Saturday, 1 October 2016
Last Wednesday (28 Sep 2016), I had an opportunity to address the congregation of the St George's Church in Dittisham, England, at a special thanksgiving service which the community there held for the group of 40 Malaysians that had arrived in this village.
I was the fourth Penang-born Malaysian to speak in the Church, after Wong Mei Fong, Abdul Rafique bin Karim and Saw Saik Mun, but the fifth Old Free if you consider that Andrew Lim had delivered a Reading from the Book of Job (28: 12-18) during the main part of the service.
But although my speech was entirely impromptu and unscripted, unlike the others, it too had a purpose, like the others. Mei Fong made the introductions while Rafique and Saik Mun's speeches dealt specifically with the 200th anniversary of Penang Free School and the conclusion of the grueling but very successful PFS-Dittisham overland drive.
As for me, I had something else in mind.
You see, after I had first decided to travel to Dittisham to meet the six-car convoy at the end of their 73-day journey across Asia and Europe, I was wondering what I could contribute to the occasion. I wasn't prepared to be a mere passenger.
Then an idea struck me. What were the buildings associated with Robert Sparke Hutchings in Penang. Penang Free School was his greatest contribution but there was the St George's Church in Farquhar Street too. He had a hand in its establishment soon after he arrived in the Prince of Wales Island in 1814 to take up his post as Chaplain of the British settlement.
The Free School had opened in rented premises in Love Lane but nobody knows today the exact location of this house. The first permanent premises in Church Square beside the St George's Church were dismantled a lot time ago when the second premises in Farquhar Street was built in 1896.This building ceased to be the Free School when the third premises in Green Lane became ready at the end of 1927. Today, the Farquhar Street building - at least, part of it - is now the Penang State Museum.
So these are the three buildings that owed their existence, one way or another, to Revd Robert Sparke Hutchings.
My idea? To collect a bit of soil or dirt from these three places and present it to the St George's Church in Dittisham. It would be good to let the occasion represent Hutchings' homecoming to the village where he was born. Initially, I thought of also removing the soil from around his tomb at the Protestant Cemetery but I was very wary of disturbing the sanctity of the place, especially since it was a heritage site. Besides, there was no knowing what else I could have disturbed in that very yin place and brought it home with me. On that account, it was a definite no-brainer for me.
The opportunity presented itself towards the end of the thanksgiving service in Dittisham. I rose to say my piece before the congregation. I told them of my intention to give their village a very small part of Penang; in a sense, bringing Hutchings back to the village where he was born.
Hutchings was born and baptised in Dittisham in 1781; he then travelled one-third around the world, settled and died in Penang in 1827, and was buried there. And now, with this gesture, he has come home to Dittisham in 2016. It was a very small personal tribute but I would think it went down very well with the Dittisham parishioners who were present that day.
Father Will Hazlewood, Vicar of the United Benefice of Dartmouth and Dittisham, who led the service was visibly happy and Mohd Aslam bin Farikullah, the Chief Operating Officer of Group Lotus UK, pulled me aside to say that that was a wonderful idea. But as far as I could make out, none of the main Bicentenary Committee or the convoy members, except for one person, looked impressed with my action. Their reaction was muted. Not that I minded that much; I acted in my personal capacity and the St George's Church, Dittisham just happened to be my stage.