“The Planter’s Bungalow” Review

The Planter's Bungalow

Review by Simon Hutchinson

On first seeing this handsomely produced, lavishly illustrated book one would take it for one of those ‘coffee-table’ volumes displayed for visitors to admire and perhaps glance through rather than actually read.   The title may suggest an almost eccentric specialization (Book about bungalows?! Who on earth would want to read it?’) but open this book at any page and you will be drawn into a fascinating journey through once familiar times and places.

The rubber estates that we knew had their economic ups and downs from the first decade of the twentieth century until the advent of synthetic rubber brought about their wholesale conversion from rubber to palm oil in the 1970s.  Today’s manager no longer needs the large bungalow occupied by his predecessor when rubber and tin were the vital dollar earning products that gave Malaya its booming economy.  His home is in a town and although he is resident on the estate on working days his accommodation is usually a small (and of course air-conditioned) pied-a-terre.  But many of the old bungalows survive and are to Malaysia what the great country houses are to England – landmarks from a vanished age and foundations for national and regional history.

This was recognized by the Badan Warisan Malaysia (Heritage Trust of Malaysia) and the task of compiling an architectural and social record of the remaining planters’ bungalows was entrusted to Peter and Waveney Jenkins.   They would work in collaboration with Chen Voon Fee the distinguished architect and writer on Malaysian buildings of interest.  Datuk Jenkins, a construction engineer  and Datin Waveney, a sculptor and expert on aspects of Malay culture had embarked on a formidable task.  They were told that thirty or forty of the old bungalows still survived.  They found about 430 and selected 226 to describe.  Their work involved ‘many hundreds of miles on English and Scottish highways and byways, Malaysian motorways and laterite plantation tracks, several thousand photographs’ and of course very many interviews in addition to the examination of documents which any historical research involves.

Chen Voon Fee’s opening chapter tells how the planter’s bungalow evolved from its original pattern of a Malay house into the typical two-storied building with all its refinements designed to afford shelter from direct sunlight and by the use of well-ventilated space to catch every breeze and keep the house as cool as possible.  he also covers variations from the fairly standard pattern including the almost palatial ‘Mansion and Corporate House’ style; the Scandinavian pattern and such fantasies as ‘Kellie’s Castle’ near Batu Gajah and the ‘Flying Ssaucer’ design of the Nigel Gardner bungalow in north Selangor.

The Jenkins partnership covers each State and Settlement in turn from north to southy.  The photographs and sketches are splendid beginning with an early planter’s ‘little hut’, so primitive that the poorest Chinese ‘squatter’ of our own day would have refused to live there and progessing to impressive stone built mansions and smaller houses which would not look out of place in an English suburb.  Interiors are well illustrated from the homely to the highly ornate.  There are fine typical examples of the inhabitants ranging from the owner of the ‘little hut’ – a heroic figure defying the heat in breeches, Norfold jacket, collar and tie and solar topi – through the 1920s and 30s (vintage cars, stiffly posed groups) to the 1950s (SCs manning  defences, two girls with a ‘home made’ armoured car) and other more relaxed scenes of family life on verandah or in sitting room.

The text is an admirable mix of the history and description of the houses and the people who lived and work there, including some memorable managers, important visitors real or supposed (one much feted VIP from the firm’s London office turned out to be the doorkeeper) and the redoubtable wife who was said to have repelled a bandit attack with two well directed cans of boiling water.  The authors do full justice to the eccentricity of some of the planting fraternity.  We meet the planter who informed a guest that he kept a pet pythan called Horace (‘Quite harmless but likes the warmth of a bed in the mornings.’); the planter who entertained a  lunch party by shooting latex cups hanging from trees with his .45 Colt issued to him by a police officer who angrily withdrew it on the grounds of misuse; and the planter who swore that he owed his selection when interviewed by the two senior partners of the firm at their London office to the fact that he snatched a poker from the fireplace and instantly killed a rat which was ‘loitering behind a waste-paper basket’.  ‘Ithink,’said one senior partner to the other, ‘that this is the sort of chap we need in Malaya.’

Yes indeed, and this is the sort of book to do them, their wives and staff, full and ample justice.

Review originally published in the RMPFAUK (ex Malaysian Police) Newsletter