Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Arte: Somerset Maugham and Me—Filming at My Office for the French—Part III

As of Saturday the French crew and Karen were still going back and forth as to whether they were coming to my house to film on Sunday or Monday while trying to work out their shoot­ing schedule for the Sarawak pepper story because they would only have access to Michel’s drone until Tuesday since he would be returning to France.  Finally they agreed that after the Fort Margherita shoot to come to my house.

I knew my wife Jenny was getting anxious, so I told her on Sunday morning before I left the house for Fort Margherita, I would text her with the latest details—when they were coming and how many.  Her biggest concern was having to answer a question on Somerset Maugham.  I assured her they just wanted to meet my Bidayuh family.

Dressed for Gawai!
Laure was delighted when I told her about Jenny’s German and French connection—she works for X-Fab, a Ger­man company that had recently expanded into France.  Also my mother’s side of family came from France as part of the Huguenots expulsion in 1572 and eventually arrived in America in 1630. My father’s side mostly came from Germany, having arrived in America in the early 1800’s.  So you can say I am also a Franco-German project, ideal for the Franco-German Arte.

Laure was thrilled that I had another French connection, as a tango dancer in the film Indo­chine. She said she was a big fan of Catherine Deneuve and was de­lighted when I showed her some photos from the shooting.  Indochine was a period piece, between the wars, when din­ner guests dressed up...even in remote corners of the world as they did here in Sarawak when Maugham visited.

The Indochine Tango Dancers.  standing Robert Raymer, Joelle St-Arnoult, Angela and Lee Clark; 
seated Anni Nordmann, Andre Cluzaud, Laurence, Seibert Kubsch

Looking back, I had to admit I seemed rather dashing (wearing a tuxedo, having makeup and your hair professionally styled helped).  I feel far less dashing today with a lot less hair.

After we finished filming at Fort Margherita, after taking another tambang across the river, after some delays searching for a bank to trans­fer money from France and a late lunch, I left early since the others were coming to­gether in a van.  We seemed to be picking up people, too, so I kept updating Jenny, they’ll be four, no make that five, now it’s six—not in­cluding me.  I arrived home with just enough time to take a quick shower and a change of clothes.  In fact, I was step­ping out of the shower when they arrived.

Feeling refreshed and serving them refreshments of orange slices and Danish cookies and a few local tidbits to snack on, I presented myself to Richard who wanted to film me inside my of­fice.  He took some artistic shots of me reflected on the glass of two bookcases, alongside a sketch portrait for a clever double imagine, and additional shots be­hind me.

I was awfully glad that we recently redid my office, adding some nice cabinets and additional light.  I even had framed copies of my books on top of one of the cabinets, including Trois autres Malaisie,  the book that had attracted the attention of Laure Michel back in France.  I was also glad my wife insisted I get a haircut!

Needless to say my children, Jason 12 and Justin 10 were amused; maybe even a little im­pressed….All this fuss over their stay-at-home-writer-father….The younger one, who is the read­er and writes his own stories, took the most interest as I prattled on about Somerset Maugham and the District Officers that he wrote about on those lonely outstations who often took in a local woman as a “sleeping dictionary”, a common practice then in Sarawak, though frowned upon in Malaya.  

These were not women they would marry; they would cohabitate with them, bear children with them, but if they wanted a “real” wife, they would return to England and find one, often on short notice, and bring them back with them, as Maugham described in “The Force of Circum­stance.” 

Guy had a local woman for ten years and three half-caste children, a detail he forgot to tell Doris when he asked her to marry him and follow him to Sarawak, to a re­mote outpost alongside a Borneo river.  When the previous “wife” kept coming around the property, Doris would enquire about her and her children, as to who was their father.  

Guy replied, “Oh, my dear, that’s the sort of questions we think is a little dangerous to ask out here.”

But then she learned the truth—that these kids were his.  Unable to accept this new reality, Doris eventually returned to England, so Guy moved his native “wife” and three kids back in.

Nowadays these so called “half-caste” children are considered mixed or pan-Asian, having inherited “the best” from both parents.  We’re proud of our children and the fact they are bi-lin­gual and have inherited two cultures can be an advantage.

