KimGooi Photojournalist

The stories and photographs compiled here had been published in various regional newspapers and magazines during my career as a freelance journalist, beginning from the mid seventies onwards. Except for one – Waiting for the Tunku – which for various reasons had never been written until now.

After my detention and deportation from Burma in May 1978, the Tunku became my savior. He had the authority to ‘clear’ me and return my passport. This enabled me to get back to Bangkok and pursue my journalist career without delay. Otherwise I might have to wait twenty odd years. Dreadfully it happened to a friend who was deported back to Malaysia after a jail sentence in a foreign country. He waited two decades to get his passport back.

Eventually I was able to work for most of the major TV networks of USA, Europe, Japan and became a stringer for both New York Times and Time magazine – an invaluable work experience.

I’m also glad that the Tunku’s story is the theme and title of this collection of stories. In a small way I hope it would keep his memory alive and reveal a part of his humanitarian work which were not often publicized.

A word of thanks to my old school friend, Ooi Chong Jin, who is instrumental in telling me to stop spinning this tall yarn of the Tunku and just write it down. This is often the case when we, in our autumn years, meet over a drink or two.

There is also our dear headmaster JMB (Mike) Hughes of Penang Free School who is featured here too. A great teacher who taught us school is not all text books but field work and play is as important.

There is Peter Janssen, John Hail, Julian Spindler, Naoki Mabuchi of the Bangkok days, whose generous loans of precious books, time and the inductions of Black American Blues music, opened my eyes and perceptions to many of life’s treasures.

I remember reading the “Bushmen of the Kalahari” – after hearing incredible stories of hunting exploits and super human prowess which the Bushmen tell nightly at their camp site, stretching back to the days of their ancestors; the American author finally asked: “Are these stories true?”

To his surprise, the Bushmen felt dejected and sadly said: “Where’s the fun in telling something that is not true!” they said.

This profound wisdom comes from the illiterate Bushmen whose history is passed from word of mouth. With so much untruth and intellectual dishonesty around today, modern men could very well learn from the Bushmen of Africa.

Perhaps the world could be a better place. “God has a way of using the silly and downtrodden to bring down the smart and mighty.”

At the upper reaches of the Mekong – Lanchangjiang – in China circa 1993

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Khaw Sim Bee: Rajah of Ranong



Book by Kim Gooi

    On page 308 :  The Legendary Rajah of Ranong


Thai Princes and Nobles and members of the Kedah Royal Family at Chakrabongse House at the turn of 19th century - photo by Kim Gooi copied from the original in Koe Guan Foundation, Beach Street, Penang in year 2000

 Thai Princes and Nobles and members of the Kedah Royal Family at    Chakrabongse House at the turn of 19th century – photo by Kim Gooi   copied from the original in Koe Guan Foundation, Beach Street, Penang in year 2000   –  Khaw Sim Bee/Phya Rasadanupradit is seen in pith helmet standing second row third from left




  Author’s note: First published in Bangkok ‘The Sunday Nation’ – Sad Tale Of Beauty Felled – on May 28, 2000;  Malaysiakini on 11 May 2001 and Penang Club magazine in 2002.

They came like thieves to steal and rob with lightning speed in a well-planned move laced with political intrigue and cunning. Metropole Hotel, formerly Asdang House, was one of Penang’s most prominent historical-heritage buildings. It was knocked down and reduced to rubble on early Christmas 1993, while the city slept after a night of good cheers and celebration.

Within minutes, one of Malaysia’s finest heritage buildings with historical ties to Thailand was destroyed and with it a part of history of the region. The New Straits Times reported: “Many people are finding out that the building (after its demolition) has an interesting history and that the list of recent owners is also very interesting. Built at the turn of the century, it belonged to the Khaw (Na Ranong) clan. Here receptions were held for the King and Queen of Thailand. Members of the Thai Royal family also stayed at Asdang House”.

The building which stood on 6,581 square meters of land was symbolic of the Sino-Thai relationship during the early part of the century, the paper said.

Asdang House was more than a Thai embassy to British-held Malaya. Together with Chakrabongse house, it was an extension of the Thai Royal Palace to its southern-most zone of control at a time when the British colonialists were making inroads into the region, and eyeing Phuket’s rich mineral deposits. It was the symbol of sSiam’s successful resistance against colonialism when the rest of the region had fallen victim.

In 1897, when King Chulalongkorn visited Europe, he stopped over at Chakrabongse House where he was received by the household of the Sultan of Kedah, at that time a vassal state of Siam. When King Prajadhipok visited Penang in 1929, he stayed at Asdang House.

Asdang House was built over a hundred years ago, together with Chakrabongse House, by Phya Rasadanupradit of Ranong, also known as Khaw Sim Bee, the legendary Sino-Thai appointed by King Chulalongkorn as governor of the southern west-coast provinces of Siam, stretching from Ranong to Trang.

