Contents>> Vol. 6, No. 2

From World City to the World in One City: Liverpool through Malay Lives
Tim Bunnell
Chichester and Malden: John Wiley & Sons, 2016, xvii+284pp.

One day in September 2005, this reviewer was enjoying “authentic Malaysian cuisine that is 100% HALAL Food” at Mawar (“Rose”) Restaurant on Edgware Road, London, thanks to the hospitality of the localized Malaysian freelance journalist/broadcaster Wan Zaharah Othman. The restaurant was then the only Malaysian restaurant in London, and Malaysian and Singapore clientele formed a large portion of its regulars. So, in addition to Malay food, customers could also enjoy conversation in Bahasa Melayu (the Malay language). On that particular night, Art Fazil, a Malay singer of Singapore origin, was singing his original song “Anak Melayu di Kota Inggeris” (Malay diaspora in an English town) to the accompaniment of his own guitar. He was one of the committee members of the London Malay Festival held just one month earlier, “showcasing the diversity of the Malay diaspora in one festival, a sort of regathering of the tribe,” in his words. Incidentally, Anthony Milner reports that advertised participants in the festival were from Sri Lanka, Madagascar, and South Africa as well as Southeast Asia (Milner 2008, 184). I was visiting the UK chiefly to extend my anthropological field of interest to the Malay diaspora in that country.

Before starting my review of Tim Bunnell’s book, let me give a brief history of my encounter with the Malay diaspora/Dunia Melayu (Malay World) movement led mainly by the late Professor Ismail Hussein of the GAPENA (Malaysian National Writers’ Association). While I was engaged in anthropological fieldwork on a different research theme in Negeri Sembilan, Malaysia, the first Malay World Assembly was held in Melaka (Malacca) in 1982. I happened to be invited to take part as an observer. It was only after the 1990s and the early twenty-first century, however, that I became really conscious of the importance of the movement and conducted my research on the topic, as a result of which I published a paper based chiefly on the GAPENA activities (Abdul Latiff 2002; Tomizawa 2010).

Since I met Wan Zaharah in London I have not seen her again, but after more than a decade I was able to meet her again in Bunnell’s book From World City to the World in One City: Liverpool through Malay Lives. In contrast with my main approach to the Malay world focusing on Malay elites and culturists, Bunnell’s basic focus seems to be on the ordinary subaltern strata of the Malay diaspora. His “Malay Routes” research project provided the basic data for the book, which formally began at the National University of Singapore in 2004. It is noteworthy that his interest in “a long-standing Malay seafaring presence in England” was triggered by a Malay-language film titled Dari Jemapoh ke Manchester (From Jemapoh to Manchester) as well as his grandfather’s death in the UK a couple of years before he started the project. His grandfather had worked in the merchant navy, shipping out of Liverpool to spend some time in Singapore during and after World War II before finally returning to the UK. So Bunnell’s memory had been sustained by the painting of a Blue Funnel Line ship set against the Liverpool waterfront that was in the room where he always ate during childhood visits to his grandparents’ home. Probably that formed the root and route of the author’s strenuous efforts to launch into the huge ocean of the Malay world and Malay Routes project.

This book elaborately and carefully depicts people who met at Liverpool’s Malay Club over a period of more than half a century until its closure in 2007. The author examines, in particular, the maritime linkages that made possible the formation of the Malay Club and the worlds of connection that the club in turn sustained. The original objective of the Malay Routes research project was to examine historically shifting connections between Liverpool and the alam Melayu (Malay world) through life histories and geographies of Malay ex-seamen. As his research went on, however, he realized the importance of the present life realities of the ex-seamen and shifted his main focus of research to their ongoing life geographies. Then the memories and stories of ordinary “non-expert” individuals, families, and other social groupings seemed to constitute largely undocumented archives of everyday or subaltern forms of historical urban worlding. These are lived archives of memory, not only yielding insights into connected geographies of a bygone era but also leading to consideration of how historical connections inhabit contemporary imaginings, practices, and worlds in the city.

