Review of ‘The Great Hill Stations of Asia’

The Great Hill Stations of Asia
Barbara Crossette

The first time I saw the Himalayan hill station of Simla, almost 30 years ago, I had the eerie sensation of seeing Western civilization, or at least a fantastic colonial version of it, fading away before my eyes. Chattering monkeys gamboled like the mocking fates across the facades of the gothic edifices that were once the summer quarters of the imperial government of India, while half-timbered English cottages that belonged in tales by Beatrix Potter slowly rotted in the jungle. The imperial British raj seemed to remain alive only in the obsequious manners of aging hotel attendants and bureaucrats who had been trained to serve an empire upon which the sun was supposed never to set. Simla was not really dying at all, as Barbara Crossette makes abundantly clear in The Great Hill Stations of Asia. The lingering embers of imperial style have continued to imbue it and other once-exclusive watering holes of colonial elites, from Pakistan to the Philippines, with a colorful afterglow that survives even into the present day.

Crossette first became fascinated with hill stations while working as the New York Times New Delhi bureau chief. She has since returned to Asia many times, acquiring hill station lore as another traveler might collect exotic carpets or elephant tusks. The journey she recounts in this engaging book follows a rough arc that begins with the old British hill station of Murree, in the foothills above Pakistan's capital of Islamabad, and continues on through India, Sri Lanka, Burma, Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam. She concludes her travels in the Philippines, which, though younger Americans may not realize it, was for 37 years, until the independent commonwealth was established in 1935, the only United States colony in Asia.

These little towns carved from rocky mountainsides or nestled on high plateaus began mostly as sanatoriums or convalescent centers, but they soon became escapist retreats far from the tumultuous cities and hot, parched lowlands below. They served an important medical purpose in an era when cholera, malaria, dysentery and countless other tropical maladies were epidemic, and when both germ theory and the importance of modern sanitation were imperfectly understood. One 19th-century British army doctor in Ceylon calculated that a soldier between the ages of 20 and 40 was five times more likely to die there even in peacetime than at home in England. In India, the average life span for an Englishman was 38, and for a woman just 28.

The flavor of the hill stations was decidedly upper crust. One might stay in bungalows with names like Constancia Cottage or Dingle Dell, go out for an evening to the Gaiety Theater, and perhaps send one's daughter to Presentation Convent in order to obtain a proper education. "I verily believe that when the white man penetrates the interior to found a colony, his first act is to clear a space and build a clubhouse," wrote one memoirist who lived for years in the Burma hill station of Maymyo.

Especially in the British hill stations, dinners were formal affairs, and full-dress balls, elaborate costume parties, and an exacting etiquette were de rigeur. The journalist William Howard Russell described the Simla scene as "ball after ball, each followed by a little backbiting." At the same time, there was a certain giddy element to life in the mountains where, beneath the surface constraints, people loosened up considerably. Wrote one colonial expatriate, "There is the theory that anyone who lives above 7,000 feet starts having delusions, illusions and hallucinations. People who, in the cities, are the models of respectability are known to fling more than stones and insults at each other when they come to live up here." Europeans had made it an article of faith that Westerners' bodies (and sometimes their minds) fell to pieces in the tropics. Few heeded the warnings of medical experts who told these Caucasian flowers that they were wilting in part because they insisted on overeating, overdressing, drinking too much alcohol and sleeping in closed rooms to avoid "miasma." At one presumably typical dinner at a Malaysian hill station in the 1840s, a visitor was regaled with wines, spirits and ale, and fed a choice of soups, fish, joints of sweet Bengal mutton, Chinese capons, Keddah fowls and Sangora ducks, Yorkshire hams, Java potatoes and Malay ubis, followed by a rice-and-curry course, cheese and fruit. Crossette writes: "A small school of academics, mostly American, has sprung up to explain this insanity as some kind of calculated policy of separation that called for distinctive (and, the imperialists thought, superior) living habits that must never be tinged or compromised by proximity to natives. However this inability to adapt may have been only that: a reflection of a stodgy, unimaginative people afraid to jettison convention. Errant behavior was sometimes known as 'going tropo.'"

Crossette ends her journey with a visit to Baguio, which was established only in 1905 by a band of intrepid American expatriates who settled in the Philippines after the United States acquired the islands at the conclusion of the Spanish-American War in 1898. Baguio is situated in a region of deep gorges and forested mountains about 120 miles north of Manila. In contrast to the stylish pomp of northern India's Simla and most of the other European hill stations, there was a peculiarly Calvinist earnestness pervading daily life at Baguio. Visitors lived in the spartan rooms and cottages that had their cultural roots in the Poconos and upstate New York. Despite Baguio's modern congestion, fast-food restaurants and cheap stores, certain things do not seem to have changed. Writes Crossette, with characteristic cockiness: "Is this place American or what? Checking into the Club John Hay in Baguio was like registering at summer camp all over again. I expected to be issued a towel and a hockey stick."

Crossette has a real affection for picturesque remnants of the colonial world — like the Savoy Hotel in Mussourie, India, where the front parlor "still had those ponderous, squarish, overstuffed British-inspired armchairs and settee," and a "Gothic writing desk with a useless telephone." During her stay there, she was attended by a steward and another ancient retainer, "a nineteenth-century figure bundled in Bob Cratchit scarves" who carried a lightbulb for the dark and cavernous bathroom. At the same time, she keeps a reporter's incisive eye to the dynamic reality of modern Asia. Far from disappearing, the old hill stations have become fashionable playgrounds for the nouveaux riches of Asia.

Everywhere the sacrosanct precincts of the 19th-century sahibs are being encroached upon by modern hotels, theme parks, karaoke bars and high-decibel pop bands. "The hill stations are overgrown, often overpopulated, and no longer European now, but most have not lost their unique appeal," Crossette writes. "Air-conditioning notwithstanding, the plains still fry in the sun, and the cities of Asia have only grown larger, noisier and more polluted."

No longer quaint artifacts of a bygone world, the hill stations increasingly are living prisms that reveal the helter-skelter transformation of once stagnant colonial societies into vibrant and rough-edged 20th-century ones.

Fergus Bordewich is the author of Killing the White Man's Indian: Reinventing Native Americans at the End of the Twentieth Century and Cathay: A Journey in Search of Old China.

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