Monday, May 28, 2007

Han Suyin, a lady doctor in Johor Bahru, Malaysia

Some information about Han Suyin by Dr. Wong Yin Onn, Johor Bahru;

THE greatest literary success in novelist Han Suyin's career is A Many Splendoured Thing, a book that was made into a film titled Love Is A Many Splendored Thing, starring Jennifer Jones and William Holden . This 1955 classic won four Academy awards for Best Picture, Best Song, Best Score and Best Costume. You may even know the lyrics to the song by the same name, sung by Nat King Cole.

She was born Elisabeth Chow Kuanghu (Zhou Guang-Hu) in 1917 in Henan, China, to Zhou Yuan Dong and Marguerite Denis, her Flemish-Belgian mother.

In 1933 she was admitted to Yanjing (Yenching) University (later part of Peking University). In 1935 she went to Brussels to study science. In 1938 she returned to China, working in an American Christian mission hospital in Chengdu, Sichuan, then went again to London in 1944 to study medicine, graduated MBBS in 1948 and went to Hong Kong to practice medicine in 1949 at the Queen Mary Hospital. Her husband, Tang, meanwhile, had died in action during the Chinese Civil War in 1947.

In the novel, Han described Hong Kong of 1949 and 1950 and how thousands of refugees escaping from the Communists swelled the population each week. She made the filth, despair, poverty and vice come tragically alive but all these were the backdrop for a passionate love affair. A Many-Splendoured Thing is frankly autobiographical. The novel described the love affair between the author and Ian Morrison, an Australian correspondent for The London Times. All Hong Kong knew about the love affair. They were inseparable, walking the streets of the city and the hills of the island at all hours, meeting openly at his hotel. They made no effort to keep the affair quiet. She was a well-known doctor, a Eurasian widow with a small daughter. He had a wife and children. The affair lasted several months and was suddenly interrupted by Morrison's front line death in Korea, when reporting on the Korean War. After his death, Han poured her grief into writing A Many Splendoured Thing and it seemed to bring a closure for her.

In 1952, she married Leon F. Comber, a British officer in the Malayan Special Branch, and went with him to Johore, where she worked in the Johore Bahru General Hospital, and later opened a clinic in Johore Bharu and Upper Pickering Street, Singapore.

In 1955, Han Suyin contributed efforts to the establishment of Nanyang University in Singapore. Specifically, she offered her services and served as physician to the institution, after having refused an offer to teach literature. Chinese writer Lin Yutang, first president of the university, had recruited her for the latter field, but she declined, indicating her desire "to make a new Asian literature, not teach Dickens".

She spent at least 10 years in Johor Baru, later working in an anti-tuberculosis clinic located above Universal Pharmacy, at 24 Jalan Ibrahim!Long before Guardian, Apex or Pharmacare existed, Universal Pharmacy was where JB folk went for pharmaceutical needs as it was well stocked with a wide range of imported merchandise on the ground floor. A broad wooden staircase led to the clinic upstairs where patients consulted Dr Elisabeth. Conversant in Hakka, Mandarin, Cantonese, Malay, French and English, she is well remembered by older generation Johoreans. She now lives in Lausanne, Switzerland, and maintains her name as Dr Elisabeth C.K. Comber.The building that Universal occupied has been demolished and is now a vacant lot opposite Johor Central Store. So the next time you pass Johor Baru's busy Jalan Ibrahim, check out that space next to the motorcycle service shop and picture what used to be Universal Pharmacy and the clinic upstairs where Dr Comber, GP, once worked.

Here are additional personal information by Dr. Tan Chow Wei of The People’s Dispensary, Johor Bahru.

