One of the downsides of spending extended periods in Thailand on a Tourist Visa (rather than use a Retirement Visa) is that it is necessary to leave and re-enter Thailand every 30 days. And indeed, many Travel Agencies operate daily ‘Border Runs’ for a quick 3 hour hop over the nearest border so ‘residents’ can extend their visa with the minimum of inconvenience.On the other hand this could be seen as an upside if one uses the necessity to re-enter Thailand as an excuse for visiting and exploring some of Thailand’s fascinating neighbours and in recent years I have written about Myanmar, Indonesia and the Philippines as well as making visits to Laos and Cambodia. Without a shadow of doubt after Europe, South East Asia is my favourite part of the world.
I have just returned from an extended weekend in Kuala Lumpur which included a pleasant dinner with my friend ‘Miss Chan’ who I have known for well over 40 years. I have visited Malaysia at least 6 times that I can recollect over the last over the last 40 years and except on one occasion have always made sure I have time to meet my longstanding friend Irene Chan – except her name is now Irene Sia, and has been for well over 30 years!
However for those of us who first met her in the 1970s and who still meet up from time to time she will be forever Miss Chan!
I first met Irene Chan in 1970 when after graduating with degrees in Geography from University College London my friend Tom Jackson and myself continued our studies with Master’s degrees in Soviet Foreign Policy and East European History at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies (SSEES) and also part of the University of London. In those days there were no such things as Student Loans and if you were fortunate enough to be offered a post graduate place you then had to secure a grant to cover your living expenses and fees. As I recollect there was not a great demand for specialists in Soviet Foreign Policy so there was only one grant available for this course and I was fortunate enough to obtain it which left Tom out in the cold until he obtained both a place and a grant at another university and then somehow persuaded the relevant government departments to allow the grant to be transferred from another university to SSEES! Clearly he was going to be well suited for a career negotiating the challenges of the Civil Service!
On our first day we discovered there were just 4 of us doing this one year Master’s Degree, and the other two were a woman from Canada and the diminutive Miss Chan from Kuala Lumpur – and as we had degrees in Geography we at least knew where that was! However Miss Chan came from a world about which neither of us had knowledge or experience – a world of wealth and privilege that both fascinated and repelled me and which could not have been more different from the worlds from which Tom and I had emerged.
Tom was from Liverpool, a scouser from a working class family and the eldest of three children who had lost their father when Tom was a teenager. His family lived in an archetypical inner city terraced house complete with outside toilet and rear alley. And although I came from Bournemouth, a town often associated with middle class affluence I had come from a working class background and shared a bed with my parents until I was 5 as we lived in two rooms in my grandmother’s house. Once my parents got to the top of the waiting list and were allocated ahome I had grown up thereafter on a Local Government owned Council Estate.
So to hear tales of life in Malaysia where Miss Chan’s family owned businesses, had a second home and actually had servants was mind boggling for us and I remember lecturing her about how could she let other people wash up, prepare food and clean the house and live on the back of exploited labour. (Guess who employed a Nanny, Cleaners and a Personal Assistant 20 years later!). Furthermore, it appeared that her parents had come to London and purchased an apartment for her in the prestigious Endsleigh Court on Southampton Row, in the heart of Central London (there is an interesting postscript to this reference to Endsleigh Court at the end of this article) and just a comfortable short walk from Senate House where we were studying. This was quite a contrast to what Tom and I could afford on our grants.
Both of us were teaching one or two days a week in the East End of London to supplement our limited income and I was living in a bedsit in Tufnell Park next door to an alcoholic Irish prostitute with a worn face and a lovely figure. She enjoyed company and got increasingly friendly as the year progressed!
During the 9 months we studied together I lost my father and both Tom and I took Irene home to our rather more modest homes than Irene was used to in Liverpool and Bournemouth. Irene fell in love with my mother’s Apple Crumble and there has not been a time when we have met up when Miss Chan has failed to mention ‘Mr Bromfield – Your mother makes the best Apple Crumble in the World. I have never tasted better!’
