my father's story ©

by Michelle Chinnappen

12. Leaving with no Goodbyes – the second time.

September 2nd 1959 Joseph and Chinnappen (my father) on the SS Rajula departing Penang to Madras, India.

This year it is exactly 60 years since my father left Malaysia, at the age of 19.  In these 60 years none of his birthdays have been celebrated in his country of origin. Today is the 7th of November 2019. On this exact day of writing this story my father has his 80th birthday, and the celebration will take place in Norway. Recalling his first birthday away from Malaysia, the 7th of November 1959 I ask him for the first time where he was on this day, 60 years ago. It turns out my father was hitch hiking, making his way from Napoli in Italia to Rome – to visit the Pope. And in that answer, I discover another story to be written. But not today. Today is about when my father left Malaysia – the second time.

Disappointed by having lost months travelling up towards Burma and having to turn back to Malaysia, my father was still determined not to stay. On his way back to Penang my father made one phone call, to the only phone number he had with him. To Joseph. They had not spoken to each other since Joseph backed out from leaving with my father in May 1959, when he left for the first time. The call was made to the military camp where Joseph was still working. As a cook. Or so we think. When Joseph finally came to the phone the first thing he said was

–  I have been waiting for your call and I am ready to go. Where shall I meet you?

It must have felt like such a relief to my father to know Joseph had finally made a decision, and also not having to leave a second time all alone. Although he knew he would be ridiculed coming home, my father knew he was not going to stay. The plan was still to get away and get out of Malaysia. The conditions in Malaysia were not getting better for my father and on the contrary conditions would probably just get worse as to both work and living conditions. How Indians were treated in their own society in Malaysia did not get any better after the British left. I would claim this unpleasant segregation still exists in 2019 and is not any less dominant in the Malaysian society today.

But it is important to mention a vital part of my fathers’ story. Without the help of kind people my father met in his life, people of all nationalities, he would not be where he is today. Without people he met through his boxing career, he would not be where he is today. There is, thank God, so much kindness in this world too.

Mr Lim worked at the Chinese Labour Exchange. Mr Lim had seen my father fight many times and was a huge boxing enthusiast. The 1st of September my father called upon Mr Lim for help. Help to get two tickets on the SS Rajula sailing from Penang to India the next day.  My father had been turned down before. These boat tickets were too costly for my father. But once in a while tickets were granted to the poor, if they could provide a letter from a sponsor or provide some sort of financial guarantee. A bit like the rules are today, if you are travelling from Asia to Europe. You have to provide documentation of where you will be staying, that you are able to provide for yourself during your stay, or that someone is responsible for you till you return. But you have to return. This was also the case in 1959. But my father had no such documentation and had no plans to return.

Michelle; I could not stay. I knew how my life would end. I would end up in street fights to earn a living. I would end up fighting the rest of my life. I probably would never have lived to experience the day I turned 80 if I had stayed. This was the 1st of September 1959 and I just knew I had to be on that boat sailing to Madras (now Chennai) the next day. While trying to convince Mr Lim he should grant me not one, but two tickets, I pleaded with him with all I had. If he had not known me as a boxer, I am sure it would have been useless. I said I had to visit my grandmother who had left for India. 

–  At some point Mr Lim took pity on me. I don’t know why, but he did. Or maybe it was respect. I am hoping it was out of respect. He wrote a handwritten ticket for me and Joseph to leave the next day with the SS Rajula from Penang to Madras. A 7 day sail across the Bengal Bay.  But when leaving Mr Lim’s office with the tickets, he took me aside and said quietly – “When you are out at sea, destroy your return tickets before your reach the harbour in Madras”. He knew I was not planning to return. 

For my father’s 80th birthday we bought him an iPad. Since we have been speaking about the ship my father took across to India, we google SS Rajula and lots of photos of the ship appears. All black and white photos. And my father points out where they were located on the ship during their voyage. In the far lower decks where all the poorest passengers had their place. And where my father was seasick for almost the whole trip across the Bengal Bay. Till today my father (nor me) has a stomach for the sea.

The SS Rajula was built in 1926 in Glasgow for the British India Steam Navigation Company ship. The SS Rajula*) was one of the first ships requisitioned in September 1938 and became a troop ship from May 1940, mainly from Bombay to Suez. The ship’s story includes carrying Indian troops to Singapore for it’s defence returning on with evacuees. She carried the Australian Division from Colombo to Australia for their redeployment to New Guinea in 1941, attended the allied landings at Syracuse, Augusta and Anzio in 1943, and in 1944 she carried troops out of Burma acting as an ambulance ship. The following year she carried troops from Calcutta to Malaysia and Rangoon for their reoccupation. After the war and after a refit in Great Britain the SS Rajula returned to the Far East. Her route was Madras (Chennai) – Negapatam (Nagapattinam) – Penang – Port Swettenham (Port Klang) – Singapore. Although the ship was unknown outside Eastern waters, no ship gave longer service to the British India Steam Navigation Company Ltd than the Rajula. The ship’s story includes carrying my father and Joseph across the Bengal Bay to India where the next chapter of their travel began.

During the 7 days voyage my father has a clear memory of being VERY seasick most of the time. But Joseph was not. Joseph roamed around the ship mingling with the other passengers making friends. He roamed around the areas he was not allowed to enter too. Apparently, Joseph could charm himself out of any situation. Two decks up he made friends who offered him warm food and a hot curry. For Joseph who hardly had money this was accepted with great gratitude. When my father slowly recovered from sea sickness on the 6th day he was also introduced to the kind men, and the smell and taste of a well-cooked curry got him back on his feet.

– We were young and naive! We were 19 and 20, and these men were experienced businessmen. There is no such thing as “anything for free”. So, 3 hours before arriving the harbour in Madras we were “asked” to carry a package with us across the border. We hardly had luggage at all, so a little extra lugguage in the basket on our bicycle was not even noticeable. We were given the address of a hotel were the package was to be delivered and promised a bed and food when we arrived. We were told we would be taken very good care of. Innocent looking we crossed the border through the entry “Nothing to Declare”, and delivered the parcel to the hotel. As promised we were offered to stay for days, a place to wash after days on the boat, free food, free accommodation … until we finally got kicked out and continued our travel. 

My instant thought is that my father and Joseph were tricked into smuggling drugs, but it was not drugs. It was GOLD. The Malaysian gold was cleaner and more solid than the Indian gold, so it would have been worth quite a lot on the Black Market. I personally feel a sense of relief. Gold makes a good story. Drugs are something else. And if there is anything I know, having Indian blood in the family is that Indian families put their fortunes in their gold.

It’s the 7th of November 2019. My children (Sebastian and Sophie), myself and my mother have just had a small celebration at a local restaurant in Hønefoss, where my father lives. Eaten good local food, had good local drinks and talked for hours. The conversation turns towards this story.  Of leaving the second, but final time. This time my children ask. Did your family see you off? Maybe they realised now you were leaving for real? My father’s face turns to sadness. My mother becomes emotional, as she knows this still bothers my father.

