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Seeing red over white supremacy

Millennium markers - British colony

Since this picture of the still-growing Lake Gardens was taken at the turn of the century, the area has grown into a lush green space that affords city folk much-needed relief mainly thanks to Alfred Venning, Selangor State Treasurer in the 1880s.

The Selangor Club, Kuala Lumpur, in 1890 though it had built swank new premises (foothill, left), colonial top brass decided they no longer wanted to rub shoulders with their juniors there and set about founding the even more elitist Lake Club.

A local paper reporting on the resignation of the Lake Club's president and committee after a London paper had reported that Asians were barred from the club.

A social club figures in this week's instalment of Millennium Markers. MUZAFFAR TATE explains how Kuala Lumpur's Lake Club came to symbolise colonial supremacy and, later, its demise.

ONE Saturday evening in Kuala Lumpur, on Aug 16, 1890, 28 expatriates gathered in a simple half-completed, thatched brick building to mark the inauguration of the Lake Club.

The club took its name from its setting in the Lake Gardens, opened just 15 months before, with its artificial lake formed by damming Sungai Damansara.

The founder members were all drawn from the top drawer of colonial society. Half of them were senior colonial officials and the rest, successful businessmen, coffee planters, and contractors. They were all of British extraction (i.e including two Australians) except for one lonely German (Herr Muhlinghaus, the co-founder of Straits Trading).

The man behind the opening of both the Lake Gardens and the Lake Club was Alfred Venning. Venning had arrived in Kuala Lumpur in the early 1880s, a refugee from the diseased coffee bushes of Sri Lanka. His skill as a cricketer (he was even better at the billiard table!) caught the eye of the Federated Malay States' British Resident, Frank Swettenham, who made him Selangor State Treasurer.

Malaysians today who appreciate the green lung the Lake Gardens provide in the heart of the city have much to thank Venning for. His vision was to create a botanical garden which could vie with Penang's and the more prestigious Botanical Gardens in Singapore then where H.M. Ridley was perfecting the techniques of rubber tapping.

In the event, the Lake Gardens never made their mark as a centre for botanical research because other places in Selangor such as Batu Tiga (1910), Perang Besar Estate, now the site of Putra Jaya, and Serdang (both in 1921) took pride of place. However, it should be placed on record that some of the first oil palms to have taken root in the peninsula on an experimental basis were planted in the Lake Gardens.

Nor, for that matter, was Venning's Lake Gardens a great success at first as a place of recreation for the general public of Kuala Lumpur. The Malay Mail commented in the 1890s that the Gardens seemed almost always deserted the great deterrent being the presence of the Lake Club, that preserve of the white colonial elite, in its midst. Only towards the end of that decade, with the institution of regular band performances playing tunes specifically approved by the British Resident himself, did the ordinary townsfolk of Kuala Lumpur overcome their shyness.

As for the Lake Club, the reaction of Kuala Lumpur's inhabitants to its presence was a clear reflection of the colonial order of things. In their eyes the club was a symbol of the supremacy and exclusivity of the white man and colonial rule. For them, it was a place which non-whites could not enter: this was not a rule put down in writing, but it existed all the same. The only Asians allowed inside were cooks, servants (called ``boys'' no matter what their age) and amahs. This ``colour bar'' was to endure for the first six decades of the club's existence.

From the British point of view, however, there was nothing wrong with the concept of the club as a private institution, a place where they could let their hair down at the end of the day, free from the prying attention of those over whom they ruled. Clubs are a very British institution, to be found everywhere a handful of British expatriates form a community though not so very different (even in exclusivity) from similar kinds of associations formed by people of other races.

Nevertheless, one might wonder why there was a need for another white man's club in Kuala Lumpur, a town whose population did not exceed some 20,000 in 1890 and of whom white men barely numbered 100 when the Selangor Club was already established as their chief watering place.

The answer to this lay in those 28 pioneer members who, in the words of the time's British Resident Selangor William Maxwell, ``constituted the principal residents'' of the town. It was a mark of the coming of age of Kuala Lumpur that its colonial top brass had decided that they no longer should have to rub shoulders with their juniors at the ``Spotted Dog'' (i.e the Selangor Club as it was called then). They wanted to be alone.

Not surprisingly, therefore, the Lake Club quickly became known as the most aristocratic club in the peninsula, where ``one saw the rank, beauty and fashion of Kuala Lumpur'' and to which ``it was very difficult indeed to get in'' as a member.

This still held true a generation later. As one expatriate who himself was destined to become a leading corporate figure after World War II put it in the 30s when he was a junior in the commercial hierarchy: ``We would no more have dreamed of putting our names up for the Lake Club than flying.''

Women could not become members, but they could be guests of the club. As we have seen, Asians were not allowed in under any circumstances except as menials.

This state of affairs lasted until the 50s, except for the period of the Japanese Occupation of the peninsula when the club was converted into a military vehicle repair workshop.

By the 50s, what had been accepted as the norm before 1941 had become a glaring anachronism. The winds of change were blowing hard. The post-war generation of Malaysians was restless for change. The existence of an exclusive white man's club, in one of the choicest venues in the federal capital, which barred ordinary citizens of the country from admittance through its doors smacked of pure racism and represented a standing insult.

Matters came to a head in mid-1952. A London paper reported that the Sultan of Selangor had been denied attendance at a club function because he was an Asian. The report was flashed to Kuala Lumpur and provoked an instant uproar.

Whether the facts reported were garbled or not, the essential issue was clear. The (unspoken) colour bar existed and should be removed. The then club president, one of the most prominent expatriate businessmen in town, tendered some ingenious excuses; Umno wanted to march on the club and burn it down (only Tunku Abdul Rahman's intervention prevented that); High Commissioner Sir Gerald Templer, trying his best to win local hearts and minds, was not amused.

The club backed down. The president and his committee resigned, and it was immediately agreed by their successors that Asians could in future be guests of the club.

It took another six years before the first Asian was actually admitted as a club member, largely because not many Malaysians at the time were interested in joining a white man's preserve.

However, the hope expressed by Dr Tan Chee Koon, speaking for the Opposition in the Selangor State Assembly in 1964, that the state would take over and convert the club into a people's place ``where Pepsi Cola can be obtained'' never came to pass.

Instead, the Lake Club has carried on, maintaining its exclusivity, its membership still consisting of the rich and the famous, but wearing a completely Malaysian complexion. And no one any longer is ever barred entry to the club because of the colour of his skin.

The Lake Club serves as a double millennium marker. Its inauguration in 1890 symbolised the reality of British colonial supremacy, socially and psychologically. And the crisis of mid-1952 symbolised the demise of that reality.

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