EARLY last month, we were crammed into Courtroom 10 at Clerkenwell County Court in east London to hear the case of the Malay Clubhouse, or Kelab Melayu London.
It was a brief session, which brought an amicable end to a few years of legal wrangle over a property in east London that was home and meeting place for the Malaysian community in London since 1971.
To San Sulaiman, or Pak Ehsan, as trustee and chairman acting on behalf of the Association of Malaysian Community, it came as quite a relief.
It was brief because the case had been settled amicably out of court, but it opened a new chapter for members of the club — a time to move forward.
“It all started when Isa Ali, one of the early sailors who was close to scholar Kassim Ahmad, wanted a meeting place. Kassim, who was working here then, was active with his brand of politics.
“With Ali Kulup, a builder with the council, they found this property which was in need of repair,” said Pak Ehsan of the property at 100 Cricketfield Road, now returned to its owner after 46 years.
The property was badly damaged during the war. It was proposed to the owner that if they were to repair the house, they would use it as a centre for the Malaysian community.
Pak Ehsan said an agreement was signed between Isa and the owner in 1971, with rent agreed at £10 (RM54) a week.
The place was initially a place for sailors to meet in between work at sea and for backpackers to find familiar faces. It was indeed a clubhouse, in every sense of the word.
It was the early 1970s, and the early Malay sailors, having registered in Singapore, sailed on British Merchant Navy Ships and found their way to London.
Others made their homes in Cardiff and Liverpool.
There were also backpackers, who wanted a bit of adventure, especially after independence, as well as students and visitors from home.
Pak Ehsan was one of those backpackers.
“The members were not much into politics. When they were not sailing, they came to play cards and gambled.
“There was not much awareness about religion as well,” said Pak Ehsan.
The place was also for members to help and support each other. There was a team of people to help members get out of sticky problems, such as credit card debts and visa problems, apart from regular gatherings that provided the much needed home-cooked food.
Once in a while, when the weather was nice, they would organise outings to the seaside.
Isa, who signed the agreement, died in 1985.
But, as he was a protected tenant under the Rental Act, the Malaysian community continued to use the place at a very cheap rate as Mazlan, Isa’s son, also continued to live there until 2010. He too became a protected tenant and the owner could not increase the rent.
They tried and failed in 2001 and the clubhouse continued to pay the minimum fixed rent of £10 a week.
However, Mazlan left the place in 2012 to look after his ailing mother in Burnley, Lancashire.
In 2014, the landlord tried to reclaim the property and claimed that Pak Ehsan had taken over the clubhouse without informing him that Isa had died.
He wanted the property back, with a back rent of £97,000 — a hefty sum to pay since members were mostly retired and the clubhouse’s income depends on members’ contributions and rents.
The weekly rent was then increased to £850 based on the current market rate.
As Mazlan has not been living at the property since 2010, the people using the place were no longer protected by the Rent Act.
In other words, they had no legs to stand on if they wanted to continue using the place for £10 a week.
After getting legal advice, they came to an agreement to return the property to its owner, who also wrote off the back rent.
This latest development of the clubhouse brought me back to the early 1980s when I used to visit the place to get to know the early Malay sailors and listen to their stories about their adventures at sea.
By then, the clubhouse, with the arrival of the late Ustaz Jais Anuar, had had a turnaround in its purpose and functions. The room with the bar that used to serve drinks was made into a surau and there were no more gambling dens.
Before Ustaz Jais died, we talked about religious activities that resulted in what Pak Aman Tokyo, one of the club’s presidents, termed as “a return to the right path”.
He had done much for members, who had been away for a long time and married locals.
It was he who conducted marriage ceremonies for members who had married at the registration office. It was him who taught them the Quran when some, who had returned home to visit ailing or dying parents, could not even recite a surah.
I remember the meetings as if it was only yesterday when we met at the clubhouse.
Sometimes, I would listen back to the conversations that I had recorded on the Uher, an old, heavy German-made recording machine with two reels, and my living room would come alive with these familiar voices.
There was Pak Aman Tokyo, who earned his moniker after a stint at a Japanese dockyard, telling me about his television roles; alongside Roger Moore in the popular TV series The Saint, and with Peter Finch in A Town Like Alice, among others.
Pak Ehsan regaled us with stories of Mat Kambing, better known as the King of Soho, whose management of a club called The Saint in Great Windmill Street gave others, like Din, the opportunity to work in the cloakroom. It was there that they saw the Rolling Stones and met their future wives.
Pak Mid Carpenter would tell us about his adventure at sea.
He survived three days at sea, hanging on to a plank after his ship was torpedoed, throwing him mercilessly into the raging sea before he was rescued by another merchant ship.
As luck would have it, he was rescued by another Malay sailor, who became his father-in-law, a fate that left his fiancée back home, brokenhearted.
With Pak Mid’s revelation, there was a chorus of “Ohhhh, we didn’t know that!”
Laughter would break out as they recalled the more interesting adventures all young, hotblooded sailors had experienced.
Pak Ehsan described how Rokiah, all dressed up, would do the inang when they celebrated Hari Raya away from home, and just as we thought we had enough laughter for the evening, Din recalled how he broke the news to his mother back home about his “Mat Salleh” bride.
All of them admitted to having that gush of curiosity and excitement to see England as portrayed in the movies.
As sailors, they had the opportunity to see the world — to take Times Square by storm and brave the cold, harsh winters of Russia.
Malaya’s independence had unleashed in their hearts the spirit of adventure that had taken them to the far-flung corners of the world.
Most of the people I mentioned above have left us.
There are still Pak Mat Bajerai, Kamaruddin and Pak Mat Abu, the first Malay tube driver who came here after serving in the British army.
He and his wife used to frequent the clubhouse for the company they had enjoyed for so long, religious classes and gatherings there.
“What else is there to do? We had to return the property,” said Mat Abu when I met him recently.
The old clubhouse holds all these memories and many more untold stories.
For me, their stories had opened up a whole new world of adventure and that had triggered off a thirst in me to know more about our Malay seafarers.
And this, I promise, will continue.