I have heard the stories so many times. How my grandmother would try to arrange a marriage for my father, how she would try to keep him on track, how she would cry hours on end if he ever spoke of leaving…before he actually did. My grandfather would encourage my father to leave, but my grandmother did not. She always said that if he left, he would never see her again, alive . And she was right. When he left the 2nd of September 1959, it was the last time my father saw his mother – alive. She did not see him off when he left the first time, and she did not see him off when he left the second time.

I think we all get emotional thinking about this. Trying to understand. As a mother, I can’t quite. It was different times and maybe it was their way of coping with stress and emotions. Maybe they wanted it to be easier for my father to leave? Who knows. I know she was a good mother, I know she was close to my father so I am sure she had her reason. But the day my father climbed on the SS Rajula for India, neither his father, his brother or his mother said goodbye. They went to work as if it was a day like any other day.

As sad as my father must have felt he still left for the second time September 2nd 1959, there was still an act of  kindness from another person that has helped my father on his way. Making his way to the harbour he saw someone familiar in the distance, waiting for him. One single person had taken him seriously. His uncle Manivello. His mother’s elder brother had had taken the time and the effort to travel quite far to see his nephew off. My father recalls his uncle was crying and handed him a note with the name of the village my father’s grandmother was to be found, my great grand mother. I have met my father’s uncle Manivello several times during holidays in Malaysia, and I do recall he was a man of emotions. He cried when we arrived and he cried when we left. He became especially fond of my mother. This blond Norwegian whom was the reason he did not want to know my father when he heard they had married. Untill they met. And he cried when I left Malaysia after visiting as a back packer in 1992. But he did see my father off. Standing is his white wastey, he handed my father the note with the address and 50 Malaysian Dollars, 50 Ringit. This would have been more than a month’s wages. It was a lot of money at the time.

I knew it was a lot of money for him, Michelle. But I could not say no. I barely had money to buy food for the trip across to India. This money I hid in my clothes and it was this money that paid for our tickets from Calais to Dover, finally reaching the UK in December 1959. 



© Michelle Chinnappen and, 2019.
Unauthorised use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full name and clear credit is given to Michelle Chinnappen and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

11. “Do you value your life?”

                              Burmese border

(My father)
– I was standing at the border in Burma (now called Myanmar) wanting to enter India. I had already been travelling for nearly 2 months. The Burmese officer at the border looked at me and looked at my passport with confusion questioning why I wanted to cross the border. I explained I wanted to travel to my grandmother in India, but I did not even really know where she was. He looked me straight in the eye and said, “Do you value your life?”. It took a few seconds before I understood what he was asking, so he asked me again. Do you value your life? There is nothing there for you, young man. This side of India is in chaos. There is no food. People are desperate. Nobody knows who their enemies or allies are, so you will probably get shot. The chances you will survive are slim. I advise you to turn and go back home. My heart sank! 

When my father is telling me this I suddenly recall being at the border of Thailand and Burma myself in 1992 when I travelled “the world” as a backpacker. We tried to use informal channels to get a day pass to enter Burma, but the borders were closed, and we were warned against it for our own safety. I also realise I should brush up on my knowledge of Southeast Asian history. We know Burma (now Myanmar) unfortunately to still be a country of instability both economically and politically. Burma was under British rule from 1824 to 1948*) and is sometimes referred to as “the Scottish Colony”, due to the heavy role played by Scotsmen in colonising and running the country. The so-called “First Anglo-Burmese War” lasted from 1824 to 1826 and ended the lives of 15.000 European and Indian soldiers, together with an unknown number of Burmese army and civilian casualties. This was the longest and the most expensive war in the history of British India and led to a severe economic crisis in British India in 1833.  I note there is no mentioning of the long term and devastating effects this may have had on the Burmese. But history is written by the victorious. I find myself reading more and more and learning about the “Second Anglo-Burmese War” in 1852. Again, the British were victorious and as a result obtained total access to the teak, oil, and rubies of northern Burma. My silent thought is that this would have been a substantial source of income for the British Empire, just as the Malaysian rubber plantations were while Malaysia was under British government. (Please ready story nr 8, A Coolie at the Rubber plantation –  British rule of Burma was disrupted during the Japanese occupation during the World War II and Burma achieved independence from British rule on 4 January 1948.

– I think this border officer felt some sort of compassion, my father says. How desperate I must have been to even want to cross the border. Truth is, I just did not quite know what was going on. I just wanted to be on the move. So, he took me home with him to his village. To his family. I could not say no to food and a place to sleep. They were the kindest of souls and shared their home with me. Made me feel welcome and made me understand the dangers I was getting myself into. I ended up staying for 4 days and did what they told me. With a heavy heart I turned and started my journey back to Thailand. 

And again, my own reflections begin. In 1992, when I had graduated from Business School in Norway I travelled as a backpacker all over the world and loved it. We were two friends and we always had money to live and eat well and to enjoy every country we travelled to. In my father’s case his journey was not one of a privileged traveller. When I ask about what my father did during these months in Thailand and Burma, who he met, who he talked to, what stories he can tell, how he lived, it’s very different from my own experience of partying and enjoying my way across the continents. The weeks and months travelling for my father all had the same basic focus. To find a safe place to sleep and to find food to stay alive. To always be on the road and to find transport that got him closer to an unknown destination anywhere else than where he was. It’s interesting to learn that in both Thailand and Burma, people had little concern of what religion you were, where you came from or the colour of your skin. The safest places to sleep would always be the Buddhist temples. No one would turn my father away and no one would do him any harm. The monks would often share their food and let people seek refuge from the heat, from the rain or from the night and people would be allowed to sleep on the temple grounds. So, throughout Thailand and Burma my father would travel from temple to temple and hope for a spot to sleep and food to be shared.

People were so friendly and so helpful. Michelle. I probably looked like I always was lost, which I often was. People would just come over to me and ask. Are you lost? Where are you going? Do you need help? And my response would always be that I did not know where I was or where I was going. But if they could point me in the right direction towards India. Even people with little themselves would take me in and feed me. Especially lorry drivers. They would let me hitch hike as far as their route was in the direction towards India, take me to their villages and offer me a floor to sleep on and a meal. People were so poor, but they had hearts of gold. Thai people especially would be very considerate towards us Malaysians. They knew our history. They knew that we came from difficult conditions as an occupied country. They felt compassion for us. And at the same time proud of never have been colonized. 

And this is true. Thailand survived as the only Southeast Asian state to avoid European rule. I end up spending my whole evening reading the different versions of reasons why, but in short, my understanding is that the French and the British decided it would be neutral territory to avoid conflicts between their colonies.  In addition, King Chulalongkorn (King Rama V) of Thailand was apparently a forward reform thinking King who also had the means to pay substantial “contributions” to avoid conflicts or threats.