In the summer of 1971 Tom and I completed what was perhaps the shortest Master’s Degree course available in the UK (One of the reasons I had selected it!) by sitting 4 examinations. By contrast Miss Chan opted to take just 3 exams and stayed in London over the summer to write a dissertation in lieu of the 4th exam and then returned to KL where she was to be appointed as a lecturer at the University of KL.
I had been offered positions as a Trainee Manager with Horizon Holidays and also as a trainee Surveyor but had decided I wanted to travel and so I worked full time as a teacher for 6 months before leaving the UK in February 1972 to commence a life of travel which it could be argued has continued in a similar format ever since. Together with my girlfriend Heather and school friend Dick Trollope the three of us travelled overland for three months hitchhiking through Europe to Istanbul and then continuing overland through Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Thailand and in April 1972 we arrived in …………………………….Malaysia, 9 months after I had last seen Miss Chan in London.
Once Irene had discovered we were travelling overland through Asia and would be visiting Malaysia she insisted that I and my two friends stay with her family so she could repay the hospitality we had enjoyed visiting our (modest) homes in the UK. But there was more than just the three of us as I had suggested to my recently widowed mother that she should join the three of us for a month in Malaysia and Singapore on what was to be her first ever trip out of the UK and Dick had invited his girlfriend Pam to join us in Malaysia and continue to Australia with him..
It was to be an interesting and memorable experience although certain protocols had to be followed. Dick and I were given sleeping spots outside Irene’s father’s office as it was certainly not permitted for us to share beds with our unmarried partners. Furthermore, three of us had been travelling through Asia for three months on a very restricted budget so when we turned up long haired, bearded and complete with an Indian wardrobe from our time on the sub-continent we probably quickly confirmed the fears of Miss Chan’s family that she had made acquaintances with and become under the influence of some dubious character in the UK.
After a few days Miss Chan’s rather stern eldest sister had a quiet word with my Mother that ‘In Malaysia it is not normal for young women to not wear Brassieres’ – a reference to my girlfriend Heather whose pleasing figure was even more noticeable when clad only in a T shirt. However my mother then 57 was mortified because she too was not wearing bra due to the heat although this was not so noticeable as she still insisted on wearing a petticoat.
After a few more days it was suggested we might want to spend a few days on the coast relaxing in the Chan retreat at nearby Port Dickson ‘and the driver and car will be waiting in the morning!’
We had very much appreciated the Chan family’s hospitality but there was probably relief on all sides when we headed out for Port Dickson to have a few relaxing days on the beach before taking the train to Singapore. This was my mother’s first trip out of the UK aged 57 and she enjoyed the experience immensely and really mucked in with the 4 budget travellers very well. She travelled overseas virtually every year thereafter including a second trip to South Africa aged 95 the year before she died. I was sad to see her fly back home from Singapore in May 1972 and it was to be almost three years before we met again when she came out to visit me in Australia.
I spent most of the next 4 years in Australia, initially as a prospector but for the bulk of my time as a teacher at the prestigious Sydney Grammar School where the MA I had obtained with Miss Chan finally paid dividends as the Principal who clearly had concerns about my dishevelled appearance nonetheless offered me a position teaching Geography because clearly if I had two degrees from a good UK university I could not be as hapless as I appeared!
They were to be possibly the four most enjoyable and rewarding years of my life that laid the foundation of everything that was to follow as I set up my first business (mail order) at the same time as I was teaching. I made enough money to provide a comfortable home for my mother and the foundation for my next venture Casterbridge Tours when I returned to the UK. Casterbridge was to be my life’s work and I have been a Tour Operator ever since.
By August 1976 my girlfriend and I decided it was time to move on from Australia and in contrast to 4 years earlier thanks to my lucrative Mail Order business we had some money so we decided to travel around South East Asia for four months and after travelling from Bali through Java to Sumatra we flew to Penang in Malaysia and made our way down to Kuala Lumpur (KL for all Malaysians) where we had a surprise in store – the diminutive Miss Chan now had a boyfriend so it was ‘Hello George (Sia) – we are not as bad as Irene’s family may have indicated!’
