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Book Review: Kuala Lumpur at War 1939-1945

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For those who have a thirst for history, living away from home is a wonderful opportunity to delve into the past of a foreign land and uncover gems of information and anecdotes that often seem fantastical and strange compared to the history of the homeland.

Andrew Barber, who lives in Malaysia with his wife and two children, has spent his life intrigued by history, and after a career as a diplomat, the Brit settled here in Malaysia and began to develop his passion through writing and research.

It has been a productive time for Andrew, and his latest book Kuala Lumpur at War 1939-1945 is the fifth to engage with and document the history of his new home. “I enjoy writing, I enjoy researching,” he explained, “and when I was researching Penang at War [his previous book] I kept getting references to things that were happening in KL or Selangor, which made me think there would be enough material for another book.”

His sense proved correct, and while the “war” of the title is actually the Japanese Occupation, which involved little fighting, Andrew discovered a wealth of information and came to realise that the period was hugely transformative for the country as a whole. “Things were never the same again after the war,” he says, “and everything changed in terms of interracial relations and political attitudes. It was a very important time.”

With no military narrative to structure the book, Andrew sought out anecdotal evidence to supplement the facts obtained from military archives and old newspapers, and it was during the research process, tracking down older people who had lived through the years of occupation, that he found that the experience of that time was a hugely personal thing. “There was no single or uniform narrative,” he says in the book’s introduction. “The war years present a hybrid of varied, complex, and often contradictory experiences.”

Despite this, or perhaps because of it, the book becomes a rich tapestry of stories and anecdotes, and an interesting weaving of the personal experiences and factual intrigues that made this period so instrumental in changing the face of the country.

“I discovered a lot of things I didn’t know before,” said Andrew when discussing the research process on BFM. “For example, the US Air Force actually bombed KL on two occasions, dropping their bombs on the railway marshalling yards in Brickfields.” He also mentions learning of the brutal Bukit Jalil massacre that saw 400 people being beheaded and buried in a mass grave. “I came across a testimony from a Japanese soldier and, although he is not specific, I am almost certain he is writing about that massacre. He explained what it was like being a young soldier and having to carry out orders like that.”

Researching the book is clearly half the pleasure for this amateur historian, and he admits to being constantly inspired by the things he found in the archives. “It’s a bit of a mystery tour,” he says. “I remember I came across something that said ‘Top Secret Returns.’ I thought that would have to be good, but it was just a list of numbers! Then other things sound dull, but turn out to be great.”

By combining archive material with personal anecdotes, Andrew has managed to create a balanced narrative that is, in his words, “more a book about episodes of life under the Japanese.” This approach has produced a book that is easily readable and accessible, and the human elements ensure readers can enjoy a connection with the material and the history it documents. “It’s not meant to be a technical or academic book,” he says firmly, “I hope it’s a light history. It’s something that my Mum could read and enjoy!”

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While Andrew simply enjoys delving into the past of his new home, by producing this book he also hopes that more local people could embrace their own history, too. In the introduction to the book, he laments the “general lack of interest in the war by Malaysians, particularly the young generation.”

Perhaps through this book, Andrew will be able to offer what he feels the families of Malaysians who died during that time should enjoy, namely “better recognition and commemoration.” For expats, it is a chance to engage with a time that made Malaysia the country we inhabit today.

Get Kuala Lumpur at War 1939-1945 here.

Source: The Expat December 2012

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