Punkawallahs and sundowners...

'GLAMOUR' DAYS OF THE ABC’S SAMPAN SET ACROSS ASIA

They became known as the ‘Sampan Set’ within the ABC at home but in Asia they revelled in the absurdity of the term.

The description of ABC staff and their families working in Asia carried with it connotations of tropical glamour, dutiful servants, sundowners of gin and tonic on broad verandas and of punkawallahs fanning the heat.

The ‘Sampan Set’ jibe was intended as a term of mild derision imposed by certain senior officers and high clerks of Broadcast House in Sydney from the ‘sixties to the ‘eighties. But those overseas allegedly enjoying the ‘glamorous life’ rejoiced in the label because it was so amusingly idiotic.

Servants they had, but conditions in some countries often were appalling, with frequent power, water and telephone outages – if indeed there was a telephone.

Colin Parks, with partner Chris, were in Jakarta from 1971 and New Delhi from 1973, where they married. For Chris Parks, now of Canberra, it was an unforgettable, as she describes in Capturing Asia, about cameraman Willie Phua:

“Yes, it was truly glamorous experiencing the joys of ‘Delhi Belly’. It was a great leveller—a bit like childbirth and death. Mind you, sometimes you wished you were dead.

“It was truly fabulous driving for six hours to the Simla hill station to escape the summer heat for a long weekend only to be bitten by a dengue fever-carrying mosquito and to lose two and a half stone in a week and not be able to walk.

“It was truly informative to check out the local sugar to discover that it also had pieces of finely broken glass in it which enabled the sugar to go further. You never drank all the liquid from your cup in case the glass was in the bottom.

“It was also really glamorous to suffer a miscarriage, and have all the soiled pads on display in the hospital bathroom for the sweeper et al to see for about three days, and to be examined by candlelight.

“… or to rush up the servant’s staircase to break up a fight between the cook and the sweeper; arms raised, knife in hand, the cook with the whites of his eyes fully visible. Fortunately, he dropped the knife as soon as I told him to because he was so surprised that I was there.”

Jane Hook, also a Canberra resident, took her family to India with husband Don, a veteran ABC correspondent who had postings in Port Moresby and across Asia, before he joined Foreign Affairs. Jane remembers arriving in India in 1970:

Disastrous arrival in New Delhi & got got little better...

 

“Our arrival in Delhi was a disaster. We were delayed at the airport by Indian customs as they examined and meticulously recorded details of everything. After four hours the children were exhausted and tempers were becoming frayed. Suddenly, the officer in charge told us we could leave the airport but our goods must remain.

“The ABC’s acting representative, Bernard Joseph, who’d been at the airport to meet us, was the bearer of further bad news. The office car had broken down and the ABC house at Friends Colony was not in a fit state for us to move in …”

When they did, the ABC house left something to be desired:

“The place was filthy and furniture was broken or missing and our power supply had been diverted to adjoining premises” says Jane. “We also had our first experience of Indian plumbing. We did not realise that baths, sinks and hand basins had no outlet pipe. Once plugs were removed, water just gushed all over the floor.”

The office cat Pagal does mad with rabies...

Ann Munckton, wife of correspondent Peter, now of Brisbane, had a brush with rabies on their posting to New Delhi after being attacked by the office cat, Pagal, who went mad and died.

There was no cure for rabies once the virus was fully developed, so Ann had injections to ensure that she didn’t end up like Pagal.  She recalls crying just at the thought of the lifesaving injections:

“My many needles were spread around my upper arms, thighs, and stomach, instead of all going into my stomach. It still wasn’t pleasant. The needles themselves were painful and produced side effects ranging from fever to headaches, listlessness, reactions in the central nervous system, and swelling of joints. But, hey, better than the alternative!”

Chris Parks noticed that her iron had exposed wires. “I told a servant Palmi to be very careful not to touch the wires. She told me that every time she ironed, her unborn baby went ‘boom, boom’ - meaning she and the baby received electric shocks. This was said with much arm movements imitating a baby rolling over and over. The poor baby also was getting electric shocks! The iron was replaced very quickly.”

Chris Parks had found the ABC’s Jakarta residence no better in 1971:

“We had no telephone, no hot water, no air conditioner, no freezer - except for what was in a small fridge - and the most ghastly kerosene stove in the kitchen… We always kept the bath full of cold water. To shower in the morning, the servant Tumio would arrive with a big saucepan of water boiled on the kerosene stove.”

Some of the ABC houses indeed were glamorous at first sight. One ABC house in Bangkok had a beautiful marble staircase and entrance, but all the cooking was done in the open out the back. In Tokyo, comprehending six different types of garbage collection was a vexing question. In other countries, culling the growth of relatives and friends from the servants’ quarters down from 40 was another task.

Ann Munckton and others saw the greatest relief to their hardships as the arrival of legendary cameraman Willie Phua from Singapore, with his eternally positive outlook, his love of a cold ‘pork chop’ (beer) and his fabulous cooking.

As John Tulloh, former ABC News and Visnews executive, says, “It is one thing for a reporter to invite a colleague and his soundman home for a drink, but it’s quite another for wives to accept them not only for dinner but also to stay for lengthy periods.” But most actively sought out Willie Phua’s company.

 Colin Parks, the Canberra lobbyist, has another memory, recorded in the book:

 

“I remember once in 1973 in Bangladesh, when we were both flattened by ‘Dacca belly’ after a feed of contaminated prawns, he came to my room with what he termed a certain cure and produced a bottle of scotch and a jar of Tiger Balm. The cure, he said, was to drink the Tiger Balm and rub the scotch on the belly. I laughed, but declined.”

 

Chris Parks is one of the ladies on the camel in India.

Willie Phua and Colin Parks in India 1973.

Ann Munckton, Hainan, China, 2009.

Chris Parks, Borobudur temple, Java, 1971.

Chris Parks and Willie Phua doing the light fantastic on the beachside dance floor, Sanya, Hainan, in December 2009.

Ann Munckton with husabnd Peter and Willie Phua on  the bridge over the river Kwai.

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