Margaret Shennan was bom at Kuching in 1933 and taken by her parents six weeks
later to live at Butterworth in northern Malaya, where her father, W G Price, was
employed as assistant manager of the Sungei Nyok dockyard. The young Margaret was educated for a while at a school in the Cameron Highlands. In 1986 she published
Missee, a memoir of those early childhood years.
'Missee' (a word used for any European girl in Malaya) was evacuated with her
mother, Kathleen, before the British surrender of Singapore. Her father was not so lucky:
he emerged from Japanese captivity in September 1945 'strange, shrunken, wizened,
snowy-haired' and weighing only seven-and-a-half stone (Shennan 1986:254).
Nevertheless he returned to Malaya in 1946-53, where he was joined briefly by his wife
in 1952-53. As at 1986 Mrs Shennan herself had never returned to Malaya, but had
studied and married and became a prize-winning writer.
Her latest book. Out in the Midday Sun, supplements existing work on the same
theme by J G Butcher (The British in Malaya 1880-1941; The Social History of a
European Community in Colonial South-East Asia; 1979). by Charles Allen (Tales from
the South China Seas; 1983) and a trilogy by Robert Heussler. Taking a broader canvas
than Heussler and a more extended time-span than Butcher, whilst carrying greater
scholarly apparatus than Allen, Shennan's book is 'a collage of the British in Malaya,
their lives, thoughts and reactions to events happening around them', and the author aims
"to put their side of the story'. She argues that the British achievement in Malaya has not
been given its full due. Metropolitan critics, such as Somerset Maugham, are particular
In studying the history of the British community in Malaya Mrs Shennan is in effect
exploring the world of her own family background. At places in the text facts relating to
her parents and personal recollections of childhood are deployed, but without the
individuals involved being identified. Hence, "Kathleen King (readers not being alerted
that this is Mrs Shennan's mother) was a secretary at Vickers Armstrong's shipbuilding
works in Barrow-in-Furness when she met her future husband. Bill Price, a naval
architect in the drawing office there' (p.l89). Likewise on p.208 readers learn: "For
Margaret Price the coronation (UK, 1937) meant a new white frilly organdie dress with a
red, white and blue sash', no indication being given that the author is actually writing
about herself. An impressive gallery of photographs has been assembled, including a few
from the family album.
Based on a prodigious research effort, the writer has produced a worthy mosaic of
British society in Malaya, as forty-six pages of endnotes and a ten-page bibliography
testify. The facts appear to have been carefully checked (and the indexer safely
negotiates potential pitfalls as well). There are passages on all the old favourites, such as
the Proudlock case, the Emden raids, the Singapore Mutiny of 1915, and the halcyon
days, of 1920sand 1930s. Women and children feature in chapter 10 (pp. 188-208). More
information about freemasonry, tantalisingly mentioned in pp.l36 and 163, would have
The third and final part of the book is devoted to the War and the Emergency. When
the time to depart came in 1957 the expatriate feeling was that the country had been well
served by Britain, and was being left well endowed and in good hands (p.344).