Saturday, January 15, 2011

Dying Alone in a Far Away Land

Back in 2009 I blogged an excerpt of "Dying Alone in Far Away Land" from Tropical Affairs Episodes of an Expat’s life in Malaysia (MPH 2009) and I got several comments and also enquiries via my website email from those who new Bill McVeigh and been to his house located behind Casuarina Hotel (now Hard Rock Hotel) in Penang, Malaysia.  So I thought I would publish the full article for the benefit of others outside of Malaysia, who while staying at the Casuarina Hotel back in the 70's, 80's and early 90's, may have visited him and his mélange of animals, or glimpsed him walking to and fro on the beach with his dog or one of his otters, or had heard about him and are curious.


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 (now 16 years): 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 in November 1988, 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 book­shelves 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 (often guests of The Casuarina Hotel) 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.  Having read my story, “The Future Barrister” he began to compare my writing to that of Paul Theroux.  Then he criticized Theroux for all of the “foolish errors he had made about Malaysia” in his book, The Consul’s File.
As he spoke, he looked sideways, occasionally glancing at me.  He talked like he had been shut away for years.  I gladly listened, yet also wondered, was he mad?  Far from it, he was lucid and extremely well-read.  As we stood there on the beach, he talked for an hour straight on topics ranging from pythons to the Loch Ness monster.  A pragma­tist, he looked to refute Nessie through careful under­standing, observations, and explana­tions.  Never once did he dismiss something offhandedly; he backed up his opinions by citing books that he bought from the second hand bookstalls along Macalister Road (later shifted to Chowrasta Market). 
I asked about his otters.  Years back, I saw one­ creeping along the beach.  The otter then ran up to a startled tourist and rubbed against the man like a cat.  Everyone, including me, was amused.  But not all hotel guests liked the idea of sharing the beach—let alone the hotel pool—with an otter and complaints were made.  McVeigh told me one of his otters had been caught and killed.  Later, the other suffered the same fate.

Five years later in 1993, while staying at the Pacific Bayview, I happened to look out the window and saw hidden among the trees, Bill McVeigh’s house.  I wondered, was he still alive?  As I approached the house carry­ing my son Zaini, who was less than two at the time, I had my doubts.  The place looked more decrepit than before, as if no one had lived there for years, if not decades.  Standing in a partial clearing by the side entrance, I called out Bill’s name.  Not one but two dogs sounded the alarm.  Both came charging.  Knowing that dogs smelled fear, I held my ground.  For Zaini’s sake, I tried to remain calm.  The lead dog’s head came up to my waist, to Zaini’s legs, yet Zaini didn’t cringe nor did he cry out, even when the dog had a good sniff—first me, then him. 
Moments later, Bill appeared.  He couldn’t see us, so I called out again.  He bent down and made us out through the underbrush.  Bare-chested with a sarong around his waist, he invited us to come around to the front of the house.  The golden gibbon that was supposed to be in the cage was gone—he had let it out a couple of weeks ago to have a run around.  He expected it to come back.  He assumed I was staying at Casuarina Hotel, where guests some­times visited and brought him food or gave him money—he had been living on charity for years.  When I told him that I met him five years ago, he racked his brains and asked, “Are you the short-story writer?”
He then talked about other writers, again in a rapid-fire one-sided conver­sa­tion.  Meanwhile I jostled Zaini back and forth between one knee and the other, now and then offering him his bottle or swatting away mosquitoes.  The mosquitoes, which thrived on his property, didn’t seem to bother McVeigh.
“Occa­sion­ally I forget,” he said, as he watched me swat away yet another mosquito from Zaini.  He went inside and was quick to offer some spray for our legs and a mosquito coil.  He later joked about the young tourists who wanted to venture into the jungle but couldn’t last a half hour on his front porch.  He had a good laugh over this.
He also had a good laugh over “the hippies” back in the 60’s and 70’s.  He told me some expats visited him, including one on a Harley Davidson, but who knew practically nothing about motorcycles.
“It was all for show,” he said.  When I mentioned that I knew one of the gentlemen he was referring to, he said, “Don’t tell him you know me!”
Although I wished I could stay longer with him, Zaini was getting restless; it was so steaming hot in McVeigh’s makeshift jungle that sweat poured off my son.

Six months later, I took my friend Anni (“Farewell to a Tango Dancer”) to see Bill and brought him a copy of my recently published collection of my short stories set in Malaysia, Lovers and Strangers (Heinemann Asia,1993, later republished as Lovers and Strangers Revisited, MPH 2008).  Going to his house was always creepy; you didn’t know what you were going to find, including finding him dead.  Bill was still there, and alive, but barely.  He told us he almost died from the cancer that was clear­ly growing out of his left ear.  

