High Baedeker and other matters

February 20 2014

“Singapore is the meeting place of many races. The Malays, though natives of the soil, dwell uneasily in towns, and are few; and it is the Chinese, supple, alert and industrious, who throng the streets; the dark-skinned Tamils walk on their silent, naked feet, as though they were but brief sojourners in a strange land, but the Bengalis, sleek and prosperous, are easy in their surroundings, and self-assured; the sly and obsequious Japanese seem busy with pressing and secret affairs; and the English in their topees and white ducks, speeding past in motor-cars or at leisure in their rickshaws, wear a nonchalant and careless air.”

W Somerset Maugham, P&O, story in The Casuarina Tree, William Heinemann, 1926.

The first sentence there is in what could be called High Baedeker.

EM Forster (who brings Baedekers into A Room with a View) uses it in the first sentence of A Passage to India, Edward Arnold, 1924:

“Except for the Marabar Caves – and they are twenty miles off – the city of Chandrapore presents nothing extraordinary.”

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Another story, The Letter, in the same Maugham collection, has a similar passage to the one in P&O:

“Outside on the quay the sun beat fiercely. A stream of motors, lorries and buses, private cars and hirelings, sped up and down the crowded thoroughfare, and every chauffeur blew his horn; rickshaws threaded their nimble path amid the throng, and the panting coolies found breath to yell at one another; coolies, carrying heavy bales, sidled along with their quick jog-trot and shouted to the passer-by to make way; itinerant vendors proclaimed their wares. Singapore is the meeting-place of a hundred peoples; and men of all colours, black Tamils, yellow Chinks, brown Malays, Armenians, Jews and Bengalis, called to one another in raucous tones.”

He is enjoying the mixture of black, yellow, brown and white. That isn’t racist.

“Chinks” is still used sometimes in India. It is one of a dwindling number of verbal survivals from the Raj. “Peg”, as in “a peg of whisky”, is another. An Indian man in Delhi – who is married to a Tibetan (Tibetans are a significant minority there) – referred to “chinkies” when talking to me in 2010 and did not in the least mean to be offensive. I am not sure whether he meant to include Tibetans.

Mussoorie, a mere 170 miles away, has the training centre for the Indo-Tibetan Border Police.

In 1984, when I first visited Singapore, people would still ask where one was “putting up”, to mean where was one staying.

Singaporeans like the phrase “cock and bull story”. Also “raining cats and dogs”.

Jews? They were and are an important, though small, minority, mainly Iraqi Jews, whose modern diaspora got under way in the nineteenth century. They settled in Bombay and moved east. I knew one very well in Singapore. See Wikipedia articles on David Sassoon of Bombay and Edward Isaac Ezra of Shanghai, especially. There are Sassoons in Singapore. David Marshall, one of Singapore’s modern founding fathers, was an Iraqi, or Baghdadi, Jew.

Armenians? They were a parallel movement. The Raffles Hotel was founded by Armenians, the Sarkies Brothers. The Straits Times was co-founded by an Armenian, Catchick Moses. Was he also Jewish? I suppose both groups were attracted by a growing trade between South Asia and the West and found little room for their energy in a declining Ottoman Empire.

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Raffles, despite its recent sugar-coating and fakifying, is a fine building, especially from the side. Its architect was Regent Alfred John Bidwell (1869-1918) of a local firm, Swan and Maclaren. He also designed the Victoria Memorial Hall and deserves to be remembered.

You immediately feel that Raffles has taken something from Malay architecture. But what? Compare the Wikipedia picture of Raffles with the main Wikipedia image of the Rumah Melayu, the traditional Malay house. Here are both.

Rumah Kedah

Raffles Hotel

It is hard to pinpoint the architectural feature which defines a hybrid style, but the windows are similar. The Rumah Melayu tradition is indigenous. In its origin, it owes nothing to colonial influences. But does that house in Kedah owe nothing or is it itself done in a local hybrid style which in turn influenced the design of Raffles?

The Singapore shophouse style was a hybrid of Chinese and Portuguese vernaculars, with Malay decorative elements. The BakerLutyens style in New Delhi is a hybrid of European and Mughal.

Baker’s and Lutyens’s buildings did not come out of a local hybrid vernacular, but were products of individual genius. That is why New Delhi feels unreal to some people. Not to me. Its architects were too talented. If you want unreal stage sets, go to Putrajaya in Malaysia.

The great indigenous vernacular architectures of East Asia are Japanese and Malay. Some primitive Chinese vernacular is also moving.

Old posts:

Loggia, arcade and shophouse (Singapore architecture)

Anglo-India (P&Os)

Baedeker, Britannica and others

Baedekers.

3 Responses to “High Baedeker and other matters”

  1. davidderrick Says:

    A survival from the Raj in Pakistan and in India, certainly up to the ’90s among older people, perhaps even until now, was the habit of beginning a letter “My dear X”, “X” being a Christian or surname.

    This was warm. Evidence of collegiality and trust and goodwill, but not conclusive proof of friendship. In England it barely survived the Second World War.

    At the end of the letter was a word which lasted slightly longer in England, but is extinct here now and may be on the subcontinent too. Just “Yours”.

    I wish we could bring back “Yours”, if not “My dear”. It is warmer and also more dignified than the rather chilling “Regards”, which we try to embellish with unconvincing adjectives.

    Indians in India and in the Gulf begin emails sent to more than one colleague with just “Dears”. Which has a certain Julian and Sandy ring to it. When I worked in the Gulf, I noticed that this salutation was picked up by Lebanese and Egyptian employees, but I think it started with the Indians.

    But they were not Indians who had had Raj-style educations strongly influenced by the English.

    Germans find it quaint that we should address our bank managers as “Dear”. Most of them are stiffly formal at work to this day, using “Herr” and “Frau”. This by Jan Morris in her book on Trieste contains an obvious howler:

    “Every house in the city was marked not only with a number, but with the name of the street too, with a single category of exception – and one can still hear some Undersecretary telling his clerk, ‘But not, Ulrich, make it quite clear, not houses with subsidiary numbers like 41A or 24B.’ ‘Oh most certainly, Excellency, I shall see to that, most definitely not street names for houses with subsidiary numbers …’”

    On the other hand, Germans say things such as “Liebe Zuschauer” which sound quaint to us.

  2. davidderrick Says:

    I suspect that “My dear” lasted longer in Pakistan than it did in India.

  3. davidderrick Says:

    St Petersburg is pejoratively called a “stage set” by some (not me), but its dominant style isn’t a hybrid or pastiche. Rather, it’s a local version of other European styles.


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