Rubber and Revolution

I finished reading Where the Rainbow Ends, (1987), a novel by Christopher Hudson about the Japanese attack on British-ruled Ceylon in April 1942, following the disastrous fall of Singapore, (jokingly named afterward the "pregnable fortress"). I already had the background on Singapore from reading Singapore Grip, the final volume of J. G. Farrell's Empire Trilogy.

But I felt I'd been here more than once before, isolated European planters on South Asian rubber and tea plantations, their way of life threatened by war and change. I recalled several books and films I'd enjoyed with this theme.

Thunder at Sunset, (1954), by John Masters, has a British army officer fighting rebels in a fictional, Malaya-like state, as Labour Party types back home seek to undermine him. Masters was a senior British officer in the WWII Burma campaign before he turned to writing. He wrote a very fine memoir of his life in a Gurkha regiment, Bugles and a Tiger, and his novel, Bhowani Junction, about the partition of India, was made into a film starring Ava Gardner and Stewart Granger.

The 7th Dawn, (1964), a film starring William Holden and Susannah York, adapted from The Durian Tree, by Michael Keon, has a soldier of fortune turned Malayan rubber planter after the Japanese defeat, while his former Asian comrade-in-arms now leads the Communist insurgents. Military aircraft connoisseurs get a rare treat at the end, when several de Havilland Vampire jets blast the Reds' jungle hideout.

Bernard Knight, author of the Crowner John series of medieval mysteries, wrote a standalone novel, Dead in the Dog, (2012), drawing on his experience in the Royal Army Medical Corps in Malaya in the 1950's.

The Consul's File, (1972), by Paul Theroux, is a collection of short stories set in post-colonial Malaysia that owes something to Somerset Maugham.

I found a fine BBC documentary about the Malayan Emergency, Malaya:  The Undeclared War, (1998), narrated by Ben Kingsley, with interviews of principals on both sides.

The stunning Indochine, (1992), a French film starring Catherine Deneuve, is set in Vietnam in the 1930's. As always, the plot centers around colonial oppression, class and race.

This year has seen the release of Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford's Forgotten Jungle City , by Greg Grandin, about Henry Ford's ill-fated attempt to establish a rubber-growing colony in Brazil to supply his automobiles.

Ok, so what's the deal with rubber? As a reference librarian, I had to look it up. The 18th century English scientist, Joseph Priestley, gave rubber its name when he found that it was ideal for erasing pencil markings. "It jolly well rubs 'em completely away, by Jove!", he might have said.

Rubber Pavillion, Empire Exhibition of 1938, Glasgow.

I had the impression that Asian movements for self-determination and the invention of synthetic rubber had finished the rubber plantations. I was wrong. Natural rubber continues to be a vital industry. Almost half of the 20+ million tons of rubber produced annually comes from rubber trees, mostly from Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand. Your wellies and galoshes, your rubber bands, your erasers, seals in automobiles and space shuttles, adhesives, glues, are still made of natural rubber, which has beneficial properties that cannot be reproduced in synthetic, petroleum-based rubber.

Wikipedia article
Nicely illustrated article by Indian scholar

1 comment:

frog said...

Always interesting to learn a word's derivation. We watched Indochine for the first time a couple of months ago after I returned from Vietnam... rather intense flick, that. And finally, I recall learning about the discovery of vulcanization and how that made it possible to use rubber for tires (that aren't sticky and gooky).