Today I’m absolutely delighted to welcome back the lovely Ann Bennett.
Please introduce yourself to my readers, Ann.
I’ve been writing on and off for over twenty-five years, and had written numerous short stories and three full-length novels, none of which had seen the light of day, before I discovered the peer review site YouWriteOn in 2011. The experience of receiving feedback from writers on the site helped me finish The Pomelo Tree, which had reached the top of the YWO charts, and eventually became Bamboo Heart. This book was published by Monsoon Books in 2014. I went on to write Bamboo Island and Bamboo Road. The trilogy is about the second world war in SE Asia, experienced from three different viewpoints. It was inspired by researching the experiences of my father who was a prisoner on the Thai-Burma railway. Bamboo Island is out on kindle now and will…
Bamboo Island, the second book in my South East Asia WW2 Trilogy is now available on amazon.co.uk and amazon.com in the Kindle edition. The paperback version is out in SE Asia already and will be launched in the UK in March 2016.
Here’s the blurb: Malaya 1962: Juliet Crosby, a plantation owner’s wife, has lived a reclusive life on her rubber plantation since the Second World War robbed her of everyone she loved. The sudden appearance of a young woman from Indonesia disrupts her lonely existence and stirs up unsettling memories. Together they embark on a journey to Singapore and Indonesia to uncover secrets buried for more than twenty years. Juliet is forced to recollect her prewar marriage, her experiences during the Second World War – hiding from the Japanese in Singapore before being captured, tortured then imprisoned with other intertnees in Changi Prison – and the loss of those she once held dear.
Bamboo Island is volume two in a Southeast Asian WWII trilogy that includes Bamboo Heart and Bamboo Road. They are all standalone stories. Bamboo Heart is available now and Bamboo Road is coming soon.
From the River Kew to Kwai: A journey of discovery (Reproduced with the kind permission of the Editor and Friends of the National Archives. Documents WO 345/4 and WO 344/362/2 are held at The National Archives, London.)
Ann Bennett discusses how she traced her father’s records of army service and reveals the wealth of documentary sources that have survived.
Researching family history is a journey of discovery that can take you in many directions. There are different routes you can take: some are blind alleys and some super-highways to moments of enlightenment. This article is about my quest to find out about what happened to my father in the Far East during the Second World War. It took me on several trips to Thailand and also, thanks to the wonders of the Internet, to sources as far apart as Taiwan, the United States, London and Glasgow. It is a journey that is still not over – there are still avenues I would like to explore.
My last post was about my 1988 trip to Kanchanaburi with my mum. Another time I’ll share more photos and diary entries about our adventures in Songhkla and Hat Yai in Southern Thailand, and our week in Burma during the 1988 military crackdown. Now I’m getting back on track with the inspirations for Bamboo Heart, by posting about my four days in Penang in 1985, my only visit to that beautiful island.
It made a huge impression on me, enough to stay with me for decades and inspire the setting for two story-lines in Bamboo Heart, separated by fifty years. I would love to return one day.From photos and videos I’ve seen of modern day Georgetown, it is transformed from the low-rise, low-key atmospheric port I visited full of streets of shop-houses and colonial buildings into a to a bustling modern city of glass skyscrapers, although I understand that all the colonial buildings and Chinese shop-houses have been carefully restored and preserved.
Below are some photos of Georgetown that I took in 1985, and which inspired the sections of Bamboo Heart in which Laura visits Penang in 1986 on her quest to find more about her father’s past and track down the elusive Joy de Silva.
My visit to Penang was on a Bangkok to Bali Rover with Trailfinders, my first experience of travelling outside Europe. We had started out in Bangkok, visited Ayutiyah and Pattaya in Thailand, then boarded a night train to Butterworth in Malaysia. According to The Man in Seat 61, the trains look just the same now as they did then. I remember a fantastic night’s sleep on linen sheets and a cheap tasty meal washed down with Singha beer in the restaurant car.
At Butterworth we took the ferry to Georgetown – a great lumbering square boat. There wasn’t a road bridge then. I remember crossing the straits at sunset, standing out on deck in the warm evening, and watching the red sky and the mountains behind the town coming closer.
We took rickshaws to the Cathay Hotel, which features in Laura’s story in Bamboo Heart. I remember it being a shabby old Portuguese Villa, once beautiful and imposing, but even then very run down. The rooms were huge and high ceilinged, and it was unbelievably cheap. I don’t remember now whereabouts it was in Georgetown, but in the book I set it in a busy quarter, full of loud bars and cafes. I’ve googled it and it now has a certain shabby-chic cachet – described in the New York Times as follows: ‘You could say that the Cathay Hotel comes up short in just about every category. Except for that most elusive, yet most important measure of a hotel’s allure: character. There, the Cathay Hotel gets six stars.’
