Hello, friends. I’m currently time-travelling in the colony formerly known as Malaya. I’m interested, specifically, in the Japanese occupation of Malaya during the Second World War and how different groups of Malayans responded to the threat.
Here in the west, many people don’t learn about WWII’s Pacific theatre of war at school. Certainly, my own education focused on France, Britain and Germany, with a dash of Russia and Italy, and a rousing finale by the United States of America. However, there was also a Pacific War and its Axis aggressor was Japan. The most famous incident in the Pacific War, the bombing of Pearl Harbour in December 1941, was just one part of a multi-pronged assault. On that same night in December, the Japanese simultaneously attacked Thailand, Malaya, Singapore, Hong Kong and the Philippines. The next month, the Japanese turned their attention to Burma, the Dutch East Indies, and northern Australia.
When the Japanese invaded Malaya in December 1941, the local population was an ethnic mixture of aboriginal peoples, Malays, Chinese, Indians, and a small percentage of white (mainly British) colonists who controlled the colony’s industry, politics and, of course, wealth. In the prelude to one of military history’s most ignominious defeats, the British failed to take the Japanese threat seriously. Their attitude is well represented by the the Governor of Singapore, Sir Shenton Thomas: when informed of the invasion, he reportedly said, “Well, I suppose you’ll shove the little men off.” Far from shoving the little men off, however, “Fortress Singapore” fell to the Japanese in just 70 days.
By the time the British surrendered to the Japanese in February 1942, nearly all white civilians had evacuated – and had done so, very conspicuously, at the expense of the local non-white population. One remarkable exception to the white flight was Nona Baker, “a parson’s youngest daughter” from Dunstable, Bedfordshire.
Nona Baker first travelled to Malaya to keep house for her brother, Vin (V. B. C. Baker), who was general manager of a mine at Sungei Lembing, “the single largest tin mine in the world”. Before the war, her brother was the most powerful man in the region, universally called Tuan Besar, or “Big Master” in the Malay language. Nona became known as Missie. Vin Baker seems to have been a classic Victorian paternalist in his management of the mine and his workers. Nona believes that “he was a king and father to the people, and they certainly adored him”.
When the Japanese invaded, Vin couldn’t conceive of a British defeat. Even as the Japanese advanced rapidly south through Malaya, Vin refused to leave his community. He made plans to hide in the jungle with Nona: after all, it would be only a matter of weeks, or perhaps a couple of months at most. Three trusted workers built Missie and Tuan Besar a hut in the jungle and stocked it with a primus stove, paraffin and tinned food. Still, denial prevailed. When the Japanese Army rolled into Sungei Lembing, Vin and Nona were quite rattled: “In the hurry of our departure, I had seized the tool kit from the car and taken it with me, instead of carrying something which might have been of some use.” They also forgot to bring any reading material, an omission they bitterly regretted during their long, idle days in hiding.
As it turns out, they weren’t in hiding for a few weeks or months. Nona Baker remained in the jungle for THREE YEARS. Despite the danger of being caught by the Japanese or betrayed by spies, their faithful servants visited them every ten days in the jungle to bring them fresh food, coffee, paraffin and news. (The servants also had Vin’s false teeth repaired, again at immense personal risk: the dentist who fixed the dentures recognized that they were made in Europe.) After the first year, Vin and Nona’s supply of money ran out and they took the decision to go live among the orang bukit, or “hill people”: a euphemism for camps of Communist guerrillas who lived in the jungle and actively resisted the Japanese occupiers.
Nona and Vin were welcomed by the Communists, both out of principle (Nona says that she never saw a refugee turned away by guerrillas, even when food was extremely scarce) and financial savvy (Communist leaders recognized that they could raise funds locally, using Vin’s name). For three years, Nona and Vin lived as very few white people had ever done, in Malaya: on terms of relative equality with local people.
In 1944, Vin Baker died of illness – a combination of malaria, dysentery and beri-beri. He’d suffered from bouts of depression since going into hiding, and these must have contributed to his weakness. What’s much more remarkable is that Nona Baker survived. She gives a few dutiful reasons for her persistence: wanting to demonstrate that not all British were cowards and quitters; looking after Vin; the need to tell her mother, after the war, how Vin died. But there must have been something beyond that – an essential desire to learn, to know, to live. Despite her self-effacing explanations, Nona Baker was an extraordinary woman.
Nona Baker was briefly famous after the war, when she was delivered into the care of Force 136 (the equivalent of SOE in Southeast Asia), contributed information to Freddy Spencer Chapman‘s report on local Communist organizations, and returned to England. But it was only in 1959 that she felt able to dictate a memoir of her time amongst the Communists. It’s called Pai Naa: The Story of Nona Baker. (Pai Naa, the name she was given by the guerrillas, means something like, “White Nona”.) Nona Baker remains the only documented white woman to have survived the war by living in the jungle. While it is true, as she admits, she was only “busily saving my own skin”, it is remarkable to have her even-handed portrait of life amongst the guerrillas. It’s an intimate record that otherwise wouldn’t exist.
(This post also appears today at the History Girls.)