LONDON:Twenty-Fifth of June is Day for the Seafarer. Considering that my life has been much touched and enriched by stories that some seafarers I fondly called Pak Cik Sailors shared with me, I would like to dedicate this to them.
Since I came to this country in late 1979,the first long-haul trip ever for a small-town girl, I was immensely intrigued by the travels and adventures of the Pak Cik sailors whom I met and pursued relentlessly.
Thus,on Friday night I revisited my old friends, many of whom have left us, to listen to their stories again, as they gathered in the old clubhouse in Jermyn Street. The year was 2004. The atmosphere was not unlike that in the living room of 100 Cricketfield, the old Malay Clubhouse of seafarers and friends in London.
Everyone wanted to tell their stories of jumping ship and dodging ship captains and cheating death at sea, of meeting their soulmates and reunions with family members after long absences at sea.
Indeed, tribute must be given to my husband’s uncle, Salim Ngah, from Terengganu, who visited soon after our arrival here and introduced us to the world of Malay seamen who plied the oceans working as deckhands on British Merchant Navy ships.
Salim had by then been in the United Kingdom for almost 25 years.
Funny enough, I never got to know much more about Salim, who after 25 years at sea and working at the Ford factory in London, left for Terengganu where he spent his remaining years working on a fish farm.
It was through his friends, who lodged in the same sailors’ boarding house with him or sailed with him that I came to know more about him. Like most who hailed from Terengganu, like Ngah Musa from Losong, the years working in international waters and docking in foreign ports did nothing to dent their thick Terengganu accent.
I had always been intrigued by what was it about the sea that appealed to them.
‘Adventure!’ they almost said in unison and laughed the knowing laugh.
“People pay thousands to see the world but we saw it for free!” said Johnny Joseph, or better known as JJ, who confessed to leaving the life of a sailor to be a hippie in the sixties. He answered the call of the sea at the age of 20, and in 2004 when I met him he was 76.
He remembered clinging on for dear life when his ship was battered by 30-foot high waves in the Atlantic.
This reminded me of Pak Mid Carpenter who clung on for dear life in the Bay of Biscay when his ship was torpedoed.
Md Nor Hamid,too, was swept out of his ship by a strong wave only to be swept in again by another giant wave.
Many agreed — yes, life at sea was good and life at the ports was even better but when the storms raged, thoughts returned to their parents.
These stories of adventures at sea reached home enticing young men to join the Merchant Navy ships that docked in Singapore.
Majid got to work on his first ship in 1938 when the world was on the brink of war. He arrived in London in 1939 when the city was being pounded by the Germans.
‘It was 24-hour bombing nonstop!’said Majid.He was given a respite only when orders came for him to go to Newcastle.
‘At least in Newcastle,the Germans dropped their bombs only once a week. I could sleep peacefully!’ he said, adding that another job on the ship from South Africa took him back near home in 1942 before the arrival of the Japanese troops.
Majid managed to reunite with his family in Melaka for at least six months but when the Japanese arrived he fled to Australia where he worked for three years and returned to Liverpool in 1947.
He was reunited with his family again after 50 long years when his siblings saw him featured in the media in the early nineties.
‘It wasn’t as if we didn’t want to go home,’ said Md Nor Hamid, who went to Liverpool in December 1952 and has been there ever since.
‘There were hardly ships going to Singapore or Malaya. We got to go to America, and Korea and Canada but there were never ships for Malaya or Southeast Asia,” said Md Nor, who admitted that he left when his mother wanted him to marry his cousin. After a stint as an assistant cameraman with Shaw Brothers at the Jalan Ampas studios, the young Md Nor decided to join his friends sailing.
‘My family never knew where I was but I sent them money each month — £10 was a lot of money then. As a result, when I went home after 25 years to introduce my wife to them, my mother had a house built with that money,’ he said.
Md Nor met his wife, Margaret, when he accompanied his friend Taib to meet his girlfriend. His girlfriend brought along her sister and suffice to say, the rest is history.
Much has been documented about Md Nor’s life as a sailor and custodian of the clubhouse in Jermyn Street. In fact, he was quite instrumental in the reunion of Omar and his sailor father, Othman,that was made into the movie Pulang.
It was at that meeting, too, that I learnt more about Taib Md Nor’s law.brother-in-law.
He left at the height of the Natrah incident; a manager at his workplace was murdered. Fleeing the trouble, he joined a ship and was in Australia for five years before joining a Nordic ship to Liverpool.
For Hashim Hj Malik, sailing had always been in his blood. His father hailed from Ambon, Indonesia and managed the sailors’ boarding house where he met and was influenced by stories of adventures at sea. Hashim worked for the British Nuclear Fuels company in 1959 and sailed at least 16 times to New York.
New York, Times Square and the Statue of Liberty those were the attractions for small
village boys. The bright lights were dazzling and life was exciting.
‘It was like heaven on earth,’said Ngah Musa.
Ngah Musa was one of those sailors whose good looks and skills in martial arts won him parts as an extra in movies mostly about the world war. Pinewood Studios was forever in search of Oriental looks for the part of Japanese soldiers and Malays for movies, such as A Town Like Alice The Planter’s Wife, Patriot and The Bridge on the River Kwai.Pak Aman Tokyo was another one who always landed the part of Japanese soldiers.
‘I was taken to the Statue of Liberty by some friends. They told me that it was customary to salute the statue. So, I looked around me and when no one was looking I gave a salute,’said Md Nor,much to the amusement of those around him.
Listening back to the interviews, I felt a sense of nostalgia. I wanted to know more — about Pak Cik Arshad Hassan who I last visited in the nursing home, about Pak Cik Karim who died a few hours after I visited him in hospital,and many,many more.
Most have left us. Very few documentaries or features had been made about them.
The clubhouse in Jermyn Street is still being renovated with very little money coming in. The Malay Clubhouse in Cricketfield Road, London,has long been returned to its owners after a long legal wrangle.
Pulang and the accompanying documentary did a lot to create awareness of these sailors and their lives at sea. Perhaps, more should be done, before they just disappear before our very eyes. Perhaps some kind of recognition, too, for these seafarers for their part in the war efforts.
Happy Seafarers’ Day, Pak Ciks.