I then talked about how Maugham got ideas for his short stories, largely from three sources. 

One:  his notebook.  “I filled my notebook with brief descriptions of their ap­pearance and their character, and…stories began to form themselves...”  He also wrote, “I have taken living people and put them into the situations, tragic and comic, that their characters suggested.  I might well say that they invented their own stories.”

No doubt he had fun writing about the characters he met in Borneo, drinking their gin pahit and stengahs…for example, he pitted a snob against a cad in “The Outstation.” 

In The Summing Up he wrote: “Fact and fiction are so inter­mingled in my work that now, looking back on it, I can hardly distinguish one from the other.”

As a writer, I know that feeling, when years later I would bump into someone with startled recognition, only to realize that I had based a character on them and had totally forgotten where the original inspiration came from.  I would suddenly feel embarrassed and think, if only they knew…. Maugham, no doubt, felt that em­barrassment, too; other times, he felt lucky he wasn’t sued for slander!

Two: newspapers.   Maugham got ideas for some of his most sensational stories from newspaper reports about a murder or a juicy trial.  This was how Maugham got the idea for one of his most famous stories, “The Letter,” taken from an actual trial ten years prior to his first visit to Malaya ….Leslie, who was married, was indignant that her lover had recently been living with a Chinese woman.  She invited him to her bungalow (while her husband was in Singapore) and shot him six times.

In the Maugham story she was acquitted after her husband paid a large amount of money for an incriminating letter that she wrote.  In real life, the woman was found guilty, but five months later, during an appeal, she got a pardon.  Like so many of Maugham’s characters in Borneo, she literally got away with mur­der.

Three:  Gerald Haxton.  His secretary, traveling companion and lover, Haxton was an ex­tro­vert, unlike Maugham who was shy and had a bad stammer.  He would head to the club and get the local Brits or expats talking about the latest gossip; then he would return to Maugham and say, “I know I am drunk, but I got a damn good story for you!”

According to the critics, who were rather harsh on Maugham, he was no stylist, unlike other notable writers of the day like James Joyce.  Maugham even wrote, “I know where I stand…in the front row of the second raters.”

He also wrote, “I must write as though I were a person of importance; and indeed I am—to myself.”  And “I don’t write as I want, I write as I can.” 

That gives the rest of us per­mis­sion to write as we can to get our stories down on paper.  What is important is that the story gets written.

Once Laure and Richard got their interview and the shots they wanted inside my office, they took some family shots on our swing, with my wife, and with the children.  The real highlight for our boys was being able to watch Michel guide his drone in front of our house.  He invited them to have a close look at his controls so they could see what the drone sees.

Laure then invited my family along for dinner at Siniawan, an old Chinese town that hadn’t changed much since the mid-1800’s.  They had made arrangements to meet with a fifth genera­tion Hakka, a part of the “second batch” (1880’s), after the “first batch” got wiped out during the gold miners’ revolt. 

Along the way, we sought out a suitable jungle to finish the Maugham segment.  Although we failed, we were rewarded with a nice sunset.

At Siniawan, before we ate a delicious meal that con­­sisted of wild boar, jungle ferns and rojak, Laure asked that we sign re­lease forms for our parts in the filming, includ­ing the boys who were amused at “signing” their sig­na­tures since they didn’t know how to write—only print.

Already though, I was thinking about tomorrow’s adventure, whereby we would go to Semenggoh for the orang­utans and jungle shots, and then upper Sarawak River by longboat to film Peter for the Personal Invitation story and some additional jungle shots to finish off the Maugham story.


Book orders for Trois autres Malaisie   E-book orders

Here's a link to the intro and excerpts, and to four reviews of Trois Autres Malaisie in,,, and Petit Futé mag.

The ARTE TV report will be broadcasted on June 5th: It will be available online until August 4th!

         Joseph Conrad and Me 

Beheaded on Road to Nationhood: Sarawak Reclaimed—Part I 

         Beheaded on Road to Nationhood: Sarawak Reclaimed—Part II

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Arte: Somerset Maugham and Me—Fort Margherita—Part II

When I visited Fort Margherita in Kuching, Sarawak on the island of Borneo four days before the Somerset Maugham shoot for the Franco-German Cultural Channel Arte to mentally prepare myself (and take notes for a future feature on the BrookeGallery@Fort Margherita), Liza Sedini had warned me that the heads inside the basket in one of the two parapets were now wrapped inside a pua kumbu, a traditional cloth.

