He first got to know about her while working on a book.
She wasn’t exactly a nice girl, and some might say that what eventually happened to her was what she deserved, but he didn’t buy that.
“I don’t think she was a black-and-white person – they were very difficult times she lived in,” he says.
“She was no angel, she was no devil. It just seemed to me she was a pretty ordinary person who found herself in a time and place of extraordinary happenings, and things just unrolled and unravelled.”
“He” is Andrew Barber: ex-British diplomat, managing director of a corporate research company, Kuala Lumpur resident, amateur historian and nonfiction author.
“She” is Doris van der Stratten: Australian citizen, wife of a Malayan Eurasian, World War II prisoner-of-war, mistress of the Japanese Army’s Western Garrison commander in Kuala Lumpur during the Occupation of Malaya, and, in an eerie foreshadowing of the 2009 Teoh Beng Hock case, victim of either a suicide or murder following interrogation by the Kempetai (the wartime Japanese military police) in 1943.
(Her interrogator and accused murderer, Lt Shuzi Murakami, was rather surprisingly found not guilty of her murder during the post-WWII war crime trials.)
Barber had first come across van der Stratten’s story while researching a previous book, Kuala Lumpur At War 1939-1945, and had in fact included what he knew of her story in that 2013 book under the chapter on comfort women.
“At that time, I thought it was a fascinating story – she had an extraordinary war – but in the context of that book, it really didn’t justify much more treatment than I gave it, which was four or five pages.
“But I was intrigued by her story, and thought there was probably more to it,” says the 57-year-old at a recent interview in Petaling Jaya.
He adds: “I was pretty certain no one knew about the story of Doris, and when you are a researcher, you obviously want to try and surface new material that is not known, so even then, I was aware that there was a uniqueness to the story.”
So when he felt the urge to write another book coming on, he decided to see if he could find out more about van der Stratten and her story.
Historian by training
Having studied history in the University of Cambridge during his younger days, Barber is no stranger to digging up and researching historical material.
His interest in Malaysian history stems from the simple coincidence of having been posted here during his time with the British Foreign Office. Kuala Lumpur was, in fact, his last posting in his 21-year diplomatic career.
“I enjoyed the diplomatic service – great career – but I had done 21 years, and for me, that was enough, time for a change,” he explains.
“And while I was here, I saw an opportunity to set up a business in the corporate research field, and so I looked into it and thought I’d give it a go.”
Fifteen years later, his business is not only well established but has spread its reach regionally as well.
In fact, Barber shares that there is quite a lot of similarity between the challenges of writing a history book and the challenges of compiling research and reports for his company’s clients.
“A lot of the work we do is based on similar sorts of principles: we look at source stuff, we assess, we write reports for clients, (and) we don’t sometimes know all the facts, we do what we can,” he says.
Those who read the book, simply titled Doris Van Der Stratten, will notice that despite the quite dramatic elements of the story (which includes an epic jungle trek from the south of Thailand to Sungai Siput, Perak, and Doris and her husband Philip each believing the other dead after a Japanese massacre during the invasion of Malaya), it is, in the end, rather bare bones.
Barber did in fact originally try to write a drama based on the historical facts of van der Stratten’s life, but gave up because “I’m no good at that kind of writing”.
He also says: “As a historian, it would be easy to embellish and write stuff and put in an interpretation of what you think might have happened.
“But ultimately, I am a historian by background, so I feel it is important to keep the historic record accurate.
“So that means you can’t go off and make stuff up – it would have been easy to have done that.
“But it’s not a work of fiction, it is a work of history. And to a degree, you are controlled by your material.”
Tracking down material
Barber had originally come across van der Stratten’s story in the National Archives of Australia.
“One of their investigators, looking at war crimes against Australian nationals after the war, wrote a small note to his government about the story of Doris Heath – that was her maiden name.
“There was, of course, coverage in the (Malayan) newspapers after the war in 1946 during the trials. I was looking up trials about the Kempetai so I saw the trial of her interrogator, and that gave me some material,” he says.
From there, he followed and investigated references, mentions and materials to places like Malaysia’s National Archives and the archives of the La Salle Brothers in KL, the National University of Singapore and the National Archives of Singapore, and the Imperial War Museum and the National Archives in Britain.
He also managed to speak to Paget Natten, the daughter of Wilhemina Eames née van der Stratten, who was one of Doris’ husband Philip’s younger sisters.
However, he did not manage to find anything written by van der Stratten herself.
“I didn’t have anything specifically from Doris herself – there were no diaries or letters – so that means that you are viewing her through the optics of others,” he says.
He did come across mention of poems van der Stratten had written for her two daughters (from her first marriage to Richard Wall in Australia) during her time in Taiping Prison, Perak, from April to July 1942.
Van der Stratten had handed over the poems to a La Salle Brother before she was transferred to Kuala Lumpur under the “protection” of the Japanese officer who would become her lover, Colonel Koda.
The La Salle Brothers had kept the poems safe until 1973 when they handed them over to a relative who came forward after a radio announcement in Australia about the poems.
Barber actually hopes that once the book is released in Australia, those relatives or their next of kin might come forward and identify themselves to him.
But for now, he already has several ideas percolating for his next book, which will likely be something on either the East India Company or the Emergency period in Malaya (1948-1960).
Doris Van Der Stratten is available in major bookstores locally. Profits from sales of the book will go to the Lighthouse Children Welfare Home in Kuala Lumpur.