|Drawing upon life history interviews with former seafarers, interviews with their family members and descendents, participation in community events and documentary/archival material, the project investigates two interrelated ‘geographies’: (1) the transnational maritime linkages between Liverpool and territories that are today Malaysia and Singapore; and (2) the socio-spatial ‘place’ of Malay and related seafaring groups in Liverpool, which will be the European Capital of Culture in 2008.
The ‘Malay Routes’ considered in the project speak to the literature on transnationalism in three main ways:
The first concerns debates about extending the concept of transnationalism beyond the globally-interconnected final decades of the twentieth century. During the first half of the century when Liverpool was an imperial maritime centre with extensive worldwide linkages, Malays living in the city were connected up to networks of gossip and gift-giving extending back to Southeast Asia. A/P Bunnell’s research highlights the importance of specifying political geographies in historical debates on transnationalism. As subjects of the British Empire, seafarers from British protected states and Crown Colonies such as the Straits Settlements of Malacca, Penang and Singapore were ostensibly free to enter and settle in the United Kingdom. It was only with processes of post-colonial state formation in Southeast Asia and immigration changes in the U.K. in the 1960s that the ‘Malay routes’ which this study examines came to extend across state boundaries – and so became ‘transnational’ (or, more precisely, trans-nation-state).
The second contribution follows on from this and concerns the transnational changes that have occurred over the course of the lives of former seafarers. Existing theoretical literature has seen attempts to specify different forms of transnationalism with which to categorize transnational individuals and groups. However, research in Liverpool shows how individuals may be entwined in different forms/degrees of transnational processes at different stages in their lives. One perhaps surprising finding is that there are Malay men in Liverpool who have experienced transnationalization after the decline of Liverpool as a seaport. In their old age – and during a period when Liverpool has in many ways been delinked from transnational commercial routes – some men now have ‘dual lives’ spanning the U.K. and Malaysia and/or Singapore in Southeast Asia.
A third contribution of the research findings so far concerns attempts to specify the role of space and place in transnational processes. Transnationalism frequently invokes not only notions of boundary-crossing but also the supposedly reduced importance of physical sites and attachment to place. However, this research shows how for 40 years, a clubhouse on Jermyn Street in the Toxteth or ‘Liverpool 8’ part of the city has functioned as a vital place of/for transnational networking; it is a site where people meet face-to-face and one where information and artifacts have long been exchanged. This, in turn, raises the question as to whether it is necessary for individuals to (physically) cross nation-state boundaries in order to be considered ‘transnationals’. Men who frequent the clubhouse [or, in earlier decades, pubs such as The Nook] have arguably long been enrolled in forms of transnational networks, even if they have not physically returned to Southeast Asia for four decades or more.
The interpersonal approach demanded by research for the Malay Routes project means that A/P Bunnell has forged many personal connections and friendships in Liverpool and beyond. Familiarity with Malay language and culture from earlier research experience in Malaysia in particular has helped in building rapport with former seafarers and their families. In many ways, A/P Bunnell has become very much a subject of transnationalism himself, with his roots in the north-west of England and residence in Southeast Asia mirroring the geographies of his study. From lunching at the Malaysia and Singapore Community Association (MSA) in Liverpool to drinking teh tarik at Lau Pa Sat with a Liverpool-based man back visiting relatives in Singapore, and from funerals in Anfield, Liverpool to the wedding of a seafarer’s grandson in Ang Mo Kio, the research spans geographical and cultural boundaries in ways that trace the transnationalism of the Malay ‘community’ in Liverpool.
While the Malay Routes project formally ended in December 2006, A/P Bunnell’s interest in Liverpool and its Malay heritage is ongoing. Sabbatical leave in Liverpool in 2008 allowed the collection of further archival and interview material. The most recent journal article from the project was published in Pacific Affairs in 2010 and work is continuing on a book manuscript entitled, ‘From World City to the World in One City: Liverpool Through Malay Lives’.
The following external websites are also recommended by A/P Bunnell for those interested in multicultural Liverpool which forms the context for Malay Routes:
Bunnell, T. (2007) ‘Post-maritime transnationalization: Malay seafarers in Liverpool', Global Networks 7 (4): 412-29.
Bunnell, T. (2008) ‘Multiculturalism's regeneration: Celebrating Merdeka (Malaysian independence) in a European Capital of Culture, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 33: 251-67.
Bunnell, T. (2009) ‘Laskar Belitung di Liverpool’, Kompas, 12 September.
Bunnell, T. (2010) 'Routes of identity: Malay Liverpool and the limits of transnationalism', Pacific Affairs 83, 459-479.