10 things about: Ruth Iversen Rollitt, an Ipoh girl at heart

Ruth Iversen Rollitt and her book on her father. — Picture by K.E.Ooi
Ruth Iversen Rollitt and her book on her father. — Picture by K.E.Ooi

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GEORGE TOWN, March 29 — Although born in Batu Gajah in 1938, Ruth Iversen Rollitt does not live in Malaysia any more but Ipoh will always be in her heart.

The 76-year-old always longed to “come back home” to Malaysia, especially Ipoh, where she spent most of her childhood, where she got married to her first husband and where she gave birth to her first son in Batu Gajah.

She is the daughter of Danish architect, Berthel Michael Iversen, who designed and built many landmark buildings in Ipoh, Kuala Lumpur and Penang during the almost four decades — between 1928 and 1966 — he was in this country.

Though she has lived in various other countries after marrying British diplomat Philip Rollitt in 1969, she always finds herself drawn back to Malaysia.

She has also made frequent trips to God’s Little Acre cemetery in Batu Gajah where her first husband, Donald Baxter, was buried.

Baxter and his driver were killed during a payroll robbery at the Riverside Rubber Estate just a few weeks after Rollitt gave birth to her son.

Everything in Ipoh evokes warm happy memories of her early life.

Rollitt recently wrote a book on her father, titled Iversen: Architect of Ipoh and Modern Malaya, as a tribute to her father and his architectural achievements in Malaya.

The book, published by Areca Books, was launched last week.

Here, she talks about her love affair with Ipoh, her family and her book.

In her own words:

  • I went to school in Denmark and then came back on holiday all the time because this is my home. I married a planter in 1962 in Ipoh and had a child in February 1963. My son was five weeks old when my husband was killed. I went home and lived with my parents in Ipoh and I lived there until 1966 when my parents retired. Then I lived in Denmark and got a job in the British Embassy in Denmark and met my second husband. Since he’s a British diplomat, we’ve travelled all over the world. We married in Denmark, went to London and our first posting was to Singapore. I was almost home again. I was very happy. So I came up to Malaya quite a lot and that’s because it’s where my first husband was buried in Batu Gajah, it’s where I was born. So, I’ve just been coming here year after year.
  • There’s this saying that if you are born in the East, you are always drawn back. That’s my problem. When we were posted to Singapore, my brother said, good thing, it might get you out of your longing for the Far East. But it didn’t. It just made it even more so. I just loved it. We were posted to Pakistan. We come here for holiday. We were posted in Tokyo, I come here. My first husband is buried in Batu Gajah so I came here a lot. I was here two years ago for the 50th anniversary of his death. I love the country. I love the looks of the country. I’ve been everywhere in Malaysia.
  • We were so small when the war broke out that I don’t remember it. So to me, Malaya is only about happiness. We had the same servants before the war and they came back after the war when my father came back. And I am still good friends with my cook’s son, Mohamad Rais, he calls me big sister, he came to my book launch in Ipoh. Everytime I’m here, we’d meet. I love Ipoh. I learned to drive in Ipoh. My father used to take us around to look at buildings he built. My father’s buildings are the link that kept me coming back. If you’re lucky enough to have a father who’s an architect… each building is a monument for him, so I can sense him, I can feel him in these buildings. Yesterday, when I went to the Penang Chinese Swimming Club, which I’ve never been inside before, It was a very wonderful and emotional moment for me to see it because I can feel him in the buildings he’s built. I can sense him. Even when I’m sitting at home in London, writing this book, he’s standing behind me, saying thank you.
  • My parents were fantastic. As small children, we went to boarding school in Denmark, I was eight. I had to learn to speak a different language. My first language was English, my second language was Malay and my third language was Dutch and I learnt to speak Danish when I was eight. I can still speak Malay to the taxi driver and the man in the market. If you learn a language when you are tiny, you will always have it, it’s there. When I came back and I was getting married to Donald who was a planter and all planters have to speak perfect Malay, I bought this book to learn Malay and I just had to look at it and it all re-emerged, it’s all there.
  • I remember coming back from Australia after the war. My father came back first. His office had been burnt down, the house had been used by the Japanese soldiers, everything had been looted, we lost everything. He started living in a hotel and after a while, my mother, brother and I came back on a very crowded ship. He picked us up from Singapore and we came home and we lived in a hotel in Ipoh and we sailed back to Europe at the end of 1946. My parents came back to build a house and my brother and I came back for holidays in 1948. And then every other year, we would come to Malaya and it was like coming home. The weather is better, the food is better, and we were with our parents. For seven years, we were without our parents. I came out again after I finished my schooling and I met my first husband and I got married.
  • I remember everything about Ipoh from my childhood. The smells, the food, my parents, our house, my first husband, my child… I mean Ipoh to me was perfection. I was very happy…very sad too but happy. When I go back to Ipoh now, I weep. They don’t maintain it, it’s dirty, it was so beautiful previously because there was discipline. There are lots of cars just like George Town now… Ipoh is like the old George Town before it was revived. Because of the weather, it’s very difficult to maintain the buildings but the buildings in Ipoh are left to crumble. My father built many cinemas in Ipoh, they were burnt and most of them have been turned into furniture depositories. Ipoh is sad. George Town got the UNESCO heritage listing and was revived. In Ipoh, they don’t understand, they just want to build high rise blocks and this was done badly. They don’t have this love to maintain the heritage buildings. They should do something.
  • As a diplomat’s wife, I was not allowed to work. I became chairman of this organisation, that organisation. But I worked all my life, organised lots of dinner parties. When you go to a new country, you don’t know anybody. Your husband goes to work and you just sit there and you wonder what are you going to do. So you volunteer. When we went to Pakistan, we went to a welcome dinner, they ask if I’m interested in theatre work, I said yes, I’d help and that led to 19 plays.. You can’t just sit passively and do nothing.
  • Once at Asia House in London, during a reception for the British Malaya society I met a widow of a well-known architect in KL, she suggested to me that I give a talk at the Badan Warisan in KL because of all these photographs I had of my father’s buildings. So I said okay, I will. In 2008, I made a powerpoint comprising all the photographs I thought were good and came out and talked about him. I also gave a talk at the national museum. And the following year, I went to Ipoh where my friend Lau Siak Hong, the chairman of Perak Heritage Society, he organised a brainstorming meeting of architects, art historians and Khoo Salma. Salma says I should write a book but I said who will publish it and she said she will.
  • I can’t find any plans of his buildings here anywhere. They’ve all been destroyed. It saddens me because in London, at the Metropolitan archives in London, I have found plans by my father. Here, it’s all gone. It’s so tragic. It’s so important that they keep plans. It’s so necessary to keep the plans, to know the foundation of a building.
  • This book is a tribute to my father. It’s my love for my father and my country. There won’t be a second book. I’m 76, I can’t do anymore. This book is beautiful. Salma is just magic. All those people who had helped me with this book are just wonderful. I have lots of friends from Ipoh in London. We meet up in SoHo. There is a good British Malay Society there. I had a lot of joy in Ipoh. I had a lot of sorrow too. But we were happy.

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