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Location: Stäfa, ZH, Switzerland

I am married and have 2 daughters Alise (2001) and Laeticia (2004). I share my life between family life and my passion, software engineering. My technical website:

11 August 2006

Book: Pai Naa, the story of Nona Baker

I just finished a great book this morning: Pai Naa, the story of Nona Baker, M.B.E., by Dorothy Thatcher & Robert Cross (Constable, London). I couldn't find a ISBN number for that book.

The book retraces the story of this woman, Nona Baker and her brother Vin in Malaya, before and during world war II. Mrs Thatcher and Mr Cross rewrote her words in a very touching, almost naive way. These two characters as well as the people of Malaya around them had to flee to the jungle to be safe from the Japanese who invaded Singapore first, then whole Malaya. These were terrible times, but the way Mrs Baker tells the story makes it sometimes sound like a tale. Only some parts of the book are really sad (Vin's death, for example) or terrible (the execution of 4 old men in the communists' camp), but even then it lasts only a few lines and then her good mood is back. I cannot start to picture how I would have felt like if I had had to go through all that, including suffering malaria in a rain-washed hut in the middle of the jungle, and yet nothing seems to have really hurt her. Of course the story has been written years after it all happened, so probably the memories were softened by the distance in time.

How I got this book is a nice story: A few years ago we spent some time in Kuantan, on the east coast of the Malaysian peninsula. During this stay, I went one day to visit a small village named Sungei Lembing, which was hosting the remanins of what had been the biggest underground tin mine in Malaysia, and one of the biggest in the world. It was a nice visit, and whie I was walking through the small museum, I noticed extracts of a book hanging on the walls. The book was the story of Nona Baker. It really sounded like a nice read, so I wrote down the book's reference.

When we came back to Switzerland, however, I was utterly unable to find the book in any bookshop. The editing house had apparently gone bankrupt or disappeared. Finally, however, I was able to find one in a second hand bookshop on Internet, located in New Zealand! The price was very reasonable, so I ordered it straight away, and I got it a few days later. It was actually a previous exemplary of Auckland's public library, as it seems, because it still has stamps and other markings in it.

It was really a nice read, especially because it was not dry like sometimes history books can be. It was a first hand account of the difficulties encountered during the war in the jungle. Though it is very hard to find, I really recommend it to anyone interested in Malaysia or in history generally.


Blogger Sue said...

Hi Laurent,
Enjoyed your post about Nona's story. Nona was my husband's great aunt and Vincent was his grandfather. We also found her story very moving. While we haven't been to the museum we are encouaged to do so after reading your post.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Laurent,
My roommate brought home a photocopy of the book and i read it since i've read everything we have in the house hahaha. It was a really good read and i learned a great deal more about the Japanese occupation in my country, more than i would ever learn from a history text book! I also understand now why there's a mixed perceptions of the Communists movement in Malaysia. Made me truly appreciate our independence.

Blogger Ikelah said...

i am from kuantan and today, again i visited sungai lembing which i visited from time to time. we usually wade down the river or go jungle tracking but this time we chose to venture the mines and the to the museum where the part of the book was in display.

a friend a local whose dad worked with PCCL(pahang consolidated corporation limited)the mining company told us the story of nona baker who escaped into the jungle during the occupancy of the malay peninsular by the japanese.

Anonymous Alan Pacey said...

It was great to read your views on the book. Vin Baker is my mother's god father. My grandfather, David Alexander Bett, is mentioned in the book. I remember my grandmother reading me passages from it. One that stands out in my memory is when Vin broke his false teeth that had served him faithfully. My mother was born in Kula Lumpur (sp) and my grandad was interred at Changi Prison for 3 years during the war. I wish I could find a copy of this book. Thanks again for your post. It's good to know that Nona's story lives on.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Laurent
I'm pretty late posting as it is now March 2008. I was asking my mother about her father's life as rubber planter in Malaya, and she mentioned Nona Baker too. My grandfather, William "Willie" Reid had worked on the neighbouring estate at Kuala Reman. My mother remembers Nona Baker offering her the use of her piano as they passed through on the way to Australia in 1941. My grandfather was also interred in Changi and Sime Road. I'm sure he would have known David Alexander Brett.

I was able to find a copy of the Nona Baker book. It is a truly astonishing story. What happened to her after the war?

Stephen Benaim

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Laurent,
I've been doing Tai Chi with a teacher of the Chen style, from Malaysia, and so have been getting more interested in the history of the region. I did not know much about the experience of what was then Malaya during the Japanese invasion, and I chanced across a copy of Pai Naa in an opportunity shop. It was an ex-library copy, like yours. Anyway, it was engrossing. I could hardly believe some of the hardships she survived.
And then I remembered that years ago when I did holiday work on a tobacco farm in the South Island of New Zealand, that I worked with a farmer who told me of his time in the army, after the second world war, fighting the communist guerrillas in the Malaysian jungle. He was still trying to come to terms with his experience, and told me of his first "engagement" with his enemy. Since I was transient, I suppose he was able to use me for his confessional. What had begun as an adventure for him, getting out of New Zealand in the 1950s, had resulted in him taking the lives of other human beings.

