THE COOL BREEZES OF THE CAMERON HIGHLANDS MAY BE REFRESHING, BUT THEY SWEEP IN WITH THE STORIES OF THE PAST AND THE PEOPLE ENTWINED WITH THE COLONIAL HOUSES THAT CONTINUE TO INSPIRE AND ATTRACT. PAULA TAN DELVES INTO THE HISTORY THAT GIVES THIS ICONIC HILL STATION ITS TIMELESS APPEAL.
It is believed that deep in the hills of the Cameron Highlands, the past merely slumbers, waiting for the next dance to begin. In Malaysia’s north-western highlands, the spirit of a colonial era finds willing, new partners each day, and one can taste it in the golden ripple of tea served in fine bone china and in the fragrance of warm scones that are nibbled in the cool gardens of this highland escape.
HOME ON THE LAKE
As the curves of the winding road unravel toward Cameron Highlands, what appears around Ringlet’s first bend blends seamlessly into the baroque melody on my stereo. Caught in the moment, I contemplate the graceful Tudor manor that comes into sight, perched on a hill overlooking a massive lake. In a Malaysian landscape, the scene seems almost surreal. The Lakehouse, bearing a soul from another age, looks to be straight out of a postcard from a provincial British town.
Built in 1972 by Colonel Stanley Foster, an eccentric, retired British army officer, the Lakehouse is one of the “new” buildings in the Ringlet district (the Highland’s lowest station). Located at 10,000 feet above sea level, the building’s reputation in its day was somewhat less hospitable than the modern one due to Colonel Foster’s cantankerous disposition. He was known for being unfriendly; he posted signs on his property that stated “No Dogs, No Children, No Asians allowed!” and is reported to have frequently chased away Asian visitors with a whip or cane. And yet, he eventually fell for the charms of a Chinese lady and tied the knot – twice.
After Colonel Foster’s death in 1984, the property was sold and became known as the Lakehouse, and it is now managed by HPL Hotels & Resorts, a company that also handles the Concorde Hotel chain in Malaysia.
COMFORTING THE HOMESICK
Mere kilometers away in the township of Tanah Rata, a pre-World War II hotel, Ye Olde Smokehouse, slumbers in pastoral dreams. Opened in the Christmas of 1937 by Douglas Warin, the Tudor style building was one of the first permanent structures to be erected in the then-new Cameron Highland’s hill station.
Originally built for homesick British expatriates – they were only able to visit home once in eight years – the original hotel featured just six rooms as opposed to its present twenty. During the Japanese occupation, the Smokehouse was used as an Officers’ Mess for the Imperial Japanese Army. Despite returning to resuscitate the hotel after the war, the deprivation of the war years took a toll on the enthusiasm of the Warin family, and it was not long before they sold the Smokehouse and moved on. After three different owners including Lakehouse proprietor Stanley Foster, the hotel was eventually bought from the colonel by a Malaysian Chinese, Peter K.H Lee, in 1977.
Although no trained hotelier, Lee and his family took the Smokehouse to its current fine commercial standing in the years that followed. Today, Ye Olde Smokehouse remains a picturesque favourite among visitors, and a charming testament to the Lees’ labour of love.
TEACHING THE GENERATIONS
Also located in Tanah Rata is the old Primary Convent, which still stands regally on a small hill at the gates of the town. It was officially opened on 1 May 1935 as a boarding school known as the Pensionnat Notre Dame and, thanks to its scenic and peaceful location, the school drew a sizeable number of students. The outbreak of war brought this to an abrupt halt, and during the war years the convent functioned as a Japanese hospital. The Convent was reopened post-war, but located in a neighbouring building as the main structure was being used by the British Military. When British troops withdrew in 1971, the Convent was handed over to the congregation, who worked alongside the nuns to restore the building to school-worthy conditions. Today, the Convent continues to operate as a national primary school alongside the church, and is still one of the Highland’s most recognizable landmarks.
MYSTERY AND INTRIGUE
In a place steeped in folktales and legends, the most enigmatic of all Cameron Highland’s stories remains the decades-old mystery of silk-king Jim Thompson. Having arrived in Thailand in 1945 from his native America, this silk merchant, one-time spy, and antique collector had a passion for beauty that extended beyond fine fabrics and old cupboards. On a visit to Cameron Highlands to stay with friends the Lings, his penchant for going off the beaten track lead him, purportedly, in search of a hornet’s nest after lunch on Easter Sunday in 1967. Setting out from the Ling’s Moonlight Cottage in the direction of the nearby Lutheran Mission Bungalow at approximately 1.30pm, Thompson walked down the driveway and disappeared forever into the mists of legend. Across the years, speculation about Jim Thompson’s disappearance has been rife. From CIA-linked abduction conspiracies to death-by-tiger-attack theories, the fact remains that – despite extensive searches – Thompson’s body has never been found and the mystery has never been unravelled.
A WOMAN’S TOUCH
Not far from Moonlight Cottage is Bala’s Chalet, where Jim’s story is kept alive with a photograph on their wall. Built in 1934 and maintaining its original structure to this day, this colonial guesthouse was initially a boarding school – a branch of Singapore’s famed Tanglin School – for the children of European expatriates. The school was owned by traditional Victorian schoolmistress Anne Laugharne Phillips Griffith-Jones – affectionately known as Miss Griff – who was born in 1890 and started her career as a welfare officer at a munitions factory in Wales during World War I. Her school in the Highlands housed 150 students and 22 teachers, the latter recruited from England.
When World War II broke out, reinforcements from the British and Indian Armies were sent to Malaya. On leave during weekends, young army officers headed for the Highlands to escape the lowland heat and to seek female company, and word spread through the region that Miss Griff’s girls were the region’s most attractive lasses.
During the Japanese Occupation, Miss Griff was interned by the Japanese. During her time at the infamous Changi Prison and Sime Road Camp she established a children’s school within the prison ground. After her retirement in 1958, Miss Griffith Jones O.B.E sold the Tanglin School to the British European Association in Singapore and spent the years prior to her death in 1973 living in a small cottage in Brinchang. She was surrounded by her cats and welcomed all her visitors with tea served in the best British tradition; with a silver service and immaculate linen.
Today, the old Tanglin School remains in the form of the restful Bala’s Chalet, owned by local hotelier K. Balakrishnan and his German business partner Peter W.Blumbach. Minimally changed since its early days, the building retains music and dining rooms that are instantly recognized by nostalgic previous pupils. Deep in the hills of Cameron Highlands, the past caresses one’s shoulder on a whispering breeze. Its echoes lift, occasionally, over the clamor of the present day.
Listen – and lose yourself, if you dare.
30th Mile Ringlet
Tel: +605.495 6152
Ye Olde Smokehouse By
39007 Tanah Rata
Tel: +605.491 1215
Sekolah Kebangsaan Convent
39000 Tanah Rata
Tel: +605.4911 045
Jim Thompson’s Moonlight Cottage
A47 Jalan Kamunting
[next to Sunlight Bungalow]
Lot 55, Tanah Rata
Tel: +605.4911 660
This article was written by Paula Tan for Senses of Malaysia.
Source: Senses of Malaysia Sept-Oct 2012
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