ULMAA (University of Liverpool Malaysia Alumni Association)

The Pathway to Co-prosperity

Student explorers in the footsteps of seafarers ……

Student explorers in the footsteps of seafarers…. 

Parts of Liverpool are familiar to many Malaysians. Penny Lane or Anfield, for example, are known even by those who have never set foot in the UK. Those Malaysians lucky enough to experience Liverpool first hand, of course, come to develop a much wider and deeper familiarity. The 1031 students from Malaysia who have studied at the University of Liverpool over the years have had the opportunity to explore the city’s streets, sites and spaces. However, even intrepid students who travelled from Malaysia to study at Liverpool University in the 1960s were not, strictly speaking, pioneers. Just as today’s students follow in the footsteps of Alumni from their parents’ generation, students in the 1960s and 1970s were in fact following a well trodden path…

Sailors from what is today Malaysia have visited Liverpool since at least the middle decades of the nineteenth century. The earliest written record that I have been able to find is in Joseph Salter’s 1873 book, The Asiatic in England. During the 1850s and 1860s, Salter worked for the London City Mission as the ‘Missionary to the Asiatics in England’. Although based at the Home for Asiatics, Africans and South Sea Islanders in London, he also visited other port towns, including Liverpool. In the book which summarized his colourful working experiences, Salter recalls that during a visit to Liverpool, ‘About one hundred strangers heard the Gospel – Arabs, Malays, East Indians, and Chinese’ (p. 158-9). These men – and they would all have been male – stayed temporarily in dock-side lodging houses. 

Malay men settled in Liverpool from at least as early as the 1930s. Ronnie Bujang and his wife Cathy were born in the Chinatown area of the city during that decade. Both had Malay sailor fathers. Like many subsequent Malay sailors in Liverpool, Cathy’s father married a local woman. Ronnie’s mother, however, was from the Philippines – evidence of yet further historical connections between Liverpool and Southeast Asia. India Office Records in Britain indicate that by 1938 there were 61 ‘Malays’ resident in Liverpool, but this almost certainly underestimates the size of a population whose maritime mobility confounded official enumerators. Malays were among the merchant seamen who lost their lives on Royal Navy boats during World War Two. The names of some of these men are inscribed on the Liverpool Memorial on Riverside Walk. 

The post-war period saw the influx of the first non-seafaring Southeast Asians to Merseyside. A Malayan Teachers’ Training College was opened just outside the city, in Kirkby, in 1951. These student pioneers encountered natives who knew little about Malaya despite the previous century of maritime connections. Denis G. Rattle in a review of Kirkby College for the Liverpool Philomathic Society reflected that ‘it has been disturbing to hear from so many students throughout the ten years how widespread and deep-rooted is the appalling ignorance about Malaya they met on every side from all types of homes’. One contribution of the college, therefore, was that ‘Many thousands of Merseyside homes at least know that not all Malayans are primitive naked savages living on roots in the jungle’ (p. 12)! By the time Kirkby College closed in 1963, some 2,000 Malayan teachers and teacher trainers had, in turn, gained greater cultural appreciation of Liverpool and its surrounding region. 

As the nation-state of Malaysia was assembled in the 1960s, Malay sailors in Liverpool formed a club at number 7 Jermyn Street. Located in the Granby-Toxteth area of the city, ‘number 7’ was purchased in 1963 and came to function as lodging and a ‘hang out’ place for sailors (see Bunnell 2007). My research findings so far suggest that students from Malaysia have had highly variegated relations with what is today home to the ‘Malaysia and Singapore Community Association’ (MSA). Some claim never to have heard of the place, some know of its existence but never visited, while others frequented the place during their time in Liverpool. 

If you visited number 7 Jermyn Street as a student at University of Liverpool, I would really like to hear from you! Over the past four years, I have been conducting research on the history of the Malay seafaring community in Liverpool and its geographical linkages back to Southeast Asia. Students from Malaysia – not just Malay students – are an important strand of such transnational connections. I am currently beginning to write up my work as a book. Do you have any stories, memories or photographs of ‘Malay Liverpool’? An academic ‘journey’ like mine has an important commonality with a walk, which Liverpool Alumni will appreciate: it should never be done alone… 

Tim Bunnell, 28 February 2008  

Dr Tim Bunnell is Associate Professor in the Department of Geography at the National University of Singapore. For six months from March 2008, he will be on sabbatical leave in the UK. During that time, he will be working on a book manuscript provisionally entitled, ‘In the Wake of a World City: Malay Seafarers in Post-maritime Liverpool’.   

References: 

Bunnell, T. (2007) ‘Post-maritime transnationalization: Malay seafarers in Liverpool’, Global Networks 7 (4): 412-29.

Rattle, D. G. (1965) ‘Strangers in a strange land’, Proceedings of Liverpool Philomathic Society 1961-1965.

Salter, J. (1873) The Asiatic in England: Sketches of Sixteen Years’ Work Among Orientals. Jackson and Halliday, London.  

February 28, 2008 Posted by | Uncategorized | 1 Comment