Blogger doyger said...

doyger- that's me.
I spend 4 months each winter in Kuantan. I have visited the tin mine @ Sungei Lembing? & I have a copy of the book.
I go again in December 2009 & I'm interested in the location of Vin Baker's grave( or reburial) & also what happened to Nona - after the award of the MBE - her relationship with former friends in Malaya & their possible anger that she,-Nona- had made friends with CT's. Personally, I'm very sceptical of perfidious Albion, the UK government cheated the former Chinese freedom fighters and sided with the pre-war status-quo. Unfortunately
my Malay & Chinese are not good enough to elicit info from non-English speakers but I'm going to try to find out more. Any guidance would be welcome!

Anonymous Kim Baker said...

Hi Laurent
I enjoyed your post about Pai Naa. I think almost everyone but me in my family has read the book I think as you see Nona was my Great Great Aunt. Vincent was my great Grandfather. Ive been meaning to read it for years and you've just given me the motivation to start. Thankyou.

Anonymous tim waymouth said...

Hi Laurent
It is an amazing story. My grandfather was the company accountant at the mine with Vin and Nona. (He wrote a book about the mine which has a tin cover!) He left with my grandmother a few weeks before the invasion leaving behind almost all their possessions. My father lived at the mine until he was 4 and before he died I was lucky enough to return with him for a visit. This was before the museum was created but we found his old house and found the people so proud of the village.

Anonymous Bettina said...

Hi Laurent , I'm from Switzerland too but live in Kuantan more than 20 years . My fatherin law worked at sungai Lembing many, many years ago. I have tow copies of Nona's book and I'm in the process to donate one to the Museum because they don't have one .
I will keep one for me, so I can make copies for my visitors !
Nona Baker's story is unbelevible . And just today I was talking to a friend and we were wondering , what happend to her !

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I came across the name of this book in Michael Thorps Book "Elephants, Tigers and trappers", he was a planter,and lived in the region. Apart from "Paai Na" He also mentioned Spencer Chapman and his book "the jungle is neutral"
I have been trying to get hold of the book "Paai Na" and the other book and since I live in India, the chances are slim. Since it is out of print and will otherwise be forgotten,it would be a great idea, if someone could place it on the internet.

Blogger David Ng said...

Hi Laurent, I only just read your review. I was born in Sungei Lembing in 1944, the 3rd generation of my family to have lived there. Mrs David Bett was my school principal and actually taught me in primary school. My mother had a copy of Pai Naa, and I read it years ago,but I can't seem to find it. We moved to Australia 32 years ago. A point of correction, the Japanese first landed in Kota Baharu in the northernmost state of Malaya and Sungei Lembing was about half-way on their sweep south to Singapore.

Anonymous M.Najimudin said...

Hi Laurent,
The Japanese invaded Malaya from the North, not from Singapore. They landed in Kota Baru, Kelantan, and swept across Malaya in a few days -- despite the valour of the British and Malayan troops to stop their advance.
By the way, if you have the time, please read this interesting memoir by Michael Thorp, an ex-planter in Malaya:
Michael Thorp (2009); Elephant, Tigers, and Tappers: Recollections of a British Rubber Planter in Malaya; Singapore: Michael Cavendish International.

Anonymous M.Najimudin said...

Hi Laurent,
The Japanese invaded Malaya from the North, not from Singapore. They landed in Kota Baru, Kelantan, and swept across Malaya in a few days -- despite the valour of the British and Malayan troops to stop their advance.
By the way, if you have the time, please read this interesting memoir by Michael Thorp, an ex-planter in Malaya:
Michael Thorp (2009); Elephant, Tigers, and Tappers: Recollections of a British Rubber Planter in Malaya; Singapore: Michael Cavendish International.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

hi there.
Nona Baker was my great Aunt and Vincent my great Uncle. I had the book with a picture of Nona and my grandmother in it. and a friend has lost my copy. I am devastated. I am desperate to get hold of another copy. does anyone know where I could get my hands on one. it has huge sentiment.
Caitlin Truman-Baker

Anonymous Caitlin Truman-Baker said...

hi Laurent. Nona was my great Aunt and Vincent my great uncle. the book is incredible. my copy has been lost by a friend and had a picture of Nona sitting with my grandmother(my fathers mother).
I have just ordered another copy from Amizon. I live in South africa
Caitlin Truman-Baker


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