British Empire Article

Courtesy of OSPA

by David Brent
(Asst Superintendent of Police, Malaya 1952-58)
Malayan Tales
Nanasi, Pekan
In connection with the article on opium dealing by J. S. A. Lewis, OBE , as an anecdotal point of interest, when I served in the Malayan Police (1952-1958) I first encountered one of the old opium ration books just near a coastal fishing village, Nanasi, on the South China Sea coast, in the Pekan District where I was the Police Chief in 1953.

I and my team made a chandu raid on a shop house, acting on information. On this occasion we found no evidence, but turned up an old opium ration book which belonged to the householder, the first of many I was to come across over the following years.

Mr Lewis mentions the packaging of the processed opium or chandu as it was called, in paper packets, or "decks" as we referred to them. The opium treacle hardened into small, thin flat rectangular portions which were wrapped in red or pink paper. Red is a traditional colour preferred by the Chinese as lucky and used for festive occasions and for wrapping gifts. It was therefore appropriate for the purpose. However, it did become a "giveaway" at times. One developed an "eagle eye" for odd discarded little pieces of rectangular red or pink paper with fold marks which indicated that somewhere there was a connection with opium smoking. This often led to a discreet follow-up and a later successful case before the courts. Sadly, though, rarely did we ever catch the "big fish".

On raids it was necessary to be very quick to seize the evidence, as the addicts were extremely adept at making utensils, pipes in particular, simply disappear! As a less experienced officer on my first few raids I remember being quite astonished how things just vanished - into thin air!

Malayan Tales
Opium Den
I developed the technique of being the first through the door or other opening with a camera and flashlight, and still have some of the shots of astonished addicts and their utensils as I broke in taking flash shots on the move! In this remote, conservative and languorous locale near the mouth of the great Pahang River where it flows into the South China Sea, with its charming old world ambience of history and romance and the pervasive presence of the Sultan, tengkus and retinue of the Pahang royal court, such goings-on were considered rather avant garde! However, there was testimony to the success ratio of such raids with rows of opium pipes hung on the office wall behind my desk, some crafted with great skill and love, with ivory mouthpieces and elegant, polished brass fittings.

Malayan Tales
Opium Pipes
Mr Lewis also touches on the experience of an opium addict 'colliding' with his stationary car. I must say this quite surprised me because I had an almost identical experience in 1956 in the Batu Pahat District in North Johore on the Straits of Malacca.

I had just driven off the old ferry pontoon which crossed the river (now replaced by a splendid bridge) and turned left into one of the main streets of the Bandar Penggaram township when I observed an old Chinese cake-seller slowly shuffling along the street towards me straight into the line of traffic. He carried his little cakes in a wide bamboo and rattan tray balanced on his head, and, I couldn't believe it, his eyes were closed! He was literally taking a nap while walking along. Fortunately there was no traffic behind me so I stopped my car, a large 1948 silver V8 Ford Custom, and waited. I considered sounding the horn but decided that this might shock the old man too much and he would drop his tray and cakes all over the road.

Malayan Tales
V8 Ford Custom
A few curious onlookers on the nearby five-foot-way outside the shop-houses watched agog and with heightened expectancy from the outcome of a collision of cakes and car. They were not to be disappointed.

I had hoped that something would cause the old cake-seller to open his eyes. But no, he just kept shuffling along until his knees bumped the front of the car. There was immediate consternation as the startled cake-seller felt the shock of contact and saw a big silver car upon him with the chief of police looking at him over the steering wheel! What thoughts flashed through his mind in those split seconds I can't imagine, but I 'm sure they remained a highlight with him to his dying day. One arm clawed the empty air for balance, the other flew up to the cake tray on his head as it wobbled and tilted and miraculously not one cake fell off. In the seconds that followed, as raucous hilarity from the five-foot-way filled the air, the old cake-seller straightened himself up and with marvellous equanimity regained his composure to continue his way, slowly shuffling past my car, hesitating a little as he came abreast of me to raise a hand to his temple in tabek greeting, his gap-toothed smile belying his relief that nothing bad had happened to him.

In swinging, down-town Bandar Penggaram that warm and sultry evening the talk around town in the coffee shops and eating houses was the story of old Ah Chee, the cake-seller who had tried, single-handed mind you, to run the Police Chief's car off the road.

I can only hope that Ah Chee's fame spread far and wide and greatly enhanced the sale of his delicious little cakes.

British Colony Map
1965 Map of Singapore and Southern Malaya
Colony Profile
Originally Published
OSPA Journal 69 (April 1995)
Also by the Author
Jungle Patrols
Encounters In Malayan Police Work
Malayan Emergency
Malaya - A Magical Experience
Colonialism and Empires: A natural evolution of civilizations
The Story of Singapore to 1959 and Beyond: Real Truths, Hidden Truths and Forgotten Truths


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