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Afternoon Tea in Malaysia

by Jennifer Garner

February 7,2008

The great English tradition of afternoon tea is a simple but elegant ceremony, marked by the time-honored sequence of events in grand hotel lobbies around the Commonwealth. Tea is brought in a pot for each person and a selection of finger sandwiches, cucumber, smoked salmon, and egg salad being the norm. Then the warm scones are split, spread with the dense Devonshire cream and topped with strawberry jam. An assortment of pastries concludes the afternoon ritual. While you picture this scene taking place at Claridges in London, you don’t associate it with a hot afternoon in Malaysia.


We are seated in the dining room of the Kuala Lumpur Ritz, after coming in from the sweltering humidity of the September day. We make our tea selection from the trolley of countless teas. A tiered platter arrives with the required finger sandwiches, scones and pastries. Imagine my surprise when I bite into a sandwich with pork and mango chutney! The scones, cream and jam were regulation, but the pastry that I thought was custard turned out to be a lovely curry! I was suddenly hit with the strange dichotomy of the lingering British traditions that still exist in the countries formerly under colonial rule. While they have gained their independence, there were a surprising number of traditions and practices that didn’t end when the Union Jack flag was lowered.

Besides the incongruity of even serving tea when it is 95 degrees outside, the ritual is still practiced at those magnificent hotels built by the English in their colonies to house the visiting European dignitaries. I went for a drink at the famous Raffles Hotel in Singapore, named for Stamford Raffles, the British governor who acquired Singapore in 1819. The bar at the hotel is still called the “Tiger Under The Table,” from the day in August 1902 when sweating English ex pats playing snooker were interrupted by a crouching tiger. The palm covered courtyards and wide columned verandas look like the set of every Merchant and Ivory movie you have ever seen.

The British interest in Malaysia and Singapore came through the colonizing efforts of that global entrepreneur, the British East India Company and their interest in the tin and gold mines of the area. In 1824, the British and Dutch carved up this area between them, regardless of the ethnic, religious or cultural identities of the varied Chinese, Malay, and Indian peoples.

After being occupied by the Japanese in WWII, Malaysia and Singapore reverted back to British rule in 1946. But the weakened and bankrupt empire could no longer afford to maintain their vast colonial holdings, and Malaysia and Singapore were happily granted independence in 1957 and 1963 respectively. Since that time, they have built a vibrant economy based on tourism, palm oil and petroleum exports. Yet when I met with people, if they were able, they preferred to send their children to English prep schools in preparation for English universities like Oxford, Cambridge and King’s College London. There was still a perception that English education was the best.

As we zipped through the crowded, pulsing streets of Kuala Lumpur on the British inspired left side of the road, I noticed the signs for Queen’s Lake Gardens and the luxury hotel in the former resident-general’s 1904 mansion. The tourist shops had postcards of Prince William and Lady Di. The local Singapore government is the Parliament and the districts elect an MP to represent them.

While a former British colony too, the U.S. story of independence from His Majesty George III rang a little more raucous, with bloody skirmishes in the swamps, tea parties in Boston, winter sieges, and homespun luck to defeat the Red Coats in 1781. In my opinion, when the United States severed that imperial tie, we didn’t retain quite as much culture from the motherland. While our system of government inherently derives from the rights of barons in the Magna Carta, we moved our horse carts to the other side of the road, ditched the royal family and celebrated Thanksgiving.

My colleagues in London find it reassuring, however, that you can still get a decent cup of tea and scone anywhere in the world.

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