Here are some of the less known facts about the great Han Suyin, even missed by the NST reporter (because he missed interviewing an expert in JB history):

She practised medicine in JB in the 50s where she opened her first clinic near the old Cathay cinema (where Johoreans go to savour the famous beef noodle). The clinic was known as Chow Dispensary (In those days, clinics or surgeries were known as dispensaries, the word polyclinic was not even born. So when you see a clinic such as The People's Dispensary, you instantly know that it is a "grandfather clinic"!). Han Suyin was then affectionally called "Dr.Chow". She later relocated her clinic to the up-stair of the 2-storey shop house above the Universal Pharmacy, still retaining the name "Chow Dispensary". It is just a stone's throw away from the oldest clinic in JB, The People's Dispensary, where Dr.Tan Chow Wei (who is also a Hakka) is proud to be associated with. She used to visit Dr.Yeoh Hon Shu, the founder of The People's Dispensary and more than 20 years her senior, (who incidentally, was the first GP in JB to have a post-graduate degree, MRGP.) By the way, next to The People's Dispensary, where the Chinese Association was (Now being converted to museum of Chinese history in JB), was the birth-place of Robert Kuok, the richest man in Malaysia.

Han Suyin's husband then, Leon Comber was a Malayan Special Branch Officer during the 1948 to 1960 'Emergency' period. (After many years in book publishing he is now a research associate at the Monash Asia Institute of Monash University in Melbourne, Australia).

“Han Suyin” is a pseudonym. What does it stand for? According to her daughter, Tang Yungmei, Han Suyin stands for “the clear voice of the Han people.” There has been some debate about the origin of Hakka people whether they belong to "Han" people or a minority from "Xiongnu". From most of the evidence gathered, it can be concluded that Hakkas are likely Han people rather than a derivative from the Xiongnu.
Han Suyin’s conclusion is:

"The word Hakka does not denote a racial group, for the Hakkas are Han People, Chinese People. It was a word applied to all displaced peasants, and only after the tenth century came to design a special group. Moving en masse these refugees from misery were 'people who sought a roof, hence called Guest People' which was more courteous than calling them displaced persons or refugees...”

"The Hakkas say they are the true people of Han, and that they have escaped degenerate habits brought by foreign rule. They are proud of their singularity” As the Guest People, especially among the overseas Chinese, where their clans are prosperous and strong.”

So we can see that Hakka people are the Han people, not belonging to a minority. That is one main reason why Han Suyin chose “Han” as her surname.

She used to say: "I am a Hakka, my roots are in China.”

In December 2001, Tang Yungmei visited her mother Han Suyin. Later Tang Yungmei told me " Even at the age of 86, my mother knows clearly what has happened to China and what is happening."

Her other name Chow Kuanghu (Zhou Guanghu), "Chow" of course is her family name. "Kuang" is her generation name, which was a typical traditional Chinese custom that all the brothers, sisters and cousins in a family must take a same character in their given names.

Han Suyin's passport name is Dr. Elisabeth C.K. Comber. And it is also written on the door of her apartment in Switzerland. "Comber” is the family name of her English second husband, she apparently preserved. "C.K." holds for her Chinese name Chow Kuanghu. She puts her English name and Chinese name together with a tendency to show that she is a Eurasian.

Han Suyin is a very productive and prominent contemporary novelist. Most of her writing is in English some is in French and Chinese. Her works mainly fall into four categories: autobiography and fictions biography and sociological essays.

Han Suyin has long been based in Lausanne, Switzerland. She said then that she owned neither a television nor a radio but that she read five newspapers per day. At various times, she has maintained homes in Beijing and New York. She remains WHO consultant on China Affairs.


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Anonymous Gregory said...

Thanks for the interesting comments. My understanding was that the Hong Kong affair was a big shock to Mr. Morrison's family. I would be interesting to see if you read her books set in Malaysia and your comments. I have added a link to your blog at
Thanks for the interesting information.

11:58 PM  
Blogger Alex Tang said...

Hi gregory,

Thanks for your interest in this post. I am embarrassed to admit I have not read all her works except for A Many-Splendoured Thing (1952)and China in the Year 2001 (1967).

Perhaps you will let me know which of her books about Malaysia you are referring to.