I cannot remember whether we stayed in a hotel or with Irene but my abiding memory of that visit was that George was a Car enthusiast who had a British Sports Car and told us how he had to make visits to the UK to obtain spare parts for his MG – or was it a Triumph? What I do remember is he drove fast – indeed very fast – in his Lancia (?) and I remember being quite terrified as I sat in the front seat of his saloon as we sped between Rubber Plantations.
Time moved on – Irene married George (who obviously heeded the warnings of his in laws about Irene’s dubious friends as I have hardly seen him since!) and I married Sharron and in the 1980s we both started families. Sharron and I were kept fully occupied growing our business although I am fairly sure we met Irene at least once on one of her many visits to the UK.
In 1994 our kids were 10, 8 and 6 and as a family we had travelled extensively in Europe and North America and decided it was time to introduce our children to Asia and decided that then, as now, there was probably no better place to start than Malaysia. Safe, clean and offering both a traditional rural way of life as well as comfortable accommodation and an excellent transport system. I well remember thinking as we travelled on a rapid train from Singapore to KL that the train was both and cheaper than in the UK. It was also cleaner as the carriages were swept several times on our journey and each carriage was equipped with a Colour TV!
And so I met up with Irene on her ‘home patch’ for a third time albeit 22 years after our first visit. Irene’s mother was still alive and lived with Irene but we did not see much of her so I am not sure if she still disapproved of me as the Chinese usually have a grudging respect for successful business people even if they started off life as a wannabee hippie and were perceived as a threat to their daughter. I do have memories of a pleasant and hospitable stay, dining at a Golf Club with members of Irene’s extended family and that George’s Engineering company was now a publicly listed company. I was most impressed at took a prospectus back to the UK in case I wanted to invest!
In 1997 we holidayed in Borneo and from memory tried to meet up with Miss Chan in Singapore but our schedules clashed and Irene could not get away as she was teaching at KL university.
However, in 1999 our family was back in family friendly Penang (where I had stayed as a backpacker in 1972 and with our family in 1994) for a family holiday and Irene decided to bring her daughters up and we stayed in neighbouring hotels on the beach at Batu Ferringhi. Our kids were 15, 13 and 11 and Irene’s daughters of similar age and when Sarah (15) suggested the 4 girls go off and explore the beach for a while I well remember Miss Chan reverting to 1972 mode raising an eye brow and asking me ‘What do you think Mr Bromfield, will they be safe?’. I got the impression from the speed with which her daughters departed when we said ‘Yes’ that with her conservative Chinese background Irene was a little more protective than us. The Kids survived and we enjoyed a pleasant couple of days viewing attractions and visiting some of Irene’s friends who lived nearby.
In the new Millennium Irene’s two daughters were both studying at UK universities and Irene’s eldest sister (‘The Dragon’) was still living in the UK so Irene was a fairly regular visitor but often at a time when we were away in Canada but she did come to our house on one occasion (when I was away) and stayed with Sharron and reconnected with my Mother who she had first met in 1972 and who was now well into her 80s. Irene was delighted to be reacquainted with my Mother’s Apple Crumble again!
I introduced Miss Chan to several of my university friends back in 1972 and some of them have kept in touch with her and indeed met up with her on visits to Malaysia and indeed the last time I had met Miss Chan was when five of us met up in Ealing on one of her visits to London about 5 or 6 years ago after I had completed a Picture Framing course at High Wycombe, north west of London.
We had an Indian meal – good food, good company, pleasant memories which kept the tradition up of meeting up every 5 years or so that we have maintained for well over 40 years.