My father travelled from Malaysia in May and through Thailand towards Burma. He would hitch hike with trucks, lorries, trailers and cars and just follow any route they were on as long as it was leading him closer to Burma and India. The first ride he got was from Butterworth on the mainland across from Penang and all the way to Kedah. My father had been working at The Straits Trading Company**) in Butterworth, where he had got to know one of the Indian welders, Mr Vasu. Crossing over from Penang to Butterworth my father passed by to call on Mr. Vasu. By chance that same evening Mr Vasu’s brother, who was a lorry driver, was travelling to Kedah and my father got his first ride all the way to Kedah. And in Kedah my father was advised to “hang around” the coffee shops where the lorry drivers ate. From there he was able to hitch a ride with a Chinese driver whom was on route to Thailand. So, the start of the journey was a good one. The lorry drivers often appreciated the company of other travellers on their long trips and suddenly I have my own memory flashback of hitch hiking with lorries with my little sister from Hønefoss in Norway to the South of Germany one summer, the year 1990.

When travelling up through Thailand through Hat Yai my father called on a Mr. Cipporn, who was one of the Thai boxing promoters whom had fighters my father had fought against several times. Mr. Cipporn knew my father as “Toronto Kid”, half boxer – half fighter, and he was more than welcoming. He took my father in and even persuaded my father to enter a boxing match against a Thai boxer. So, for a few days my father became Toronto Kid once again to earn some money. My father remembers losing the fight and taking quite a beating. Boxing a Thai boxer is another ballgame than a regular boxing match, allowing the use of knees, elbows and kicks. He took my father 4-5 rounds before “planting” an elbow in the back of my father’s head.  After 4-5 days and a few days of recovering Mr. Cipporn took my father aside, offering him a job, a place to stay and a potential further boxing career. To stay on with Mr. Cipporn as his promotor, work with other boxers and work for a living. My father remembers Mr. Cipporn being terribly concerned for his future as a young man and tried to convince my father to stay.  But as tempting as this must have been, this sense of purpose he may have felt, my father still decided to continue his journey.

When my father had to turn and head back down from Burma back through Thailand his one thought was to go back to Mr. Cipporn in Hat Chai. He hoped maybe the offer he turned down was still open. It was a good offer, especially now that my father had waisted all this time and was no further than when he left Malaysia 3-4 months ago. But unfortunately, Mr. Cipporn was travelling when my father passed by again and was not expected to be back for several weeks. And no body there could put my father up. As Hat Chai is only hours from the Malaysian boarder my father decided it would be better to go home, back to Penang.

In 1982 my father travelled alone to Malaysia, via Bangkok.  I remember my grandfather in Penang was ill and it was difficult times. As a family we only had finances for my father to go alone, so the rest of us stayed at home in Norway with my mother. While he was in transit a few days at a hotel in Bangkok, my father was studying some gems in the boutique shop at the hotel. Now as then my father has a love of gems, and especially diamonds. He is soon 80 and wears his grey hair in a ponytail and a big studded diamond in one ear. I don’t know any other 80 year olds to have a studded diamond in their ear, but he wears it well and it suits his character. And my father shares a store of a special moment I have not heard before.

– I was quite caught up looking at gems, and slightly registered the shopkeeper walking towards me in the corner of my eye. When I looked up, I looked into familiar eyes. I did not recognise them at first but the reaction from the shopkeeper was so surprising that I was thrown back. He cried out my name,“Toronto Kid”, and tears came to his eyes. This man stood in his own shop crying. But he knew my name. You made it, he said. Again, and again. You made it! He had aged quite a bit. Put on some weight but slowly I understood this was dear Mr Cipporn, the Thai promotor in Hat Chai. For so many years he had wondered what had happened to me. He asked me if I believed in destiny. Sometimes I think I do, Michelle. He had heard all those years ago that I had come back looking for him in 1959 on my sad journey back to Malaysia and was so sorry he had not been there. He would have taken me in and given me that job. I wonder how my life may have been if he had been there at the time. It was not your destiny Mr. Cipporn said.  I was not supposed to be there he added. And as he did in 1959, he took care of me again. He took me in. This time, a different setting and in a different time. We shared a memorable evening in an exclusive restaurant in Bangkok. A few days later I left for Penang and unfortunately, I never saw Mr. Cipporn again. But it seems we both made it. 

As my father’s daughter I am not too fond of these many stories where people never meet again or not knowing what become of them. But there will be many such situations in my father’s life and my own over the years. As we come to the ending of this story, my father shares what it was like coming back to Penang.

– Upon my return to Penang I was made the laughingstock by my friends. It was no warm welcome, from neither friends nor family. My friends were in stitches laughing, making fun of me. Telling me how they always knew I would return, how I was a quitter, wondering if I had even been to Burma or was just making it up. Their exact words were “We knew you were a bullshitter”. My stomach was on fire, Michelle. I have never felt more on fire. 

– But little did they know! I arrived back in Penang 31th of August 1959. Little did they know that 2 days later I would be on a boat to India and that they would not see me again till the year 1970 – over 10 years later. Some of my friends I have never seen since that day I left for the second time, September 2nd 1959.


*) Source:
**) Straits Trading was founded by James Sword, a Scottish businessman and Herman Muhlinghaus, a German entrepreneur, to engage in tin smelting. By 1912, the company was producing two-thirds of Malaya’s tin output. Source:


© Michelle Chinnappen and, 2019.
Unauthorised use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full name and clear credit is given to Michelle Chinnappen and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


10. Leaving for the first time


– I asked so many of my friends. Let’s just pack up and go. Let’s just go. Anything is better than nothing, Michelle. But no one wanted to leave. Or dared to leave. They would blame their work, or lack of work. They did not have the money to go. I did not have the money to go. They would blame their mother, or their family, or me. For not having a better plan. Just leave? Go? Go where? What will we do? Where will we live? I had no plan. No plan of where I was going or where I would end. No end destination. I just had to get out. I was desperate!

I had finished form 2 at school. At the Catholic boy’s school St. Xaviers. My parents had no means of giving me any further education. I had no other qualifications than my boxing career and my boxing name. It was impossible to get a steady job and I would take the odd job wherever I could find it. Short term labour contracts; in a tin melting company, in a furniture factory making seat covers, putting up signposts for a Chinese contractor, working as a gardener for an American family in Batu Ferrighi. Whatever I could get between fights. But never anything stable or a chance of a job where progress was possible, get an education or any form of qualifications. I would only have access to jobs where my life would be a constant struggle. Like my parents. I could continue boxing of course but that is an equal struggle and you have limited time to get to the top. Promotors were dishonest. You did not always have a contract and even if you did you might not always get paid. The prospects of continuing as a professional boxer were slim and I would have to have another job anyway as boxing alone would not provide enough.

