Fraser's Hill located 1,524 metres above sea-level in the mountains of Pahang is another enchanting hill resort. It is built on 7 hills. It bears no claim to cosmopolitan fame- it has about it, a rather quiet rustic air, more in keeping with rustic solitude of English countrysides.
The resort is named after a scottish pioneer Louis James Fraser, who towards the end of the nineteenth century built himself a shack in the hills, operated a primitive mule train and embarked on the lucrative trade in tin ore. This continue until the first decade of the twentieth century when he apparently disappeared.
In 1910 Bishop Ferguson-Davie of Singapore combed the mountains in search of Fraser. The search for Fraser proved fruitless but he had on the other hand discovered a perfect mountain retreat-one that was to become one of Malaysia's foremost hill resorts. Surveying work began in 1919 and set the scene for its development as a mountain retreat. Today, in spite of the spate of the developments and additions of modern hotels and luxury condominiums. Fraser's Hill still retain much of colonial bungalows owned by the state government and private corporation.
Keepers of a heritage
Every afternoon, a group of men gather at Hillview Restaurant in Fraser's Hill 's town square. Over tea,coffee, pisang goreng (banana fritters) and cream crackers, the group reminisce about the past. These men are the last bastions of caretaker tradition in Fraser's Hill.
We met Lim Jeow Fong, 73, a caretaker for Guthrie House (Whittington), Tan See Au, 68, who takes care of the Bunge & Arundel Bungalow (HSBC) and the youngest of the lot, Leung Chin Au, 58, who minds the Muar Cottage.
Mostly born and bred in Fraser's Hill, these men are second -generation Hainanese caretakers. Due to the lack of written records, nobody could confirm when the caretaker tradition began. The British built the bungalows or cottages in the 1920s. And most of the present caretakers' fathers have worked in Fraser's Hill since the pre-war era.
A caretaker's role
A caretaker is a butler, housekeeper and chef rolled into one.
"Our job is to serve good food and maintain the bungalow well. " Leung put it simply. But 'good food' is an understatement. These folk can cook up storm at the snap of their fingers. From crispy chicken chop, juicy T-bone steaks, fluffy lemon souffle' and Yorkshire pudding to sinful Bomb Alaska (sponge cake slathered with ice-cream and topped with meringue), the caretakers' culinary skills would put some of today's five-star hotel chefs to shame.
Leung's father was a first generation Hainanese who came from China."He was uneducated but he picked up cooking very fast. Since he couldn't read, recipes were out of questions. He memorised everything by heart," said Leung who followed his dad's footsteps and became a caretaker. "When he taught me to bake or cook, there were no measurements - it was a pinch of salt, a fistful of spices or a handful of sugar."
Initially, the senior Leung struggled with the language too."When I was a kid, my dad told me he worked as katika (literal translation of caretaker). Only when I was older did I realise he meant ' caretaker'," said Leung. "For the longest time, we called toasts (bread) roti tot!
In the colonial days, only high-ranking officers had the privilege to stay at these bungalows, according to Lim who took over his father’s caretaker job at Guthrie House 42 years ago.
"Dinner was a formal occasion and English would dress smartly," said Lim who still dons his crisp, white uniform. " We had to learn proper dining etiquette, where to place the cutlery and plates and how to serve correctly."
Up till 15 year ago, on Christmas or New Year' s Eve, the caretakers would whip up a typical festive spread. You get a choice of freshly baked rolls, consomme', prawn cocktails, roast turkey with chestnut stuffing, mince pies with brandy sauce, the whole works, added Lim
The caretakers had to know their Tom Collins and Screwdrivers (variation of cocktails) too. Plus, they needed to serve the guests, run a kitchen, tend the bar and maintain the house.
Traditionally, caretakers were only men and their wives assisted them.
"In those days, jobs were scarce and men were the breadwinners," said Leung.
To get a job, you needed a reference letter and have the ability to cook English fare, Lim adds. Lim's father was a barman at the Royal Selangor Club in the late 1940s before he was offered the caretaker job.
“But today, times have changed and the caretaker’s roles are different. And guests’ demand are not the same too,” said Lim. In some bungalows, a caretaker just maintains the house. Providing meals is an extra service and today’s guests, a hotchpotch of locals and expatriates, want a mix of Western and local cuisines.
Caretakers' take-home pay ranges from RM900 to RM2000 per month although some caretakers earn more depending on the duration of their service and the companies they work for. In addition, they take home extras when guests cater for food --- a meal costs anything from RM7 to RM28 (BBQ dinner) per person.
The younger generation is no longer interested in this kind of job. Most find Fraser's Hill too quiet and the highly educated ones find the pay unattractive," said Leung, one of the 10 Hainanese caretakers remaining in Fraser's Hill today. In its heyday, Fraser's Hill had more than 30 bungalows and an equal number of caretakers.
We take pride in our job and treat the bungalows like our own house," said Lim whose four adult children live in the city. "We don't have to worry about our kids. We just work to take care of ourselves. We just want to live a peaceful and happy life."
"If the company is happy with my service, I will work as long as I'm still heathly, he added.
By Leong Siok Hui