“Going back in Time”: A Review for Planter’s Bungalow

The Planter's Bungalow

Call it a consummate passion or, simply, a labour of love, but for the past five years, retirees Datuk Peter Jenkins and his wife Waveney have travelled through hundreds of miles of English, Scottish and Malaysian highways and laterite tracks, and shuttled between their Isle of Man and Pahang homes, to conduct countless interviews, pore over documents and eventually  amass 1,200 photographs.

All this for a book called The Planter’s Bungalow: A Journey down the Malay Peninsula. The Planter’s features an exhaustive collection of estate bungalows scattered around Peninsular Malaysia and traces the history of commercial planting since the late 19th century. The couple drew on the memories of almost two centuries of planters through photographs, diaries, letters and interviews with the planters and their descendants. 

How it all started

The idea for the book came about in 1997 when the council of Badan Warisan Malaysia (the Heritage of Malaysia Trust) decided it was important to record the remaining traditional estate managers’ bungalows in Malaysia. After all, the plantation industry has played a crucial role in the country’s development for many years.

“During the discussion as to who should carry out the project, all eyes swivelled to Datuk Henry Barlow, Badan’s honorary secretary,” says Jenkins, 70, at his lovely home in Genting Sempah, Pahang. The Barlow family had considerable plantation interests in Malaya for many years but Barlow had his hands full, Jenkins added. 

“Shortly after I retired in 2002, he said to me: ‘Why don’t you do it?’,” says Jenkins, a former executive director of the Malaysian International Chamber of Commerce and Industry (MICCI). “He also indicated that only about 30 to 40 traditional bungalows remained, so the operation should not be too taxing.” 

Little did Jenkins know that the “30 to 40 bungalows” would grow to 340. He roped in his wife to help with the photography and artistic aspect, well-known conservation architect Chen Voon Fee to provide architectural comments, and his former colleague from MCCI, Chuah Cheng Hong, to assist with the research.

Tracing the planters

The Jenkinses got down to work quickly. They contacted the planters’ trade union worldwide and got a list of planters who used to be based in Malaya. “We wrote tirelessly to all the retired planters, about 350 of them,” says Waveney, 64, a sculptor and one of the founders of Badan Warisan. “For two to three years, we made about 100 visits to these people. Most are already in their 70s or 90s, and quite a few have died, so we talked with their families.” 

Most of the planters are in Scotland, South England or Isle of Man. There are also pockets of them in Denmark, America and Belgium. The Jenkinses found two types of planters: the Scottish who are not particularly grand but reasonably well-educated, and the English, who are typically from good families.

“They are usually the second, third or fourth sons who didn’t get much money and ventured to foreign lands to make more money,” explains Waveney. “Some of them had been in the service during the war and found it hard to get jobs after.”    

A remarkable experience

Having lived in Malaysia for 40 years gave the Jenkinses a good headstart. They arrived in 1962 and lived here full-time till Peter retired. Now they spend about four months a year in Malaysia and the rest on Isle of Man. The Jenkinses knew some of the foreign planters who were still based in Malaysia then and were lucky to get easy access to some of these estates. 

“We wrote to 16 major corporations and received 100% enthusiasm,” says Waveney. “Some companies came back to us quickly while others took a long time to give us permission to get into their estates.” Once they had their contacts lined up, the Jenkinses embarked on their road trips. They didn’t have a particular timeline or even systematic travel plans. Most of their interviews and visits were done during trips that lasted between three days and two weeks. 

“We had many marvellous experiences but we certainly got lost many, many times!” says Waveney. “But the hospitality of the planters, retired and present, was outstanding.” “In Scotland in particular, where drink-driving rules are tough, regularly turning down the whisky on offer was for Peter a painful element of the trip,” says Waveney, chuckling.

When travelling to meet up with retired planters or their families in the UK, the Jenkinses put up at the homes of friends or Bed & Breakfast establishments.  Back in Peninsular Malaysia, they hired a Jeep Cherokee and trundled through the mazelike estate roads. 

