The small number of Malay sailors, either from Singapore, Malaysia or Indonesia who left their homes and families in the forties and fifties and remained in Liverpool, London or Cardiff, has dwindled. Pak Cik Hamzah, another old dear who entertained me with his wonderful accounts at sea, died alone in his small flat in Cardiff, even before I could take him back to reunite him with his family. Last Merdeka Day, for the first time, the Liverpool City Council, together with the Malaysia Singapore Association, organised an event to remember those who perished at sea during the war. Only a handful of those who survived, now in their seventies and eighties, turned up. Others were too frail.
I feel sad because these are the people who have enriched my life with their stories of adventure at sea and foreign ports, enduring harsh weather and even harsher immigration officers. I feel sad because their going means I have lost not only friends but my source of inspiration. And my selfish self is saying: I still have not got enough from them and now they are going.
The article below was written some time ago and had been published. Blabbarella, its a tad too long - but here I'd like to share a glimpse of what they have kindly shared with me:
IN THEIR ELEMENTS AT SEA
"THE Malays, wherever they are, will survive". These were some of the final words uttered to me by the first president of Kelab Melayu London, the late Pak Aman Majid. A few months after his death, I kept hearingthose words in my head when I was editing my interview with Pak Man for my BBC radio documentary.
It was our last time together. Pak Man died a month after that. He was in his late 80s. He left me a wealth of information and interesting stories about the travels and adventures of Malays like him that set me off on my own voyage of discovery to track down other surviving adventurers like him, if only to hear and document their fascinating accounts as stowaways, sailors and hitchhikers. It made our own 12-hour non-stop flight to London seem as exciting as a bus ride!
Alas, many have now died and buried with them are many undocumented experiences, stories of survival in the harsh realities of the high seas during the war when their ships were hit by torpedoes and typhoons. Many times I've heard of how they cheated death, immigration officers and ship captains in their quest for adventure on foreign shores that beckoned their restless young souls.
I had always yearned to know why they had left their home shores, and what made them stay away from it for so long.
Like many others, Pak Man - better known as Man Tokyo for his stint in the Japanese dockyards - had always wanted to see the land of the people who came to colonise them. They were also lured by wide-screen portrayals of distant lands, inspired to leave the comforts of home and family and venture into unknown and uncertain territories. Others had more personal reasons: Pak Mat Nor in Liverpool was once a worker in the Jalan Ampas studios. He left because his parents wanted to marry him off to his cousin. Another left because his father had found a new young bride, not for the fleeing son, but for himself!
Leaving was easy. Many British merchant ships docked in Singapore were just too happy to get Malay sailors into the merchant navy.
"We were hardworking and strong," said the late Pak Hamid who, in his time, was a carpenter on board. Language was no barrier wherever they were, for they lived as they had left, with their fellow Malay travellers. Even after more than 20 years, they seem to be still quite oblivious to what you or I would expect to be a problem area, but they converse still, as they had conversed the day they had boarded their ships to those countries "above the wind". If anything, they are now in their time-
ravaged selves, a curious linguistic fossil, speaking the quaint kind of Malay you only hear in old Malay movies, before P. Ramlee made that leap forward to Studio Merdeka. And as for their English, well, it's Cockney-ish with bravura, without a nod to either accepted pronunciation or grammar.
Hamid Carpenter, as he was better known, and as would have been apt for his calling, was found adrift at sea on a piece of plank off the Bay of Biscay. His ship had been torpedoed, and there was Malaya's volunteer hand in the colonial merchant navy, floating in the wash of what, in his bewildered mind, was the "Bay of Beski". As fate would have it, he was rescued by another Malay sailor aboard another merchant navy ship.
"Jumping ship" became an exciting game as the ships called at ports around the world. A whole new world opened up before their very eyes.
As put by Pak Ngah Musa, who now works at a bookshop in a mosque in Liverpool, "The world outside was heaven on earth! Maklumlah kita orang muda! (We were thenyoung!)," he said with a glint in his eyes and a strong Terengganu accent.
In fact, either by accident or design, there were few places on earth that they had not been to. They spouted place names like Times Square in New York, Moscow under the communists, the North Pole, China - welcome sights after months and months of isolation at sea.
Recounting events at sea became a favourite pastime as the ex-sailors gather at meeting places such as 100 Cricketfield Road in East London, or better known as Kelab Melayu, or for those in Liverpool, at Kesatuan Anak-anak Melayu Malaysia/Singapura in Jermyn Street, Toxteth.
In Cardiff, Wales, Pak Hamzah, now in his mid-80s, seeks out Malaysian students to introduce himself and get updated on developments in his home country.
Malaysian students in Liverpool who frequented the house in Jermyn Street listened in awe as Pak Mat Nor told them how he was once swept off deck by a strong wave, and by a stroke of luck, swept back in. I met him in 1996. The scene was quite touching as I watched them in their ripe old age, being surrounded by young students who looked up to them as grandfathers. Except for Pak Mat Nor, who has strong family ties, others neglected by their own flesh and blood yearn the company and respect that only the likes of us can offer.
It was here that I met Pak Arshad from Johor, then in his early 70s, who, in between bouts of attacks of Parkinson's disease entertained me with his song:
Setahun tiga pekan,
Tanah air kutinggalkan,
Menumpang di kapal dagang,
Menuju ke tanah England.
(A year and three weeks
I left my homeland
A passenger on a merchant ship
Sailing towards England.)
It was here too that I met Pak Bakar, who made me a cake complete with icing for my train journey back to London. Every night Pak Bakar left before eleven as he was then under very strict curfew for 'something' he had done.
Yes, alas, a few have been on the wrong side of the law. Pak Yahya Bahari, for example. Looking at him in the dock at the Old Bailey, Quran in hand and a songkok perched on his head, I cried silently. He could have been anyone's father. As he was led away to begin a seven-year jail term for indecent behaviour, he looked up at me in the Press gallery and instantly showed recognition of another Malay face in a sea of strangers.
I visited him in prison only twice but from his letters I learnt a lot about his adventures when he started cycling around the world in 1959. And his hundreds and hundreds of files of letters and pictures that he kept along the journey reveal his own journey within himself. In fact, what spurred him on his old bike was a description of the Malay race in an encyclopaedia - "a complacent and lazy race". He wanted to prove them wrong. Alas, now facts feature as much as fantasy in his ever-increasing files, which he still carries around with him.
But many made good, such as the late Datuk Mohamed Aris from Johor who became the Mayor of Winsford. Then there's Pak Mat Abu who worked as a Tube driver with the London Underground. Pak Man Tokyo made a name for himself as an extra working along Peter Finch in the movie A Town Like Alice and also with the famous Roger Moore, as a drunk in The Saint.
"We were in the books of casting agent Madam Sen from Myanmar who recruited extras. Because of my looks, I landed a part as a Japanese soldier in A Town Like Alice," explained Pak Man.
In their twilight years, many were tracked down by their relatives and invited home, if only for a holiday. But for some, such as Pak Hamzah and Pak Majid, they were presumed dead until RTM featured them in a Hari Raya special.
Once in a while, I watch old videos of my meetings with them and listen to their interviews. But what I remember most poignantly is standing in front of a war memorial built by the Mersey River in Liverpool.
Across the panels were inscribed names of Malay sailors who had died at sea during the war. Oblivious to the song Oh Ferry, Cross The Mersey drifting from a tourist boat, I wondered about the stories that went down with the sailors. But now as they lay buried in the sea they loved so much, we will never know.