Rasadanupradit was instrumental in developing the region and successfully thwarted British advances in the south. He outwitted the British by bringing the first rubber seed from British Malaya and planting it in Trang. Today the rubber association of Trang is not above throwing a dinner to members of the Penang-branch of the Na Ranong clan when they come a calling.

To speed up development he brought Chartered Bank to Phuket, the only foreign bank to be allowed there. Other than rubber, he also introduced cashew nut to the south. Born in Ranong, his father sent him to China for further education when he was a young boy. For his vision and loyalty to the King of Siam, he was the first civilian to be honoured with two statues that still stand today in Trang and Phuket.

The achievements of the clan were indeed outstanding and remarkable. The founding father Phya Damrong Sucharit Mahasomphakdi (Khaw Soo Chiang) was a headman and leader of the “Small Knife Society”, an anti-Manchu revolutionary group from Fujian province.

He came to Ranong via Penang during the time of King Rama IV. The area was under constant Burmese threat. Phya Damrong drove off the Burmese pirates and built a wall to protect Ranong, said his great, great grandson, Khaw Cheng Poon in Penang. He became the first Rajah of Ranong by appointment of the King of Siam.

On a subsequent visit to Ranong, King Chulalongkorn commented favorably on the development and praised the comfort and quality of the family mansion. Running a fleet of ships, he was able to bring in goods and coolies from British Penang and opened up the area for development.

In addition to being lord of the southern west-coast provinces of old Siam, the Khaw clan controlled a big chunk of mercantile, mining and shipping activities of the region from Penang. “They were the richest in the region, holding wealth and power,” said Khaw Cheng Poon, the great-grandson.

To enhance the prestige of Siam at a time when the British were treating everyone as second class citizens, Phya Rasadanupradit donated a piece of prime real estate at the esplanade to the public. Called Ranong Ground, the football-size field was meant for public recreation, added Khaw. Alas, Ranong Ground has completely disappeared. Few people now know it ever existed. Today it is the site of Dewan Sri Pinang (State Conference Hall).

As many prosperous Chinese immigrant families were to do, the Khaw family built large, European style houses and entertained lavishly. Clustered along the exclusive shoreline of Northam Road, with names reminiscent of baronial villas like Brooklodge, Nova Scotia (later renamed Asdang House), and the Exeter, the Khaw houses were a reflection of the family success and its place in the world.

Chakrabongse and Asdang house were the setting of numerous parties and receptions especially for visiting dignitaries from Bangkok. Named after sons of King Chulalongkorn, the two houses were built back to back, with Chakrabongse house facing the sea and Asdang House facing the road.

Chakrabongse House was described in glowing terms by Penang Gazette at its house warming by the Prince Chakrabongse in 1904: “Mr Khaw Sim Bee has taste and very thorough notions of comfort. Standing on the brink of the sea, with its verandahs opening on lovely view of the harbour and purple heights of Kedah beyond, the position of the new house could scarcely be surpassed in Penang.

“Its snowy whiteness backed by the dark green of palms and flanked with tennis courts will render it the home beautiful indeed. The floors have marble in the halls and on the verandahs. The dinning and drawing rooms are large enough for huge gatherings, and the latter might easily accommodate four or five sets of Lancers.”

During World War II, the houses were appropriated by the Japanese military forces. After the war they were returned. Phya Rasadanupradit’s only son in Penang, Khaw Joo Chye, inherited Chakrabongse House.

It was said that the widow of Joo Chye was tired of the sea, and sold the house for RM150,000 in 1960. She built another bungalow across the road so that she could watch the traffic in her old age, said the grandson. Soon, Chakrabongse House was demolished to make way for luxurious family flats.

The fate of Asdang House

Asdang House was inherited by Phya Rasada’s nephew, Khaw Joo Tok. After World War II, Joo Tok sold it to a car dealer who resold it to a Hainanese restaurant owner who turned it into the Metropole Hotel. It was later sold to a group of politicians of the Gerakan Party controlling Penang.

In 1993 it was designated a heritage building by the Penang Municipal Council. Among the listed owners of the Metropole was the president of the Council who was also the chairman of the Penang Gerakan.

A series of shady deals unfolded: Metropole was allegedly declassified from category I to II, meaning it could be torn down as long as the facade was kept. It was then sold to a RM2 or 20-Baht (paid-up capital) company called Dolphin Square Private Limited for RM9.5 million. On Christmas day it was obliterated in a lightning operation and the debris carted away.

People smelled something fishy and a storm ensued. The hue and cry and the wrath of the people filled the papers, and provided live ammunition to the political opposition.

“How can a RM2 (20 baht) company buy a RM9.5 million house in a designated heritage area, if it is not assured that it could be knocked down for development?” asked opposition leader Lim Kit Siang. “Which bank is going to finance the deal if it is not assured of a quick return?”

