A Beautiful (Terrible) Life
Posted by Dorothy Nixon
The Royal Selangor Club and padang today in Kuala Lumpur. Photo taken by my son.
It is a truth universal for genealogists: If at first you don’t succeed – finding info on an ancestor on the Internet – try and try again.
About ten years ago, surfing the Library of Congress online archive, I discovered that there existed a 1953 March of Time video about the Malayan Communist Emergency. Even better, the blurb on said website claimed said this particular episode of the iconic newsreel contained a bit about my grandmother and namesake, Dorothy Nixon.
I soon found out that the video was long out of production. I couldn’t even find an old copy on eBay. Then, about two or three years later, a former Malayan colonial posted the video in its entirety on YouTube, Playing Cricket whilst Fighting Goes On. It’s still up there.
Today, all I have to do is point and click and there she is: my small snowy-haired grandmother, about 55 years old, seated beside a man in a tall turban while scoring a cricket match at the much-storied Royal Selangor Club, on the pedang, or green, in Kuala Lumpur.
My grandmother’s segment is at the end of the piece describing the decade long jungle conflict, at about the 6 minute mark. “Mrs. Nixon,” says the announcer, “is a fixture at the Royal Selangor Club” which has just opened up to non-Europeans. It isn’t mentioned, but I know for a fact that, at the time, Dorothy was the only woman who had ever been allowed into the men’s section of the club.*
Before WWII, the green or padang was surrounded by government buildings. That is why, on Boxing Day, 1941, two weeks after Pearl Harbour, the green was bombed by the Japanese. My grandmother was at the Kuala Lumpur Book Club, a library nearby, when the bombs hit. According to her family memoir, she hid under a desk until the barrage ended and then got up to help dig out dead bodies from the rubble.
Here’s a post-war picture of Dorothy with the Selangor Cricket team from the 1947 sent to me by a former Colonial.
The picture suggests my grandmother enjoyed being one of a few women among a large group of men. And, it’s true, almost everything I have learned about her seems to underscore this point.
A few days after the bombing, when Kuala Lumpur was overrun from the North by Japanese soldiers riding on bicycles, all rubber planters’ wives were told by telephone to leave the city. My grandmother removed herself only reluctantly, taking a dark and noisy night train to “safety” in Singapore. When, a few days after that, and much to everyone’s surprise, Singapore fell, Dorothy simply refused to get on a boat to Batavia like most other British women, so she was interned at Changi Prison.
For a 6 month period in 1943, Granny, as we kids called her, was elected Women’s Commandant, where she had repeated run-ins with the mostly hands-off Japanese Commandant. Soon after she relinquished her leadership post, she was arrested by the Japanese Kempetai for allegedly spying (and colluding with the Men’s Camp) in an infamous ‘radio’ incident called the Double Tenth.
Dorothy: Self-portrait. The relative luxury of her Changi cell. At first, the Japanese Commandant was hands-off and even helpful, but that changed over time with a new man put in the position. The women’s camp population grew large, to over 300, over the span of the war and soon there were three women to a cell.
Dorothy spent a month in a tiny windowless room in the bug-infested basement of the Singapore YMCA with 17 desperate male suspects who were taken out nightly to be tortured. Their screams and a bright light kept her from sleeping. Then she was put in solitary confinement for five long months and starved to an inch of her life on two cans of condensed milk a day. Apparently, she much preferred the buggy room.*
(A page from her ‘memoir’..Double Tenth is 10th of October)
My father, a classic “Child of the Raj” hardly knew his own British ‘mater’, so much of what I knew about my grandmother before my recent Internet forays was mere family myth.
Using Ancestry.co.uk, I recently discovered that my Granny travelled by boat from Yorkshire (well, Liverpool) to Malaya in December, 1921 to meet up with her new husband, Robert, also from the North of England, who was working on a rubber plantation near the beautiful Batu Caves.
(She had been a Land Girl in WWI, in forestry, leading the giant Clydesdales that pulled the logs through the woods.)
She gave birth to my father, Peter, but ten months later, and this despite the fact my grandfather refused to give up his Asian girlfriend. Anglo rubber companies forced their employees to marry British wives, which provoked a lot of resentment against these interloping women, who were considered too high maintenance and parvenus of a sort.
Still, colonial life wasn’t all terrible. In the twenties, Dorothy attended polo matches with sultans and hosted formal dinners for British dignitaries, some of these men living legends, at her airy bungalow on her husband’s rubber estate.
“We had fun in those days,’ she told a journalist in the 1970’s, who put it in a book about Colonial Malaya. The journalist described my grandmother, in her dotage, as very weak and ‘somewhat vague.’
It was later, in the 1930s that Dorothy became Head Librarian at the Kuala Lumpur Book Club, a turn-of-the-century institution that also provided a mail-order book box service for Brits isolated in the remote jungle. I don’t know if she took on this job out of sheer boredom (since her children had been sent to England early on, and she had the usual quota of servants) or because the Depression forced her to.
Then came WWII and her near-death experience at the hands of the Japanese. Eventually, in the fifties and sixties, she was anointed the “Grand Dame of Cricket” in Malaya. For a while they were giving out a Dorothy Nixon Trophy.
My grandmother died in 1972 at age 77, shortly after that interview, in her rooms at the Majestic Hotel in KL surrounded by her precious personal collection of books which were later donated to the Malaysian National Library, but not before meeting her name-sake granddaughter.
Upon her retirement from the KL Book Club, in the summer of 1967, she flew in to visit us for six months in the Snowdon area of Montreal.
Dorothy Senior was not impressed, I can tell you, with our bilingual island city, our ‘exotic’ World’s Fair, or her pimply, pubescent string-bean of a granddaughter.
And all I saw in her was a bad-tempered old crone, always pacing the narrow halls of our cramped upper duplex apartment with a Rothman’s cigarette in one hand a tall tumbler of gin in the other, criticizing almost everything, including my mother’s decadent pound-of-butter, six egg French Chocolate Pie.
So closely confined and besieged by a band of unruly Canadian grandkids, she must have felt as if she were back at Changi!
Granny, in picture, visited us for Expo67.
She did, indeed, tell my mother about her WWII experience and my mother did mention it to me. “Try to be nice to your grandmother,” I recall Mummy saying. “ During the war she had to sit cross-legged for days in a room with many men.” But, that plea made no impression on me.
My grandmother and I hardly spoke,that sweet Expo summer, even though I gave her breakfast in bed every morning, one hard-boiled egg and a tiny container of a strange food called ‘yogurt’, and we both preferred it that way.
After all, the very first week of her visit she had told me I could never visit her in Malaysia, as she would ‘lose face’ in front of her Chinese friends.
Oh, well. I’m making it up to her now.
*The Royal Selangor Club, founded in 1884 by British colonials, has a long history reaching back to Victorian times. The story goes the club was knick-named the Spotted Dog because, from the beginning, people of all races were allowed to join, although this March of Time piece suggests that happened only in the 50’s. Still, no question, Malaya in the 1920’s and 30’s was a bustling multi-cultural society – but with a distinct pecking order.
*Luckily, she wasn’t horribly tortured like the men or a certain young Chinese woman, who suffered all kinds of indignities including electric shock and, yes, even, waterboarding.*(IF you have seen the brilliant BBC series Tenko, you’ll know all about her Changi experience. That fictional mini-series was bang on from what I can see. )