Over the last 10 years as I have spent an increasing amount of time in Thailand which is less than two hours away from KL by air I have often phoned or texted Miss Chan to see if she was visiting Thailand at a time when I would be there but we had failed to add to our four previous South East Asian meet ups until this year when I needed to make one of my regular trips to leave Thailand every 30 days in order to renew my Visa.
I emailed Irene and asked if she was going to be around and she replied ‘Yes you must stay with me if you are coming to KL’ so the decision was made for my next visa run – it was to be a long weekend in KL!
However, clearly the scars from being exiled from the Family Home to the Coast in 1972 still existed and the memories still vivid so to spare Miss Chan the risk of further embarrassment 40 years on (although she is now the matriarch and has no one to answer to!) I decided to treat myself and booked into the 5 star Traders Hotel – the first time in my life that I have ever treated myself to such luxury because after a lifetime in the Travel Industry whilst I am used to staying in such hotels it was usually on a complementary basis and never on my own dime. I am equally at home in a Budget Hotel because all I need is a bed, a desk and a good light. But at £90/$145 a night Traders had to be just about the most competitively priced 5 star hotel in the world and I knew I would not be asked to leave if I was to be accompanied by a braless companion!
It was 15 years since I had last been in KL and I could not believe how it had changed and what an absolutely superb short break destination it has become. Furthermore, if I had thought back in 1994 that Malaysia was in no way a Third World country, today its capital KL, like its relative neighbour Singapore sits at the highest level as an International city with some outstanding architecture, excellent public transportation and offers a wide range of both interesting attractions and competitively priced accommodation. It is no surprise that the Malaysian Grand Prix at nearby Sepang is one of the most popular Races on the Formula One Races at a circuit characterised by stunning architecture and customer comforts – just like its parent city!
I could not help but compare KL with London where I first met Miss Chan in 1970 and despite the many improvements to the quality of life in London in recent years it remains an expensive city with a congested transport system recent years and at best in the slipstream of dynamic KL.
I flew down to KL on the Thursday evening and got a taxi to my hotel in the Kuala Lumpur City Centre (KLCC) – the name given to the ‘City within the City’ and developed over the last 25 years on the site of the former Race Course. The area is a very impressive collection of Office Buildings, Hotels and Shopping Malls located around a public park and small lake with many walkways and dominated of course by the Petronas Twin Towers. I had requested a high floor in the Traders Hotel and after walking around KLCC at night and gazing up at the soaring architecture the balance of my evening was spent sitting by my hotel room window admiring the spectacular view of the Twin Towers directly opposite me just across the Park. Without a shadow of a doubt the best view I have ever had from a Hotel Room and the scale of the twin towers with the walkway between never failed to impress me whenever I entered my room. But at night it was something else. Just magnificent.
The Petronas Towers is by far the most popular attraction in KL so the following morning my first stop after a leisurely breakfast was to book an afternoon visit to the Towers before spending a couple of hours in the historic centre around Dataran Merdeka (Square). The square is surrounded by a collection of historic colonial buildings including St Mary’s Cathedral but is dominated by the Sultan Abdul Samad Building. The extensive small scale diorama of the metropolitan area inside the Kuala Lumpur City Gallery (with its iconic I Love KL sign outside!) was very impressive.
As a Geographer I always enjoy ascending high buildings and the Petronas Twin Towers was no exception and included time on the double decker walkway (one level for office workers and the other for tourists) linking the towers before continuing to the highest viewing area for an expansive view over KL and beyond.
It is easy to understand why there is a quest to build ever taller buildings around the world because the buildings themselves form a focal point of the city they dominate and reflect the economic strength of the local or national economy. They also provide a sense of local pride and of course attract international visitors. Anyone who glances at a book of the tallest buildings in the world will have to concede that these mega tall buildings often display a unique and striking appearance which demands imaginative architectural solutions and radical design components which are often all the greater because of their sheer scale and the challenges of local topography.