You know sometimes you can be unlucky and get caught up in the wrong place or you can get lucky and get caught up in the right place. That is what I was thinking. I would travel and I would find that place where I was needed or wanted or had some sort of value. That sense of feeling you are wanted. I was always dreaming of a better life somewhere else. I just did not know where “somewhere else” was. I could end up in a better place and end up making a good life, and then I would be able to send money home. Home to my mother, just as she expected me to do. I just felt I was under so much pressure. As if the whole family depended on me alone.

When my father is telling me this I realise that pressure actually never left him, even when he left to make a better life for himself. Personally I love to read, and particularly enjoy books about leadership skills. But no matter what books you read I have come to understand that successful leadership of yourself or others is tied to a having a sense of purpose and feeling of being needed. People who are in the pursuit of happiness will not find happiness without having a sense of purpose.

Having boys rather than girls in Malaysia and India was important, and unfortunately to some extent still is. Girls were seen as burdens as they would leave and eventually live with their in-laws, whereas boys would provide and take care of you in your old age. We all know what the one child policy has done to China, and how the value of a boy over a girl has lead to the terrible disproportion in numbers between women and men all over South East Asia, both India and China.  My father’s family lived a tough life where life was about putting food on the table and a roof over their head. And as my uncle Muthu, my father’s brother, had health issues and poor eyesight due to his Albino condition, there was not prospect of him becoming the provider even though he was the eldest. He was too white for the Malaysian community and too black for the English community. So this responsibility was placed of my father. And he did provide, from the age of 12. Through his boxing. And my father was expected to continue to provide. He just did not know how. What I do know is that my father provided for us in Norway as well as for his family in Malaysia from the early years of leaving till 1990. For 30 years he sent money nearly every month; first to provide for his parents and then later to help his brother and his family. This is the life of many foreign workers still today.

As a child growing up in Hønefoss in Norway, there was always food on the table and we had what we needed. We did not always have what we wanted, the hottest things, the high-end equipment, the Easter and Winter vactions, the latest brands. Sometimes we would come across people who would enjoy rubbing that in our face and make us feel of lesser value. But they were never my friends and not people I would look up to anyhow. Till today I will judge you by the way you treat the least influential person in the room, even if you are the most influential person in the room. Many decisions have been made in my career based on that judgement.  I think providing for two families should have been given a lot more respect than the brands you wear. And I hope I have passed those values on to my children.

One of my father’s best childhood friends, Joseph Nathan, had decided to come with my father and leave Malaysia. Try to find a better life better together. Joseph was at the end of his contract in the British Boy’s Army. We are not sure what Joseph did in the army but he had enlisted and my father is quite certain it must have been as a cook. Whenever my father speaks of Joseph he will mention his amazing cooking. How he could whip out the best curries ever. How he was so smart. How the women would love him. How fair skinnen he was. Jospeh was Malayali. This is not to be confused with Malay, but rather Indians orginating from Kerala in India and known to be fair skinned. Joseph’s family were very poor, maybe even worse off than my fathers’. Joseph was 21 and my father 19 and the short term plan was to travel to Thailand, cross the border to Burma (today’s Myanmar) and then enter India in search of my father’s grandmother. Or that is, an old lady he thinks could have been his grandmother. Then two days before their departure Joseph pulled out, blaming his mother, finding excuses in his contract.

Dad says, – I think he just got scared

So an early morning in May 1959, my father packs his rucksack. Wears his rubber shoes and has the only few pieces of clothes he owns with him, amongst that only two pairs of trousers. He has told everyone, family and friends, that he will be leaving. I start asking my father what the farewell was like. Till today I love watching farwells and welcomes at airports and already look forward to this part of the story.

My mother, Arylayee Kithery, was up and on her way to work. My father, Sevathian, had already left for his gardening job and I think my brother Muthu was still in the house. No one believed I would leave, you see. Everyone thought it was just talk. That I was just “bullshitting”. No one even believed I had managed to get a passport. I am the only one in my family to ever own their own passport. My mother turned to me and asked; So are you leaving now then? Have you eaten your breakfast? And she left for work. There was no hug, no kiss, no one there to say goodbye or wish me good luck. So I took my rucksack and left. First stop Thailand.


Photo taken while hitchhiking through Italy late 1959

© Michelle Chinnappen and, 2019.
Unauthorised use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full name and clear credit is given to Michelle Chinnappen and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


9. “If you want to see a man’s true character, then grant him power” – Abraham Linclon.

I remember my grandfather – Sevathian s/o Arulapan. I remember him old, lean, thick white hair, very dark skin. Apparently he was completely grey at the age of 20 and lost his teeth by the age of 22, but kept his thick hair till they shaved it before he died. He always wore sandals and a white “waisty”. I met my grandfather in Penang in 1979 and again in 1983. We never conversed and he never said my name. I think it was too difficult for him. He loved to call out my little sister’s name – Mellanee Kithery… “Kithery” after my grandmother – his wife. She was his strength, his backbone and when she died in 1967 – it all fell apart and he was never the same, I am told. My grandfather felt so foreign to me. He would always smile at us, but spoke very little and when he did it was with a soft voice, more like a whisper. I wonder what he was thinking. He was to have been a fantastic story teller, and my father says they could listen to his stories for hours as children. And he was forward thinking and tolerant for his time. My grandfather was one of the very few at the time that accepted my father not marrying one of “his own”. He accepted my mother – this “white women”, and took her to heart.

It is unclear when my grandfather was born. Anything from 1902 to 1908, in Thanjavur India. My father has a funny story of my grandfather having to have a birth certificate made out. He did not really know his own date of birth, so it was kind of a guessing game. – What do you think?, the guy at the register office asked, and suggested a few alternatives. They landed on a year that sounded like something he may have been familiar with. On my grandfather’s tombstone it is written that he was 81 when he died, but his name is not even spelt correctly, so “things” an be a little bit fuzzy as to the correct time and spelling.

– He is buried at a Catholic cemetery, but your grandfather was born Hindu, Michelle. His marriage to your grandmother was an arranged marriage, but his parents were open minded people. He converted as your grandmother was very religious and went to church, but… My father laughs. Converted and converted, he says. He was a Hindu his whole life, and never ate meat. Whenever a Hindu festival was on he disappeared and we all knew where he was, and your grandmother was ok with that. They were very tolerant people.

Sevathian s/o Arulapan died in 1983, shortly after we had spent the summer in Penang. We knew he was very ill. This same summer he fed me with his hands, after his frustration of seeing me fiddle with my chop sticks at a Chinese food stall. I was a teenager and it was very embarrassing. I know my chop sticks today! This same summer he sat outside a village house in Bagan Serai and I had to witness my father saying his goodbyes knowing they would never see each other again. This same summer I had to witness my grandfather crying. I don’t like having that scene played in my head. I did not then and I do not now.

My father speaks very differently about my grandfather than my grandmother and always refers to my grandfather as “a soft man”. It’s sadness in my father’s voice when he uses that expression, and I have always had a feeling that my grandfather was a “defeated” man. My father and my grandfather only met 4 summers between 1959 and 1983 and I ask my father if they felt strangers towards each other? – No, he says. I loved him and we were very close but I just wish his life had been better, Michelle. Personally I like to think it was better than if he had stayed in India. That he knew his son had made a better life for himself and in that felt a sense of success. I hope that’s what my grandfather felt.