The state government’s damage control went into full swing. On Jan 3, 1993, the city council ordered the owner to rebuild the house to its original form in six months. Failing to comply would result in a maximum fine of RM10,000 and an additional fine of RM500 for each day’s delay. The Chief Minister lauded the council for its swift action.

On Feb 14, the company was charged in court for demolishing a heritage house without permission and subsequently fined RM50,000. Today (2000), seven years later, the storm has abated but nothing has been done to restore the house. What has happened to the fine accumulated – RM500 a day for each day of non-compliance?

At the site where Asdang House once proudly stood, lies a half finished high-rise building, a pile of ugly grey concrete and rusty steel in a wasteland along Penang’s famous Millionaires’ Row. Ironically it was the economic crisis in 1997 that stopped the construction, not the law of the land nor the wishes of the people.

fall-of- house-part-2


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Worth remembering: Malaysia’s ‘militant’ Islamic groups

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October 28, 2015 · 7:52 pm

Latest version of my book

Just out on August 2015

contact : kimgooi47@gmail.comPoetKengTungCOVERSpread


On Page 244 :  RAINING Bombs In Laos

U.S. secret war and atrocities

lao boy head woundPhonesai, 13, had part of his head blown off and left hand paralyzed in March 1995 when his friend found a bomblet – they started tossing it like a ball, it exploded and killed the friend instantly.

His left leg still hurt and he can’t go to school. His arms and legs become painful when he thinks and he cannot sleep at night.

Ban Lat Houang, Phonsavanh, Xieng Khouang province, Dec 1997


In recent years I have had the chance to witness some of these atrocities and crimes against humanity at close hand and document them. One of the cruelest acts in human history was committed by the US government in Laos, earning the land-locked country the unenviable distinction of being the most bombed place on earth.

Information from the Menonites and Mines Advisory Group (MAG), two NGOs (one American and the other British) helping to clear the mines, claim:  From May 1964 until 1973 end, in an undeclared secret war US warplanes flew round the clock and bombed Xieng Khouang province in northern Laos.

Every eight minutes a planeload of bombs was dropped and it went on for nine years. By the end of the war in 1975, everything in the province were flattened and destroyed. Those who could flee to the forest, survive in caves and tunnels underground. Farmland, orchards and all were totally destroyed; 99.9 percent of the livestock killed.

To ensure continued destruction, killing, maiming and render the land unusable for generations to come, more than a million tiny colourful cluster bombs were dropped. These bombs are particularly nasty and cruel. The delayed-action bomblets (locals called them bombies) – the size of tennis ball and brightly coloured – are made to resemble oranges, guavas, pineapples and other attractive fruits. They are designed for children to pick up and play with. In this manner, groups of children would be injured and maimed for life and become a burden to the family. The objective was to cause long term social and economic destruction to the nation, according to the NGOs.

Because millions of these small bombs were dropped and scattered decades ago, over the years they sunk underground. They have been almost impossible to clear. Until today dozens of children are still killed and injured by the bombs every year. It has rendered building houses and farming the land impossible, without endangering lies.

The Mennonite, an American church group, who are helping Laos to clear the bombs, said it may take a hundred years and still they cannot clear all.

What diabolical minds would invent these evil devices and wrought such destruction on a people, especially the children, for generations and render the land unusable?

“The US government which prides itself as champion of democracy and human-rights has not owned up to its responsibility and admit their wrong–doing,” said Phoumi Thiphavone, governor of Xieng Khouang province, in an interview in January 1995.  He added that bomblets kill an average 20 children each year.

“They have not come forward to help clear the bombs with their resources and advanced technology.” When the Lao government asked the U S for help to clear the bombs, they reply by asking us for permission to fly over and map the region. We were shocked,” said the governor.

[Interview of the governor and reports of the bombings were published by the New Straits Times on March 20, 1995 and an earlier version was published by the Nation Review in Bangkok.]

The US media have been silent, seemingly whitewashing the country’s crime against humanity. A documentary done by a major TV network, 5 years ago, was pulled off the air by pressure from the top, says a Mennonite official. Our documentary with, Claes Bratt, (see photo below) for US TV network was also taken off the air at the last moment in 1998.

A New York Times report posted on line in April 2014, says the annual US spending on removal of unexploded ordnance (UXO) in Laos increased to USD 12 million a year from $2.5 million a decade ago.  In comparison, the bombing cost US$17 million a day, says Fatima Bhojani of Mother Jones website.


lao girl blinded                                                                                 –  Xieng Khouang province, Dec 1997


lao bombie





one arm lao boy In April 1995 Boun Mi, 15, lost and arm when his hoe struck a bomblet while planting rice in the field. He was disappointed when NGO’s told him they could fix him with a new arm; he thought the new limb would function like his old natural arm and not limited to a few functions – Picture shows Swedish producer/director, Claes Bratt, examining the artificial arm.

