Saturday, January 3, 2009

Love in Hong Kong, lost in Malaya

Jan 3, 2009

By Cheong Suk-Wai

WHAT a life he has had. Dr Leon Comber - who would only say he is in his late 80s - has packed at least four careers into his life.

Born Leonard Francis Comber in London, he was the only child of a master bookbinder and typesetter, and a housewife.

He was reading law at King's College, London in 1939 when World War II broke out. Thus, in the 1940s, he was an officer in the Indian Army in Assam, and then Burma, before he landed in Morib, Selangor just after the Japanese surrendered in September 1945.

The 1950s saw the former major becoming a crack Cantonese-speaking intelligence officer in the Malayan Special Branch. Indeed, throughout this chat, he broke every so often into perfectly intonated Cantonese.

Dr Comber was, however, forced to quit the Special Branch after his first wife, the author Han Suyin, wrote a book that was sharply critical of it.

He moved on to publishing. From 1964 till 1987, he built publishing house Heinemann's Asia operations from scratch and nurtured many writers, including Singapore's Edwin Thumboo. Dr Comber himself has penned at least 22 books. He later headed the Hong Kong University Press for about five years.

After settling in Melbourne, Australia in 1991 with his second wife, Madam Takako Kawai, and their daughter, Akii, he gained a PhD in Asian Studies at the age of 76.

There has been little let-up in his pace since. Last year alone, he wrote three books, one on the Special Branch, another on Chinese temples and the third on Chinese secret societies.

He is currently researching the genesis of intelligence in Singapore as well as the birth of the Cold War in South-east Asia, at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies here.

It cannot have been easy writing a book about a career after it was cut off at its knees. But, over eight years, Dr Comber did precisely that, burrowing through archives from London to Canberra to write a study of intelligence operations during the Malayan Emergency.

Titled Malaya's Secret Police 1945-60: The Role Of The Special Branch In The Malayan Emergency, it was released late last year. It is a treasure trove of information as to how he and his colleagues outsmarted and won over some of the mostly Chinese communists.

Asked what moved him to write the book, the man who calls himself a 'half-Buddhist' says: 'I felt sad about the unnecessary loss of life. Mao Zedong said revolution is not a tea party but civilians in many ways were caught between the two sides. And I thought it a great tragedy that so many lives were lost.'

That same compassion informed his work with the Special Branch. 'I never told anybody to use violence or used violence myself,' says Dr Comber, who rose to be acting assistant commissioner of police, heading its crucial Chinese section.

Dr Comber's private life then, revolving around his first marriage, makes for an equally compelling story. He met the Eurasian doctor-turned-author Han - her real name was Chou Kuanghu - at a hospital in Hong Kong where she gave him anti-cholera shots. By the mid-1950s, they had wed and were living in Johor Baru.

Then, in July 1956, came Han's novel, And The Rain My Drink. Set in the Emergency, it portrayed the communists sympathetically while disparaging Dr Comber's colleagues.

He wasn't shown the manuscript. As he recalls: 'It was purportedly about the Special Branch in Johor Baru, but various persons in it who can or may be identified - incorrectly - or even if they are identified correctly, what was written about them was not correct.'

He wonders: 'How far should a novelist be allowed to transgress in writing fiction when they introduce characters who can be identified...and then write, as part of fiction, descriptions about them which are completely false but the reader may nevertheless believe?'

General Gerald Templar, the then British high commissioner in Malaya, tried but failed to get the book banned. The angry, table-thumping general then confronted Dr Comber.

'I told him bluntly that I was not responsible for what my wife wrote,' he recalls.

'I said: 'I don't think you or the government have a right to say what people could say or write.' I mean, it was not treason; it was criticism.'

And how did he tell Han what having to quit meant to him? 'I don't think there's any question of how I told her because she would have known without my telling her anyway. I don't think she was very concerned about it.'

They parted ways a few months after the book was published, but were divorced only after some seven years. He has bumped into her only once since and he hears she now lives in Lausanne, Switzerland but he cannot be sure.

The Combers' marriage had soured even before And The Rain My Drink. In May 1956, they were in Kathmandu to attend the coronation of Nepal's King Mahendra. There, Han met Colonel Vincent Ruthnaswamy, who was to be her third husband. Many believe her novel, The Mountain Is Young, is based on that trip. In it, a man named John Ford delights in barking at and taunting his nervy wife, who later takes an Indian lover.

How did Dr Comber learn his wife and Col Ruthnaswamy were an item? 'You don't have to be told or know about it,' he says. 'Sometimes things are there, in front of you, and you know, you understand. I mean, anybody would.'

He adds: 'And then I returned to Johor Baru, and I think she stayed on a bit longer in Kathmandu, and that's how it was.

'Things fall apart.'

[What a candid interview. And what a life!]

1 comment:

Nicholas Herriman said...

Thank you very much for this interview. I have met Leon a few times. I find him a fascinating and intelligent man.