three pairs of lovers with space

MICHAEL DAVIDSON IN MALAYA

 

The following are all the passages of Greek love interest concerning the time in Malaya (here meaning the then British-dependent Federation of Malaya and the related Crown Colony of Singapore) the English journalist and boy-lover Michael Davidson (1897-1976). They are taken from Chapters 15 and 16 of his autobiography, The World, the Flesh and Myself (1962).  He was there for several stays between 1949 and 1952.

 

The World, The Flesh and Myself

 

In about June 1949, Davidson arrived in Singapore for the first time.

I was in and out of Singapore for the next three years. I suppose the centre of my affection for Singapore remains the Padang: round its periphery flutter, in my mind, like flags my many happinesses there. … As dusk came with tropical suddenness, the Padang assumed a furtive cloak: the children had gone home to their tenement warrens; and 'vice' took over. Shadowy youths lurked under the surrounding dark trees; and a few women and boys hung hopefully about the cathedral wall. …

An aerial view of Singapore in the 1950s

I'd heard in my youth that Singapore was 'the wickedest city in the world'; and was disappointed when I found it wasn't. There was, though, an amusingly squalid bar called the Criterion, where epicene youths, Malay, Chinese, Indian, warbled the latest lyrics in shrill falsetto. I remember an entertaining evening when after giving dinner and a great deal of drink to a Foreign Office dignitary, I took him for devilment to the 'Cri'. He was a man who valued respectability above riches; who would resign from his clubs rather than be seen carrying a brown-paper parcel in Bond Street; in whose eyes the slightest departure from the canon of English normality merited excommunication. But that night the allurements, aided by alcohol, of an ephebe of Indian extraction led him steeply down from grace. Next day he sent a brief note by hand excusing himself from a later engagement; poor fellow, it must have been some time before he felt socially shriven. …

 

Later in 1950, Davidson was reporting from Kuala Lumpur …

Malayan travel poster, 1950s

In one plebeian corner of the Lake Gardens, far from those illustrious mansions, the broad brown waters of the lake disgorged their surplus through a weir of high masonry. Here, at most times of the day, a multi-coloured galaxy of naked boys splashed and dived and swam; and most unbusy afternoons I idly watched them from the shade of a banyan tree. One day, in this enchanted spot, I made the acquaintance of a lissom Chinese of about 16 named Wong. Neither could speak a word of the other's language but each had a small vocabulary of pidgin-Malay; and we became friends. I was then staying in a Chinese hotel too 'low-class' for any other European; here in my room, which had a shower-bath and was divided from neighbouring rooms by matchboard partitions through which the sounds of quarrelling and expectoration noisily carne, Wong joined me. I'd long wanted to visit the north-eastern States of Trengganu and Kelantan; I'd met in Singapore a brother of the Sultan of Kelantan who'd urged me to visit him on the 'Beach of Passionate Love', a kind of le camping which he owned on the foamy, palm-girt shore of the China Sea. I now felt, romantically allied with Wong, that the Beach of Passionate Love was just the thing.

There are few pleasures keener than that of introducing the young to a new experience, giving them an unaccustomed thrill: watching the spellbound eyes of a child at the circus, sharing the eagerness of a boy's first ride on a pony. This blissful pleasure I had when Wong climbed aboard the Malayan Airways Dakota and we flew to Kuantan, on the east coast of Pahang: the pleasure of feeling the wonderment registered in his glowing narrow eyes.

From Kuantan we took a wobbling Chinese bus to Trengganu; and next day, another bus to Kota Bahru in Kelantan.

Malay boys, by Christopher Dalley

The Sultan's brother let us for a tiny rent a nice little bungalow on the sands, 30 yards or so from the breakers. We did our eating, and I my drinking, at the Sultan's brother's restaurant. Very few other people were indulging in passionate love, and we practically had the place to ourselves.

