Cameron Highlands: Holiday retreat and James Bond’s playground

During the Malayan Emergency, Moonlight Bungalow was used by the Communist leadership as their headquarters and execution grounds. (Derek Emerson-Elliott pic)

Mention Cameron Highlands to any Malaysian and the thought of a holiday getaway with lush green forests, refreshingly cool air, winding roads and European-style bungalows come to mind.

But unknown to most, this part of Malaysia was not always strawberry fields and tea plantations.

During the Malayan Emergency that ravaged Malaya for a long, painful and bloody twelve years, the dense jungles of Cameron Highlands served as the hideout of communist insurgents.

However, their activities caught the attention of the authorities and accordingly, the infamous British intelligence agency, MI6 put its plans into play.

According to an investigation by Australian historian Lynette Silver, there is strong reason to believe that Ian Fleming, creator of the iconic James Bond, based his character on his close friend, Denis Emerson-Elliott who lived in Cameron Highlands at one time.

Ian Fleming (front) and Denis Emerson-Elliot in Scotland, 1934. (lynettesilver.com pic)

The two had trained together in Scotland for MI6 and worked together in the Royal Naval Reserve during the Second World War.

Denis, who was also assigned the secret service number of 007, would be the man that MI6 tasked with infiltrating the Malayan Communist Party, gaining its trust and encouraging the communists to take to the jungles.

At the time, Derek Emerson-Elliott was a young boy and had not an inkling of his father’s espionage activities.

It was only in 1990 that he learnt that his father, Denis, lived a double life as a spy during their time in Malaya.

When the family moved to Cameron Highlands from Singapore in 1948, they took up residence at the Moonlight Bungalow, only to move shortly after to the nearby Starlight Bungalow.

The bungalows were connected to each other with a telephone line, which Derek innocently aided in setting up.

Unbeknownst to the Emerson-Elliott children, Moonlight bungalow was then occupied by the communist leader, Chin Peng as his headquarters and execution grounds.

Denis’ grandson, Julian, stands at the entrance of a Temiar trail, an escape route from Moonlight Bungalow used by the communists. (Derek Emerson-Elliott pic)

While most families of European descent lived in fear of communist attacks, the Emerson-Elliotts had no such worries as they had a protective talisman in the form of their personal cook, Ah Khow.

He had been previously in the employ of a hotel but had lost his job due to his alleged communist sympathies.

Speaking to FMT, Derek recounted fond memories of the man. “On my eighth birthday, he baked a birthday cake which, wherever you cut, the initial ‘D’ and the figure ‘8’ were magically revealed. I still don’t know how he managed to do that!”

However, as the insurgency drew to a close, Denis decided that his time in Malaya was done and his family relocated to England.

En route to Penang to board a ship home, the car which Denis and his family were in came under fire in a roadside ambush.

Brazenly unperturbed by the bullet hole in the vehicle’s mudguard, Denis simply got out of the car and began yelling in Cantonese into the jungle.

The gunfire ceased and the Emerson-Elliotts reached their destination without further incident.

When asked by FMT if it felt strange to see Bond on the silver screen, Derek confirmed that it did.

A photograph of Denis Emerson-Elliott in 1943 and a sketch of James Bond by Ian Fleming. (lynettesilver.com pic)

Unlike the fictional Bond, Derek said, the tragedies and betrayals that were part of Denis’ life deeply affected him and by the end of his career, he had grown bitter toward the secret service.

On one occasion, Denis shot a man in the back of his head for collaborating with the Japanese navy.

In another, he was forced to report an imminent defection to the Soviet authorities which resulted in the unfortunate man being executed.

Derek stated that he views the character of Bond as the exemplification of the worst kind of “alpha male” and disagrees with Fleming’s portrayal of women as mere sex objects.

Unlike the Casanova that Bond is portrayed as, his father was a loving husband who stayed loyal to his wife, the Russian-born Nonna Orlovna, to the very end.

It was surreal, said Derek, to walk around the Moonlight and Starlight bungalows during his last visit to Cameron Highlands in 2010.

Derek Emerson-Elliott and his wife, Anne, visited his childhood home, Starlight Bungalow, in 2010. (Derek Emerson-Elliott pic)

The two bungalows still stand as parts of a hotel.

Interestingly enough, the Moonlight Bungalow was to be the scene of further intrigue even after the Emerson-Elliotts’ departure.

In 1967, the bungalow became the centrepiece of the mystery revolving around the fate of American businessman, Jim Thompson, who disappeared without a trace.

The man who had made his name and fortune in the Thai silk industry had been staying at Moonlight Bungalow when he left for an afternoon walk shortly after lunch.

He never returned.

Despite an extensive search effort, neither the man nor his corpse was ever found, leaving open many possibilities as to the fate that befell him.

As with Denis, Thompson was also involved in espionage, having served the American Office of Strategic Services, the predecessor of today’s Central Intelligence Agency, during the Second World War.

Perhaps his clandestine activities had something to do with his mysterious disappearance.

In any case, it is a shame that the walls of Moonlight Bungalow cannot speak, for the bounty of stories they could tell would be a dream come true for any aspiring spy fiction novelist.

“In the Mouth of the Tiger” by Derek Emerson-Elliott and Lynette Silver is a work of fiction based closely on the facts of Denis Emerson-Elliott’s life. Click here to learn more about it.