Below are some of her works,

Destination Chungking (1942)
The Mountain Is Young (1958)
Winter Love (1962)
Cast But One Shadow (1962)
Four Faces (1963)
L'abbé Pierre (1965, French only)
L'abbé Prévost (1975, French only)
Till Morning Comes (1982)
The Enchantress (1985)

Autobiographical works
A Many-Splendoured Thing (1952)
And the Rain My Drink (1956)
The Crippled Tree (1965)
A Mortal Flower (1966)
Birdless Summer (1968)
My House Has Two Doors (1980)
Phoenix Harvest (1982)
Wind In My Sleeve (1992)
A Share of Loving (1988)
Fleur de soleil, histoire de ma vie (1988, French only: Flower of sun: the story of my life)

Historical studies
China in the Year 2001 (1967)
Asia Today: Two Outlooks (1969)
The Morning Deluge: Mao Tsetong and the Chinese Revolution 1893-1954 (1972)
Lhasa, the Open City (1976)
Wind in the Tower: Mao Tsetong and the Chinese Revolution, 1949-1965 (1976)
China 1890-1938: From the Warlords to World War (1989; historical photo-reportage)
Eldest Son: Zhou Enlai and the Making of Modern China (1994)

11:31 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you very much of the interesting info of the Writer of the "A many-splendoured thing".

The great Bright Light of Love emerges so lively and truly to the heart from the magic lines of the book.

Jukka K., Finland

9:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Gregory and Alex,
Han Su Yin's book on Malaya is "...And the rain my drink."

Leong Wai Hong

9:57 AM  
Blogger Alex Tang said...

hi Wai Hong,

welcome and thank you for the information.

11:15 AM  
Blogger Bee said...

I am deeply moved after reading Han Suyin's first 2 autobiographies (am now in the 3rd book). The movie "Love is a Many-Splendored Thing" is also one of my favorites. Can you tell me where I can write her? Thanks.


1:01 PM  
Blogger Alex Tang said...

Hi Bee,

Welcome. I am sorry but I do not know how to contact her.

12:07 PM  
Anonymous Chapman said...

I enjoyed reading your article. When my family lived in Johore Bahru in the mid 1950s Han Suyin was our neighbour. My father was in the Australian Army. It wasn't until I was older that my parents told me how a Hollywood movie was based on Han Suyin's novel. I can clearly remember Han Suyin coming to my brother's aid when he had an nasty accident on his new bike in our joint driveway. Unfortunately,
this resulted in osteomyelitis, a form of polio. Han Suyin is an
intriguing woman. Reading about her life brought back a lot of memories of the happy time I spent in Johore as a child. I am part Eurasian and am happy to say Alex
that I am a born again Christian. God's blessings.
Rhonda Chapman Australia 2/3/2009

8:05 PM  
Blogger Alex Tang said...

Hi Rhonda,
So good to hear from you. Thanks for sharing your memories of Su Yin and of Johore. It is so good to connect people to the past and to the present.

12:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Alex Teng.
I am CP Tan, I am involving with the planning of the JB Chinese Heritage Museum (3rd Oct). we also like to promote Jalan Tan Hiok Nee as a History and Cultural walk. I have just written an article about Mdm Han SuYin and JB for the Chinese Press in Singapore. Hope to discuss with you and any other people who can tell more about Han Suyin . my email is : cptan89@myjaring .net

5:34 PM  
Anonymous Brian said...

I recommend Colonel Peter Stock's excellent book "Destiny Malaya" which accurately portrays a balanced account of the Malayan Emergency in the 1950's. I was there at the time, when we successfully overcame the horrors of the Communist insurgency.
Brian Latham

6:20 AM  
Blogger Alex Tang said...

Hi Brian,

What tales you have to tell. Yes, I shall look for a copy of Colonel Peter Stock's book. Sounds interesting.

8:25 AM  
Blogger Gerry Heng said...

Dr.Han Suyin is really from 1949 to the current Epoch an Unofficial Ambassador of China to the World !
Her Writings defined her so well and for the Chinese People Everywhere she represents the Chinese Soul at that Critical Moment of an Awaken China that Emperor Napoleon of France warned about!An Eurasian brought up in her formatative years in China is a Chinese heart and soul ! Kublai Khan you lost you are still a Mongol to the Chinese Han People !

Vive la Joie De Vivre Han Suyin !

Gerald C W Heng Sr. Esq
Greater Boston,MA,USA

11:42 PM  
Anonymous siva prasanna said...