Here is my picture from 1985. My camera obviously didn’t like to tropical climate! All the photos from that trip came out dull and dark.
I would certainly have stayed at the Eastern and Oriental Hotel, but all we could afford was a coffee on the terrace. I think that coffee probably cost far more than a night at the Cathay Hotel. I made up for it by having Tom stay there on his first night in Georgetown.
We hired a jeep and toured the island, drove through the suburbs of Georgetown, into the hills and over to Batu Ferringhi, a beautiful white sand beach, which even then was fringed with modern luxury hotels. Here are a few photos I took of Penang beaches on that trip. Those beaches inspired some of the important scenes in the book, featuring Joy and Tom (I hope that isn’t a spoiler!)
We also took the funicular railway up to Penang Hill to see the wonderful views across the shimmering straits towards Butterworth and the mainland. I remember eating satays in the little cafe there. I have used this location in both Tom’s story in the 1930s and Laura’s 1980s story.
We also visited the Penang State Museum and Art Gallery (this isn’t my photo, but again, a key scene in the book takes place inside this bulding)
The below photo (which is mine) of rickshaw riders resting in the trees near the museum in Georgetown inspired another scene in the book, I won’t say which one… if you’ve read Bamboo Heart, you’ll be able to guess.
It is a while since I had time to do any posts to my Bamboo Heart insprations blog. Here are some more photos from the Kanchanaburi sections of my 1988 trip with my mum. First up are the ones from the photo gallery on my website. You’ve might have seen all these before..
We went to see the Bridge on the River Kwai of course – a boatman took us on a longtail boat up the river from our hut and we sped right underneath the bridge. We also visited the war cemeteries and went to the only museum that was there at the time to document the building of the railway- the JEATH museum (which I renamed as the Death Museum in Bamboo Heart – I thought JEATH was a bit confusing). I wrote about it in my diary ‘v interesting – if disturbing. Explained a lot about the building of the Death Railway. The prison camps (it was constructed like one) the living conditions – horrors of illness, disease torture and slave labour. Somehow in the heat and the jungle you can appreciate more of what it was like. Loads of photos of POWs and the railway – maps, plans and articles. Most harrowing of all were the accounts by the men themselves and the artists impressions. I felt rather stunned and sickened by it all.‘
This vehicle was near the bridge on the river Kwai in 1988. I don’t remember noticing whether it was still there in 2010 when I visited again with my eldest son, Ollie. This is what I wrote about it in 1988:‘Saw the old railway engines they had on display – most interesting was the converted truck they used to build it. It had been a road lorry and they’d simply put the chassis on top of the railway wheels, and it could be converted back to road use at any time. It was really battered and old-looking, and with half closed eyes you could see it chugging up the railway through the jungle, or pampas loaded with half-starved men and their tools.’
We also did a lot of travelling around the province by bus, visiting the Erewan Falls and Sai Yok National park. The region is wild and beautiful, craggy hills covered in jungles, lakes, waterfalls.
The teak forests in Sai Yok National park in Kanchanaburi province were felled for sleepers on the Death Railway, but the forests were replanted in the 1950s.
This is us at cave temple near Kanchanaburi – I have scribbled Wat Tham Khao Pun on the back of the photo. More details about the cave temple from Lonely Planet here .It is quite near Chungkai camp, where my Dad was imprisoned for several months between December 1943 and June 1944 (link to my website page for more details) .Chungkai camp also is the main setting for the railway scenes in Bamboo Heart.
Not quite sure why Mum was wearing ankle socks in this photo! Maybe she had blisters? Can’t quite fathom that one. My diary doesn’t say much about the caves …’crossed the river by ferry and were driven through the baking hot countryside towards the hills. Then walked up to a cave temple. It was lovely and cool inside and you could walk a long way down the corridors and passageways. Really weird rock shapes and every so often a Buddha in a cavern...’
One day we took a train from Kanchanaburi on the railway to as far as it went at Nam Tok. I used passages from my diary about that day for the trip Laura and Luke take in Bamboo Heart. I will type them out in full and include a link to them from my website, but here’s a small section: ‘up to the station to catch the Kwai train. It arrived about half an hour late. Only 3rd class tickets available and the carriage was very bare – painted brown with old-fashioned adverts on the walls and wooden seats. The windows were wide open and we got a good view of the countryside. Miles of paddy fields, cassava plantations, bananas, then jungle encroaching.
Crossed the Kwai bridge, then trundled across the plains towards Burma, following the valley of the Kwai river. The valley narrowed and went between two cliff faces. The railway had been blasted and chipped out along here. Then the train slowed right down and we began to cross a ledge built of wood and raised on stilts above the river. It was about half a mile long. Quite hair-raising…
Next time I will blog about our adventures in southern Thailand, including in Phuket where we stayed in the On-On hotel (years later used as the set for the dive of a guesthouse in the Khao San road in the film of the Beach)…