A glance at the Wikopedia entry for the Petronas Towers will give an indication of the challenges faced in the construction of buildings of this scale as the building required the world’s deepest foundations and a misalignment of less than an inch was discovered and had to be corrected during construction. When the Towers opened in 1998 they were officially the tallest buildings in the world until 2004 and they remain the tallest twin towers in the world to this day. And at night when one is walking below one cannot fail to have one’s eyes dragged upwards to gaze at these twin towers reaching up it seems almost to infinity.
That night I was set for Dinner with Miss Chan who collected me at my hotel and drove me to a local Chinese restaurant and we caught up with each other’s news from the last 5 years and she reminded me of people I had long since forgotten about from our Student Days in London 1970 – 71. Sadly, one of Irene’s elder sisters had died in the preceding week so it was just as well I had made arrangements to stay in a hotel so she did not have to worry about being a hostess.
Way back in 1971 I had christened her other elder sister who lived in the UK as ‘The Dragon’ and it turned out I had at least got that right as Miss Chan told me that she and that particular sister were no longer on the best of terms. As the evening wound on we found ourselves talking about the third member of our 1971 triumvirate Tom Jackson, who was still in occasional contact with Irene, but who has not spoken to me since 1986 (and all because I backed Liverpool to beat his beloved Everton?) I was able to pass on some news of Tom that I had received from mutual friends and we drank a toast to an absent friend.
George was busy at work so nothing much has changed there in the last 40 years (!) and it struck me that Miss Chan was now older than her mother had been when we were exiled to Port Dickson in 1972!
And just like her Mother before her Irene was now worrying and fussing over her own daughters who had both graduated with good degrees from British Universities. They were now working in London and Amsterdam and providing Irene with the excuse to make at least one shopping trip to Europe each year so clearly some things never change as Irene’s family frequently travelled to London to visit her when she studied with us!
And then Miss Chan put me in my place and told me she was just completing Law Degree as an exercise in keeping her mind alert and was now looking for her next project! Bravo!
As her family was officially in mourning it was not going to be possible to arrange another get together over the weekend but this was certainly not a problem as KL offered plenty to keep me occupied over the weekend.
As it happened the following Saturday brought its own challenges as I had purchased tickets to see the Malaysian Symphony Orchestra play the music of Danny Elfman who had composed the Music for many of Tim Burton’s Film Scores including the haunting Edward Scissorhands, and Bat Man.
However whilst open toe shoes and sandals were acceptable for women, KL Dress Code insisted I had proper shoes! I have not bought a pair pf leather shoes for at least 10 years as I live in Trainers and certainly would not have any in South East Asia so after ascertaining that no one in Miss Chan’s family had size 11.5 feet Saturday afternoon was spent in KL’s famous Petaling Street Market where I eventually purchased a pair of PVC/Syntheic Leather lookalike lace up brogues for £7/$11 and still had time to explore the nearby Indian and very colourful Sri Maka Mariamman Temple.
The Concert was the first orchestral concert I had attended for perhaps 40 years, although I do go to the Opera and Ballet whenever I have the opportunity, and was very enjoyable with drawings and images from various Tim Burton films projected onto the screen as the Orchestra played the scores under the direction of a Sarah Hicks. I later realised I had seen Ms Hicks direct an orchestra who played with Sting in the Roman Amphitheatre at Nimes in the South of France. Clearly she is building a reputation as a conductor who specialises in modern scores.
And if anyone needs to borrow a size of 11.5 lookalike black leather shoes (worn only once) I have them at my home in Pattaya waiting for my next formal concert appearance in South East Asia.
My hotel room was so comfortable and with such a spectacular view of the Towers that it was not easy to get motivated and away in the mornings but the afternoon of my final day in KL was spent at the Batu Caves just to the north of KL and reached by frequent commuter train. The Batu Caves are a series of caves and Cave Temples which form one of the most important and popular Hindu Shrines and Temple complexes to be found outside of India. The Caves are invariably busy being visited by both locals and tourists and sadly with less attention to the collection of refuse than elsewhere in KL.