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Datuk’s birthday: FLOWERS and KENDURI


More than a century ago, J.D. Vaughan was Superintendent of Penang Police from 1851 till 1856.  In his book   ‘The Manners and Customs of the Chinese of the Straits Settlements’,  he wrote: “The Chinese people, nooks, corner of roads, trees, rocks and sundry other places with fays and fairies and goblins damned innumerable, and do them worship to propitiate them. Incense sticks, slip of paper, tinsel ornaments and other gew gaws may be seen at the most out of the way spots showing that the inhabitants of the neighborhood have discovered an evil spirit there-abouts.”

Vaughan may be excused for his unflattering remarks, for like many colonial officials and westerners, they do not take the intangible seriously, unlike the inhabitants of Asia who experience the spirit world as indeed real.

The apparent Chinese indifference towards religious issues has often been seized upon by Westerners as an unerring mark of their want of spiritual profundity and sophistication.

If Vaughan were to look deeper, he would discover that Chinese mind is also practical and unpretentious and capable of the most abstruse speculation. In both philosophy and religion, what it seeks to do is to interpret life in terms of a monistic principle which will enable them to establish a unity between this worldly and other-worldly existence, between human self and nature, and between the material and the spiritual world.

What Vaughan described over a hundred years ago is still very much alive in Penang today. If he were to probe a little he would discover that the ‘shrines innumerable’ were for the worship of Datuk (Keramat), the local deity or guardian spirit of the land (not goblins or evil spirits).  It is indeed ‘damned innumerable’, occupying sundry other places, nooks and corners, trees and rocks all over the island. The worship of Datuk Kong (in Hokkien) is peculiar to Penang, as nowhere else does it in such a scale and intensity.

Nasi Kunyit Kenduri feast for all and sundry

Nasi Kunyit Kenduri feast for all and sundry

Every Thursday night (Malam Jumaat, beginning of the Muslim Sabbath) worshippers light up the shrines with incenses, and offerings. Partaking of pork is taboo among the strict devotees.

Recently I chanced upon a grand celebration of a Datuk Kong in the mixed working/middle class suburb of Rervoir Gardden, close to the hills of Ayer Itam. It was the birthday of Datuk Ayer Puteh. It falls on the 6th of the 6th lunar month. Celebrations began on the 5th and went on for 3 days. In a small field a shed was erected to house the altar and paraphernalia, which had been brought down from the shrine at the foot of the hill about 2 km away. There were a white haji cap, a small Kris, seven colour flags, and offerings of flowers, betelnut and sireh, green coconuts, rokok daun (tobacco/palm leaves), malay sweets and cakes like dodol. Betir, kueh kerai and ketupat.

Uncle Tan, a sinewy old man of 75 brightened up when I approached him for some background history. “There are all together seven Datuks,” he enthused. “They are seven brothers, famous warriors of old. ” The oldest is Datuk Kuning, alias Pengulu Pulau Kechil;  followed by Datuk Panglima Hitam, Datuk Puteh, Datuk Merah, Datuk Hijau, Datuk Kechil and Datuk Bisu, he rattled off as if the spirits were right there in person. Other names that might crop up are Datuk Musa, Datuk Batu Acheh and Datuk Ali, he added matter-of-factly.

I asked Uncle Tan are they really famous warriors before and how they came to be deified and worshiped with such reverence? Uncle Tan looked at me aghast as if saying, what dumb head!

“These Datuks are very important and control the locality, if you pay respect and appease them, they can help you and solve your problems. If you violate and offend them like simply chopping down any trees or leveling the hills, misfortune will befall you. ‘

“Don’t you know so many bulldozers have overturned and accidents occurred to these violators,” Uncle Tan added, looking at me disappointingly.

Earlier on the Datuk had come down from the hill shrine in a grand procession, preceded by flags and banners beating of drums and wailing Java pipes from the Menora troop. Datuk Ayer Puteh came in the form of a medium in a trance. The medium wearing a sarong had very dark complexion, he was bare-chested and had a white sash across his shoulder. He weaved and danced with silat movements ceaselessly as the procession pass the housing estates.

The procession ended at the shed in the field. Opposite the shed stood an open stage for the menora performance from the Penang Siamese Community.

Many years ago, the committee made a mistake by engaging a Chinese opera for the celebration. That night there was a thunderstorm and the stage was blown away. “The Datuk was angry because he could not understand Chinese opera. We can stage Menora or Ronggeng dance for the Datuk,” said Uncle Aw (uncle Blackie, a popular name among the peranakan Hokkiens), 71, who has been a medium for 60 years.