After leaving the rubber plantation in Klang in 1940 and settling down in Penang with his family he worked as a gardener. First at the military camp in Gelugor, both when it was run by the British and during WWII, under the Japanese.

Your grandfather would never stand up for himself, Michelle. He would not fight for himself.

My father shakes his head, and I know this is a part of my grandfather’s personality that my father did not inherit. My own son Sebastian is named after my grandfather, his great grandfather. Sebastian is the Christian or British version of his name, Sevethia. My son may have inherited his great grandfather’s name, but not his personality. Sebastian will stand up for himself, like my father…and that makes me very proud.

– I really think he believed he was a less superior race and would put up with so much, so much more than anyone deserved. It’s so, so sad. And my father tells the stories. Of when my grandfather worked as a gardener for a rich Bangalee who would measure the grass with a ruler. When your grandfather did not cut it the same height in different areas of the garden – he got fired. He cut by hand with a scythe, Michelle. But your grandfather said nothing. He packed our belongings and we left. And when the British School Principle fired him because his two white daughters were caught playing with my brother, Anthony – who was as white as them. But being albino did not qualify as white. He was only 8, Michelle. Your grandfather said nothing. He packed our belongings and we left. And when his rich Chinese employer fired him because I was caught eating fruits from his garden. I was only a young hungry boy on my way from school, Michelle – and the fruit was the fruit that had fallen off the branches that hung outside his property. No one was going to eat them, but still his property apparently and I was accused of stealing. So your grandfather said nothing. He packed our belongings and we left. But my father laughs when he remembers how my grandmother would force my grandfather to discipline them, but how the spanking would be too soft for it to have any effect.

We know very little of my grandfather’s life from 1967 till he died. We know he lived different places. We know that only parts of the money my father sent each month reached him, so he never got all the help my father meant to provide. I know this is what bothers my father the most – that my grandfather could have lived better. We know that the temptation of money will make people forget their loyalty towards each other, even if they are relations – and I know that even today this keeps family members from speaking to each other. We know that he lived rough. That when he no longer was able to keep a job as a gardener he would look after cars at a parking lot. Sometimes he would cover their windows with card board to prevent the car to heat for an extra 10 cents. Today that is a job mostly carried out by young men with a drug abuse.

There are 5 men sitting around the table. My grandfather, uncle Anthony, my father, a relation and his eldest son. My mother has left the room. I did not understand the language, nor know at the time what the heated discussion was about, but I remember the tension and the tone of their voices. I have been told the story many times later and we giggle about it, but learning more of my grandfather the story touches me in a different way than before.

My father has 3 daughters!!! And his relations have sons! Now, my father would never have considered an arranged marriage for us. He never believed in this and it was never discussed. Besides, my own mother would probably have killed him if he did! Times have changed since then..But this was still what the discussion was about. Matchmaking!

During the heated discussion my grandfather said very little. Just shook his head, uttered a few sighs as I recall. A sigh is quite an international expression. Then all of a sudden and to much surprise from the whole table my grandfather stood up, banged his fist on the table AND shouted. This man who never raised his temper or his voice.

– My granddaughters will never marry any of your “dungo” (stupid) sons!!!! He left the table and the last word was said.

Personally – I feel proud and emotional at the same time. This man who took a beating his whole life. He may not have been able to stand up for himself – but no one can say he did not stand up for his granddaughters.


© Michelle Chinnappen and, 2019.
Unauthorised use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full name and clear credit is given to Michelle Chinnappen and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.



8. A Coolie at the Rubber Plantation

“By 1906, British capitalists were seizing the opportunity to make fortunes by investing in Malayan rubber plantations. In 1929, the rubber plantation companies were employing about 258.000 COOLIES on their estates. Most of these men and women – about 80 per cent – came from Southern India. Recruitment for employment in Malaya was often an alternative to starvation, both for themselves and the families they left behind.“

This is an extract from Hagan & Wells, The British and rubber in Malaya, c 1890-1940, a report available online by The University of Wollongong, Australia – Faculty of Law, Humanities and the Arts.

My grandfather – Sevathian s/o Arulapan was born in 1908, in Thanjavur India. We don’t know when he travelled from India to Klang in Malaya to work on the rubber plantation, but he left behind a young wife and a son.  He was a so called coolie – the lowest rank of workers, the ones with no voice.  A coolie, during the 19th and early 20th century, was a term for an unskilled labourer hired by a company, mainly from the Indian subcontinent or South China. Reading the report and searching the Intenet I feel disgusted thinking about their working conditions and what these people went through. What my own grandfather had to tolerate. My grandfather probably sent money home but since he was illiterate I can only imagine there was little or no communication between him and my grandmother for years.  And a letter between the countries could take months, if it was ever to actually reach its destination.

My grandmother, Arylayee Kithery, walked from her remote village for 4-5 days accompanied by two uncles for her safety. The walk ended in Madras. They had bought her a coupon. A one way ticket on the boat from Madras in India to Klang in Malaya. A boat trip that would take a month and where she was to join her husband and work on the plantation. She left behind her only son.

My father is not sure of his brother’s name. –

It was definitely a catholic name, Michelle he says. “Albert” comes to mind, but no one living actually knows. My father never met him and he must have been at least 10 years older than my father. It was normal in those days he states, to leave your child with relatives.

My father briefly remembers a letter with the news that “Albert” had passed away. By the time the letter reached us in Penang he would have been dead and buried for at least a month. My father just remembers my grandmother’s constant crying. My uncle Anthony and my father are both born at the plantation in Klang but left for Penang early 1940, when my father was 3 months old.

But can you imagine, my father says. Upon arrival in Klang your grandmother arrives only to discover that your grandfather has taken another women and has 3 children with her. Can you imagine my mother? He actually laughs out load.  You grandfather had no idea she was arriving.

The story has been told to him by his uncle. Arylayee’s brother – Manivello. We think he was her brother, but these “relations and connections” can be quite unclear in my father’s family. From what my father has been told the “other women” and her children were chased out of my grandfather’s premises. With no mercy from my grandmother and with no objections from my grandfather.

My father imitates his uncle Manivello telling him the story and we end up talking quite a bit about him too. With respect. He helped my grandmother alot. He was very loyal and fond of her. I met this man several times when I was a child, and again as a young woman. He was quite the character and very religious. The type of person that “captures a room” when he entered. To be honest – even at a very old age he was not one to mess with. When I was travelling the world myself I spent two weeks living in his house in Batu Ferrighi; Penang. We took a silent liking to eachother, as we could not speak eachother’s language. In the evening he would invite me to sit with him, share his supper and with the help of family he would tell me stories. Stories of how naughty my father was as a child, always up to mischief and how many times he had to beat sense into him. The strange thing is that it felt like he did this out of affection. Apparently I was one of the very few who experienced this closeness with him, much to the surprise of his own family, and I wish I had appreciated it more at the time.

