Hong Kong has occasionally sheltered talented writers whose published works, while popular in their time, are now almost completely forgotten. One such author was John Slimming, one of the many Europeans who moved to Hong Kong in the aftermath of independence in Malaya, in 1957.
In the years that followed merdeka (freedom), numerous individuals left to begin new lives in other places. While their departures were seldom unexpected – political devolution in Malaya had been a gradual process, not an abrupt finale – it was still deeply distressing to many. Most people who spent time there came to know and love that beautiful, diverse country and a forced parting created emotional rifts that, for many, never healed.
For some, the transition was relatively easy. Older people took early retirement; the young moved on to careers elsewhere, with their Malayan life recalled as an idyllic tropical memory that only improved with the telling. But for those whose working lives were altered midstream, relocation was a different story.
By the early 1960s, Hong Kong had become a popular roost for working-age Europeans from Malaya – many in government service, academia or the police – displaced as their employment contracts were steadily localised. They were still in the Far East and close enough to occasionally revisit old haunts, yet a deep-seated yearning for the tropics remained – especially for writers such as Slimming. Deep down, many never really left Malaya, or truly settled in Hong Kong.
Slimming came to Hong Kong in 1968 – later than many ex-Malaya hands – to work for the Government Information Service (GIS). Having started out as an actor, followed by military service as a glider pilot in Egypt and Palestine towards the end of the second world war, Slimming joined the Federation of Malaya Police.
After being badly injured in a communist ambush in 1951, at the height of the Malayan Emergency – which provided the foundation for the autobiographical novel In Fear of Silence (1959) – he left government service on medical grounds, having studied Cantonese, and pursued jobs elsewhere in Asia while concentrating on his writing.
An earlier posting as assistant protector of aborigines led to Temiar Jungle: A Malayan Journey (1958), an excellent mix of travelogue and anthropological study of a non-Malay indigenous jungle people on the brink of modernity.
A few years in Burma, where he worked for the British Council, produced The Pass (1962), a novel set in the Shan States; a spell in Sarawak resulted in another novel, The Pepper Garden (1968); and a year in Taiwan inspired Green Plums and a Bamboo Horse: A Picture of Formosa (1964), a compelling first-hand account from a period when that island was then little visited by tourists.
Slimming’s most controversial work was also his shortest; Malaysia: Death of a Democracy (1969) is a gripping eyewitness account of the unfurling political events that led up to the tragic May 13, 1969 Chinese-Malay race riots in Kuala Lumpur, which claimed hundreds of lives and changed Malaysia’s political landscape forever. This stark and honest report ruled out any subsequent return to Malaysia. As one close friend and former Malaya contemporary put it, Slimming “wasn’t actually thrown out of the country; he was just prohibited from ever returning”.
Slimming died in unfortunate circumstances in Hong Kong in 1978. A heavy smoker and already in poor health, he suffered a heart attack late one night and was found dead in his gas-filled kitchen. A saucepan of milk he was heating had boiled over and extinguished the flame by the time he was discovered the next morning by a GIS colleague who lived nearby; a sad end for a gifted writer whose work remains as fresh and compelling as ever.