In October 2002, my wife Mutsuko and I visited Penang, Malaysia, for the first time. As you will see, it turned out to be an amazing trip, but first some background is in order....
Long before Merdeka, the authorities in Malaya faced a desperate need to train more teachers to cope with the rapidly expanding school population and decided to send eacher trainees to Kirkby, near Liverpool, as a temporary measure while training colleges were being built in Malaya. My father, Frank (Francis J) Moorhead, was the youngest of eight children of John and Sarah Moorhead, who had emigrated from County Monaghan in Ireland and settled in Liverpool…
Dad studied history at Liverpool University, obtaining an MA. In the early 1950s, Dad took up the job of Senior Lecturer in History at the newly-established Malayan Teachers' Training College in Kirkby, then a small village about 10 miles outside of Liverpool.
The college was set up in a former hostel for munitions workers that had been refurbished to accommodate 150 students a year on a two-year course, so that from the second year there were some 300 students in residence. Before the arrival of the Malayan students, it had been used as an emergency training college to train teachers (especially returnees from the war) for schools in England and Wales. Most of the lecturers also lived in the college along with their families.
Thus it was that our family of five, Mum, Dad and three boys (myself, Tony and Michael) came to live in this strange enclave of Malayans – Malays, Chinese, Indians and Eurasians – set in the Lancashire countryside. At the time, steam trains still ran right past the college from Exchange Station in Liverpool, stopping at Kirkby Station before travelling deeper into Lancashire. The Kirkby housing estate was in its infancy and the college was surrounded by farmland. I guess I was seven years old when the college opened, Tony would be five or six and Michael three or four. Our first sister Ann was born in 1952 while we were living in the college.
My memories of the college are inevitably vague, but looking back I am intrigued that we had no sense that the people living around us were any different from anyone else. I remember being impressed by the beautiful saris and other colorful clothes that the girls wore, the turbans worn by the Sikhs, and the exotic smells of curry and other native cuisines that often wafted by. However, several names stuck in my memory – Sidek Elamdin, who was quite a sportsman (we used to go to his room and, dragging his cricket bats outside, demand that he bowl at us), and two girls, Olive Andrews and Mavis Mehta, who used to babysit us when Mum and Dad went out to functions at the college and elsewhere. I think they were in the first batch of students, arriving very early in 1952 and leaving 24 months later when I was eight years old.
Dad often told us in later years that he was dismayed to find that his students knew a lot about English and European history, but nothing about the history of their own country. He therefore set about writing his own textbook, "A History of Malaya and Her Neighbours," which was eventually published by Longman's Green in two volumes… Around the time our second sister Mary was born in 1957, we moved to a more spacious house in Melling, a couple of miles away. As the Kirkby housing estate expanded and the Labour government of Harold Wilson actively promoted comprehensive education as a matter of policy, Dad was offered the job of headmaster of the new Catholic school, St. Kevin's Comprehensive, which was being built on the estate. Inevitably, our connections with Kirkby College gradually faded, but Mum and Dad often talked very fondly about his former Malayan students and I have hazy recollections of occasional visits from some of them, notably Sidek Elamdin and Halimah Abdul Ghani (his wife)…
Some years later I graduated from SOAS (London University School of Oriental and African Studies) …(and) was offered a two-year contract with Berlitz, Japan, arriving in Tokyo in November 1968...serving as company president for close to 20 years, I decided to call it a day and work as a freelance translator of Japanese to English, specializing in finance, law and communications
Looking round for somewhere to spend a relaxing holiday recently, eagle-eyed Mutsuko found an excellent off-season offer to stay at the Shangri-la Rasa Sayang Resort, a luxury hotel in Penang. We arrived there late on October 20, 2002. Obviously, thoughts of Dad's old students were in the back of my mind, but I had no idea how to reach them (or even whether they were still alive -- after all, most of them would now be in their seventies, I realized}…
I had a stroke of luck. A search on the Internet uncovered a report in the Malaysian Star Metro publication that the 1952-3 batch of Kirkby students had held a reunion dinner on September 8, 2002 in Kuala Lumpur. Fortunately, it included the telephone number of the Kirkby College Alumni Chairman (1952-1954), Hashim Yunus, and when I contacted him he was most gracious and gave me several key telephone numbers, including that of Sidek Elamdin. Mr Yunus also remembered Dad and had very kind words to say about him. I immediately contacted Sidek who was very excited to hear from me and we arranged to meet for lunch the following day.
When Sidek met us in the hotel lobby, we saw this tall, distinguished looking gentleman with a black "songkok" (a Malay cap) and white beard who beamed all over his face as he hugged us in greeting. With typical generosity, he arranged for a round-the-island trip the following day, then whisked us off to the home of another of Dad's students, Saleena Yahaya-Isa (nee Lee Kooi Jong, who has been created a "Dato," a state knighthood from Penang). Saleena and her husband Yahaya bin Isa took us all to the Penang Swimming Club where we were soon joined by Marie Lim for a slapup lunch provided by Saleena and Yahaya. In fact, I recalled vague memories of Saleena and Marie when I met them, but they of course had much clearer memories of Dad in particular. They were especially impressed by his dramatic approach to teaching, which they both admired so much that they adopted it themselves during their teaching careers.
We learned that many of the Kirkby students had done very well after their return to Malaya. Initially, many of them were sent to teach in remote areas and we heard hair-raising stories of their adventures in jungle or seashore villages in the early days. Sidek eventually became a headmaster, before entering the civil service, where among other things, he was a close friend of Tunku Abdul Rahman, the "Father of Malaysia." Sidek has been awarded no fewer than three state "knighthoods" for his services to Penang and other states and after retiring from the civil service, taught at the University of Science Malaysia in Penang until 2001. He is now 72.
The following Saturday, Sidek very kindly hosted a dinner for us at Marie Lim's residence where, in addition to the above, we were joined by Olive Wong, Mohan Singh, Khoo Yeoh Gan Hong ("Gregory"), Tan Beng Theam, Paravathy Kumarasamy and Lee Keng Yew. Once again, most of the faces were familiar even after 50 years, though of course their memories of Kirkby were much clearer than mine. All of them are in their seventies and some suffer from ailments ranging from Parkinson's disease to deafness, heart and prostate problems, but Mutsuko and I were struck by their remarkable high spirits, sense of humour and friendliness. Although there were Malays, Chinese, a Tamil and a Sikh present, there seemed to be no boundaries between them, just a lot of
mutual respect for each other's cultural and religious backgrounds and genuine affection.
Both Olive Wong and Marie Lim spoke about how handsome Dad was, and Marie told me with charming frankness that I was not as good-looking as Dad, partly because I'm portly! She had a wonderful group photograph of the staff and her fellow students in her living room, and I must say Dad did indeed look very smart. All sorts of names that I'd long forgotten emerged during the conversation, including Williams, Gurney, Walters, Beauchamp, Danielli, Dunn, Wilson, Chesters, McBain, Woolley, Beeching, Terret, Cross and Walker. Apparently, the Walters boys Christopher and Godfrey have visited Malaysia several times….
Sidek in particular seems to have a phenomenal memory, not just for songs but for jokes and puns. In fact, he was laughing and joking all the time, though his eyes brimmed on many occasions when he recalled times with Mum and Dad, especially when Dad found it very hard to say goodbye at the end of his course, yet insisted on bidding him farewell a second time…..
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