Having seen the heads years ago on two previous visits, I admit­ted I was disappointed.  Although as­sured that three or four human heads were still there, the effect of not seeing the actual heads was clearly not the same….You just have to take Liza’s word for it.

My word, too.

Lisa Sedini and Karen Shephard

Either way I was immensely impressed with what they did to Fort Margherita, inside the Brooke Gallery, the fort itself and the surrounding grounds.  When I first came to Kuching 18 years ago, the fort was clearly visible across the river from the waterfront, but now, because of the overgrown trees and shrubbery you can barely see it, which is a shame—this is a major land­mark and should be a prominent tourist attraction.

So I am happy that the Brooke Gallery is giving visitors a chance to enjoy Sarawak history inside the splendid fort, and that this film will be pre­sented to a wider European audience as a re-discovery!  After those two visits years ago, I was back for the second time in four days for the Maugham shooting.

What I didn’t recall noticing on those previous visits were the two jail cells to the left of the exit that led into the courtyard, but Liza pointed them out to me.  She even of­fered to take a photo of me inside….The thought of hamming it up with a big smile never crossed my mind.  I put on a long face as I held the bars as if I were truly locked up.  I posted the photo on Face­book and told everyone that I had been let out on good behavior…but then I got an idea!

I thought it would be great to be filmed inside the jail for the Maugham shoot and talk about how many of Maugham’s char­acters had ended up in jail or should’ve ended up in jail for mur­der or wrong­ful death.  Also, Maugham on numerous occasions had been threatened to be sued for slander since he often wrote about real people, even using real names, like Sadie Thompson who was not pleased that Maugham had not only used her actual name but also made it the original title of his story “Rain”!

On Sunday morning I arrived at the waterfront at 7:30 and was already on the tambang cross­ing the Sarawak River, when I got a text message from Karen asking me if I was meeting the others at Grand Margherita Hotel or Fort Margherita?  Not having been informed that we were to meet there, I told her I’ll just meet them at the fort. I was nearly at the top of the hill when Karen suggested that I meet them at the jetty below, so back down the hill I went.

Then I saw a group of mostly westerners on the other side of the river, heading toward a tambang.  Usually the river ferry could squeeze in 15-20 people, but only half that number if you’re western and carrying a bunch of travel bags and filming equip­ment.  Finally I got to meet Laure, who couldn’t thank me enough for the success they had filming in Kuala Lumpur and Malacca.  She said both Bernice Chauly and Serge Jardin were fantastic!  

I just hoped I wouldn’t be any less fantastic.

I liked Laure right away; she was easy going with this wide-eyed excitement.  She had the natural instincts of a child, where everything is exciting and an adventure.  It was refreshing, con­­­­tagious, too, unlike the usual jaded people you tend to meet and work with.  This was the way to live—by enjoying the moment and seeking out adventures!  When looking back over our lives it’s the adventures and those misadventures (that weren’t all that funny at the time) that we truly treasure.

While waiting for Jason Brooke, the sixth generation of the Rajah Brookes, to arrive, Richard shot some footage outside Fort Mar­ghe­r­ita along with Michel Viet, hired for his drone, giving them a bird’s eye view. 

Michel Viet
Karen, Laure and I were stand­ing at one of the two parapets, enjoying the commanding view when Richard waved us away since Michel’s drone was heading toward us.


We ducked inside the Brooke Gallery.

Rajah James Brooke and author Robert Raymer

I pointed out to Laure the cannon that had been brought to Sarawak in Rajah Brooke’s determination to defeat Rentap, a notorious Dayak warrior, a headhunter, a pirate…or an Iban freedom fighter—a matter of per­spec­tive.  It was said that 500 Dayaks had to drag the cannon up a hill to do battle at his longhouse.  I had no idea how many men had battled to get the cannon inside Fort Margherita.

Or a different perspective.