Examining Liverpool’s urban geographies through Malay lives, the author attempts to advance three key sets of arguments in the book concerning the relational and territorial dimensions of cities, and historically sensitive ways of studying them. The first concerns Liverpool’s long-distance social webs or networks, and the wider geographies of connection with which they have been intertwined. The author’s important theoretical contribution here is his assertion that Malay social webs spun in late colonial times not only exceeded formal political economic linkages but also preceded globalization and transnationalism and even outlived the imperial world city of Liverpool. A second set of his arguments has to do with the territorial grounding of transnational social webs or networks. The author argues that Malay transnational urban networks in Liverpool were anchored or locally grounded in the successive sites of the city’s Malay Club, connecting them to other maritime centers including in Southeast Asia and across the Atlantic to New York. His third set of arguments has to do with what the lives of people who met at the sites in Liverpool reveal about the relational (re)making of cities. In this connection, life histories and geographies of the people concerned can also tell us about multiple worlds in cities according to the author.

The book consists of nine chapters including the introductory and concluding ones. The seven main chapters (Chapters 2 to 8) are organized in broadly chronological terms, beginning from the tail end of the era during which Liverpool was a prominent imperial maritime and commercial center—a world city. Chapter 2, “From the Malay World to the Malay Atlantic,” shedding light on Malay transatlantic mobilities, traces the shipping routes that connected the alam Melayu to Liverpool, positioning the city and seafaring Malay men in world-spanning commercial and social webs.

In Chapter 3, “Home Port Liverpool and its Malay Places,” the author focuses on the social geography of Liverpool as “home port” to men from the alam Melayu with varying degrees of attachment to the city. This chapter provides us with precious ethnographic data concerning the realities of Malay diaspora daily life. For example, we can learn that food became central to members of the Malay Club. Having a taste for spicy food was the common denominator marker of Malayness in the mid-twentieth century, and Muslim food taboos (typified by babi /pork-free practice) tended to be kept by the first generation but rarely extended to second-generation Malay girls and boys. After all, for children of seamen as well as (ex-)seamen themselves, the club was the place where they could be—at least partly—“Malay,” typically through the Malay-language conversations and food provided there, showing the interaction among food culture, religious beliefs, and ethnicity. In this way, children of Malay seamen experienced the club as a place to “be Malay” and as a site of connection to Malay worlds.

The following three chapters are set in the context of Liverpool’s repositioning in the new international division of labor and in relation to the concomitant political economic development of independent nation-states in Southeast Asia. Chapter 4, “Merseyside Malaise and the Unmaking of British Malaya,” examines changes to the social composition and transnational connections of the Malay Club associated with the post-independence remaking of territories of the former British Malaya and Liverpool’s interrelated post-maritime economic transformation. In Chapter 5, “Diasporic (Re)connections,” the author turns his eyes anew to recent Liverpool as a destination for students, tourists, and diaspora seekers from Southeast Asian nation-states as they have become more affluent and, especially in the case of Malaysia, increasingly concerned with transnational Malayness. This chapter interestingly depicts histories of non-seafaring travels to the site of the club, including both individual searches for seafaring ancestors and politically driven interest in diaspora communities among Malay nationalist elites in Malaysia. Furthermore, Bunnell’s precious historical insight teaches us that the existence of visitors showing interest in the Malay diaspora in Liverpool can be traced back as far as the 1960s. He also suggests that encounters among diasporic Malays in Sri Lanka, South Africa, Madagascar, and so on had already occurred decades before the Dunia Melayu or Malay diaspora movement that was dramatically activated in the 1980s and after. On the other hand, we are also informed that it was during the period after the first Malay World Assembly in Melaka in 1982 that Malays in Liverpool and elsewhere in Britain began to attract the interest of prominent Malaysian political figures. This chapter is especially important and illuminating for Malay diaspora studies, providing stimulative data on global-scale dynamic interactions over Malayness between “old Malays” and “the Islamized New Malay.” Subsequently, the “return” journeys of Liverpool-based ex-seafarers to newly emerging centers of urban modernity in the Malay world in Southeast Asia form the focus of Chapter 6. Although a recurring theme of this book is how diverse individual life experiences and associated geographies defy group generalization, the author does not deny the fact that among Malay ex-seamen in Liverpool it is possible to identify a prevailing trend toward increased religiosity in later life.

