This is a story of James White.
He was a true adventurer in his time.
When I heard he had passed on, I felt that we had all lost something precious.
He was in his 70s but he was such a good-natured grump – I used to tease him mercilessly about how handsome he was when he was in His Majesty’s secret service. He’d turn red and mumble (as the British tend to do – they ‘swallow’ their words!) but I knew he was often pleased that I read his stories – little did I know that in his London days, he took on a lowly paid security guard job just so he could spend hours writing up his stories from his days in pre-war and post-war Malaya.
He loved the Far East.
I treasured this friendship because we would share, for hours on end, our love for books, art and technology.
For a man in his 70s, James was never afraid of technology. He lived on a modest pension but somehow he would be able to get himself the latest Canon digital camera. Photography was his love, besides his four fluffy cats called Ice, Gin, Lime and Tonic!
I didn’t know how emotional it would be at the special sharing session at Bon Ton. It’s true that you’ll only know who your real friends are when you die.
Because at that session, hosted by Kyri (James’ Langkawi friend) and Marianda (James’ UK friend), only the real friends turned up.
Somehow Langkawi is like that. It is a big island but it is very kampung-like. News travel fast and I bet everyone knew James had passed away. The community can be nice but most people can be bitchy. I’ve heard enough gossip to know this to be true. Like Nic often says, Langkawi reminds him of the 1980s series “Fantasy Island”. It is an island where troubled souls come to escape their problems. And when troubled souls meet other troubled souls, the sparks fly.
The session was to piece together James’ life -prior to Langkawi (his Hong Kong days, his London days) and post-Langkawi (what he did on the island). Included were our own personal journeys – how we each met him and what we loved about the man who was totally indefatigable.
James often told me stories of his upbringing – how he got his surname White, his Cantonese amah (he was born in Hong Kong) and his jungle tales of Borneo (as a planter). He rubbed shoulders with the rich and famous (Kate Moss was one of them!) but he was never starstruck.
Instead he’d gape with wonder at the local bomoh he’d found, or the orang asli he befriended in his days. Such was his attitude. This white man could speak Tamil and Malay (and I think, probably native languages too) as he traversed the jungles of Malaya and Borneo in his younger days. He puts many of us Malaysians to shame today with his incredible knowledge of the land, its myths, its jungles and its people.
These meanderings of his fascinated me to no end. No doubt he’d repeat them each time we meet but I put it down to being old and forgetful. Or he just wanted to drill the stories into me. I became a fan of his stories, so much so that he emailed me his stories, asking if I could help polish them up for him. He also gave me a hastily stapled together version, in a booklet form.
I’d often remarked to Nic that I’d like to help James do P-O-D or Publish On Demand as a surprise for him one of these days. Somehow it was relegated to the back of my To Do List. I thought this year would be a good year to do it. And now James has passed on.
As I’ve said, James made my life richer (and he taught me how to appreciate gin!).
I will never again meet someone the likes of him. The world doesn’t make unique beings like that anymore. He was a British gentleman till the end, a little upset and lost at the new world. He valued love, friendship and honour and he trusted people.
But he wasn’t very fortunate because his old-world heart trusted the wrong people – he used to recount bitterly how he’d been ripped off by his “friends” on the island. Perhaps his heart broke a little each time someone turned his life upside down. I know I’d be bilious too.
Therefore, meeting his UK friend, Marianda threw up a deep connection. I was calm when I got news that James had passed on but upon meeting Marianda, I collapsed into her arms, hugging her as we both wept at our loss. Intuitively, he connected us both.
My promise is that we’d keep James’ memory alive – all his beautiful stories (fiction or fact, who knows?) of him as a planter, spy, adventurer, son of the earth.
So this year, I hope it is one of my projects – to help edit through his stories and put them on a website so that all those who knew him would be able to read his Far East tales.
I hope to get an edition published too and those who buy the book will be contributing to his favourite charity or organisation. The orang asli were his favourite people besides the Indians. We were thinking that maybe the Indian temple in Kisap would be the beneficiary (he had, after all, been cremated in a pyre at that temple, as per his last wishes). Then again, all these are just my ideas. I wonder what his friends have in mind.
The next day, all of us who could make it, set off in a boat to a spot near Pulau Dayang Bunting. James’ ashes would be sunk there.
The spot we chose was secluded, near a hilly cliff-face of scraggly rocks and tall tropical trees. Two white-breasted eagles swooped overhead and landed on a tree, watching us, watching them.
They started singing as we each grabbed handfuls of cempaka flowers (taken from Kyri’s garden) to scatter into the mesmerizing green sea. We took this to be a sign that yes, James would like this very spot.
His London friend, Peter, used a hammer and screwdriver to chisel a tiny hole at the bottom of the clay vessel which held the ashes. Marianda read a poem aloud – a poem penned by James in the days he started to write. In the poem, James likened himself to a bear. Some shaman told him once that he was a reincarnation of a bear, a ‘beruang’ and I think James loved the idea.
As Peter released the clay vessel into the still waters of the Langkawi sea, we all wished in our hearts for his eternal peace. He would rest well in these waters. He was finally in his tropical resting place.
Johnny, the other owner of The Lighthouse restaurant, popped open a bottle of champagne to toast the final send-off. James would have been pleased.
So this is for you Tuan Besar (that’s what I used to call him) – the journey has ended but we will keep your stories alive.