The most important and largest Cave is the Cathedral or Temple Cave atop a long winding 272 step staircase that approaches the cliff face with a giant golden statue of Murugan, a Hindi Deity, at the base of the stairs. The cave has very high ceiling in the Limestone Rock and contains many shrines and a small temple – and one or two souvenir outlets! Other caves are full of colourful Hindi statues and Paintings, most notably the Ramayana Cave.
There was still time left to take the train to the historic Sentral Station (with its distinctive towers that were often the first landmark to welcome visitors to KL in bygone times) and walk to the Central Markets located in a wonderful Art Deco building. I was very impressed with the Craftwork for sale within which seemed to be constantly of a high quality and I bought a number of Batik face masks and wooden filigree pieces for both my house in Thailand and as Christmas presents for my family. My rule is to buy nice things as and when I see them throughout the year rather than rush out between December 20 -24 to buy things for their own sake. By the time I had left the Markets I had three bags of gifts and at least 25% of my Christmas shopping was complete – or so I thought!
I took the metro back to KLCC and just as on the previous three evenings could not resist looking up and taking even more pictures of those impressive Islamic styled towers stretching upwards above me. They looked so dramatic when brightly lit and with the dark sky behind.
I had just half a day remaining in KL and was not inclined to wander too far from the hotel and decided to visit the nearby Aquaria which was really impressive with many underwater viewing options to observe brightly coloured tropical fish, Turtles and Sharks.
And so ended a varied and interesting 4 day mini break in KL with still lots left still to see on my next visit. (The Bird Park, Islamic Arts Museum, KL Tower and the Royal Selangor Visitor Centre for starters)
But of course my personal highlight which was without doubt my Dinner with Miss Chan!
We are very different people but I am indeed grateful that my friendship with Miss Chan has stretched over two continents, bridged two cultures and lasted 46 years.
A couple of months after this article was written my family purchased a spacious three bedroom apartment in the heart of London on Tavistock Square., very close to Southampton Row and Russell Square.
In early June I stayed at our new apartment prior to having an ablation at a London Hospital and as I went out and turned the corner onto Southampton Row I spotted that the name of the first building I saw was ‘Endsleigh Court’. The name rang a bell and I wondered if that could be where Miss Chan had lived in 1970 -71?
With the wonders of modern technology I rang Miss Chan in KL from a London sidewalk to discover she had just graduated aged 67 with a newly minted Law degree as well as having had a recent fall and broken her shoulder.
After expressing my congratulations and sympathies accordingly I asked Miss Chan
‘Do you remember that apartment that your family owned and where you lived in 1970 and 1971 – was that called Endsleigh Court?
‘Oh Mr Bromfield – we did not own it we just rented it for me to live in but Yes it was called Endsleigh Court. Why?’
‘We have just purchased three bedroom apartment around the corner only three buildings away from where I used to visit you’
‘Oh Bromfield you own too many properties already and now you have a lovely apartment near Endsleigh Court. You are too rich for me to know.’
And after I wished Miss Chan well and hung up I reflected that 44 years earlier I had stood in the same place and was only able to study for a post graduate degree courtesy of a grant from the government which covered my fees and basic living expenses. My parents contributed £70/$140 per semester on top of the grant.
So it can be argued that ‘The boy done good’ as has the mighty Miss Chan – how many other 67 year olds do you know who have just graduated with a Law degree?
Readers might be interested in reading the following comment from Irene Sia (Miss Chan)
‘I remember you calling me a communist capitalist. Hey, Guess what, I was ahead of my time. Look at China now? Hosts of communist capitalists! Thank you for all your kind words, Mike. It was truly a clash of cultures then but we have survived. This has brought back so many memories of us riding in your car, was it a Morris minor? You were the only one with wheels. Remember the insurance company collapsed? We had to put out hands out to wipe the windscreen when it rained? Mike, it was the most wonderful time for me. In case I had forgotten to thank you for the lovely times, I thank you now. Best wishes to your family. Regards, Irene’