This “other women” was a local from Klang and had relatives there, but I can only imagine her situation. Her heart break. My grandmother’s heart brake. Maybe even my grandfather’s. My grandmother claimed her right, took back her husband and took over the household. I can only imagine first her rage, then her silence, and then her getting on with her life. As they did. She never spoke of what had happened – ever!  I am amused to think that there may be a few relatives in Klang. But I stick to only being amused. That is enough for me.

After a few years your grandfather, Sevathian,  had saved enough money to send for his sister. To work and better her life compared to where she was living in India. Her name was Madelamary.

– I am told she was so fair and so beautiful, my father says. Till today my father will connect being fair with beauty. But that’s what he was taught.  The poor young girl, he continues. She stayed with us for 6 months, and one night she went missing. She was kidnapped during the night. The family searched for a whole month. A young beautiful fair skinned Indian girl would have been a target. Questions were asked and there where rumours but she was poor, Michelle. And as today a poor life has little value. Your grandfather said nothing. Your grandmother said nothing. Only after nearly a month of searching did your grandmother share her story with her brother, Manivello. How she had chased the “other women” and her children out of the house upon arriving in Klang. How she had claimed her right. Only then did the rumours fall into place and only then did the search for the young, beautiful fair skinned Indian girl stop. The rumours of “the other women” and her family’s revenge. The story was never mentioned again and no one knows how the story ended.

A few years ago my father and my Norwegian mother (Berit) travelled to Klang in Malaysia. While eating at a local restaurant a very old women came in with her family. Her eyes caught my father’s and he claims “the hair rose on his arms”. It’s kind of funny as he has little hair on his arms. The old women clearly felt the same and would not take her eyes of my father. In his discomfort he rushed out of the restaurant, leaving my mother quite clueless rushing behind. Only back at the hotel did he share his feeling. I can only imagine what my father was thinking. It’s amusing to think we may have blood relations in Klang. But we stick to being amused. That is quite enough for us all.

Conclusion from the report Hagan & Wells, The British and rubber in Malaya, c 1890-1940:
“Malayan rubber plantations were not only a source of considerable wealth for British companies and their shareholders; they provided the British Government with a strategically essential product in times of war, and in times of peace one which earned valuable overseas credits. The good health of Britain’s balance of payments depended in no small measure on exports of Malayan rubber.”


© Michelle Chinnappen and, 2019.
Unauthorised use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full name and clear credit is given to Michelle Chinnappen and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


7. My Grandmother Arylayee Kithery

Tell me more about my grandmother, I ask. My father always gets distant and has that special smile when he speaks of his mother. Arylayee Kithery, born in 1910 in a remote village called Thalanur in Tamil Nadu India. Born Catholic and a very religious women her whole life.

I vision her through the 2-3 photos we have. A small Sari dressed women, hair tightly combed back and oiled, a jewelled stud in her nose. Her checks slightly sunk due to a lack of teeth. I am told she would always chew Betel Nuts wrapped in Betel leafs, so her lips and gums would always be red. When I read about this I learn that this would be well known for its effects as a mild stimulant. My grandmother married my grandfather at the age of 13. He was 15. She gave birth to 4 children – as we know – and could not read or write. Life treated my grandmother, Arylayee Kithery hard.

– You remind me of her, my father has often said.

I know she was short – like me! I have her face in so many ways. But I don’t know who she was or what she was like. Apparently, what she lacked in height she had in temper and drive. I’ve always liked to think that was passed on in some way. My grandfather – Sevathian (the Indian version of Sebastian) whom my father always refers to as “a soft man”, barely earned money – only 60 Ringgit a month. So Arylayee was the bread winner. She would grow vegetables on the land and sell at the market, keep chicken for eggs, herd a few cows and goats for milk. She would work from morning to evening, yet never miss a Sunday mass in church even having to walk barefoot two hours to church.  She would wash houses, wash clothes, cook for parties, grind spices, rent out her plastic cups for the sale of morning toddy. This is an alcoholic beverage created from the sap of coconut palms. I have tasted this myself several times. What it lacks in taste it certainly gives back in “punch”.

Your grandmother would never drink herself. I remember, Michelle – my father says. Your grandfather once gave her toddy for Christmas, and she passed out. OMG – she was so angry when she woke up. What a sight that must have been. She would take any work which meant she could bring back leftovers for her family, as long as it was honest work. So due to her we survived.

– Your grandmother was a healer, Michelle. People came from all over to seek her help. But she could never charge for her services. She was born poor and stayed poor. I remember she would make herbal remedies and how warm her hands would be. So soothing hands. She would not utter a word or do any chanting – just sit close, use her hands and her herbs. My father claims any chanting is just for the “show”.

– Even animals would want to be around her. She was so kind – if you treated her with respect. She was poor, but proud – and she demanded respect. You would not want to cross her, Michelle. God forbid!  Bad things would happen if she cursed you!

– People would tell stories about her. How she had saved money for ages to buy more cows. Knowing this a relation asked her kindly to borrow the money as he wanted to get married. He would pay it all back after the wedding. When the time came – he refused. It was her life saving, Michelle. In his eyes she was an old small lady with no influence. During the argument over this money the young relation turned to your grandmother and said: “Over my dead body will you ever get this money”. She went silent, stood up and looked him in the eye. So be it, she said. Within 3 months the young man passed away in his sleep. It’s a story. Michelle – but it was told to have happened on more than one occasion. But she was a good women. Your grandmother was an amazing women, Michelle. Without her I would not be where I am. Without her blood in my veins, I don’t know… She was a hard women, a fearless women. So poor, so honest and so proud! A women of her principles. The more I know about my grandmother – Arylayee Kithery –  the more I wish she had lived for us to have met.

– Your grandmother would nag me day and night that I had to get married. From I was 13. I think she gave up when I turned 18. She said I was getting too old. She would sneak a picture on the table for me to look at. A girl. A prospect. I would refuse. Sometimes she would bring out the stick. I would still refuse.  And she would cry and make a big scene. She was good at that. The crying! She would cry and wail for hours on end. But looking back, I understand why. She knew I was a bread winner. Your uncle and your grandfather were not. She wanted to try to change my path. She said she could see I was going to leave. She wanted me to take over as the bread winner. Which I did. One day she told me she could see my life. I would leave Malaysia and I would not come back till after she was dead. I would come back – after she had died. I would spend my life in several countries but I would die in a cold place.

We laugh. You can’t really beat Norway for cold! In the West we have a natural way of talking about “when we die”, but in the East… although they have a rather dramatic and including way of dealing with death when it comes along, they do not talk about death with ease at all. Not the ones I know anyway. On the contrary the Asians I know would be quite disgusted if I were to discuss “one day passing away” before it actually happens. My father and I talk openly about these things. – She said so many things. Michelle.

