One Woman’s Remarkable Story: Doris van der Stratten

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A new book from expat author Andrew Barber tells of the extraordinary life and untimely death of Doris van der Stratten during the days of World War II in British Malaya.

In 1946, the High Court of Malaya sat at the eastern end of the long, imposing Government Building. It was designed by the prominent Victorian architect AC Norman in the ‘Moorish’ style and also housed the Federal Secretariat. It was the centre of British colonial government. Architecturally, Norman bestowed it with marble minarets and lattice flourishes in deference to Malaya’s Muslim sultanates, a style later to be adopted by a number of other prominent colonial buildings, not least Kuala Lumpur’s decorative railway station.

The light, airy verandas and high ceilings were wafted by languorous fans and were designed to moderate the intense heat and humidity of Kuala Lumpur. Appropriately, Government Building had been the stage and saluting podium for the victory parade following the Japanese surrender in September 1945. This was the heart of British Malaya.

So begins the introduction to Andrew Barber’s Doris van der Stratten, a book whose titular character, an Australian woman, was the mistress of the Japanese Commander of Kuala Lumpur during World War II. Painting with words a vivid scene of life in British Malaya during that era, Barber weaves a tale of this exceptional woman, whose story is told against the backdrop of history. The formative years of Malaysia in the years leading up to independence comprise the setting, and Doris van der Stratten is the character whose true story forms the narrative of the book. And the story is both fascinating One Woman’s Remarkable Story and distressing in equal measure.

Consider the story’s preface: Doris van der Stratten was a 39-year-old Australian housewife and the mistress of a senior ranking Japanese military officer. Before the war she had lived in southern Thailand with her Eurasian husband Philip van der Stratten. In the first days of fighting she survived a massacre of civilians by Japanese soldiers at Kampong Toh, and then endured an epic five-month journey through the jungles of enemy-occupied Malaya. Finally, emaciated and diseased, she gave herself up to the Japanese and was interned with POWs and civilians in Taiping Prison. Here she was spotted, isolated and brought to Kuala Lumpur by the garrison commander, Colonel Koda. Under his ‘protection’ she lived as his mistress in a spacious colonial property, while claiming to be an Italian national. But then she came to the attention of the dreaded Kempetei, who decided she was a British spy.

Doris lived most of her life in Adelaide.She came from a broken home and had a rough and ready up-bringing. By the time of her death, she had long lost contact with her father, and was estranged from both her mother and the two daughters from her first marriage. She also thought, wrongly, that her second husband, Philip, had been killed at Kampong Toh. During her interrogation by the Kempetei she must have felt very alone and that she had nothing to lose: her temper snapped and – uniquely – she fought back.

Carefully researched, Barber’s book steams along, methodically unfolding as an easy and compelling read and portraying Doris dispassionately, but sympathetically. As the story concludes, “Some might see her as a victim of circumstance – a lonely, terrified woman grasping at an offer of comfort and protection from a predatory, corrupt and manipulative figure of authority. Others instead see her as an amoral collaborator who had learned her opportunistic survival tactics from her hard-drinking and hard-living mother. Most, however, will view her as a sad woman, neither an angel nor a devil, whom fate dealt a particularly bad hand.”

Expat author Andrew Barber has shared with us that the profits from the sale of this book will go to a local orphanage here in Malaysia, Lighthouse Children’s Home, making it an even more commendable purchase. The book is available through MPH Bookstores for RM80, but for private sales (at the same price), the author has further offered to include a copy of Malaysian Moments, a published compendium of articles that he contributed to The Expat many years ago, at no additional charge. Please contact [email protected] with “BOOK OFFER” in the subject line for details.

This article was originally published in The Expat magazine (October 2016) which is available online or in print via a free subscription.

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