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.
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|
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!
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!