What do we really see when we look at the sea? For me, I see stories – lots of them, as I gaze out to the vast expanse of water. Where do the waves go? Where do they come from? How far have they travelled before arriving at the shore? How deep is the sea that I am looking at? Has anyone drowned recently? Unlikely, since that stretch of sun-drenched sand is patrolled by bronzed chaps and chicks donning red caps and wearing bright yellow vests. The surf lifesaver has become a new Aussie icon. Tanned, fearless, selfless and strong on our beaches, they are as identifiably Australian as Bondi Beach and the Sydney Opera House. The sea was turquoise and choppy earlier on but now it is almost pitch black and calm. Suddenly, it is quiet, very quiet without the busy seagulls and the narcissistic blondes in the briefest bikinis. Look at the sea carefully, as carefully as you would cross a busy street. Is there a dangerous rip current ready to pull you in and will it snarl at your futile attempts to swim back to shore? Will you get thrown up high by a huge playful wave before it dumps you hard into the water? Will you be fooled by the gracefulness of the jellyfish? Do you even know how to treat its sting? Is it harbouring any Great Whites out there, just a short ride in a lightweight tinny? What is a tinny, you ask? It’s an aluminium boat no bigger than a sampan but its lightness makes any ride a choppy one, even on a perfectly calm day. The last one I was in made me puke up my breakfast, to my colleague’s horror. Would it surprise you if I told you that was the only time he invited me to go fishing with him?
Once upon a time, I wrote to a girl that my love for her was like the sea. I was so absolutely sure I would return to her as surely as the sea always returns to the seashore. On a starry night, upon seeing the push of the current towards the shore, she would realise it was as strong as her pull on me towards her heart. See the tracks on the golden sand? I reminded her then. Our footprints will be intact and undisturbed by time, we both echoed. “The moment will surely come when we are together again retracing our footsteps,” absurdly I wrote on the aerogramme. Strangely, I have never enjoyed sand on my feet since. I was born on a tropical island that nestled in a sheltered paradise in the Straits of Malacca. Penang, long long ago, was known as the Pearl of the Orient. The story of the pearl is also a love story. If you cast your mind to an oyster with its hard shell protecting the naturally-formed pearl inside it, you will feel the perfect harmony and caring love between the living shellfish and its precious jewel in the sea. The more pristine their natural environment is, the more exquisite will be the pearl’s perfection.
In school as a child, I was taught that the island I was born in was founded by Francis Light, and then colonised by the British Empire. It was much later that I discovered that the earliest remains of its natives were well over 5,000 years old. That is significantly much older than the island of Great Britain itself, which was formed in 1707. It is also much older than England by some 4,000 years. Artefacts found in Prai indicated that the earliest inhabitants of Penang were nomadic Melanesians who were hunter-gatherers. Francis Light arrived in his “country ship” named Eliza. I reckon he should have called it a warship as it was laden with cannons and manned by artillery personnel alongside two escort naval ships, Prince Henry and Speedwell.
Human history is littered with the romanticised ideas of swashbuckling buccaneers and all-conquering Vikings who raided large parts of Europe by stealth from their narrow-bottomed long warships. Who hasn’t read Treasure Island and pretended to be young Jim Hawkins? Many of us would have sung “Fifteen men on the dead man’s chest, yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum!” for the first time during our childhood without even knowing what rum was. War movies glorify the honour and blood shed during famous battles between warships such as the 2nd Battle of Guadalcanal and Battle of Surigao Strait. They were Hollywood movies of course, since the battles were won by the Americans over the Imperial Japanese navy. The Titanic may not have been a warship but we can’t deny how so many romanticised its ill-fated maiden voyage, made unforgettable by James Cameron. What about the other much-acclaimed naval movie, Master and Commander, about a British naval captain during the Napoleonic Wars? Or Midway about the Battle of Midway, a turning point in WW2. Why do we romanticise tragedy? The idea that we can glorify battles between warships and build awe-inspiring stories around so much destruction and death is typical of urghhlings.
When I look at the sea, I am often reminded of a black and white war movie, set in the Americas. The scene of that Spanish beach landing still haunts my mind. The Spanish soldiers, terrified and weary, were pinged down on the shallow water near their small landing crafts unable to advance towards the beach. Their warship anchored in the background, was too far for them to return to it. So near yet so far, as one by one they got shot down from where they stood. They started praying, softly at the beginning, but their voices soon grew bolder as more men joined in like a hesitant choir. They quivered as they prayed. I imagined some were repenting, others admonishing themselves for hurting their loved ones during foolish moments of rage.That remains for me, one of the most poignant scenes I have witnessed on TV. When all able-bodied and super-fit fighting men could do was to stand and pray and wait for death to come. What stories did they flashback in their minds? Who did they love? They sure as hell weren’t worshipping their warship then.
Today, there seems to be a lot of talk about the potential for a hot war between America and China. The arena of war commonly anticipated is the Taiwan Strait, also known as the Formosa Strait. US destroyer the USS John McCain passed through there earlier this week as a “routine” freedom of navigation move. A “powder keg”, military experts have been comparing the might of the US navy against the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in that region. One headline this week screamed out that the PLA’s new warship puts US to shame at sea. Not so long ago, we used to compare the number of aircraft carriers amongst nations and the results determined that the US were far superior with their overwhelming fleet of nuclear-powered warships. But, their long-range strikes have been quickly negated by the current crop of fast and stealthy missiles. Today, it is about the superiority of missile destroyers and their vast numbers of Vertical Launch Systems (VLS) cells. The VLS is designed to overwhelm the enemy through speed, stealth and sheer numbers. They are the “big guns” of modern warships. The PLA will soon have a fleet of 14 such destroyers each with 112 VLS cells whilst the US navy is (inexplicably) retiring theirs.
The other hot zone for potential conflict is in the South China Sea where disputes have arisen between China and the neighbouring nations such as Brunei, Indonesia,Taiwan, Japan, Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia. In 1951, Imperial Japan was forced to relinquish islands such as the Paracel and Spratly Islands which they invaded during WW2, but the authors of the treaty did not (or could not) resolve the matter of true ownership. The Kuomintang government had established the eleven-dashed-line four years before that but those islands which fell within the zone were not returned to China. I was curious to know why the “Paracel Islands” sounds French when they are so far away from France. It is simply because they were claimed by the French when they colonised vast lands in Southeast Asia and ruled French Indochina for 67 years. When the occupiers lost to Viet Minh forces, they handed the Paracel Islands, also known as Xisha Islands, to the North Vietnamese. But, does this recent history of ownership justify Vietnamese claim to the islands?
Just days ago, the US sent the USS Makin Island, an amphibious assault ship, and the USS San Diego to bolster their presence in the South China Sea. It seems their worship of warships will be unceasing as they continue to wander far from their backyard, menacing any country they arbitrarily decide is a threat to their status as the world’s biggest economy and the most powerful country. How would they react if the PLA were to move their warships to patrol the Gulf of Mexico as a routine freedom of navigation deployment?
More and more people in my circle of friends are rooting for war. They see China in the ascendency and show their impatience for China to right the grievances and suffering from the Opium Wars. To those who cannot curb their priapic urge for war, go take a cold shower. People die in wars. Do not worship the warship.