CHICAGO, US: Malaysians here got a jump on the Merdeka celebrations, welcoming the 60th anniversary of the country’s independence from British rule in style with a cruise on Lake Michigan as fireworks lit up the night sky on Aug 26.
The revelers boarded the 'Free Spirit' yacht at a crowded marina at Burnham Harbor for three hours of fun that transported the celebrants from America to a Malaysian state of mind as they feasted on home-style favourites such as 'nasi biryani', fried noodles, 'yong tao foo' and 'chee cheong fun' catered from a popular suburban Malaysian restaurant, Asian Noodle House.
The event was organised by the Malaysian Club of Chicago (MCC) headed by Azelena Williams. The club aims to promote cultural awareness, business opportunities and camaraderie among Malaysian Americans who call Chicago and its suburbs home.
There was a raffle with gift vouchers for the three winners, music by an architect singing the golden oldies while keeping tune with his guitar even as the yacht took some deep dives in the choppy waters.
For Malaysians like Dr Kim K. Tee, Merdeka celebrations are always a journey back in time to their childhood days. “As a 'kampung' boy growing up outside of Batu Pahat (in Johor), I have always remembered the Merdeka Day.
“We are living 9,000 miles from our homeland…freedom is not free. So, we are celebrating the honour of the men and women who have served or who are serving in the military,” added Dr Tee, a long-standing member of the Malaysian community in Chicago.
Dr Tee, who has been living in the United States for 35 years, specialises in foot and ankle surgery and is a founding member of the MCC in 1999. He serves on the advisory board of the Illinois State Secretary Jesse White, and is also the founder of the Chinese American Museum of Chicago.
For many of those on the yacht who have lived in Chicago for decades, the night was reminiscent of the many Merdeka Day celebrations over the years in Kuala Lumpur that often came complete with fireworks display in Lake Gardens. For their U.S.-born children, the connection to the homeland is a little less direct.
The official Merdeka celebrations more than 9,000 miles in Kuala Lumpur will, of course, be held on Aug 31 to mark the 60 years since Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra al-Haj heralded the birth of a nation with his cries of ‘Merdeka’ at Stadium Merdeka, ending centuries of colonial rule.
Even before there was a Malaysia, or even a Malaya, there was the thriving port-city of Melaka, which was conquered by Portugal in 1511. Then came the Dutch in 1600s, followed by the British.
The Merdeka event in Chicago was attended by Malaysians living and working in the United States, those who have become U.S. citizens after decades of residence here, and their children. There were also non-Malaysian spouses who have melded into the group.
Malaysians have been travelling to the United States to further their education in significant numbers for more than five decades as the country’s path to transforming the economy from agriculture to manufacturing in the 1970s required a workforce with new talents.
According to the non-profit International Institute of Education (IIE), the number of Malaysian students in the United States totaled 7,834 in the 2015/16 academic year, which starts around late August, rising more than 8 per cent when compared to the previous academic year.
Malaysia ranks 22 among countries with the largest student population in the United States which totals just over 1 million in the latest year led by China and India, according to IIE.
The cruise gave the Malaysians of all ages who had filled the lower and upper decks of the yacht a grand view of the glittering Chicago skyline along Lake Shore Drive, the boulevard that rims Lake Michigan and is home to some of the priciest apartments and the best-best designed buildings in the city known for its architecture.
Chicago is home to the world’s first skyscraper built in 1884-1885 and stood 10 stories tall – a pipsqueak by today’s standards.
The yacht also sailed past Chicago landmarks like the Navy Pier, a popular entertainment spot, and the Shedd Aquarium.
Chicago is popularly known as the Windy City because of the fierce winds that come off Lake Michigan that can sweep a person of their feet, quite literally. Although the origins of how Chicago got this moniker is not entirely clear, some attribute it to the city’s bloviating politicians from many years ago.
The waters in the lake were a little choppy, limiting movement on the yacht but the revelers did not pass up an opportunity to take photographs against the city’s skyline, famous buildings or the fireworks.
The bumpy ride also served to remind the passengers of the devastation in Texas by monster storm Harvey that caused extensive damage, leaving 300,000 people without power and displacing many more who were on the path of the hurricane.
At the end of the cruise, passengers were treated to cookies emblazoned with the red, white and blue Malaysia flag – same colours of the flag that represents the United States, which is home to the many Malaysians who celebrated Merdeka in Chicago.