About my Find
Not too long ago when I stopped in Kuala Lumpur and visited the splendid Kinokuniya Bookstore, this quaint treasure of a children’s poetry book, beckoned to me shyly, from a locked glass showcase. There it waited…a handsome Malaysian antiquarian item… regally poised in all of its ancient glory. The beautifully preserved second-hand edition titled Haji’s Book of Malayan Nursery Rhymes, stood silently with several other sterner out-of-print hardback editions; all determined to feature tales and essays of an older Malaya, still laden with her sharp aristocratic flavour. Never you mind that in the same fashion which may have just as well befitted a toffee-nosed mannequin marvellously holding every strand in place, neither too would any page or content be held amiss.
With a gasp, I was thrown from adulthood into the enthrallment of a child’s simple joys, than apparent in Klang town’s famous Caxton Bookshop on Rembau Street. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, the groundfloor that made for a row of rambling old shophouses, ran riot with jigsaw puzzles and picture books.
My thoughts fell instantly into a cache of abundant memories, so gracefully matched with the wonder of the moment.
I felt ironically blessed for a birthday that had now stumbled into the late summer of my life. While happily encased in the present New Age digital world, I had once tasted the fading influences of British colonalism in the Far East, also. This, not to be imagined from novels but the real thing. How richly then had the literary influences of England been stirred into a potpourri of multicultural Malay, Chinese, Indian, Sikh and Eurasian communities with nary a complication, at least not that was offered to a child’s visible notions. This of course, combined with varied enchanting storytelling elements that each culture so liberally allowed for its leisurely moments.
Without hesitation, I purchased the only edition that appeared to be present.
It set me back RM690 (about 150 euros). Of course, there were vital reasons for this. Book-collecting of somewhat rare and personal gems had turned into a passionate hobby and here was an opportunity too good to miss. Besides, I was seduced by the vault of memories that had so quickly engulfed me…that familar seduction of late, that demanded I write a novel on my childhood.
About the Author
Sadly, I know scant about A.W. Hamilton although I did receive a strong impression of his dedication to the Malay Language and I am familiar with his selection of pantuns. The trouble is as children we recite the poems, ballads, tales and songs with whoops of relish and later, mentally store away renditions with an equal fervour, but at such a tender age, spare little thought for the person who wrote them. Among a few of his works, I would discover Hamilton’s Malay Pantuns, Malay Proverbs – Bidal Melayu and Malay Made Easy – Covering the Dutch East Indies and Malaya.
About the Book
Mine’s a densely speckled and yellowed version of a 1956 reprint, published by the then Donald Moore Ltd, at MacDonald House on Orchard Road, Singapore. Haji’s Book of Malayan Nursery Rhymes had been treated to its first publication in 1939, three years before the start of the Japanese Occupation as a result of World War II, in the Malayan Peninsular, Borneo and Singapore. The second reprint would be later published in Australia in 1947. I get the clear impression before feeling subsequently thrilled that the copy now lining my library shelf, had surely passed through several appreciative hands once upon a time, in the forgotten past.
What I found fascinating was Hamilton’s Preface. He wrote that some of the Malayan Nursery Rhymes received their original publication as early as 1922 in pamphlet form, at the time of the Malaya-Borneo exhibition. They were then reprinted the following year, by the Methodist Publishing House in Singapore where the local poems were issued with both cardboard covers and illustrations, as an added attraction.
In his Preface, Hamilton also wrote most humbly that he considered the Malayan poems he so ably translated from a numerous collection of popular English rhymes, to be recognised as a product of Malaya and that he would take no credit for his industry. He dedicated the verses and what may even be viewed as limericks… solely for the indulgence of the little folk.
Here are a few examples:
Georgie Porgie, pudding and pie, Kissed the girls and made them cry; When the girls came out to play, Georgie Porgie ran away.
Now, the old Malay version would read:
Awang Bawang, kachang kobis, Chium anak dara, nangis; Bila kawan keluar chari, Awang Bawang sudah lari.
- Excerpt taken from Haji’s Book of Malayan Nursery Rhymes.
and for another example,
Hey, Diddle Diddle
Hey! Diddle, diddle, The cat and the fiddle, The cow jumped over the moon; The little dog laughed To see such sport, And the dish ran away with the spoon.
Here, the Malay version would read:
Kuching Dengan Biola
Hai! mula-mula, Kuching dengan biola; Lembu melompat ka-bulan. Anak anjing ketawa, Suka tengok melawak, Dan sendok di-larikan pinggan.
- Excerpt taken from Haji’s Book of Malayan Nursery Rhymes
The book still slightly frail in my hands, is made up of about a 100 pages of a commendable compilation of English rhymes. These are followed simulatenously by translations; each rhyme pairing up with a Malay version, featuring the older Malay vocabulary and spelling. Now, I was familiar with these as we still studied the older version for a while in the classroom, before an overhaul of the language took place a little later.
Several of the couplets are rather short, resulting in quite a few poems scattered together on a solitary page. The book ends with an added seven pages, featuring nothing but a heavy glossary of English-Malay definitions, giving me another distinct impression of how thorough a writer A.W. Hamilton was and of how much pride he placed in his work.
About the Illustrations
I was really bowled over by the illustrations and I have placed a few here in this post.
In his Introduction, Hamilton also took time out to thank Mrs Nora Hamerton, who I gather was already a well-known illustrator in Malaya, during the time. She is mentioned a few times on the web and I was delighted to read that Badan Warisan Malaysia, had described Hamerton’s early illustrations as a fine piece of work. I wish more accolades had been awarded her and that there would have been an appropriate biographical detail to her artwork, that would have been easily accessible.
Perhaps not even that, but just merely for Nora Hamerton to have been better celebrated for her artistry and talent. I also observed that Hamerton had worked with Hamilton on other childrens’ books too. Once more, the poet and translator mentioned in his Preface that Nora Hamerton had resided in Kapar, Selangor. That drew this book really close to home for me. Although the thoughtful artist graced my patch many many years before I was born, my eyes still shone with excitement to read that the illustrator had lived on the fringes of Klang, where I myself had been raised in the Sixties.
I was tickled by some of the illustrations especially that of an old Tamilian lady who wore her saree with no blouse under the wrap. I remembered with a start that as a little girl, I often saw older ladies like these sauntering on the roadside, where they lived in nearby squatters made up of attap houses or trooped down into town, from the neighbouring palm oil estates. The memory was especially distinct as I remember the sarees in rainbow hues as was the fashion during the time ie. an electrifying pink, a lime green or sky blue etc. Without a doubt, some of the toothless wizened women attracted public attention but seemed oblivious of it. The illustrations envelop all the races and I was touched to see also, a Nyonya mother and her child in their costumed regalia.
What a fine journey into the past from a little book festooned with nostalgic literary delights, still young to the mind after the twilight toil of long and winding roads. - susan abraham
Caption: A merry band of children link hands and dance round a banana tree while singing a Malay rendition of ‘Round the Mulberry Bush’
i) For further reading, you may like to engage in the following essay, published in a French journal and titled: The Poetics of the Pantun.
ii) A collection of definitions affliated to the Pantun in English may also be found HERE.