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Lee Meng, Born As Lee Ten Tai, The Grenade Girl
Lee Meng, born as Lee Ten Tai, was a female Chinese guerilla leader during the Communist uprising known as the Malayan Emergency.
Having joined the Communist Party of Malaya (CPM) in Ipoh in 1942 at the age of 16, Lee Meng first led the underground party's Ipoh area committee during the Japanese occupation of Malaya.
She was captured by the British in July 1952, tried for having a hand grenade in her possession and sentenced to death.
The photographs show Lee Meng at her arrest in 1952 and, on the right, showing some remorse in the hands of the police during her trial. Below ia a summary of her story written by Lau Bau as it appeared in the above newsletter. We are grateful to the Association for allowing us to use this article.
As summarised by Lau Bou
Lee Meng, Chinese educated, a bright student and a very attractive person was born in 1928, probably in Ipoh. Her mother was arrested for her Communist activities early in the Emergency and exiled to China. In July 1952 Lee Meng, then staying in Lahat Road, Ipoh, was arrested by the Special Branch. In August she appeared before the magistrates charged under the Emergency Regulations with carrying a pistol and a hand grenade and consorting, in the jungle, with an armed Communist unit which had recently murdered a number of European civilians. Each of these charges carried the death penalty.
A week later she was tried at the Perak Assize Court before a British judge sitting with two assessors, one of whom was Chinese and the other an Indian. Lee Meng strenuously denied all the charges. The prosecution called nine witnesses, who stated an oath that they had seen Lee Meng in various terrorist jungle camps armed with a pistol and/or a hand grenade. Photographs of Lee Meng taken by her comrades in the camp, and subsequently retrieved by the security forces, were accepted as corroborative evidence. She denied all the allegations and stated that she was not the person in the photographs. At the conclusion of the trial the two Asian assessors returned verdicts of not guilty, but the judge disagreed and ordered a retrial. The retrial began ten days later under a fresh British judge and two fresh assessors of whom, this time, one was European and other Chinese. Lee Meng, who spoke in Chinese, objected strongly to the appointment of a European assessor. It was unusual, she claimed to appoint a European assessor in the trial of an Asian under the Emergency Regulations and she was fearful of bias on his part. The judge overruled her objection and the court heard the same evidence and objections as in the first trial. The Chinese assessor found her not guilty and the European found her guilty. The judge agreed with the European assessor, found her guilty and sentenced her to death. Lee Meng was taken to Taiping gaol and confined to a cell on a death row.
Lee Meng’s lawyers lodged an appeal with the Federation of Malaya Court of Appeal but the appeal judges could not agree to hear it. So Lee Meng petitioned the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, in London, for permission to appeal against her death sentence. The petition was presented by Dingle Foot and was heard by three law lords in February 1953. They dismissed the petition but gave no reasons for their decision.
A number of London solicitors then decided to help Lee Meng and organised a petition to the Sultan of Perak (who had the power of pardoning criminals convicted in his State) which was signed by fifty British MPs including Michael Foot, Jenny Lee, Richard Crossland, Tom Driberg and appointment of a European assessor at the second trial, a move which they described as unfair, most unusual and liable to create bias against the accused. Sir Leslie Plummer, a Labour MP best known for presiding over the disastrous ‘ground nuts scheme’ in East Africa, now entered the ring and led a deputation calling on the Colonial Secretary to commute the death sentence. The Malayan Chinese Association also petitioned the Sultan of Perak seeking clemency.
Then, quite our of the blue, the Communist Government of Hungary offered to exchange Edgar Sanders then languishing in a Budapest gaol. (Edgar Sanders, a cousin of George Sanders the actor, had been employed by the International Telephone and Telegraph Corporation in Budapest where, in 1950, he was arrested as a spy with an American and two Hungarians. Having, no doubt advisedly, pleaded guilty to spying he had been sentenced to thirteen years imprisonment. He had as little connection with Lee Meng as she had with Hungary.) The American had been ransomed by the United States Government but HMG rejected the Hungarian offer. ‘There can be no question of bartering a human life,’ said Prime Minister Winston Churchill addressing the House of Commons. Thus matters looked really bad for Lee Meng.
Then, quite suddenly, the Sultan of Perak commuted Lee Meng’s death sentence to life imprisonment. Eleven years later Lee Meng, now aged thirty-six, was released from prison and banished to china where she was able to locate and look after her ailing mother. The fact that not only Hungary but international Communism took up the Lee Meng case and encouraged those who Lenin would have cruelly referred to as ‘useful idiots’ to do so, more than strongly suggests that she was guilty as charged and this was confirmed by Chin Peng himself. In his autobiography he says that she was indeed an important Communist courier who used to consort frequently with armed Communist groups in the jungle during the early years of the Emergency. Her operational style was reckless, says Chin Peng, but she was dedicated and brave.
Well so she was. Some time after her arrival in China, she married a man who had been her lover in jungle days – Chan Tien, a senior member of the CPM Politburo who attended the Victory Parade in London in 1946 and accompanied Chin Peng at the abortive Baling Peace Talks in 1955. Lee Meng is now a widow.
And the unfortunate Edgar Sanders? He was pardoned by the Hungarian Presidium in 1956 and returned to England where he found work as a bus driver. ‘After being in the limelight for so many years, I really enjoy bus driving,’ he explained to a curious journalist.
Editor’s note: Thank you, Lau Bau, for reminding us of an interesting case which still provokes some unanswerable questions. One of them is why international Communism (ie Moscow) took up the case as all. A courier in the Malayan jungle would not have rated special treatment no matter how brave and dedicated. But it was of course a good opportunity to vilify the wicked British colonialists who had made sure of a conviction of an innocent girl by putting two of their own kind onto the bench. And as the old saying has it ‘Any stick is good enough to beat a dog with’.
To see press cuttings relating to the Lee Meng saga, click here.