’s his first trip to the Far East, after all. In North of Singapore, Wells is more pensive and nostalgic.
In any case, here are some fun facts about Malaya at the time:
At about 4 a.m. every morning, all the pig butchers ins Penang would slaughter their pigs at exactly the same time, filling the city with the cries of thousands of pigs.
Queen Victoria supposedly tasted every fruit in the British Empire except the durian and the mangosteen.
Some Malays managed to kill a crocodile. They found two pairs of women’s bangles and several stones in its stomach. Apparently, it was an old Malay belief that “when a crocodile eats a person or enters a new river he swallows a stone, which is his method of keeping accounts”.
The roofs of Malay houses were full of lizards, snakes, scorpions, rats, mice, centipedes, frogs, spiders, cockroaches and other things, because the roofs were made from the leaves of the nipa palm, which cockroaches feed on.
Within an hour of hearing that war (World War I) was declared, Chinese tradesmen in Malaya raised the price of all food. Milk rose from eighteen to fifty cents a can. This caused unruly mobs who started threatening shopkeepers.
There used to be many Afghan workers in the peninsula, all of them proud, dignified and sometimes scornful of the White Man.
During World War I, many German agents entered Malaya via Siam and started spreading rumours about the fall of the British.
Lastly here’s the old recipe for a gin sling:
1. Take a wine-glass full of the best gin and to it add the juice of fresh lime.
2. Add one teaspoonful of cherry brandy and sugar to taste.
3. Shake up well with crushed ice and soda water and drink in a long glass.