FAY WALL was 23 when she and her soldier husband Terence flew from Australia to then Malaya in 1963.
She recalled landing on a very hot day on August 10, the drive from the airport to what was to be their home for almost three years; the Terendak camp in Melaka, built in 1957 for Commonwealth soldiers during the confrontation with Indonesia.
She remembered too meeting a young Chinese woman, Goh Kim It at the Married Quarters in the camp.
“This is your Amah.” That was the introduction to Kim, just a year older than her, who was to become “the woman who took my daughter away,” and that was the beginning of a beautiful friendship during a very unsettling time in Malaya.
It was the beginning of a friendship that surpasses the perimeters of employer and employee, one that transcends nationalities, race, language and culture.
I was very fortunate to meet Fay and her husband Terence, and Kim and her husband Keith Marshall, recently in London during their reunion to celebrate 55 years of friendship and a joint 80th birthday celebration for all.
All in their late seventies, they had decided on an early 80th birthday as the Australian couple had made the effort to see them in London during their European tour.
Kim had spoken to me about her friendship with her Australian employer, when I met her in her home in Doncaster last year and she was excited that the parents of the ten month old baby, Vicki, that she had looked after in Terendak Camp, were coming to visit them.
It was not long after working with the Walls that Kim met Keith, a 22 year old British soldier with the transportation unit of the Royal Army Service Corp who went to Malaya in 1961.
“My friend was going to a party with an Australian soldier and she asked me to go with her,” said Kim, remembering the blind date that was to change her life.
“She told me that she would find someone for me. It was Keith!” she said.
Kim then asked Fay if she could go out for the night. The very encouraging and supportive Fay did more than gave her permission to go out. She herself went out to get some make-up to glam up Kim for her first date.
There was a lot of laughter and reminiscence in the hotel room in West London where we met, as the two couples took the walk down memory lane to remember the twists and turns in the journey that had shaped their friendship.
“I thought it was only a blind date, but she kept on seeing Keith – a British soldier!” said Fay, to a roar of laughter alluding to the rivalry not unknown amongst the soldiers of the two Commonwealth countries.
Indeed, during my meetings with British veterans who had served in Malaya, a lot of episodes of brawls in pubs and clubs were told with much relish. But there were also a few, such as this that has seen their friendship blossomed.
Indeed, it was Fay who was on the lookout for Keith who would wait for Kim at the bus stop whenever he didn’t have permission to visit the married quarters.
“They need permission to visit the married quarters because there were times when Australian soldiers would be away at the Thai border for a few months, and there would be just the British soldiers. And when they came back, the British soldiers or the New Zealand soldiers would go to the borders. The women would be left on their own. Without the permits, they would not be allowed in,” explained Fay.
As Kim is dyslexic and was struggling with learning English, Fay played an important role in Keith and Kim’s blossoming relationship.
Fay remembered Kim coming back after a date and asking her, “how would you say this in English?”
“And of course, I was speaking Australian English and she was communicating in British English to Keith, which could be very different,” she reminisced, adding that she was also learning Malay from Kim.
The two couples, who had had several meetings before this, admitted that they were more like a family. Vicki, the 10 month old baby who would cry every time Kim left her to go out on a date, is now in her fifties.
She had made a picture book of her own family to give to Kim.
Looking at their black and white pictures that they had brought along with them, Fay remembered helping Kim through some of the toughest periods in her life. Kim, who had already been through a nightmarish childhood during the Japanese occupation when she was captured with her father, was also going through a difficult divorce.
This was compounded by the fact that marriage or intentions of marriage between British soldiers and the locals were much frowned upon by the army.
When the army knew that Keith wanted to marry Kim, he was transferred back to England.
Fay thought if Keith had not bought tickets for Kim, she would gladly take Kim back to Australia. But the flight ticket came after three months and he wrote to her every week; their letters to each other are still kept in an album in their home in Doncaster.
“When Keith was sent home to UK by the army, we had to keep the communication going to make sure Kim could get the passport and ticket ready. We had no phones then so had to write letters. Kim could not write so she would dictate to me just what she wanted to say to Keith; personal as well as necessary information. I then read Keith’s return mail to her.
She has always been so very grateful as without my assistance, she could not have made it to the lovely life she says she has now. It didn’t seem much to me but was a very big deal for Kim,” said Fay while Kim held her hand, displaying the similar ‘sisters watches’ they bought for each other.
Kim got her papers and clearance and was in the UK to marry Keith in December 1964. Although Fay and Terence could not make it for the wedding in Doncaster, their friendship continues and they sent postcards and wrote letters.
Fay gave Kim some money to buy clothes for her trip to a foreign country where the only person she knew was Keith.
“I remember Kim making clothes in preparation to come to England in the middle of winter. It was a cotton dress. She attached long sleeves to the dress and said ‘that’s good enough. I will be alright because I have got long sleeves’,” laughed Fay at the memory.
That night they celebrated their birthdays and friendship, cutting a cake that Kim had bought, complete with fireworks. It was wonderful to be given the opportunity to witness such a beautiful friendship that had started in quite a turbulent time in Malaya.