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 eurasie.net, Malaisie.org, easyvoyage.com, and Petit Futé mag.

 The ARTE TV report will be broadcasted on June 5th: http://www.arte.tv/fr/videos/071100-062-A/invitation-au-voyage. It will be available online until August 4th!

Beheaded on Road to Nationhood: Sarawak Reclaimed—Part I 
          Beheaded on Road to Nationhood: Sarawak Reclaimed—Part II

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