I grew up in Johore Bahru and as a child i had some skin problem on my feet. My doctor was Han Suyin / Dr Elizabeth Comber.

My parents who had come from India moved out of Jalan Dhoby and rented a room along a road not far from Jalan Lumba Kuda Lama. As a young child i would sit on the floor, put my feet out of the tall window of the shophouse and wait for the lady in a cheongsam, a caucasian man and a german shepherd to walk past. i recall her carrying a walking stick. i would call out to my mum that my doctor was going for a walk. we were the one of very few indian families in an otherwise chinese environment. the ground floor was a kind of Chinese temple and round the corner was the Public School.

I remember the People's Dispensary. Dr Yeoh was our family doctor. His daughters were in the Convent. Mrs Teo was my teacher. His niece was my lovely teacher, Ms Magdalene Yeoh and her sister Rosalind was my classmate.

The ee hng cold storage selling the best ice kachang in town.

it was so good to read this article. my contribution to my old hometown - i am one of the writers of the Form Four English Textbook currently in use in government schools.

siva prasanna

12:18 AM  
Blogger Gerry Heng said...

IN this critical age of the post British and Western Imperialism,with an Arisen China, Dr.Han Suyin novels and autobiographical insights into the Hearts,Souls and Minds of Chinese People are unique indeed and she wrote in the English that has global universal appeal.Our post World War II generations of the East Asian Diaspora in South East Asia and Hong Kong are really poignantly affected and touched by her everlasting love for her Chinese People,she has indeed bridged the Gap between what Rudyard Kipling used to say "De East is East and de West is West and neither the twain shall meet ever ! In herself and her works she has proved Rudyard Kipling wrong indeed !Now China is shop-keepers and money lenders to USA the greatest economic and military power on earth !Bravo she probably saw it coming !

GCW Heng Sr.Boston,MA,USA.

12:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

How I long to meet Dr Han Suyin but never know if I will ever have the opportunity!

6:54 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dr.Han Suyin age 93 is not in the best of health she lives in Lausanne,Switzerland and has her name on her Apartment Dr.Elizabeh CK Comber MD or MBBS C-K is her Chinese Given name "Chou Kuan-Hu" Miss Bright Lake Chou !About 30 years ago she was still doing Book Tours and Signing in London, UK.Charing Cross X Bookstore on Leicester Square was one of her venues!

GCW Heng

9:38 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

For those who want to hear or meet Dr.Han Suyin here's the latest entry of her address and phone from her friend Professor Dr.Teresa Kowalska of Poland___

Dr.Han Suyin aka Dr.Elizabeth CK Comber MBBS, 37 Avenue Montoie,1007 Lansanne,Switzerland.
011-41-21-616-4980 she is about 93 years old !Has no internet Email or Tv reads 5 newspapers daily !
Gerald Heng Sr.

3:18 PM  
Blogger usha said...

Oh, I am so happy that by sheer accident, I was able to locate this article on Dr Han Suyin (I know her only from her books recommended to me by my loving father).
Her autobiographies should be re-marketed as she put in a lot of effort and took risks in those days of Communist China to enlighten the world on what was happening in China. I would recommend the Crippled Tree, etc, as excellent reading material.
Always her admirer and fan.

12:52 AM  
Blogger usha said...

Grateful for all the information on "Dr Han Suyin" as I fondly remember her from her books on life in China in the days of communism and the risks she took to investigate and write her books, The Crippled Tree, Birdless Summer and Mortal Flower. Read them all, thanks to my father who was an avid fan of hers. Pity we never knew she lived in Johor Bahru, which incidentally is my birth place. Loved her Love is a Many Splendoured Thing, The Mountain is Young and the Rain My Drink.
Thanks to all of you, loyal fans of Dr Comber.

12:56 AM  
Blogger Gerald said...

