Haji’s Book of Malayan Nursery Rhymes

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hajiby Susan Abraham

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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 First-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.

Caption: A little Malay girl in her sandals, stares anxiously at the heavy pelts of tropical rain being blown about by the wind while being kept dry by a hardy umbrella.

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.

Caption: In a kampung, an old crooked man labelled as ‘orang bongkok’ takes a slow stroll to his attap home, held deftly by stilts. Next to his hut, lies a coconut tree.

Here are a few examples:

Georgie Porgie

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

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.

Caption: A merry band of children link hands and dance round a banana tree while singing a Malay rendition of ‘Round the Mulberry Bush’

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 

Further Reading: 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.
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4 thoughts on “Haji’s Book of Malayan Nursery Rhymes

  1. Hi Susan, while looking up my great Grandfather’s work, I stumbled upon your blog. It’s extremely heart warming to see your appreciation of his passion. A.W. Hamilton’s daughter, my Grandmother used to tell me amazing stories of him and his adventures. She is still based in Singapore. If you ever have any questions regarding his background, please feel free to email me and I will try my best to give you as much information as I can.

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    • Hi Sarah, how absolutely wonderful to hear from you. I’m only sorry I took so long to return to this blog as I’m busy writing my own novel at the moment. I felt so much love for your grandfather’s work. I grew up on picture books like his…books that led me to lifelong artistic passions for all kinds of beautiful things. I would love to visit your grandmother someday. At the moment, I’m in Dublin, Ireland but I’ll be in Malaysia and also Singapore in June. My email is suzanabrams@live.co.uk. I’ll be in touch.

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    • I also stumbled across Susan’s blog.

      “Uncle Haji” as I called him was a great friend of my parents, Kevin and Gwen Crowley who lived in Bellevue Hill, Sydney. How they met I do not know but I suspect it was through Mum’s best friend, a beautiful blonde lady who resembled Anita Bergmann ( if my memory from 71 years ago can be trusted). Haji and Freda were an item during the war years but I am at a loss why, or when they broke up. Anyway, Freda went to Canada and lived a happy life. She died about four years ago.

      Haji was very generous at Christmas time – I have an original copy of “Haji’s Book of Malaysian nursery rhymes with the inscription:
      “Happy Birthday!
      to George
      from Haji
      Sydney 19th Dec 1941”.

      I also have copies of “Malay Pantuns”, “Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam – a Malay version” illustrated by William Stirling, “Sha’ir Omar Khayya’m and the Ruba’iya’t” , Hamilton and Edward Fitzgerald. The inscriptions in the books are from 1941 to 1944.

      I clearly remember one day in 1942 when the Japanese submarines shelled Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs. Our garage was the official air raid shelter for our area. Haji ran into my bedroom and scooped me up, all the time telling me what an exciting adventure we were having as he ran for the shelter! I knew I was safe because I was with Uncle Haji!

      I hope these few memories of a man I only knew as a child add a little to his memory.

      I have always wondered what happened to him and pray that he led a happy fulfilling life.

      He deserved to.

      Please feel free to contact me via email
      or at:
      51 Parkland Rd.,
      Mona Vale,
      Sydney, NSW 2103
      Australia

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      • Hi George,
        It’s lovely to hear from you on my blog. My name is Susan Abraham. I have published your full reply here. I hope Sarah sees this. If you do not get a response or if you prefer otherwise, I can also email your comment to Sarah directly. If you would like me to edit out your address at any time, please comment here again and let me know. I have enjoyed reading your wonderful thoughts as well. Thank you so much. regards

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