Chu Leong: Rod Noble

During  WW 2, after the Pearl Harbor attack, when Japanese forces were rapidly conquering Pacific islands, the Australian Government decided to evacuate expatriates from its Papua and from its New Guinea mandated territories: but only if they were white. Other expatriate residents were left to their own devices.

When I was posted to Angoram, I met Chu Leong who had been a pre-war resident there. I was told that before the Japanese invaded the area he had gone up river to avoid contact with them. But before doing so he had sawn his trading vessel in half so that it could not be of any use to the invaders.

Last week Chu Leong’s daughter, Tai, replied to my letter of sympathy on the death of her husband, Bill Gittens, and said she had been to Angoram and to her mother’s village. This remark brought back a flood of memories because I had lived in the same village as her parents and her sister, Anna, and I had also visited her mother’s village. This was in 1954 when I was a junior colonial bureaucrat known locally as a lik-lik kiap (Cadet Patrol Officer ). The village I lived in with Tai and her family was Angoram.

After some time in Port Moresby and Wewak, I was posted there. It was a Sub-District office of the then Sepik District. Its expatriate population consisted of nine (1 priest, 1 doctor*, 1 ADO & wife, 1 Admin clerk & wife, 1 sawmill manager & wife & daughter, 1 crocodile hunter* and me).

Although some 60 miles from the mouth of the mighty Sepik River, it was a designated port. I was told that a Royal Australian Navy destroyer had navigated over 400 miles upstream during WW 1. There was a constant stream of traffic stopping at “Tobacco Road” as the wharf area was called (traders*, recruiters of native labour for plantation workers, croc. hunters, anthropologists, tourists, Admin. cargo vessels, the SS Yankee, the entire crew of which were scantily clad young American females (except the Skipper) and once the film unit for Walk into Paradise who were passengers on three coastal trading vessels.

At Port Moresby, I and the other 23 in our batch had been told that we would accompany senior officers on our first few patrols. In my case that never happened.
Thankfully the experienced police and my haus boi got the camp stretcher, table, chair, food rations for police and carriers and the ubiquitous tabac* from the stores building and I headed off on my first patrol to the Murik Lakes for a few days of taking census details and viewing the wonderful scenery in the river’s delta.

On my second patrol I was so much better equipped. I now had a mosquito net room 3m+3m which was hung over a sewn lap-lap floor (mossies come through the limbom (palm tree bark) floors of haus kiaps). A pressure kero lamp gave excellent lighting and I had now acquired a most comfortable demountable lounge chair made for me at the Marienburg Mission and sawmill some miles downstream. I had also bought an AWA short-wave portable radio which gave excellent reception to Radio Australia and the rest of the world if the copper wire antenna was high enough up the coconut palm tree. The “Eveready” battery for it was a dry cell the size of a modern car battery. 
And lastly I now had reading matter: a book from the Folio Society, an English magazine Argosy and my very first copy of PIM (Pacific Islands Monthly). This magazine carried the news, views and gossip for half of the Pacific Islands, then all colonies. So old timers could catch up with who has gone on leave and who has been posted where.

This second (and my last) patrol was to the Keram River villages, and this is where Tai has just been to visit her mother’s village.

I first met Tai’s father when he supplied a noodle supper at the Sepik Club for some visiting dignitary. Chu Leong was a member of the club. Tai lived with her parents and younger sister, Anna, at the rear of a very well stocked trade goods store near the wharf. It was there I went to have the sewing done for the lap-lap and netting. When I first met Chu’s two daughters, I remembered that my mother had once told me that mixed race children often inherit the best traits of both races. They had.

One day I woke up with an acute toothache. The Dutch doctor could supply pain killing drugs but said I needed to visit a dentist. And I did. Mr Sid Elliot-Smith, the District Commissioner gave me permission to visit the dentist at the mission at Alexishafen. This Sacred Heart mission was not very far from the Sepik delta on the way to Madang. I was taken there by Chu on his now joined together and very comfortable trading launch. Fortunately the dentist had novocaine or some such, and the treadle drill was not at all a worry. No more toothache.

On the return trip, Chu noticed that I had caught a cold and proffered a tiny jar of noisome dark brown ointment to use to clear my nose. He extolled the virtues of this herbal remedy and showed me his mangled left hand. And with my limited understanding of tok pisin I thought he was saying “Look what Tiger Balm did to my hand.” Of course what he was saying was that without it he would have lost the hand completely. He was a gentleman and a pleasant host.

I think the reason that my memories of my very short stay on this outstation are so clear is because my seniors, the locals and the many visitors were so pleasant and interesting. Of course I was aware of the tragic deaths of Patrol Officers Harris and Zarka and police near Telefomin. That sub-station was not so far away as the crow flies, but a world away from my peaceful world. It was classified as “uncontrolled territory” (No entry without special Admin approval).

I went to the club at 3.03 pm (or was it 3.06 pm that the Public Service Commissioner had ordained to be knock off time?). There I heard tales of earlier days. I heard “Shanghai” Brown, pre-war river pilot, and Cedric (?) recite Australian bush ballads, line for line. The one who failed to progress bought the next round. I learnt that they had been to the same primary school in England. Mr Robinson (“Sepik Wobby”: he couldn’t pronounce his “r’s”) told me why the Government station had been moved from Marienberg and of the Patrol Officer at Ambunti, a long way up-stream, who had dressed in a dinner suit for dinner every night. And I learnt that Peter England (McLean’s sawmill manager) had survived the war only because maggots had eaten the rotten flesh from his wounds from a Japanese “burp” machine gun. He was guiding an American patrol and was left for dead, but rescued alive when a search party returned to the sight of the attack. And “Mads” Madsen told me of his serious troubles when arrested by the Gestapo in Denmark. And Francoise Girard, a visiting anthropologist, told me of her life at the Sorbonne. When she landed at the wharf she was told that the young man in the second house past the sub-district often had visitors staying. I was pleased to offer accommodation to her and practice my schoolboy French. And Dadi Wirz also stayed with me for a few days before going upriver to purchase heritage artefacts and carvings. He took them back to sell to museums in Europe. His parents were Swiss anthropologists who had named him after the village in which he was conceived.

Another visitor for whom I was a tour guide proudly told me he was a member of the Explorer’s Club (of New York, I think). He was shooting 16 mm film and I ended up being the Director as I translated his instructions and told the actors to put on plenty of bilas.

* Crocodile hunter: a person who travelled upstream dropping of bags of salt, telling the villagers that he would return in wun mun to purchase salted rolled up skins at so many mark per inch across the belly. The famous Tom Cole was an exception. He hunted crocodiles.

* tabac: This trade tobacco consisted of sticks the size of liquorice sticks and packed in a carton the size of a carton of stubbies. It was very black, very sticky and very smelly and was a trade goods item. It was smoked by paring small chips onto a length (8 inches or so) of newspaper. Newspaper was also a trade goods item costing 1 mark (1 shilling) per sheet. Of course, tobacco plants were grown and the leaves cured. The resultant brus  was considered an inferior product I think. Expatriates addiction to nicotine was satisfied by sealed round tins of 50 (Ardath, Craven A, and the Sailor’s Head brands).

*Doctor: The head of the Health Department, Dr John Gunther, had recruited migrant European doctors for two years’ service in PNG, after which they would then be accepted by the AMA to practice in Australia.

*”trader”: He was an expatriate who provisioned his vessel with “trade goods” which he sold to the locals up and down the river. They had money from being a repatriated plantation worker or from selling carvings and other artefacts to tourists.


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