The Brooke Gallery had nine sections and a spiral stair­case between each floor and also the rooftop, each with thirteen belian steps (so 39 steps altogether).  The nine sections are: The Allure of Borneo, Raid­ers and Rebellion, Birth of the State, Building Sarawak, Life in Brooke Sarawak, The White Raja, Sara­wak on the World Stage, Rebirth of Sarawak, and The Brooke Legacy.
Rajah James Brooke
While they interviewed Jason Brooke on the pepper trade, Laure came around during a break to put me at ease and to let me know the questions she was going to ask.  She informed me that while I would be speaking in English, my words would also be trans­lated into French and German, and there would be cutaways to other scenes filmed in Kuala Lumpur and Malacca.

Laure Michel and Jason Brooke

Karen, Liza, Jason,Laure, Robert

I ran by her my take on the jail shoot and what I planned to discuss if they agreed.  Her initial concern was that there might not be enough light, let alone room for Richard to man­euver the tripod.

When it came time for my interview I showed a skeptical Richard what I had in mind, and then I got this brilliant idea.  I suggested that we open the heavy wooden jail door per­pen­dicular to the actual jail, that way he could shoot from in front, with plenty of light and plenty of room, and if we closed the match­ing wooden doors behind me that led into the gallery, we would give the im­pression we were filming in jail, with me behind bars.

Richard went for it.  He in­formed Liza to knock to let him know when tourists were coming out.  The tourists would do a double take and give me this strange look as if to ask, “What are you in for?”

Once Richard gave me the go ahead, I went into my Maugham spiel about how many char­acters in the Borneo stories should’ve ended up in jail like Neil Mac­Adam the title char­acter who left his boss’ Russian temptress wife alone deep in the jungle, thus sealing her fate.  Or Warburton in “The Outstation” who knew exactly what was going to happen to Cooper (end up with a kris stuck in his back) and let it happen.  Or Norman in “Flotsam & Jetsam” who killed his wife’s lov­er, Jack.

Maugham wrote, “She had to stay—or starve, and Norman had to keep her—or hang.

Maugham wrote in “Before the Party”:  If you try and hush a thing up, all sorts of rumors get about which are ten times worse than the truth.”

In Maugham’s stories, which were often sensa­tional, the truth was usually far worse.  When Millicent confessed to her family what really happened to her “non-drinking” husband back in Borneo, that it was not a heart at­tack that she had claimed eight months ago, nor did he “commit suicide” as they had recently dis­covered from another, but she had slit her husband’s throat because of his drinking.

Maugham was already a celebrated novelist and playwright when he visited Sarawak, so people opened their doors to him, glad for the company; but when they found out what he had written about them, exposing their affairs and a few other skeletons, they were not too pleased. 

Although he renamed Sarawak “Sembulu” and Kuching “Kuala Solor,” the thin disguise was easy to see through.  Even if he changed the characters names, since there were so few Euro­peans in Sarawak on those lonely outposts between the wars, it was easy to figure out whom he was writing about. 

When he returned five years later, those same doors were no longer open to him.  Some were outraged by what he had written and even threatened lawsuits; others were jealous they were not written about!

But those Borneo stories brought scores of tourists to Sarawak!

When I finished what I had to say (saving the rest for the other locations), Richard filmed me from various angles, then had me come through those double doors and walk to the interior of the fort where there were thirteen cannons waiting to be fired at the enemy that never came. 

Up un­til the mid-60’s, they used to have a cannon in front of the fort that would be fired every morn­ing at 5:30 and in the evening at 8:00.  No doubt, a headache for many people within earshot.

Later, I was filmed walking in various locations outside the fort including traipsing through some banana trees….Of course, this wasn’t a jungle (that would come later), but it would look good on film.  Next up, the French were invading my house!


Book orders for Trois autres Malaisie   E-book orders

Here's a link to the intro and excerpts, and to four reviews of Trois Autres Malaisie in,,, and Petit Futé mag.

 The ARTE TV report will be broadcasted on June 5th: It will be available online until August 4th!

          Joseph Conrad and Me 

Beheaded on Road to Nationhood: Sarawak Reclaimed—Part I 

         Beheaded on Road to Nationhood: Sarawak Reclaimed—Part II