On the second day, which is the birthday, a kenduri was held in the afternoon. The shed was filled with pots of nasi kunyit, curry chicken, and all kinds of fruits. Before the food were distributed Uncle Aw went into a trance. The Datuk blessed the large crowd with holy water as each came forward kneeling reverently. To those seeking a cure for sickness, he gave pinang and sireh to chew.

On the third night, an air of expectancy pervaded as a large crowd of devotees gathered. The Menora had ended and the troupe were entertaining the crowd with Thai songs and ramvong (folk dance) as a large crowd gathered waiting for the propitious hour. At 11 pm. Uncle Aw sat in front of the altar and went into trance, waving and swaying amidst thick incense (kamenyan) smoke; a cacophony of throbing drums, clashing cymbals and gongs, and wailing java pipes (serunai).

The Datuk swayed and silat-danced as the process:on proceeded with groups of kids holding flags and a huge “Datuk Ayer Puteh” banner leading the way. A large crowd followed with joss sticks, incense urns, and all the paraphernalia of the Datuk. Thick white incense smoke lifted through the dark night, the percussion and pipes intensified, the Datuk swayed and danced with exuberance with each new step as the parade wound through the middle-class housing estate. Residents came out to watch and pray along the dimly lit streets.

Arriving at the shrine at the foot of the hill, the Datuk. leaped into the shrine, the size of a small room, silat danced with renewed intensity while the drums, percussion and pipes reached a crescendo. The Datuk sat down on the floor and slammed his hands on the cement floor,  all was quiet – he spoke: “Datuk banyak suka, semua orang sukahati, makanan pun chukup; Datuk minta Tuhan kasi semua orang selamat. Sila chakap sama semua orang. [Datuk is very happy, every body is enjoying, the food is plenty; I will ask God to bless you all! Please tell everyone.] The message was translated into Hokkien as the crowd clapped and cheered.

“Datuk minta empat ekor,” (give us the lottery numbers)  someone shouted. Speaking all the time in Malay he said, “Wait, we have to pray to God first” (sembayang Tuhan dulu), he reprimanded. “Please bring the papers.” A piece of white paper and a pen were brought forward. “I mean joss paper for praying,” he scolded in a loud angry voice.

When the ‘gold’ joss papers were brought in, he scribbled three words in Jawi on the back and asked the people to bring it outside as gold offering to Tuhan (God). And then the people worshipped and prayed and the ‘gold’ papers were burnt as he instructed.

This done, the Datuk said: “Now bring the paper. On the white piece of paper, which was eagerly brought forward, he wrote a 4-digit number, which was pasted outside the shrine for the eager crowd to bet on race day.

The Datuk asked for anyone with problems to come forward. A man asked whether he would be successful in his new business. The Datuk took his hands and examined his palm and inquired:

“Do you pray to God? The man confessed that he was so busy he has forgotten to pray. The Datuk reprimanded him and ordered that he pray regularly. Then he would be all right, and be careful of the shoulders and the back of the head; don’t let anyone hit you in those areas, he advised.

Another asked whether he would be okay if he proceeds to Singapore for work. The Datuk took his hands and said: “Boleh, hang boleh pi tapi ta’boleh lama. Hang mesti balek sini sebab bini dan keluarga ada sini, hang mesti balek sini.” (You can go but not for long, because your wife and family are here. You must come back)

The consultation over, the medium swayed, gave a jerk and sprang backwards into the arms of a devotee. For a few minutes he lay still. Some water were sprinkled on his face, a guy tapped him on his chest, the medium awoke as if from a long sleep.

It seemed like a current was being switched off, and we were back to the mundane world. Slowly everyone trooped back home in groups… seemingly happy that they had found unity with the spirit world.


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Penang George Town Festival – Konsert Kopitiam (August 2014)


The third Konsert Kopitiam (Coffeeshop Concert) will be held @ Hock Poh Lye (at the corner of China Street / Penang Street) on Friday 15 August from 6-8 PM.

The concert will feature renowned sitarist Hamid Khan & his band, storyteller Himanshu Bhatt, magician Barry ‘The Great Barrini’ Khoo, veteran journalist Kim Gooi and his harmonica, Tamil poet Se Gunalan and Yasmin Bathamanathan


Live potrait0004

A flattering portrait drawn by Malaysia’s foremost artist Abdul Rashid, at Asia cafe


New Straits Times,  Friday August 22, 2014konsert kopitiamNew




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Burmese Prison Days

The Poet Of Keng Tung Jail   A  Bangkok Post Publication: Sunday 6 February 1983                                                               [Author’s note: Taworn’s poems were first published in the Bangkok Post on Jan 10, 1982. A year later Post editor, Kanjana Spindler, suggested an encore edition with more detail of the poet and condition in Burmese jail because of inquiries from readers]


      One cigar, think not it’s little value

More than fifty baht without sincerity

             One cigar friendship goes Far

They give with an open heart

             Friends from foreign and distant lands

Where are they from?

