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What was it like to be a child of colonial rulers in Malaya?

The opulent sitting room in the Majestic Hotel’s old wing is an apt place indeed to listen to tales of growing up in post-World War II Malaya.

Apart from the fact that the hotel is a fine example of colonial architecture in Kuala Lumpur, it turns out that Rosemary Palmer’s life in this country began in this very place.

“We stayed in this hotel for the first three months when we came in 1947. Stepping into the place today, I thought it was absolutely beautiful, but I just couldn’t remember what it was like back then,” Palmer, 69, says.

Her hazy memory is pardonable as she was only 2 years old when her family moved from Britain to Malaya, the “exotic” land that she, her parents, and her older brother Alan called home until 1952.
Rosemary Palmer shares notes and photos her mother kept of her family’s time in Malaya. (The Star)
Rosemary Palmer shares notes and photos her mother kept of her family’s time in Malaya. (The Star)

“My father worked for the colonial service as part of the British government’s overseas service. We stayed in this hotel for the first three months because there was a shortage of housing after the war.

“When we did get a house in KL, we had to share it with another government officer,” says the retiree, who is currently based in Canterbury, New Zealand.

Palmer and her husband, David, 70, had last visited Malaysia in 2006. For this trip, a nostalgic journey of remembrance, Palmer has been refreshing memories of her childhood with records kept by her late mother, Elaine Bernacchi, who chronicled the family’s life here on a typewriter.

“These are some of the notes that my mother wrote,” she says, handing me two sheets of paper at our recent interview, “and I do apologize if she made any offensive remarks.”

Elaine Bernacchi’s jottings are certainly candid, forthright in their depictions of family life during the tumultuous period before the country achieved independence.

One particular entry sees her lamenting about the harsh living conditions back then: “Rice was rationed and (the local help) found it hard to afford enough food for their families. At first we did not know about shortages because we had all our meals in the hotel, but soap, for instance, was very hard to get.”

Another entry was poignant in its description of Ayah, the children’s nanny back then: “I remember coming home at night to find Ayah lying on the hard wooden floor between the children’s beds (they were 2 and 3 then) all sound asleep, she holding their hands under the mosquito nets.”

Palmer recalls her mother saying that it was quite boring when they first moved here.

“But I don’t know, there must have been other government wives around and they would have got together to have coffee, I suppose. I was only 2, so I have no idea what I did.

“Although, I remember Ayah and how she got into trouble because she took me to the railway station ― it wasn’t very clean and my mother caught me having a lovely time on the floors of the station,” she says with a laugh.

After three months at the hotel, the Bernacchis relocated to a house near the Lake Gardens, which they shared with another British senior administration officer. “Most of our time was spent at the park,” recalls Palmer.

By Chester Chin

(The Star)