The Gentleman and His Stories

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!

A gathering of friends, old and new at Bon Ton Langkawi to celebrate James
A gathering of friends, old and new at Bon Ton Langkawi to celebrate James

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.
Kyri (standing) and Marianda
Kyri (standing) and Marianda

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.
Marianda reads tributes from James' friends who emailed her
Marianda reads tributes from James' friends who emailed her

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.
Final send off for James White
Final send off for James White

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.
Tropical flowers to line the way
Tropical flowers to line the way

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.
Marianda reads one of James' poems
Marianda reads one of James' poems

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.
James' final resting place
James' final 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.

6 thoughts on “The Gentleman and His Stories”

  1. Dear Krista, Thanks so much for your beautiful blog and the pics.. I’ll be sending you mine as well.. Much love, Marianda

    • Hi Marianda: Thank you. I am grateful that I now know you through James. Yes, do send more pictures along please. I have a bunch but I chose the best for the post. 😉

  2. I only met James 6, maybe 7, times so I didn’t know him as well as everyone at the wake. But he was certainly an original, the likes of which we will not soon see again.
    The last time I saw him I thought he seemed very depressed and angry (or perhaps I should say more so than usual James White levels). Not about anything in particular but everything in general. So in a way, I feel glad to think that James is out there right now, God knows where, reincarnated as a new-born infant and his batteries fully recharged, already plotting destruction upon those who would oppress the innocent.
    So I will not mourn you, James (hey, I haven’t forgotten all those times you took cruel potshots at my paper). Instead I will just pity the poor bastards who get in your way when you grow up. Give ’em hell, Old Boy!

    • Hi Patrick – Glad you stopped by! We have known him for a few years now and he has always been James. Always peeved and always grumbling. We saw him once last year after his accident and he seemed not himself. I think it literally knocked the wind out of him. You are right. He should be happier now and in better spirits! It was also great meeting you after the online communication we had. But James’ life taught me a few lessons – as a writer, as a producer of content, I must now write a will so that people will know what to do with my content (so much floating about in cyberspace anyway) when I pass on. I don’t want people to mis-use the content I’ve produced. 😉 Or at least bequeath the right stuff to the right folks and trust they will do right by them.

  3. I like patrick only met James a handful of times, visiting him at home in Langkawi with my husband Dom, we used to take him out whilst we were there.
    One evening James aranged to pick me up from the hotel and take us out for dinner at the Light House,Langkawi. He told me that we would be having a fourth person joining us which was a business friend of his and would i mind. ; ‘Of course not.’ i replied. We got out of his little bone shaker white car and made our way to the table of this most beautifully set resturant, just about to sit down when I heard, ‘Hello Chaps!’ I recognised the voice instantly, it was my father Peter Purnell, he and James had organised him to fly over from the uk for a surprise, and it was! Only James and Dad, James such a kind kind man.
    He had so much love and time for everyone, he constantly talked about all the people he knew with such care and admiration, it was always about someone other than himself.
    Patrick Low, above: was I feel exactly right in his explaination of how James deteriated after his accident, he returned to the Uk in the November before he died, and the spark was ebbing, so sad, i used to worry he never ate properly, We had supper with Dad at a Prezzo restaurant, I kept trying to encourage him to eat as much as possible, as usual he said , Stop worrying , IM FINE, with a gentle arm squeeze.
    I told james I was pregnant whilst we were eating and he was so pleased for me, I said I would be returning to langkawi to visit him with the baby after the birth. he was so looking forward to it.
    Refering back to Patricks note,
    ‘I feel glad to think that James is out there right now, God knows where, reincarnated as a new-born infant and his batteries fully recharged,
    My Son was born 11.37pm, on the day James died – I named him Joseph.

    • HI Louise: Thanks for sharing the beautiful story about James’ kind little heart. He was always the perfect British gentleman, always too kind for his own darn good. Nic and I loved his madness and spontaneity though that could be rather unnerving at times. I let him re-tell his stories for the umpteenth time because it was good for him to relive those amazing memories. Our lives are enriched, don’t you think Louise because we’ve met and been touched by James’ gestures and actions? Hope to meet you one day just as I’ve met other good friends of James during the wake. James is one of a kind and that’s how I will remember him. Peace and blessings! May your son grow up with the heart of dear old James….a big bear of a friend.


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