Thursday, 13 January 2005

Tribute to an Old Man and his Sea

A continuation of my fascination with the older men and the sea and as TV chefs would say, "Here's one I made earlier":

OVER the years, my collection of audiotapes, videotapes, VCDs has increased somewhat alarmingly. Some are work-related. Others are mere documented observation of everyday life, like the kittens being fed or the children's first day at school.

Others are tapes of events and meetings with people with interesting stories to tell.

These tapes are now competing for space with other collection of photographs and even reel-to-reel tapes, relics from my old BBC days. These are personal archives of events that document our life abroad.

Attempting to catalogue the tapes recently, I came across one that was labelled simply "Pak Cik Hamzah". It was only quite recently that I learnt of his death at the ripe old age of 85. Pak Cik Hamzah was one of the many Malay sailors who left "Malaya" in the 50s and never returned.

I met Pak Cik Hamzah, perhaps six years ago, when I was doing a Hari Raya special for a television company. I tracked down old Malay sailors and travellers and featured them in the programme.

As a result, the feature on Pak Cik Hamzah caught the attention of relatives back home, who recognised him as the "Pak Busu" whose adventures around the world they had only heard about from their elders. They contacted me and made arrangements for me to bring him back. Along with this message they also sent some dodol and other Malay kuih.

After our return to London, we visited him in Cardiff where he lived alone. His children, I was told, visited him regularly. Otherwise, he lived in a sparse one-bedroom flat in a council estate populated only by Somali immigrants.

My second meeting with Pak Cik Hamzah was duly recorded on video. I watched this video recently and saw him eagerly tearing open the package of goodies. He gave a toothless grin when told that some relatives still remembered him and wanted him to go home.

"I do want to go back before I die," he says, looking straight into the lens. He had already packed three big suitcases and asked me whether that was enough.

He was eager to go back and see the Malaya that he heard had prospered; that now boasts of the tallest building in the world. And I had failed him. Sadly, before any arrangements could be made for him to fly back, I was told that his children had persuaded him to abandon the idea.

After that I lost track of him, only to learn of his demise a few months later. But Pak Cik Hamzah, like other old sailors such as Hamid Carpenter, Pak Man Tokyo who died years before him, lives on in my archives.

It has become a joke among my friends that I go chasing after old men. I am not the slightest bit annoyed for I am a strong believer that once these old dears go, their rich experiences go with them and we are left a lot poorer for not being able to share them.

Pak Cik Hamzah had told me of his life as a young rascal back in Malacca. Although he came from a well-to-do family, he yearned for adventure. He once sailed across to Indonesia in darkness to sell rubber illegally.

For all his autumn years, there was still a mischievous look about him. His quest for adventure took him further when he decided to sail with the merchant navy. Without any money, he pawned his father's land title and set off on a voyage that took him around the world.

He had been to China, Russia and even to the North Pole. He recalled being woken up one morning and told to jump into the sea as his ship was under attack. It was a bitterly cold experience that he was not likely to forget. At the age of 80, his memory was still good.

Accompanying us on this visit was a young law student, also from Malacca. It was interesting watching the two in conversation, each from a different era in time.

He enquired about the padi field and an asam tree that remained fresh in his memory. I watched his face crumple in disappointment when told the place had been developed now, with lots of hotels. He asked about a local shop, which had long gone even before the birth of the would-be lawyer, and again he found it hard to believe that a shopping complex had replaced it.

Cardiff is not an unfamiliar ground for Malayans or Malaysians. Even before Pak Cik Hamzah's arrival, there were Malay sailors residing there.

One even owned hostels for the seamen. Now, Malaysian students are abundant in the seaside town, pursuing their studies at Welsh universities. Proudly, he told us how he'd gone to a nearby hotel upon hearing news that a new batch of Malaysian students had arrived.

"Eh, kau orang dari Malaya?" he would enquire before proceeding to tell them his adventures. Nothing would please him more than to be surrounded by these lads, young enough to be his grandsons. He'd tell them again and again how he survived the storms at sea.

I asked why he never returned. Pak Cik Hamzah had maintained contact with his sisters for a while until he got married to a German. He sent back a wedding photograph but he got word that the family had objected to the union to the extent of accusing him of not being a Muslim anymore, especially when they heard that he had assumed the name of Hamzah (his father's name)or Hemze as the locals called him.

He was very proud of Malaya. He had heard of the tallest building in the world being built and proudly told his neighbours so. The day we visited him, he called out to friends to tell them his niece and nephew had come to see him.

Pak Cik Hamzah never lost his fluency in Malay. In fact, I was almost knocked off my chair when he asked, "Anak kau berapa ekor?" And he reserved some of the most delicious expletives for his then estranged wife.