After a week's idyllic sojourn, we embarked for Singapore in a small Straits Steamships vessel; there were about six other passengers, all English; nobody seemed to think it strange that Wong should share my cabin and sit beside me in the saloon. He understood nothing said to him, except by me; but had beautiful manners, though was little at his ease with knives and forks. We loved, he and I, as the ship ploughed through the gilded China S., to stand right in the bows and look down at the prancing porpoises which for the whole voyage led the ship on her course: they didn't follow alongside her slicing stem but unerringly swam a few feet ahead, as if consciously piloting her along her way. At one point off the coast of Pahang or northern Johore, we passed over the sepulchre of Prince of Wales and Repulse.

At Singapore Wong stayed one night with me in the Cockpit Hotel, smuggled into a bungalow annexe; and next morning, having to depart on some assignment, I tearfully put him on the train for K.L. When next I was there, after Korea, I looked for him; but he had gone. I suspected that he, like great numbers of Chinese youths at that time, had heard the glamorous call of Red China and taken ship for the fatherland. I hope he wasn't disappointed. Dear Wong: he was a good companion on the Beach of Passionate Love.

 

In January 1951, Davidson left Japan, where he had been reporting on the Korean War, and …

Then came a happy, though roistering, time in Singapore and Malaya. … [Davidson describes his “principal companions” there, mostly journalists and local politicians].

Most of these men had their wives with them, and most of the wives were my friends—yet by now my private life was well known: I didn't try to hide it; and when Somo became my friend I took him nearly everywhere. A few, perhaps, privately commented: 'Michael really is rather the limit'; but these people were too humane, too intelligent, to look down their noses at me or treat my business as theirs; they were among the best friends I've had. I confess I went a bit far with Somo; I even took him, almost flauntingly, into the suburban-minded Singapore Cricket Club (which, unlike the Tanglin Club, allowed members to entertain 'local' guests).

I don't, as a rule, go much for 'beauty' in a face, but for its interest, for some touching quality, for the person it reflects: Keibo's face, spellbinding, wasn't pretty. Somo's beauty, though, was breath-taking— like a hothouse flower. Languid and sinuous, delicately sensual as a slim orange rose; he was a southern Indian to whom some infusion of paler blood had given a skin of old gold. He was, too, meltingly, lazily affectionate and made a charming pretence of performing the duties of 'bearer' in my Cathay Building flat. He couldn't be a substitute for Keibo; but he was somebody to mother, to be fond of, and to show off. …

 

In apparently the last few days of 1951, Davidson returned to London.

At the office in Tudor Street I felt at once an oracular chill; I didn't see David Astor [the editor of The Observer, who had originally employed him] but was received by the Chief Sub, Ken Obank, whom I'd always liked as a man and admired as a journalist; and Tristan Jones, an administrative personage whom I'd never liked and who had never admired me. They told me I wasn't wanted any longer; they didn't say why, and I didn't ask: to this day I don't know. But instantly I thought of my 'previous', of my indiscretions in Singapore and elsewhere; heaven knew what scandals had been brought to London.[1]

 

Early in 1952, Davidson returned to Malaya for a final stint working for The Observer, and quarrelled with Sir Gerald Templer, the new British High Commissioner.

A friend of mine from England, a member of parliament; [Note: Billy Maclean, the Tory M.P. for Inverness.] who, visiting Malaya, dined at King's House, told me that (over the brandy, I suppose), talk coming round to my critical insubordination, Templer said: 'Well, I don't like buggers anyway.' This was so much in character, it made me laugh; it also disturbed me: had that cursed 'previous' cropped up again? Perhaps he'd heard a rumour of my heresy: though that seemed unlikely—I'd never come near scandal; more sinister was the doubt whether a colonial vice-regent, seeking to silence a political recalcitrant, had the right to ask Scotland Yard for any secret weapon that might exist. Twice afterwards, in Cyprus and in Aden, the same doubt brought me to a wrong decision.

 

[1] Certainly the office in Singapore of British Security Intelligence Far East knew something of Davidson’s reputation, as in 1956 they replied to an enquiry that “he is the sort of man to whom a great deal of mud sticks, partly no doubt on account of his unsavoury moral reputation and the type of people with whom he associates, …”

     However, this seems not to have been The Observer’s motive. Another letter in the same (British) National Archives security services document (KV 2/2976), dated 24 June 1953, says he was sacked “because he ran into debt.”