     Many places to go, this square world

My learned friend find a better life to lead

     A happy free society your

Jail can be

 They call him the mad Thai. By all accounts, Taworn Nootwong, a Thai national aged about 42 who wrote this poem, is believed still to be in jail. Four years have gone by since we parted company. There is a dreadful possibility that the atrocious conditions and tough prison life has taken its toll on Taworn. His health and life were precarious and he might not have lasted very long unless he were freed.

When our paths first crossed way back in the dry hot months of 1977, I had no idea that this strange Thai is a highly learned man who writes beautiful poems as well. The inmates of Keng Tung jail in the Shan State of Burma where Taworn is incarcerated, say he is mad. Very little is known about him and he is shunned by other prisoners.

“Don’t talk to him, you are wasting your time,” warned the prisoners. “He has been here too long; the prison has made him crazy. Nobody can talk to him. If you talk about the east he answers about the west. You will go mad yourself if you keep on talking to him.”

Some people say Taworn is mad, that he does not want to go home or that he has committed a grievous crime back in Thailand. Others say he has lost his identity papers and cannot go home. From Taworn himself nothing much can be learned because he only laughs and wallows in his madness.

 His favorite diatribe is tinged with sarcasm:  “Why should I go home. There is freefood for no work here, even when yousleep people watch over you. Burma is a good country. Ha haha!” he bursts out laughing and walks away whenever someone shows concern for him. Because of his attitude people leave him alone, nobody bothers him. Even the tough prison guards stay away from him.

There are various reasons for Taworn’s purported madness. According to the accounts of other prisoners, he was sentenced in 1974 to six monthsin jail for the crime of illegal entry into Burma. When I met Taworn he was already three years in prison. Fortunately thewriter, who also ranafoul ofthe Burmese Immigration law and was sentenced tosix months imprisonment, was released after spending only one year in jail.

The Keng Tung jail is a square area surrounded by four high walls each about 100 yards long. An inner barb wire fence interspersed with rose bushes keeps the prisoners from getting near the wall. Old time residents of Keng Tung remember that it was built by the British and designed to hold about 200 prisoners.

In 1977 there were over 500 prisoners kept in four big cells in the jail. Each cell measures about 20 feet by 150 feet and houses between 100 and 150 prisoners. They sleep on two rows of planks, raised three feet above the dirt floor, side by side, packed like sardine.

The conditions in Keng Tung jail could without exaggeration be described as appalling. Ten people died during the ten months I was interned there.

 Che Peh was a Lahu boy aged about 19 who came in to serve two years for theft. He came in healthy and normal but he never left. After six months in jail he contracted some deadly virus which made himsemi-paralyzed and his speech incoherent. At the end of November 1977 (his 18th month in jail) during the cold season, he was lying on a filthy rag covered with a filthy blanket in the bright sunlight in the prison compound.

He was unable to move or even turn his body. The only sign of life was when he blinked his eyes. There were feces all over the lower part of his body, flies swarming all over him covering his face and eyes. His mouth was foaming. His face had been blackened by days of lying in the open sun. Finally the authorities took him out to the town hospital where he died that same afternoon.

Another Lahu lad died of constipation, screaming until his last breath in the cell. Due to some strange, deadly and unidentified disease, he could not defecate. After a few weeks his body got bloated and his face all puffy. In his last hour he was groaning in great pain.

His fellow Lahus tried to no avail to help by wiping his anus which was covered with hideous sores, with wet rags. It was a relief for all when his screams and groans stopped and his stiff body was unceremoniously taken out in a gunny sack and buried in a vegetable garden outside the jail.

The rest of the dead were mostly old tribal opium addicts who used the drug for 15 to 20 years or more. When these enter the jail, they are thrown into the dirtiest corner of the cell.

And in that corner they lay all day and night, groaning in painfrom their drug withdrawal, unable to move, wash or eat.                       

prisoner shackled                                                             prisoner shackled 2           


A score of Prisoners shackled at any one time, is a common sight in Keng Tung Jail  –  sketches from ABSDF 1996 publication   ‘Cres From Insein’

Severe and brutal beatings by the guards were the standard punishments for breaking prison rules. It was very effective in keeping the prisoners in line because of its brutality. At the slightest sign of infringement – like fighting, stealing or taking drugs or being a captured communist and rebel – the culprit is clamped at the ankles with an iron rod, the thickness of a thumb and eight to fifteen inches long.

The poor chap was then made to leap-frog round the prison compound with at least three prison guards (sometimes more) kicking, punching and striking with rattan canes from behind. The iron rods would cut into the flesh, compounding the agony. The only relief came when he passed out. Fellow prisoners would carry him back to the cell and a heavy wooden block with two holes was clamped on his legs. 