We took him to the seafront of Cardiff and his tired old eyes took in the vastness of the sea that had once brought him such pleasure and excitement. He was already quite frail. He struggled on with the aid of his walking stick as the cold sea breeze caressed his wrinkled face. This was his playing field, but for many of his friends, it was their burial ground.

Pak Cik Hamzah's life was indeed enriched in a way that no university education could. Personally, being able to share just a fragment of his adventure was a valuable education and a humbling experience for me. Like Pak Man Tokyo, Pak Mid Carpenter and many others, he has taken his memories with him but somewhere on the shelves of my disorganised life, they had kindly allowed me into their world, if only for a while.

And for this, I am thankful.


Ruby M. said...

More ! More!! More!!! please?

Iskandar Syah Ismail aka DR Bubbles said...


tambah nasik lagi! sedap!

Blabarella said...

Eh Kak Teh, I echo the first 2 commenters. This is really building up for me lah. It's so rich in experience.. kesian Pakcik Hamzah. I hope what he had heard that the family said about him is not true.. is this the reason why many of them didn't go home? Because of not wanting to be ostracised for the life they led or lifestyle they chose? Could it also be because they didn't want to go home? I'm sure you have the answers on your overcrowded shelf, Kak Teh.

Now, as per Oliver in Oliver Twist, albeit with a slight gender adaptation, "Please ma'am, can I have some more? *winks*

Blabarella said...

When I said "is this the reason why many of them didn't go home? Because of not wanting to be ostracised for the life they led or lifestyle they chose?", this by no means meant that I was agreeing to his family's allegation. It was a general question on my part. Kesian dia, .. I can't begin to imagine what it must feel like when your family hurls an accusation at you that you are perhaps no longer a Muslim. Tapi I suppose, orang dulu-dulu ni very conservative and to a certain extent, close-minded - not by choice, but circumstance. Jangan cakap pasal nak kahwin someone modern or living abroad, but if you live abroad AND marry a non-Muslim, lagilah teruk in their books! :(

Atok said...

last year when i was working on the new msd, a pakcik came to visit us. i can't remember his name, surely you kenal. he told me he used to work with the British Navy, and at many times was asked to steer the ship by the captain after most of the mat saleh got drunk.

fokd said...

Kak Z:

Hope you will continue the story of these old Malay people. I do really hope and pray, one fine day, you will start a book on them so that newer generation will learn something.

Shall we organize an event here to bring most of them together so that more people can learn from their precious experience?


Bustaman said...

Please take good care of the tapes. If possible, try to transfer them to VCD or DVD.
Beautiful piece, as always.

Kak Teh said...

Maknenek, Is, Blabarella : what? more????

Hmm, must browse thru the dusty shelves again!
Yes, their reasons for leaving and then staying are so interesting - and what happened in between too!

atok, i know who you are talking abt! usually he will talk on and on - there are a few more that i need to talk to.

pok ku, thanks for the kind words - a compliment coming from you. Yes, the tapes and notes and scribblings are very precious to me.

Wan A: i think we shd go to them rather than they come to us. also recently they had a gathering - to markMalaysia Day, but I was in Holland.

Anonymous said...

sedih giler bila baca your posting. like the old pakcik was next to me, looking at the sea with a tired look, and deep inside his head were clips of the old moments once experienced, flashing in random order

Kak Teh said...

riza, terima kasih kerana melawat. Yes, there are some sad stories and there are some happy ones - that's life, kan?

kakyong said...

hello. just discovered your blog, tgh dok baca archive lg.. but this post caught my attention.. nak habaq experience masa belajar kat manchester way back 1996 dolu.. ada terserempak dgn sorang pakcik, i am positive he is malay.. age mcm tokwan2 kita.. wearing very dull and worn out long grey coat.. strolling slowly while muttered something to himself.. kesian sgt tgk dia.. mcm takde arah tujuan..but i was scared nak tegur dia.. dunno what to expect kot.. i think he must be one of the malay sailors.
Nway, i nak smbg baca archive.. keep on posting!

edelweiss said...

Kak Teh,

Sedihnya dengar cerita pak cik hamzah... :(

At the old age, living alone, without childrens around him must be a big blow...sunyi kan...

Semoga rohnya ditempatkan di kalangan org beriman. Insyallah

pembacha said...

Kak Teh - any chance of these being broadcast over YouTube?

As always i love your writings on Malay Diaspora. I dont think there are any books around about Malay Diaspora, come to think about it.

Kak Teh said...

kak yong - sorry it has taken me a while to reply. buti hope you enjoyed the entries in the archives.

edel, yes, memang kesian pak cik hamzah. Al Fatehah to him.

pembacha..there is a seminar on Malay Diaspora in singapore - NUS, i think on 28th - 30th March.