Han SuYin in Malaya, The ‘Missing Period’ 1952 to 1964

Han SuYin [Right] at an event graced by His Royal Highness Sultan Ibrahim of Johor [Left] with Princess Mariam and Lady Marcella

Early last December, Ina Zhang Xing Hong, a researcher with Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Centre for Chinese Language and Culture (CCLC) Singapore, sent an email to introduce herself and said that she enjoys reading my blog, My Johor Stories, especially the stories on Han SuYin.

She explained that she is involved in the study of doctor and author, Han SuYin, and had completed her academic thesis on Han SuYin when she was in Malaya from 1952 to 1964, focusing on her as a physician, writer and public intellectual.

Written in Chinese language, this thesis for Zhang’s Masters programme in Chinese Studies in 2013 was co-published with NTU CCLCC in a book in 2016.

Zhang said she would be visiting Johor Bahru with her husband in the coming week and asked if I would agree to meet up for a chat to find out more about the clinic above the Universal Pharmacy where this doctor had a practice.

She would have read, Our Han SuYin Connection, my story first published in the now defunct Johor Buzz, the Southern section of The New Straits Times, back in 2008.

In this piece, I pointed out that a renowned personality in the international literary scene, who was also a medical doctor, once had a practice in a clinic above Universal Pharmacy, at Jalan Ibrahim in Johor Bahru. This was the first and only pharmacy here and stocked a wide range of imported product brands.

I also shared that my link to the pharmacy or dispensary, was that my Aunty used to work with the pharmacy downstairs and when I was ill, I was taken to consult the lady doctor upstairs, who replaced Dr. Elizabeth C.K. Comber or Dr. Chow after she had left JB.

Many former patients still remember Dr. Chow, a Eurasian lady doctor, who could speak Hakka, Mandarin, Cantonese, Malay, French and English.

She was born Elizabeth Chow Kuanghu (Zhou Guang-Hu) in Henan Province, China in 1917 to Zhou Yuan Dong and Marguerite Denis, her Flemish-Belgian mother.

She obtained her first degree at Yanjing University Peking and an honours degree of Science in French from Brussels University. After graduating from London University as a medical doctor, she started working in the Hong Kong Government General Hospital.

In Hong Kong, she was known as Elizabeth Tang, the widow of General Tang Pao Huang, a one-time Chinese military attaché in London.

Later she married Leon F. Comber, a Malayan Special Branch police officer during the 1948-1960 Emergency and they relocated to Malaya.

Dr. Chow was also a novelist who wrote in French, Mandarin and mostly in English under her pen-name, Han SuYin.

In 1955, Twentieth Century Fox made her semi-autobiographical novel, A Many-Splendored Thing, into a movie, Love is a Many Splendored Thing which won Oscars for best picture, best song, best score and best costume.

I found it interesting that Zhang had done extensive research on Han SuYin for her thesis and when we met, we walked around JB’s heritage quarter, in the area where Universal Pharmacy once stood at Jalan Ibrahim.

Then she shared with me, further details of her project on this fascinating personality whom locals knew as Dr. Comber/Chow.

While Zhang found some studies into Han SuYin’s literary works, her Eurasian identity and her controversial views about mainland China, she discovered that there was hardly any notable mention or meaningful research in her 12-year stay in Malaya.

This gave Zhang the opportunity to explore a relatively unknown territory and fill-in the “missing period” of her life.

In the span of three years, Zhang carried out research into a wide range of primary and secondary materials.

This included the novels, memoirs and essays of Han SuYin, newspaper archives, rare photographs and newly uncovered documents like her lecture notes at the then Nanyang University, and numerous interviews with her family, friends, former colleagues and students, conducted in Singapore, Malaysia and Switzerland.

The classic profile of Dr Elizabeth Chow Kuanghu, also known by her pen-name, Han SuYin, seated on an armchair made of cane; Her husband, Leon F. Comber, in the background

Zhang felt that the Malayan period of Han SuYin’s life was very significant as it was an indispensable period of her life that shaped the person, writer and physician that she matured into.

The circumstances in the post-war period of Malaya played a critical role in providing her with the platform and opportunities to actively participate in public discourse.

Following the publication of her bestselling, A Many-Splendored Thing, while in Malaya, she continued writing on regional themes including three full-length novels, two novellas and numerous essays.

Zhang said her favourite Han SuYin books were … And The Rain My Drink and The Crippled Tree because they captured the valuable core of post-war Malaya history and modern China, respectively.

Because hardly any records were kept, Zhang found it almost impossible to trace people who were acquainted with Dr. Chow during her time in Malaya.

But she was thankful to have connected with Dr. Chow’s adopted daughter, Chow Hui Im in Singapore and the lady who worked as Dr. Chow’s domestic helper here.

During her stay in Malaya, Dr. Chow opened two clinics – one in JB with the other in Singapore’s Chinatown, and served as a college health physician and lecturer with Nanyang University.

After leaving Malaya, Dr. Chow and her third husband, Vincent Ratnaswamy, an Indian military engineer, lived in Hong Kong for a few years before they settled down in Lausanne, Switzerland.

Façade of the house at Jalan Inderaputra, where Han SuYin lived in Johor Bahru, in 1956

In 2012, Zhang and her husband visited Dr. Chow in her home in Lausanne and they celebrated her birthday there. She passed away later that year at age 96.

I appreciate how she shared new insights and rare photographs from her research and was pleased to be presented with her book, Han SuYin in Malaya, Doctor, Writer, Activist (1952 – 1964).

This is a meticulous study that unearths, reconstructs and packs together – to an unprecedented degree – the 12 years that Han SuYin lived and worked in Malaya.

Meanwhile, I’m enjoying the photos while waiting for the English version, which Zhang is currently working on.

Order the Chinese version online either through CCLC at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, or through Singapore Publisher, http://www.worldscientific.com