Yesterday I was having lunch out on the verandah of the Lagoon Club, much like one of those characters in Somerset Maugham's romantic South Sea tales. Ceiling fans whirred as I sat surrounded by oversized tropical plants, sipping the iced tea a white-suited waiter had brought me. I was stressed about my imminent grooming appointments, knowing that within a few hours, I had to be back in Kuala Lumpur for a wine tasting party. Already the situation is hard to believe. It sounds so civilized, when I know life -- especially my life in Malaysia -- is anything but.
Things were about to get even more civilized since, as a member of an international women's social club, I had been invited to share high tea with the Crown Princess of Negri Sembilan darul Khusus. But I needed serious attention: after moving house single-handedly, I seemed permanently sweaty, scratched, bruised and ruffianlike. In no way a lady. In no way fit to meet a princess on her terms. Three beauticians would be working on my face, hands and feet.
Today -- the day of my royal appointment -- began abruptly, cruelly, as all early mornings after wine parties have a tendency to do. When I finally jump out of bed, I am a solid 40 minutes behind schedule. I throw makeup into a bag and prepare to get prepared somewhere along the way.
Paranoia soon sets in. The scooped neckline of my new red Thai silk suit is daringly low and the palace protocol was numbingly long: covered forearms, covered legs to below the knee, nothing solid yellow (since that is the royal color and the one most likely to be worn by the princess). But no mention of neck and chest. Am I decent?
The energetic little Italian organizer of the event adds to the panic. She's prone to miniskirts and had to buy a pair of slacks in Singapore for the occasion. Now she feels like a nun. Actually, she looks like a sophisticated lady, but to tell her so would imply that she appeared otherwise earlier. It's better to admit she looks strange, molto strano even. And to say that whichever way she chooses to wear the scarf is good. It's all good.
Rain begins to fall in the hilly jungle. We arrive in the misty royal valley a bit early for our high tea appointment. At the 1930s palace, we're shown into the receiving hall and everyone grabs the nice gilded chairs. At this point all I care about is getting to the nearest restroom and the princess' aide, a minor princess herself, shows me the way. She asks if I'm giddy, which sounds good, so I concur. When I get back there is nowhere to sit.
The Croatian ambassador's wife offers to share her chair with me and eventually a white uniformed attendant in a songkok gives her another. Not as nice as mine. I am two chairs from the royal couch, which is framed by large elephant tusks. Unbelievably, the flowers on the royal coffee table are fake. There were beautiful arrangements in the foyer; someone must have forgotten to exchange this one. The magazine photographer and the royal photographer are snapping away, the roomful of international women all on their best behavior.
The princess is announced (her name is two minutes long). D.Y.M.M. Tunku Puan Muda Negri Sembilan Tunku Nurul Hayati binti Tunku Bahador. There are many princesses in Malaysia's nine royal families, but this one is the Crown Princess of her kingdom and the daughter of the present King, the Yang di Pertuan Agong. One day this Princess will be a Sultana like her mother before her, and long after, she will be Queen. She glides into the receiving hall, shaking hands with those on the way to her couch. There is a bit of a fluster in the room until she is safely on the couch.
The Princess is beautiful and radiant, like a normal person who happens to be very serene and well-kempt. Her hair is average and her upper lip puffy, to be technical, but she is perfect. A perfect princess. Her lithe figure sports a yellow print baju kurung with beads around the collar and cuffs, a gauzy yellow scarf on one shoulder which she pulls to the opposite waist.
The Princess conducts a polite conversation to the room and with the President of the Club who sits at her left and keeps apologizing in Malay for unknown transgressions. The room is very large and there is no way to respond to the Princess' questions, so everyone smiles and murmurs and nods her head. Then an extroverted Yemenite woman takes it upon herself to become court jestress. She makes several stabs at humor with the princess, calling out her opinions in the large hall. No one likes a showboat, but we're all relieved someone is engaging the Princess since the President has fallen into such a penitent state. Then comes a remark from the Yemenite about the size of the Princess' luggage, which the royal personage skillfully allows to wither into nothingness. She only smiles — the world's most genteel instrument of destruction.
Then the princess gets up to meet us. She comes to the two Croats, who make a praying motion at their face and then shake her hand. They back away from her three steps as per protocol. My turn. I step forward as the President introduces me. Who knows what I do, but I forget to address her properly. She is very gracious and makes no indication that I have screwed it up. She asks where in the States I'm from. I respond California and she says “Oh, what part?” I tell her the San Francisco area, the best part. The whole room is watching and waiting. She agrees it's the best part and says her kids insist they stop there on their way to Tahoe. I can imagine her in a tight fitting ski outfit. She continues with a comment about earthquakes, and I reply that the state has its compensations. She smiles and repeats this phrase thoughtfully. I step back to give the others a chance. About midway down the hall, a locally born woman suddenly lunges to kiss the Princess' hand. The motion is startling to everyone except the Princess, who receives the gesture with a calm understanding of her station.
Later I sit at her table for tea and sneak some photos. The mirrored hall is arranged with three huge tables, the main one 40 feet. Once the Princess gives a signal, attendants approach with royal tea services. Our settings are identical except that the Princess gets a large yellow linen serviette whereas the rest of us make do with smaller white ones. I only drop one piece of cheesecake on the gold-plaited placemat, remembering my mother used to claim she sent me to Bryn Mawr to learn some manners. I notice the ambassador's wife is eating with her fingers, no big deal.
I glance at my own hands, one demurely folded in my lap, the other poised with a fork. My nails are hideously shiny. At least they're fresh and unchipped, which seems to make them less of an affront. Strawberry pink, a shade which blends with next to nothing in the natural world. I thought it might match my pink outfit — the one I had decided not to wear.
Sitting here with the Princess, hardly able to breathe, I refuse to accept that this royal tea party is no big deal. As women we have spent a great part of our youth preparing for such an event, our badly applied mothers' lipstick staining miniature tea sets. We have all dreamed of meeting a princess, with some of the more ambitious among us hoping to become princesses as well. But in lands where “all men are created equal” as the years pass the relevance fades. Princesses only exist in fairy tales. Just as I have to decide that the ghastly polish flatters me, today's fairy tale is only possible if the ambassador's wife and the rest of us choose to believe in it.
A uniformed soldier stands at attention behind the Princess during the tea and when she finally says goodbye to each one of us and takes her leave up the marble staircase, he salutes her stiffly. He's an interesting touch in an opulent afternoon of flower and perfume and pretty manners.
A gold Mercedes with the family crest on the yellow license plate pulls up front soon after, and we have to leave before she appears again. She doesn't live at this palace anymore. It's not clear where she lives. If the Yemenite's luggage comment holds any truth, this Princess is a woman on the move.
Hanging out in the gardens is not a viable option since the sun has reemerged and now the air is like a steam bath, heavy over the elephant-shaped shrubbery. Across the road is the family's old palace, built at the turn of the century in the traditional Sumatran Minangkabau style. No nails, everyone proudly explains. No one mentions that it replaces one razed by the British. Be that as it may, this valley has been home to the Negri Sembilan royals for more than 200 years. And the Princess' South Sea kingdom is the only one in the country which is matrilineal, all titles and property handed down through the female line. A lucky place to be woman.
© 1997 Anastasia Ashman
For the past three years, Anastasia Ashman '86 has made her home in Kuala Lumpur, where she is the founder and executive director of COOL ARTS SOUTH SEA. Anastasia is also at work on a slightly irreverent, slightly fantastic book of her Asian tales, which will include Tea with the Princess.
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