But as I know my father – some of the stories I will hear about. Some I will not. And some I already have heard but are too painful to write about – even for me.

– Don’t be silly “amma” – I will come home! I will see you again. I said this to her when I left Malaysia in 1959. Your grandmother was full of grief, non stop crying. She said I would not see her again alive. She used those words. You will not see me again alive. I was young, but I wonder if she chose her words deliberately? But she was right. She was always right.  She died late autumn 1967.  She was 57. They think it was stomach cancer. I could not afford the ticket home for her funeral. I did not return to Malaysia till after her death, just as she had said.

My own mother, Berit – a blond blue eyed Norwegian – tells me she was pregnant with me at the time. I am born early 1968. I am told of the time of the news of my grandmother’s passing – well, it’s your mother. My father sat in silence on a chair for nearly a week, did not sleep, did not eat, did not speak. Then he stood up, said “OK”, and life went on. It’s the Chinnappen way, I think. We all have it.

Two years ago, this would be 2014, my father had been suffering with his sleep for months. Sleep disturbed by sprits on the farm, he would claim. I would role my eyes and joke about it with my father, thinking he had finally “lost it”. Personally I like to stick to facts, try never to make decisions based on emotions, and have a critical but curious eye to things we are not always able to explain. We have grown up with so many different people around, knowledgeable people with stories and experiences – so I like to keep an open mind. Even for the sake of a good conversation.

But it was becoming such an issue that we were worried about my father’s health. So the summer of 2014 a Norwegian lady whom I will call Marit  – known in the district to be able to communicate with spirits – was invited to the farm in Klekken, Norway. I suspect the timing was chosen when I was away for the summer, but I will openly admit today that the subjects that were discussed while she was at the farm are in the category of “cannot be explained”.  By her own request, I ended up meeting her myself later that year. It was a very personal conversation.

Marit turned to my father and said calmly…
– Your mother is here. I know, my father said. I can feel her sometimes.

Marit is silent for a while and remarks that my grandmother is the only person who can help my father. He says nothing. Marit has just sent several spirits on their way, and after her visit to the farm my father has no longer issues of being disturbed in his sleep, or his tools being “misplaced”.

Marit asks my father – Do you want me to send her on her way? My father asks – What does she want? No, she wants to stay, Marit replies. She wants to follow you to your grave…if you let her. My father is silent for a while and nods. So be it – he says!


© Michelle Chinnappen and, 2019.
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6. Japanese Occupation of Malaysia – World War II

People say you don’t remember everything as a child, but some things you can’t forget. And I have not forgotten. I can re-live it in my mind. They made us stand and watch. I was only 3-4 years old, and we were all forced to watch.  Men first, then the children and last all the women – those who did not escape into the jungle.  They made them dig their own graves, made them kneel down and one by one they chopped their heads off with a long sable. One man stood behind and kicked them into their graves as they worked along. I remember the ritual, the movements, the uniforms, the sounds, the smell…. friends, neighbours…

My father is telling the story to Sophie, my (at the time) 14 year old daughter. She is a little shaken and fascinated by this knowledge. They learn about WWII at school, but mostly about Europe. It’s strange to think my father experienced war as a child, the other side of the world, which we learn so little about. It’s strange to imagine that in the same time period my Norwegian grandfather (Harald Olav Iversen) is active in the Norwegian resistance, was captured but managed to escape from the prisoner convoy on the route to Germany. That my Norwegian father in law (Leo Karlsen), also in the resistance, was imprisoned first at Grini prison camp and later shipped to a German concentration camp till the war ended and was able to return to Norway. Both men deeply affected by their war experiences.

My father was born in Klang, mainland Malaysia in 1939. War tension already existed and due to this his family moved to Penang, my father only 3 months old. They hoped the war would not reach the island. Malaysia (Malaya) had been a colony since 1511, first occupied by the Portuguese, then the Dutch and later the British till liberation in 1957. The Japanese invasion actually ended British domination.

We lived in a small village in Gelugor in Penang, my father explains. We were one of the few Indian families in the village, the majority were Chinese. It was a great place. We had land, grew vegetables my mother sold at the market. Kept chickens and goats. Your grandfather worked as a gardener at the English Military Camp at the top of the hill. Today it’s the Penang University. Life was good and the family was prospering! The Japanese invasion was a swift one. They came through the jungle and occupied Malaysia fast. The British in Penang were imprisoned and held capture in their own former camp. Your grandfather was forced to keep on working there. He had to. He would later tell horrific stories of the conditions in the camp. The British soldiers suffered really bad… really bad. You know British soldiers built the Bridge over the river Kwai, Michelle?

I know. I have seen the film with my father many times. One of the producers, Micheal Stanley Evens, was a close friend of my parents. He was also one of the producers of the famous film “Gandhi”. Till today this is one of my favourite films. Michael met my father when my father worked as a car mechanic in London. He was one of my father’s clients and he stayed close friends with my parents till Micheal died. Micheal’s story is also a facinating story and I had the pleasure of visiting him several times in his residence in Mallorca.

– Your grandfather was held prisoner himself for 3 months too – they thought he knew were more Chinese were hiding. It’s so strange Michelle – they did not kill the Indians. We were spared. I don’t know why? They killed all the Chinese in our village, made us watch and left us alive. They slaughtered the Chinese population! Maybe they thought them to be a bigger threat? Just read your history, Michelle – they were brutal. War is brutal.

I google this when I come home and I read about the “Asian Holocoust”. Depending on the source it’s estimated that between 4 and 6 million were killed. I did not learn about this at school.

You know, they did not even take Indian women as “comfort  women”. That’s what they called them my father continues. The women held against their will at the camp. Your grandfather said the Japanese soldiers did not like black or dark women.  Till today these “comfort women” fight for an apology, Michelle.

I google this too…only to learn that till today the Japanese Government deny this ever happened. I don’t write this to spread hatred! Not in these days of turbulance. I write this to spread knowledge!

Then the Japanese bombed Pearl Habour.  Their biggest mistake. Maybe Malaysia would have been Japanese today if they had not bombed Pearl Habour? Who knows? They let your grandfather go after 3 months, unharmed. And we went about our lives. That’s how I remember it. Had your grandfather lived I am sure it would be a different story. But my friends were gone. That I do remember.

(Photo: Lt General Sakai, the Japanese Commander-in-Chief, and Vice Admiral Niimi entering Hong Kong with their troops after the British forces had retreated – Source Google Photo)


© Michelle Chinnappen and, 2019.
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4. Toronto Kid

– Three times I’ve seen “Stars”. Punched so hard I had to go down. Little lights flicker in your head. First time was Felix. One of my best friends. He was the only one who could beat me! Broke my nose twice! Felix Kid! Great friend! He never lost a fight, except against the World Champion in his weight. I had to spar against Felix and he was brutal!!! But it made me a steady fighter, like him.

As I have not heard the expression “steady fighter” before my father explains.