The record in Keng Tung was four rods clamped on a Lahu named Wallis Koh – an ex mercenary captain who fought for the CIA in Laos. He was accused of being the leader of a group attempting an abortive  jail break.                                       Two prisoners working outside the wall escaped on New Year’s Day 1978. One was recaptured at the town hospital, three weeks later and was severely beaten before being brought back and leg-clamped. He was lucky though his face smashed and bloodied. His fellow escapee was caught a few days later and brought back to jail to be punished. He was made to leapfrog several lapses and trashed so severely that he collapsed.

 The guards made him sit up but the body would topple over. His fellow escapee was asked to hold up his head while a guard went behind and slammed his knee behind the victim’s head, like kicking a football.  There was a horrible loud scream. His head was smashed leaving a two inch gash behind the brain. The head was later shaved by fellow prisoners as the victim lie motionless in the wooden clamp and some antiseptic solution applied.      

Less than half of the of the jail population were made to work. People like Taworn and me who violated the immigration law are automatically exempted from work; though seemingly a privilege, in reality this is a disadvantage.

Workers enjoy privileges such as taking a bath once a day – while non-workers can only take a bath once every four days – and have a cup of watery rice broth in the morning. People who work in the carpentry and blacksmith workshops have access to fire where water is boiled and sold to the other prisoners for two cheroots a milk tin. Others can steal some extra food from the kitchen and vegetable plot when they are working there. Non workers are left to idle day in and day out without anything to do.

The prisoners are fed twice a day – stale, yellowish broken rice, with a bowl of yellow pea soup in the morning (10 am) and a bowl of boiled radish leaves for the afternoon meal. A spoonful of shrimp paste, ngapi (blachan in Malay), is added to each meal as relish. Once a week a piece of meat (pork or beef), one and half inch cube, is given. Sometimes small river fish is given in lieu of the meat.

 Fortunately visitors are allowed twice a week. On these important days, friends and relatives of the prisoners bring much coveted food, cheroots, clothing and medicine.It isthe food that sustains the prisoners. All the food brought in by the visitors is first checked by the wardens; in the process a portion is usually extorted. The prison guards live off the prisoners because they could not survive on their meager salary of about 150 kyat a month (about six US dollars at the black market rate).

The food situation was so bad that a lot of the prisoners were willing to sell their blood for about a kilo and a half of beef and offal. Sometimes they would come in the middle of the night to extract the blood. This meant the government troops had suffered heavy casualties and heavy fighting going on with the communist, Shan and other ethnic rebel groups.

On a rare occasion, Taworn was visited by a kindly former prisoner who brought him some food-stuff and cheroots. A crowd then gathered around Taworn and within minutes all his food and cheroots were given away. “Why do you do that?” someone asked.“For years I have been smoking other people’s cheroot, now I can give instead of take!” Taworn roared out laughing. Sadly enough, many people mistook his admirable generosity as a confirmation of his madness.

Tall, dark and broad shouldered, Taworn is also very myopic. His thick glasses make him conspicuous among the prisoners and give him a scholarly look. He speaks and writes Thai, English and Burmese. Someone says he is married and has children in Bangkok; he was once a sergeant in the Thai Navy. No one has a clue as to why he is not released.

 Taworn’s predicament was first reported in the now defunct Business Times (a Bangkok English Daily). Early last year his poems were published in Bangkok Post. Amnesty International took an interest in his case in 1978. But so far nothing has been done by the organization. One of its officials said recently, “Burma is a very secretive country; there is nothing much we can do.”

Trying to talk to Taworn is a lesson in exasperation and frustration. “Nonsensical” or “weird” or “totally mad” is the manner the prisoners described his speech. “He speaks good English” is the only positive remark about him. I found out that the best way to communicate with Taworn is through a piece of paper.

To pass the time in jail I had decided to learn more of the Thai language from Taworn. I asked him to translate some English words and sentences into Thai. He would translate the words and phrases and eventually expand on the contents filing up the page with poetic verses. In the dreadful confinement of the prison Taworn would write and write filling up any piece of paper he could lay hands on. On a single word or phrase like ‘roses’, ‘Burmese cigars’, ‘high walls’, he would write verse after verse, filling up all corners of the paper. In such literary pursuits we spent many fruitful hours together. I realized that in his tormented mind here was a poet of the first order.

Reading Taworn’s poems one is at once struck by their intense feelings and originality. Taworn is no armchair poet. His inner thoughts and pains are expressed truly and unpretentiously. Unfortunately paper was scarce in the prison (there wasn’t even toilet paper, old rags and strips of bamboo were used as substitute); some of the poems written on pieces of cigarette wrappers were lost. I managed to keep some of the work and got them out of Keng Tung jail.


          The Rose of Keng Tung

 Within the high walls so grim

Rows of roses could be seen.

