Malayan Spymaster: Memoirs of A Rubber Planter, Bandit Fighter and Spy (Monsoon Books, 2011)
Monday, 29th August, 2011 Comments Off
Boris Hembry’s memoir is similiar to A Company of Planters (reviewed here) in that both authors served as managers of rubber estates in colonial Malaya and wrote about their time living, at a relatively young age, in a strange land far from home and shouldered with responsibilities that both admit had no experience shouldering. The only difference is that John Dodd in A Company of Planters arrived in Malaya after the Japanese occupation and had to face the risk of Communist ambushes while looking for a local girl to sleep with. Boris Hembry on the other hand was already managing Malayan rubber estates before anyone had ever heard of Hitler. He was also quite chaste before marrying his wife Jean just before the war. Hembry also took an active part in espionage duties during the war years which saw him infiltrating into Japanese occupied Malaya in a submarine. Not content with that, he also organised an army of volunteers (Hembry’s Own Bloody Army, HOBA) to fight the post-war Communist threat especially after fellow estate manager, Arthur Walker, was killed. Being an orang putih and an estate manager made Hembry a prime target for assassination by the communist guerrillas. But it’s not all doom and gloom in this book. Hembry led an active social life and when there was no social life to be found, things other than rubber trees kept him busy. The wildlife for example amazed him to no end. He once found a thirty three foot python and wondered if the record still holds (it’s not. A 49-footer was captured in Indonesia in 2004). Then there was the time he set a tiger trap for a tiger that was spotted wandering near the estate. When he found the trap the next day, it had a tiger paw in it and felt sorry for the tiger which he obviously thought was dying in great pain. A few days later, another tiger was spotted at the estate and this time he shot it dead…and discovered that it had a missing paw. It was the same tiger which he thought had died from its injuries. Not only did it not die, it came back to the estate to hunt!
Though the book has the word Spymaster in it which conjures a certain image, Hembry’s memoir is less on his time as a spy and more on the time he managed estates all over Malaya and briefly in Sumatra and his experience fighting the Japanese. He has never quite forgiven the Japanese for the atrocities committed during the war especially when it happened to someone he knew. The bitterness oozes out of the memoirs whenever he recalls a friend’s beheading. He was also quite critical of the deplorable actions of British officers who looted homes in Singapore after the Japanese surrender. “I could name names”, Hembry threatened.
His memoirs were written quite matter-of-factly, like a grandfather recounting his younger days to his grandchildren and that was in fact the reason he wrote his memoirs. According to his son, Boris Hembry never intended to publish his memoirs but his family thought it would serve his memory better (Hembry died in 1990) if it was available to the general public. I for one am grateful for that decision.