– A steady fighter will take a hell of a beating, Michelle and just wear you down. He will just take it, keep coming and just wait…. And then…when there is an opening… I would have such a hard punch that when I got you, well then it would be over! You would go max 6-8 rounds with me. I was known for this. 

I started street fighting at the age of 12 but got discovered by promoters. The money was better. We used to train at a broken down shed, in a self made ring, dirty earth floors and old bosing bags hanging from the roof. But it produced lots good fighters. Then later I trained at the Penang Boxing Club, as a member of YMCA – Young Men’s Catholic Association.  Trained by English Soldiers from the nearest base. Amateur boxing!

– I started making a name for myself. As Toronto Kid. Apparently I had a boxing style like this white Italian boxer in America with that same name. They said he was half fighter, half boxer – like me. So I became Toronto Kid in Malaysia. I refused to use the name at first, but they said no one would want to come and see someone called Chinnappen fight. It would not look good on the posters and wouldn’t attract the “Masali” – what we called the Europeans. So we had names like Felix Kid, Silver Star, Luis Logan. Luis Logan was a great fighter too and popular because he was fair skinned. He would go down, but always get up. Again and again. Don’t forget, Michelle we were a British Colony, and a fair skinned boxer would attract a lot of “Malasi”. The bigger the crowd, the better the money! So I continued boxing as Toronto Kid.

My British trainer was a real womaniser – preferred the Malay girls. Nice guy, but kept getting distracted…by women. The stories I could tell…. But after a while I started to beat him in the ring. He was a grown man, well built and I was only approaching the age of 16. That’s when he advised me to move on and try professional boxing. A lot more money to be earned and amateur boxing was not that much better paid than street fighting. Just better conditions. Promoters came to see me fight, and before I knew it I was signed to the Kedah Club for professional boxing. Most of the good boxers came from the Kedah Club. It was not recognised as International professional boxing but professional boxing in Malaysia. Sounded good enough to us. 

– But I was only 16 and you had to be 18 to fight professionally so I was taken to a socalled “half past 6” doctor. That’s what we called these doctors. They would sign anything for money even if they were respected doctors in Penang Street. Suddenly I had a certificate stating I was fit for professional boxing and ready to fight. No more questions asked. Boxing was so “crucked”, Michelle. I said nothing. I just wanted to fight. Boxing is business!

– I boxed all over Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and became Feather Weight Champion in my district. 2 years of professional boxing. All my gear was paid for. My colours were green with white stripes. Always green!

My father has never told me this and I find this a bit amusing for a totally different reason than anything to do with this story.

– Michelle, I was never hungry any more. I always had food. My parents had food! Life improved a lot. I could stay at school. I learned to wear shoes more often, had better clothes. I was respected by the public. Had a name for myself. Boxing created a lot of good things but also a lot of enemies.

I know there is a story in there somewhere. Maybe he will tell me one day?

– But boxing and fighting, it was always from a business perspective Michelle. Boxing came to me. I started it for survival. Then to do better in life. Once I earned 100 Malaysian dollars for ONE game – 100 Ringgit!!! I gave 60 to my mother and she nearly fell of the roof. It was more than your grandfather earned a whole month. Her face… Omg! She got out the stick again. My father laughs.

– She was so angry!  The rest I used for a pair of hand made leather boxing shoes.

For the first time my father shows me the shoes he has kept all these years as a reminder. My daughter Sophie takes a photo of them and she treats the shoes with such respect I feel touched.

– I often wonder what I would have been like if I was born in better conditions. I have had to fight all my life. It makes you more aggressive. And with my temper… But on the other hand my temper was my driving force. Without it I would not be where I am today. I would not be here.

I think my father is right. He stands in his garden on a farm in Norway, his haven! With the old shoes in his hand and I think… Once a fighter, always a fighter! It’s what has made him who he is! He has accomplished more than most people I know. The Malaysian Toronto Kid – half fighter, half boxer! My father!


© Michelle Chinnappen and, 2019.
Unauthorised use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full name and clear credit is given to Michelle Chinnappen and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

5. A White Brother

One of the few times I have seen my father on the verge of tears was when Elvis passed away (1977). I grew up with Elvis music in the house alongside Jonny Cash, James Brown, Boy Marley. When Elvis died I did not quite understand why it was such a big deal. Today I do. We’ve lost Jackson, Bowie, Prince, George Michael. It’s not the artist themselves, it’s the memories they represent.

Music and films reached Penang just as fast as Europe and my uncle Anthony was in a band. A huge fan of Elvis, Pat Bone, Ricky Nelson… He was aparently an excellent singer, a charmer, a guitarist. And in the early 50’s he won a prestigious talent show in Penang. Rock and roll!! Nonsense in the eyes of the adults – as most adults anywhere else in the world thought. But more eye catching was the fact that my uncle was WHITE! Evn though he had the same parents as my father.

When my own son, Mr Handsome as I refer to him as, was born he came to this world with golden skin. When my daughter, my Tuttifrutti, was born the first thing I said was – A white baby? Dark eyes, dark hair, fair white skin. The adults in her kindergarten used to call her Snow White. I can only imagine the shock my grandmother must have got giving birth to a white baby. An ALBINO.

I remember my uncle, but not well. Mostly what my father has told me. But I remember him kind, handsome, well mannered, soft spoken. Always smiling. I was told he had a mild character, not the wild streak like my father. I remember the lovely letters he would write to us. They would be read out load at the dinner table. He would always start every letter by saying “I received your letter and noted the contents…” His written English was perfect. My father still has all his letters.

When the British were preparing to leave Malaysia my grandparents were accused of having stolen and raised an English child. This young white handsome singer with a love for Elvis must surely be of another world and “they” wanted to trace his real parents and bring him back to England. It ended up in court. The year was 1954. My two illiterate Indian grandparents must have felt helpless against the English courts. Only did it end when they were able to trace the old midwife who clearly recalled this child, having only ever delivered one white – albino baby her whole life. I must admit I wonder if his life would not have been better if they had taken him to England. My father begged uncle to come with him when he left Malaysia. But he refused. He said he did not have the courage.

Sadly my uncle died of skin cancer. Unprotected skin in the hot sun all his life. At the time there was no knowledge that the sun was his enemy and this is before the days of sun screen lotion. When my uncle was dying my father left for Malaysia and stayed in Penang for a month. Making up for all the years apart. Or tried to. It was in 1987 and the end of my year of graduation at high school. The strange thing is that I was having one of the best times of my life. My father would never have allowed me to attend all the parties I went to if he had been at home. My father was only back in Norway a few days when we received the call. He spoke in his own language and it is till today the only time I have ever seen my father in tears. I did not know what to do. I just placed my hand on his shoulder.

My uncle’s story is not mine to tell. It belongs to his children. But I wish he was here today. The stories he would have. The conversations we would have enjoyed! I would have liked to have known him.

In loving memory of uncle Anthony Michael Mutu (1937- 1987) 


© Michelle Chinnappen and, 2019.
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