Indeed its true,Dr.Han Suyin wrote her self-analaysis autobiographical Novels what in North America is called Documentary History, in her way that's not politically correct during the post Communist Revolution Epoch of 1949,gaining some years of Exclusion from entry into the USA whose China Lobby and backers were for the KMT Generalisimo Chiang Kai-Ah Shek and Madam Chiang Soong Mei-Ling the acknowledged Empress in Exile of China ! Dr.Han Suyin is an acknowledged un=official Ambassador for China PRC[not ROC in Taiwan] Today she deserves the Hosanna of Old Blue Eyes Frank Sinatra's Song Sing Along " My Way " it sums up Chinese Hakka Moy Han Suyin's Life and Times!

Gerald Heng

10:54 PM  
Anonymous Jerry Neoh said...

As a Malaysian Chinese studying in the UK in 1966, it was quite an exciting revelation to be able to read Chinese history in English.

Suyin's autobiographical trilogy, where she cleverly intertwined China's history with her unique family's (especially her parents') involvement with China's railway at the turn of the 20th Century, was a masterpiece. I can always remember Bertrand Russell commenting that he knows more about China and her people by reading Han's books than all the time he'd spent in China. He was spot on.

I have read her trilogy (The Crippled Tree, A Birdless Summer and A Mortal Flower) several times over when I was a student and I can thoroughly recommend them to anyone interested in modern Chinese history. Like Usha's (one of your readers) dad, I was and still am, a huge fan.

The biggest regret was that in 1970ish, one of the major studios in London wanted to film "Destination Chungking" but somehow it never got off the ground. Pity cause some of us had already signed on as extras.

2:51 AM  
Blogger Alex Tang said...

Hi Jerry,

I agree with your comments about Suyin.

What a waste that "Destination Chungking" was not filmed.

10:40 AM  
Anonymous Kathrine Kan said...

I'm Kathrine born late 60s' .
I came to know abount Madamme Han's books in year 2003 and I fell in love with her books .
I have all her books collected from E-bay and hope to have more updates of her current health as she is nearing 95.

4:43 PM  
Blogger Thai Girl said...

It is surprising that there is no biography of Han Suyin. Hers is an extraordinary life, in many ways a difficult and tormented personality bit I think she found peace in her medical work. As a self-appointed intermediary between China and the West, her achievements are unique. I have read most of her books and as historian,commentator and story teller she is a very fine writer. Yet she is in danger of being overlooked as a new generation of writers on China emerges. I hope we may see a biography soon.

How is her health now, a few years after this blog was first posted?

About a year ago I had an email exchange with her second husband, Leon Comber, who I knew in Hong Kong and he was on excellent form but I haven't heard since then.

I was asking him about a book that he published for Heinemann by Jack Reynolds whose biography I am currently writing and his recall was remarkable.

Andrew Hicks

4:29 AM  
Blogger Alex Tang said...

Hi Andrews,

No, I am not aware of any definitive biography of this remarkable lady. The nearest are her autobiographical works The Crippled Tree (1965);A Mortal Flower (1966);Birdless Summer (1968); and My House Has Two Doors (1980).

Maybe you should consider writing one on her :)

1:11 PM  
Anonymous Hiko said...

I understand that Han practised at a Upper Pickering clinic (was it The Key Clinic ?) in the early 1950s in Singapore in one of the shop house of the then first high rise (9 storey high)built by the Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT),the predecessor of Housing & Development Board(HDB). Can anyone enlighten me whether she had worked there full-time or part-time and for what period.

1:07 PM  
Blogger N K said...

Dear Alex,

I am writing something about doctors in Kreta Ayer area (so called Chinatown)in Singapore and am glad to find useful references in your blog. Many thanks

Best wishes.

Dr Ho NK (KKH)

4:33 PM  
Blogger Alex Tang said...

Hi Nai Keong,

So good to hear from you. Looking forward to reading your finished written work on doctors in Kreta Ayer, Singapore.

12:01 AM  
Blogger ian ng said...

Hi Alex

A bit late reading it, but thank you for a most informative posting on Han Suyin. I have enjoyed her books for a long time.

Other than '...and the Rain My Drink' her autobiographical series on China does have some sketches of life in Malaya (and Singapore) in the days she was there.

More than feeding my mind, she made me feel for China, and for that I owe her great gratitude.

I am glad to know that you a a Christian doctor.


4:57 PM  
Anonymous Arztstuhl said...

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7:02 PM  

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