When I first heard about David Wu’s 4,000km cycling expedition from Kedah to China, I thought it would be a story of a man discovering his home. ‘This would be an article of a lost man finding where he truly belonged’, I thought as I get ready to meet him.
David walked into the café and introduced himself. He was in a red cap and slippers, a carefully trimmed beard decorated his sharp jaw line, the wallpaper on his phone proudly declared his surname, Wu (伍).
I remember David Wu. He was that crazy guy who walked solo from Kuala Lumpur to Kota Bharu last year to raise money for flood victims in Kelantan. It took him 25 days to walk 500km across the peninsular. I was impressed; he managed to raise over RM66,000 to rebuild homes for hardcore poor families whose homes were destroyed in the floods.
This time, David is embarking on an 11-week cycling expedition across the continent. From his hometown of Alor Setar, he cycled through Bangkok, Siam Reap, Hanoi, and finally to his ancestral village in the Guang Dong province of China. David started his journey on 6 May 2016. His is a journey that will cover 4,000km, which is equivalent to running 95 full marathons. Imagine cycling 100km every day, exposed to the unforgiving weather, traffic, and wild animals.
When I met David a month before his expedition, he admitted with a grin that his cycling mission started with a mid-life crisis. The original plan was to cycle across the globe to the Seven Wonders of the World.
“What changed?” I asked. His answer hits the nerve of an issue I, along with every other Malaysian, is familiar with.
“One afternoon, I saw a bunch of Bangladeshi road workers and it struck me, they are no different from my grandfather. My grandfather came here 100 years ago when he was about 12 to work in Malaya. Times may have changed, but their story is the same as my grandfather’s. I thought about all the rough comments we have made about these Bangladeshis and I wondered, when did we become so xenophobic?”
The foreign workers sparked a fascination within David to know more about the grandfather he never met. Who was this man? How did he come to Malaya? How did he end up in Alor Setar? David turned to his relatives hoping to discover more information.
One day, his uncle sent him an old photo of his great grandfather. At the bottom of the photo was an inscription of his great grandfather’s name, clan, and village. David marvelled at the fact that people in the old days just got on a boat and set sail, carrying nothing but a single photo detailing their origin. Far away from home, it was their only form of identification.
The photo did it for David; he felt an urge to visit his ancestral home. As a tribute to his forefathers who came to Malaya under very difficult circumstances, he would do so the hard way – on a bicycle.
Just as I thought I had the story I was looking for, David hit me with a curveball, “I am going to go to my ancestral home, knowing it’s not home.”
I put down my mocha, “What do you mean?”
“I’m going back to a hometown that I’m so disconnected from – I don’t speak Mandarin nor my dialect, I’m going to be lost there, I won’t be able to talk to the locals. There is nothing about my ancestral home that makes me feel like I belong. Yes, my ethnicity is Chinese and that’s where my ancestors were from, but I’m Malaysian and Malaysia is my home.”
David explained the difference between going home, and going to see the place where his roots originated. With xenophobic tension rising in the country, he saw this as an opportunity to show people the distinction between his family history and who he is, regardless of the backlash that may arise.
“I’m not going back to my ancestral home, I’m cycling to my ancestral home. The trip will end with me taking a plane, flying back to Malaysia. At the end of the day, I want to show people that Malaysia is my home,” a glimmer of hope vibrates in his voice.
I saw how David prides himself to be Malaysian first as he passionately tells me how he will be using his expedition to raise funds for Project Wumah. Sharing a vision to repair homes of underprivileged Malaysians, he has teamed up with an unlikely partner – Food Aid Foundation Project Director Hayati Ismail.
As he cycles to China, Hayati had been in Malaysia scouring kampungs to identify families in desperate need of better living conditions. Even David chuckled at the notion of him working with Hayati. “I’m an atheist, beer-drinking Chinese; Hayati is a God-loving Malay angel.” David and Hayati are polar opposites of each other, but from the vision and passion for Malaysia that they share, perhaps they are not from different worlds at all.
I asked David if he and Hayati had any criteria for the families they would be helping. His answer was a fast no, “I just want to help struggling Malaysians live better lives.”
When I first shook David’s hand, I thought this was just another publicity stunt in the making. But something in David’s words struck a chord within me; it could be the sincerity in his eyes, his exasperation at social injustice, or the fact that I too know the pain of being told to “balik Tong Shan”.
Between cycling to his ancestral home, spreading the message of racial harmony, and building homes for underprivileged Malaysians, David has a big mission ahead of him. As he bids me goodbye, I realise that his story is not of a man rediscovering his hometown; it’s about a man discovering how he came to be Malaysian.
I’ve been following David’s witty daily Facebook updates on his expedition. The man has actually marked 4,000km and is currently in Taishan, in the Guang Dong province of China looking for his ancestor’s village. Congratulations, David! You are one crazy inspiring man.
This story was first written for webe community.
I’m dedicating this blog to introspective travel stories that’ll teach and inspire, whether mine, David’s or others. Know someone with an amazing story that needs be told? Let me know! If you like traveling through my stories and photos, follow me on Facebook and Instagram.