Good Reading : November 2010
NOVEMBER 2010 ı goodreading 11 cover story Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion Driving through oil palm plantations One of the delightful orangutans at a rainforest sanctuary with the Head Hunters of Borneo. Where will her curiosity lead her and what secrets will she unearth when she decides to visit Malaysia? But the Malaysia I knew was from 40 years ago, so I needed to revisit. I started my travels in Kuala Lumpur, now a sophisticated high-rise city with freeways and highways to shame our own. I caught up with friends and colleagues of my late Uncle Jim and was taken to lunch at the historic Royal Selangor Club. Here I could easily imagine the old planters in their smart white planters' suits, sola topis beside them that they would don when they headed outdoors, after enjoying their whisky stengahs and comparing notes on the tin and rubber prices and discussing their belief that the war would never touch Malaya.The ladies, returning from a visit to their tailors or an elegant after noon tea, might talk of the upcoming race meeting and ball. Today little has changed at 'The Spotted Dog', as the club was nicknamed, to the extent that women are still not permitted in the Long Bar! But as exciting and modern as KL now is, Penang is the city that captured my imagination, and it was here I heard the whispers of the sisters' story in my imagination, especially when I chose to stay at the Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion, a wonderfully restored palatial residence that had belonged to an influential Chinese businessman in the 19th century and which is now a boutique hotel. Penang is colourful, alive with history and abuzz with life, and could inspire a dozen novels, unlike the beautifully restored historic town of Malacca, which seems to exist more for tourists. Later, when I landed on the island of Langkawi, off the coast of Penang, I found the contemporary threads to my story. Here an Australian woman, Narelle McMurtrie, established the Bon Ton Resort, which once overlooked the sea but now is sur rounded by tranquil paddy fields. What makes this resort different is that over the years Narelle has collected, relocated and restored traditional buildings from every Malaysian state -- each with its own regional architectural singularities -- and turned them into stylish and comfortable guest houses. Scattered around the grounds are lap pools, recreation areas, a club house and a wonderful airy pavilion restaurant that serves great food. As a side line, Narelle and her business partner, Alison Fraser, run a dog and cat sanctuary, and you can help walk the dogs or share your cottage with several rescued cats. The two women were a fount of infor mation and introduced me to Aidi Abdullah, a delightful naturalist who gave great insights into the beauty as well as the threats to Malaysia's environment. One of the biggest threats is the proliferation of oil palm plantations. I could see that for myself as we later drove from Kuala Lumpur to the historic hill stations of Fraser's Hill and the Cameron Highlands; the landscape we passed consisted primarily of ordered rows of oil palms as far as the eye could see. Palm oil's high yield, versatility and profitability have meant that it has replaced the coconut and rubber plantations in much of the country. The situation is similar in Indonesia, where the smoke pall from bur ning peat on Kalimantan can't be extinguished and the bur ning of the rainforests to create yet more plantations casts a grey cloud over Malaysia day after day. I went to Sarawak to see if I could find more about the destruction of the rainforest and fell in love with the river port of Kuching. But my heart was totally stolen by the gentle and clever orangutans that I visited in their sanctuary. There is no doubt that they will face extinction unless something is done quickly to halt the destruction of their habitat. In Kuching I also became aware that all this rapid development threatens the livelihood of the traditional inhabitants, particularly the Penan and Iban tribes. James Ritchie -- investigative reporter, author and very colourful character -- took me exploring and introduced me to his displaced Iban friends, the once-feared headhunters of Borneo. They no longer live in long houses but in the outer suburbs of Kuching and in government resettlement projects known as New Villages. So, knowing all this, it was with some concern that I visited one of the most successful palm oil plantations in Malaysia, and I found that some of my preconceptions about oil palms were challenged. The Plantation connects the vibrancy and contradictions of modern Malaysia with the story of two sisters, and the links between their lives in Australia and old Malaya. It also becomes a journey for my moder n heroine as she unravels the tangled and turbulent story of her grandmother and great aunt, and finds the reasons for the estrangement and other family secrets, while discovering for herself the beauty and fascination of Malaysia. The Plantation by Di Morrissey is published by Pan Macmillan, r rp $32.99.
December January 2011