Nest to barb wires and old bricks

Sprouting shades of green

 June and July, the dry heat gone

Little buds, a bloom appear.

When August rain comes

They sprout red and pink

Covering the bush a score

or more

          At dawn they are best

When dew drops like jewels fall

on virgin petals.

I can’t resist to bend down and sniff

           What sweet fragrance !

 Days have gone to weeks

Weeks have gone to months

Years have come to past

My most beloved Rose whom thou wait for

 Within the high walls so grim

The rose of Keng Tung blooms supreme         

                                                                                            – Km Gooi/Taworn              

 [This was my verse that started it all. Taworn added the fourth stanza which brought out the soul and pain of life in jail which he called ‘this square world’. I didn’t realize at the time that such literary pursuits were a safeguard of our mental health and an antidote against the wretchedness/horrors of the environment. I hope many will enjoy Taworn’s poems and like me, been greatly touched. As the ancient Chinese scholars believe, ‘one can only transcend the ordinary and write good poetry when one has tasted the bitterness of life’. Happy Reading! The rest of Taworn’s poems were originally written in Thai, and translated by the author.]               


 Cold fog falls like a carpet,

           Over Keng Tung Jail 

           The sun is late at dawn,

slowly releases the cold

The sky is low, the land is high

The aeroplane is white

Winter wind blows and rustle,     

little birds walk on ground

flying to and fro

The sparrows come out to sing,

a love song

The prisoners come out to sing,

a farewell song

From Penang you came to listen

to a Burmese song

My dreams if, will sing

a waiting song

 Paper Book

 Book is knowledge…’s OK to read

We rather prefer not to put

Thought into it

Thai books, English books…..fluency


 Wrapping paper looks good, has


Cheap books establish…..clearly

            in the Mind

          Expensive books conceal, proverbs

and pleasantries

Lost books distribute…..surprise is

exchanged with pleasure

Oral books for the ears to listen

Spread Humanity


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Book Launch Invite


Book Launch:  “HEALTH TIPS – Maintaining Long Life and Seeking a Spiritual Link with the Supreme Spirit”
By: Kim Gooi
Date: 26 October 2013
Time: 4.00 pm 
Venue: Gandhi Ashram, Waterfall Road

About the Book and Author:

Kim Gooi is the real adventurer, with a lifetime behind him of genuinely putting his ass on the line, from covering border wars in Southeast Asia to breaking up child prostitution rings. One such adventure landed him in a Burmese jail for a year—and a Burmese can is not a place you want to explore.
But, ironically, it was there that he discovered the first of—let’s call them insights—that led to him learning how to live a healthy, long, attuned life. These series of articles, many previously published, encapsulate what he learned along his long and winding road, and has practiced for decades. He writes hoping it will benefit reader. I’ll let him tell you about it.                                                                                                             – Jason Schoonover, novelist
The stories of Tea, Taiji, cure of stomach cancer, Aikido, Reiki are to address the holistic approach to health; the Oriental way i.e., Qigong, Mental and Spiritual aspects. The cures and testimonies were relevant then and can be applied to this day.
The stories of the two women are example of frugal living and hard labor, resulting in two wonderful cheerful old women in spite of their poverty and hardship they went through life. It reinforces the concept of mind/spirit over body and it is a contrast to the modern way of life. The three jail stories are unique and depicts survival in the most dreadful and barbaric jail in the world. Again, when all else fails, “Only the human spirit can keep us alive”. The Double 9 story shows the traditional/spiritual beliefs and the old ways to avoid calamity and disaster practiced since ancient China.
To put it in context very precisely: the author’s quest for manintaining good health started in prison and it has actually continued nonstop till today. At his present age of 65, he goes through every day with a zest for living, with good health, sound mind and spiritually uplifted. His sincere desire right now is to share his beliefs so that others can experience these life changing benefits too. 

Hair-raising account of survival of gaols in Burma: Cannot possibly find words to describe the impact and reaction. At least I can say it is very well written in the most honest unembellished reportage.    JAMES GERRAND: Independent Documentary Producer and Director

“IF KIM GOOI could package his philosophy of life into a tea bag, he’d almost certainly join the growing ranks of multi-millionaires in SE Asia. But true to his eclectic lifestyle, in this collection of experiences and long-life tips, he provides us with a snap shot of expertise which is both persuasive – and life affirming. His writings, observations and sometimes life threatening scenarios, are both shocking and fascinating – but it’s his holistic approach to the knowledge of self – that’s  really interesting. Through a series of articles Kim provides a personal insight into the secrets of a long life – through his own experience – and lots of tea.”
 –  GERRY TROYNA: Award winning Producer and Director for film and Television
Kim Gooi is a freelance photojournalist who had covered Indochina and the region for various international publications and televisions. He was born in Penang in 1947 and educated at the Penang Free School.”

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