The last three chapters mainly highlight the rather new positioning into which diaspora communities and ethnic groups in general have been thrown in the context of local administrative cultural policies and urban regeneration strategies in the UK and other nations. Chapter 7, “Community in the Capital of Culture,” pays special attention to recent and ongoing culture-led urban regeneration strategies in Liverpool, particularly the city’s rebranding as “the World in One City.” The author analyzes opportunities for Liverpool-based Malaysian students to make Malay(sian)s visible and fundable in the context of community-led urban governance regimes. Chapter 8, “The Last Hurrah: From Independence Celebrations and Interculturalism to Club Closure,” contains a detailed description and analysis of local celebrations of Merdeka (Malaysian independence) in two events intended to heighten community visibility in the lead-up to Liverpool’s year as European capital of culture around 2008. This symbolically reflects the essential transformation of Liverpool from “World City” to “World in One City,” which took place over the last half century. In other words, Liverpool itself has also been thrown into a new positioning in the present phase of globalization as well as the local Malay diaspora. In Chapter 9, the author concludes the book by revisiting the main arguments and comparative contributions of the study.

Overall, this book is a well-written transnational urban geography through Malay lives. The author’s sincere and tireless attitude in always turning his eyes to every detailed reality is especially praiseworthy. As far as the Dunia Melayu movement is concerned, no doubt Bunnell’s work has added an important contribution to a series of academic endeavors in this field so far. As Milner properly suggests, Dunia Melayu is a continuation of the process of redefinition that has been under way over the last two centuries; furthermore, there is a post-nation-state dimension to the movement (Milner 2008, 185). This is precisely why the movement is so interesting, and Bunnell’s proposition regarding “transnationalism from below,” which preceded today’s globalization according to him, might correspond to this comprehensive understanding of the movement. Lastly, if I dare to point out what is a little bit wanting in his work, discussion on the intranational (not international or transnational) aspect of the Malay network and interactions in the UK does not seem to be satisfactory. For example, the Malay Association UK (Persatuan Masyarakat Melayu UK, or Melayu UK) was formed around the beginning of the twenty-first century as “the first UK-wide Malay society” to directly address the welfare of Malays resident in the UK. I wonder what sorts of interaction or lack of interaction could be detected between the Malay Club in Liverpool and the newly instituted Melayu UK or other dispersed Malay communities in that country. I also wonder whether there was any causality between the establishment of the Melayu UK and the closure of the Malay Club in Liverpool. The author’s diligent attempt at drawing our attention to the world-spanning historical urban interrelations and circulations in and through Malay places is satisfactorily successful, illuminating and inspiring further challenging studies in this field of research.

Tomizawa Hisao 富沢寿勇
School of International Relations, Global Center for Asian and Regional Research, University of Shizuoka


Abdul Latiff Abu Bakar. 2002. Ismail Hussein bersama GAPENA: Biografi & koleksi [Ismail Hussein and GAPENA: Biography and collection]. Kuala Lumpur: GAPENA.

Milner, Anthony. 2008. The Malays. West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell.

Tomizawa, Hisao. 2010. Old and New Aspects of Malayness in the Contemporary Dunia Melayu Movement. In Tinta di dada naskhah: Melakar jasa Dato’ Dr. Abu Hassan Sham [Issues on Malay literature and material: Festschrift in honor of Abu Hassan Sham], edited by Hashim Ismail, pp. 29–44. Kuala Lumpur: Jabatan Penerbitan Akademi Pengajian Melayu, Universiti Malaya.


DOI: doi.org/10.20495/seas.6.2_397