He talked for nearly three hours as we sat on his porch and listened.  Never in any of my visits had he invited me inside the house, no doubt ashamed of how it looked.  I had heard from a friend—the former “hippy” that we both knew—that he kept snakes there, including a python.  When the friend had asked to see the python, it took Bill a long time to return to the porch.  “I had to disentangle them all,” he had said.
It was hard to imagine that anyone could live in that house— and with all those snakes too, and god knows what all else.  But I refused to pass judgment on him.  He had made up his mind long ago that this was where he was going to die.  Until then, he just made the most of it.
The few bits and pieces of information that I had gleaned from him about his personal life was that he was English, born in China where his father might have been a diplomat, and that he grew up in Australia.  During the war he was in Burma, and then he came to Malaya in 1949 and fought the communists throughout the Emergency (1948-1960).  He lived awhile in Johor where he raised crocodiles.  In Penang he traded in animals: cats to Europe for lab testing (before it was banned) and more exotic species to zoos.  He grew a beard because he used to be a diver; he had what divers called ‘blue chin’.
“Every time I shaved, I would scrape off all the skin,” he said.  “All divers back then grew beards—it saved their faces.”
There was so much more I wanted to know about him, but Bill McVeigh was not a man you could ask questions to—he rarely gave me a chance to speak.  If you were with him, your role was to listen and let him talk about whatever he wanted to talk about.  And enjoy the ride.

Three months later in April 1994, Anni called me.  She said all the shrubbery around Bill McVeigh’s house had been cleared by a bulldozer.  The cages where the gibbons and the hornbill had lived were gone too.  I dropped whatever I was writing and met with Anni.  Everything was cleared out of the house, save a few magazines scattered on the red tile floor, including an issue of Manor Houses, June 17, 1965, and a large, moldy, green leather steamer trunk.  Curious, I opened the trunk and a large gecko jumped out and landed on my jeans, startling me.  The joke was clearly on me; I could almost hear Bill McVeigh laughing.  Anni sure did.
From the staff at the Casuarina Hotel, I found out that Bill had died of cancer.  They hadn’t seen him walking his dog for three days, so they checked on him and found him dead in the bathroom.
I never knew what brought Bill McVeigh to Penang, other than he came with his sister.  One thing I did know, he lived a lot, read a lot, and laughed a lot, particular­ly at the foolishness of expatriates who think they know more about Malaysia than they do.  Myself included.
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 visited her, I would marvel over how great it looked and we’d reminisce about him and his house.  His spirit also stayed alive in my journals, in my mem­ories, and in my writing the original article about him, inside my book Tropical Affairs, Episodes of an Expat’s life in Malaysia (MPH 2009), and now this blog, twice. 
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. 
—Robert Raymer, from Tropical Affairs: Episodes from an Expat’s Life in Malaysia, Borneo Expat Writer
*Update, this is now a souvenir outlet for the Hard Rock Hotel.

**Here 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.


Wilson James said...

What a great story, Robert! I lived a bit of an expat life for a while, myself. Close to four years, on the other side of Asia (southwest Asia). I know what it is to be disconnected from 'home' and family, and your post really resonated with me.

Thanks for writing this.


BorneoExpatWriter said...

Wilson James,
What country?

Often we don't realize the impact we have on others, so writing this gave me hope. All these years later, it still touches people as they reconnect with their past.

Having seen first hand how this man lived, and yet his life, his memory, is being resurrected in unexpected ways. So there is hope for all of us expats, that we are touching lives, like the lives in the countries that we lived in, have definitely touched us in unexpected ways, too.

And after we are gone, if we're lucky, our own memories will be resurrected by someone else in an unexpected way.

Wilson James said...

"after we are gone, if we're lucky, our own memories will be resurrected by someone else in an unexpected way." Very well said, Robert! Nice thoughts, indeed!

I'd like to think that some of my writing may impact someone else in a positive, but perhaps unexpected way.

Regarding my own expat location; regret I'll have to refrain from giving details for now.

BorneoExpatWriter said...

Thanks. It's always good to have some mystery about you. I noticed that you're having some success e-publishing your books. I've been looking into it, but am making a last ditch concerted effort for an agent and am getting some interest, after perfecting my pitch snd overhauling my novel for upcoming Amazon contest. Good luck!