“Malaysian maps are totally unhelpful apart from general route finding,” says Waveney. The couple brought along ordnance survey maps but it wasn’t easy fumbling with large maps in the car. Besides, most of the roads have changed, Waveney adds.  

“Considering the size of many estates and the fact that signboards are generally non-existent, it’s surprising more people don’t disappear forever,” she quips. To their dismay, the Jenkinses found their petrol-guzzling Cherokee an inconvenience and their mobile phones frequently lost signals inside the bigger estates. 

“Once we spent an hour questing in circles with no sign of life anywhere. Finally, a man on a motorbike happened to pass by and led us to the estate,” recalls Waveney. “Turned out, they had been looking for us all over the place but in the wrong sector of the plantation; we had gone miles off course.” 

But often the planters would send people to the road entrances to lead the Jenkinses in. The couple enjoyed travelling to the small towns around Malaysia, staying in simple hotels and eating at out-of-the-way stalls and restaurants. And they were often “royally entertained to wonderful meals by the planters and their wives”. In total, they made 120-odd visits to estates where most of the old buildings are still standing and documented 340 bungalows in the book. 

“We decided the cut-off date for the bungalows (when they were built) would be 1942,” says Waveney. “When the Japanese war started, and after the war, not much building happened. They lived in great squalor to start with and didn’t build any bungalows after that.” 

A vanishing tradition

Throughout their journey, the Jenkinses found many bungalows had been torn down and replaced with spanking new buildings or just left to rot.

“A lot of bungalows got neglected during the war, and after the war, there wasn’t much money to maintain the buildings so many got pulled down. There was a bad decay of buildings in the 60s and the tremendous feelings of prosperity meant tearing down the old and building the new.

“Some corporations felt it cheaper to have a modern structure. Today, the manager’s family usually lives elsewhere so the kids can go to school. He only needs a room for himself,” explains Waveney. What fascinated the Jenkins about these bungalows were two aspects – the socio-historical and architecture. 

“You find out how the estate manager goes through the day, what he eats, what time he gets up and goes to bed,” says Peter. And some of the bungalows come with enthralling anecdotes of the owners’ lives. “The success or failure of these estates depended on the competence, and the physical and mental courage of the managers,” adds Peter.    

Architecturally, the buildings display vernacular influences. “Early planters who came were young men filled with vim and vigour. They arrived in the middle of the jungle and took what they had. They made cengal posts, thatch roof and followed the idea of building on stilts, which is practical because of the humidity and wild animals,” says Waveney.

Planters living closer to civilisation like in Penang and Malacca built more sophisticated buildings with European Art Deco or Chinese influences.  Some of the old planters had already established estates in India and Ceylon, hence those countries’ influences are obvious in the bungalows here: the outside living area and large veranda.    

“What’s really fascinating is the fantastic adaptation to the tropical climate and the interesting way of using material and space,” adds Waveney. “You don’t waste energy and use the free flow of air as natural air-conditioning.”

What keeps them going

Right from the start, the Jenkinses had to fork out all the travel and research expenses. The book is in the editing and layout stage now. Though one of the larger corporations has committed a major part of sponsorship to fund the book, the money is not available yet.

“We both believe in miracles and hope more people will come and support this project late in the day,” says Waveney, who hopes the book will reach bookstores by November 2007. But the Jenkinses vow to see the project through.

“People in our generation will say rubber and tin were the biggest contributors to the economy of the country. Peter and I believe that the planters’ contribution and sacrifices have been undervalued. And the old bungalows’ architectural details and techniques could still be a huge contribution to modern architecture, both aesthetically and scientifically,” says Waveney.

“I hope the younger generation of Malaysians will be interested; a lot of them don’t quite appreciate nor understand how much the successful economy of the country was built by the successful plantation industry.”

Review originally posted in The Star Newspaper, Saturday May 12, 2007