Thursday, December 31, 2009

Tropical Affairs: Dying Alone in a Far Away Land

-imagine an expat living in this house until he died days before I took this photo

-yes, this is the same place, turning something decrepit into something new: Ferringhi Walk

Let this be a symbol of how we can transform ourselves from what we have been up until the end of 2009, even those with seemingly no hope in sight, and, by using the same basic foundation of our lives yet with a new cosmetic outlook (happier, positive thinking attitude)imagine what we can be for 2010!

All the best! Happy New Year!!

Whenever I see an abandoned house in Malaysia, I often wonder if the former occupant was an expat like me, and did he die alone? Was he forgotten? This is a fear that many expats have – dying alone in some far-flung country. But then I met a man who did just that ten years ago: Bill McVeigh.

When he was alive, thousands of tourists would walk past his house in Batu Ferringhi without even knowing they were walking past a house. Even if they looked beyond the stalls offering souvenirs and fake watches, they would be hard pressed to make out a house sequestered behind a wall of trees and shrubbery (on all sides) that sealed off Bill McVeigh from the rest of the world.

On several occasions, I had heard about McVeigh, this modern-day recluse and his mélange of exotic animals, including otters, golden gibbons, and a hornbill, who lived in direct defiance to the hotels that had squeezed in around him. It was said that when he took walks along the beach, his two otters would follow him. When a friend of ours was visiting from Holland, she bumped into him. I knew I had to seek him out and meet him for myself.

Although his house was next to the Casuarina Hotel, finding an entrance among the shrubbery was difficult, so I went around back and eventually found an opening. The house was the size of a small cottage and looked unlivable – doors were off their hinges, windows were broken, and large parts of the roof had collapsed inside. Debris lay everywhere inside. Yet as I glimpsed through the broken bars of two moon windows, a semblance of a home emerged – scattered furniture, framed pictures, and book¬shelves full of books and magazines. I knocked on the front door and called out, “Hello?”

Drawn to a large cage with a beautiful golden gibbon, I ventured around to have a look. The double doors to the servants’ portion of the house were missing. Thinking there had to be a beach access, I circled around to the other side, where there were more cages, although each was empty. Feeling uncomfortable at trespassing, I made my way to the back gate, past an old donation box for tourists who wished to view his animals.

While walking along the beach, I saw a scruffy westerner with a fisherman’s air about him. His white beard was short and patchy and his top teeth were missing save for a few stumps, as if someone had bashed them in; his lower teeth were intact. He was walking at a fast clip with a large black dog that struggled to keep pace. I stopped and asked him if he owned the house by the Casuarina Hotel.

“No,” he replied, “but I’ve live there – if you can call it a house.” He then looked at me curiously for awhile. “You’re Robert.”

Taken aback that he knew my name, I looked at him – amazed. He said he recognized my face from The Star newspaper; two weeks earlier, they had featured me for winning third prize in a short story contest.
. . .
Of course, Bill McVeigh didn’t actually die alone – he had his animals, including his snakes. Nor was he forgotten either. Anni had painstakingly restored the trunk back to its original condition. Whenever I saw it, we’d reminisce about him and his house. His spirit also stayed alive in my journals, in my memories, and in my writing, and now inside my book Tropical Affairs, Episodes of an Expat’s life in Malaysia (MPH 2009).

His house, by the way, survived, too, at least the foundation and some of the walls. It had been converted into a bistro called Ferringhi Walk. On the wall are framed photographs that I took of Bill McVeigh’s house, taken a few days after he had died, after the land had been cleared. I’ll even donate a copy of this article, so the patrons can read about him. Perhaps they’ll raise a toast:
To Bill McVeigh, who lived and died in a far away land.
              -excerpt from "Dying Alone in a Far Away Land", Tropical Affairs by Robert Raymer
 * full article, posted 15 January 2011

**Update, the 20th anniversary of Lovers and Strangers Revisited
***Here's the link to my website, to MPH online for orders for all three of my books, including my latest, Spirit of Malaysia and for Trois autres Malaisie.


thelostfollower86 said...

u wont die alone, u have zaini and jason =)

BorneoExpatWriter said...

Thanks, No worry there. Zaini, Jason and Justin! But 20 years from now?

evakiki7 said...

Wow! How can anyone possibly lived in that dilapidated house? I cannot come to terms that an expat was living there!Or local for that matter. Hope to grab your book soon.

BorneoExpatWriter said...

Yeah, it was amazing, though I don't think he had any choice. He was that poor. At least he had a roof over his head...


Raz said...

Fascinating story about Bill and his little seaside bungalow and good to see his memory is preserved and recorded here on your blog and in your book.

I track down and photograph abandoned prewar buildings throughout Malaysia. I always wonder about their past owners and the lives they lived in these old homes.
Sadly finding this out, is most of the time near impossible, as friends and relatives have long since moved, or simple passed away.

BorneoExpatWriter said...

Raz, A friend of this one just contacted me today from the states and she knows his nephew in the UK, a journalist who plans to write a book about him someday. My article, which they have yet to read in its entirety may give him the push. So you never know! It's cool you do that. Each house has a story that just needs to be re-created. All the best.

Nick said...

Wow. that's really interesting. The story brings back memories and a lump in my throat. I visited Penang when I was about 13 (maybe younger) with my family and stayed in the Casuarina Hotel. Whilst there, I met Bill walking the beach with his otter 'Flopsy'.
I struck up a friendship with him and spent most of the two week holiday at his house, sitting on the verandah talking and eating Rumbutan, etc. He shared with me for hours about his life and love for his animals.
Bill and I kept in contact over the next few years through letters. One day they stopped so I figured he may have gotten a bit old to continue. He was a really interesting old man and left an impression on me that will always be there.

BorneoExpatWriter said...

Thanks. What year was that? One of his relatives was contemplating writing a book about him. Do you still have the letters? I wouldn't mind seeing a copy of them for myself. He was a fascinating guy and did a lot.

I could track down the relative and pass them along.

nick said...

I'm fairly sure it was about 1988, I'll have a look for the letters but I think I threw them out years ago. He mentioned a relative he had contact with in Sydney. I remember he was ex- merchant navy

BorneoExpatWriter said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
BorneoExpatWriter said...

Thanks, that's too bad. If you go to the contact page on my website and leave your email, I'll forward you a copy of the full article that I wrote (I'm thinking about posting it). That should trigger some memories for you.

nick said...

Hi Robert
Unfortunately I couldn't find any letters at my parent's place. I'll keep looking. I think I was actually about 11, making it about 1986. I spoke with my parents about it yesterday and they remember having a cup of tea with him at his place. From what they remember, he had left the merchant navy and come to Malaysia working as a supervisor in the rubber plantations. I remember him telling me in his letters when his otter had been killed (I think by fishermen).

BorneoExpatWriter said...

I redid the full article in a new blog post. Should trigger some memories for you. Wished I had photographed him, but out of respect, I didn't