“I know of no one, whatever nationality, who did so much for others to his own detriment.”
By Jo Robson (former) Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Education Trust Archivist
Abdul Malik Choudhury Bakht, born in Assam, came to the UK to work at the Pakistani High Commission before working as a welfare officer for Cunard. He not only established several businesses in North West England but became a vital community contact. He was passionate about supporting his compatriots and voluntarily worked to mitigate/translate/solve problems linked with the police, airports, courts, prisons, and hospitals.
Malik’s story came to our archive from his widow Yvonne. The archive is made up of a small collection of photographs, letters and invitations. The information from the archive and Yvonne’s oral history together results in only a fragmentary picture of Malik, his life, his impact on his local community and Manchester more widely. However, even with this partial account it’s clear that he was quite a remarkable man.
Abdul Malik Choudhury Bakht was born in Shillong, Assam in 1924. Assam is an area in the northeast of India, with land well suited for tea production. In the 1820-1840s land was rented by British companies and tea plantations established, which encouraged the expansion of British rule in the area. At the time of Abdul’s birth Assam was still under British rule.
Abdul, more commonly known as Malik, was the eldest son in a family of six children. We know nothing of his childhood or upbringing in Shillong other than that his father was a doctor and the family owned land in Sylhet area of India (now Bangladesh). The archive documents Malik’s life from around 1939 to 1945 when, during the Second World War, he was in Imphal (capital of the Indian northeast state of Manipur) and Kohima (capital of Indian northeast state of Nagaland) working as a translator for the American forces. This area was a key site in the war against Japan, whose forces were moving through the British controlled territories of Hong Kong, Malaya, Singapore and Burma (now Myanmar) towards India. Imphal and Kohima, being to the far northeast of India close to the border with Myanmar, were therefore key strategic locations. Despite being little known about in the UK, the Battles of Imphal and Kohima were key in halting and reversing the Japanese U-Go offensive into India. It’s interesting to consider what experiences Malik may have had during the war.
The archive then shows that in 1947 he came to the UK to work at the Pakistani High Commission. (Records shed no light on the time between the end of the war and 1947 or how he came to take on the role at the High Commission). There is scant information on what his role was, but it appears to have included supporting Pakistan to attract British businesses to set up and base their operations in the newly formed country. While the UK was looking to retain its textile industry and encouraging migration from South Asia to support this, Pakistan was encouraging entrepreneurs to launch and develop a Pakistani textile industry. (See Coming to Manchester: Stories of South Asian migration to Manchester for more on this topic) Pakistanis in need of help to establish their businesses were sent to Lancashire, the historic home of the textile industry, to learn. Malik was an important point of contact, advice, and translation for this generation of entrepreneurs.
In the same year, Malik also became a founder and trustee of Victoria Park Mosque (now known as Manchester Central Mosque). As many of our readers will know, at that time mosques and other non-Christian places of worship were rare, and many faith groups had to worship at home or travel long distances. The Mosque began as two separate houses on Upper Park Road, approximately two miles south of Manchester city centre. Malik and others (Yvonne suggests they were seamen whom he met through his role with Cunard) helped to renovate the houses into the Mosque. Malik and Yvonne celebrated their wedding at the Mosque with friends and family in 1959. In 1971 the two houses were demolished, and the current Mosque was built. See here for more information about the Mosque and its history.
By July 1949 Malik had a new role: Seaman’s Welfare Officer for Brocklebank Limited (part of Cunard) and was based at Mere Hall, Birkenhead. How Malik came to transition from the Pakistani High Commission to this position is unclear. Yvonne’s oral history suggests that he retained diplomatic contacts after leaving the High Commission.
We know that as well as helping many others to establish their businesses, Malik also set up his own.
His first business was the flock printing of ladies’ stockings. His second business was a women’s clothes shop, The Blouse Bar, 32 Jackson Street, Manchester, which was run by a manageress. We do not have dates for the early ventures and don’t know how these businesses sit in the timeline with his work for the Pakistani High Commission or Cunard roles.
By the mid 1950s Malik had set up Blackpool’s first Indian restaurant, the Shahi Restaurant. This had the potential to be a shrewd business move: he’d heard that restaurants were a flourishing trade in busy Blackpool. The opening in June 1956 was attended by the Beverly Sisters, a British female light entertainment trio popular during the 1950s and 1960s. Notably, this opening was where Malik and Yvonne first met. The opening of this restaurant marked a shift in the social history of the North West: a move from cafes and restaurants set up and aimed at the migrant South Asian communities to restaurants specifically catering for the white British population and their tastes.
“…And in those days English people who went to an ‘Indian’ restaurant (as they called it) they wanted bread and butter with absolutely everything. So we had stacks of that very white bread and sliced loaves forever buttering them to go with anything they ordered [laughs]…What people called curry in those days…it was very stylised it was just curry powder and something else. The colour had to be right and it had to be hot whether it was supposed to be or not because people didn’t think it was right if it wasn’t hot.”Extract from Yvonne Bakht oral history interview (GB3228.76/2/9)
Despite Malik’s knowing little about the restaurant business, hard work, supportive staff, his connections and personality meant that during the busy summer season it was a success. However, Blackpool is a seasonal holiday resort and in the winter season the business was unable to pay its way due to a lack of trade. By 1960 Malik had disposed of the Shahi Restaurant and opened the Everest Restaurant at 63 Whitworth Street, Manchester.
Initially the couple rented just the ground floor for the restaurant. Yvonne recounts how they painted the shared entrance door pale blue, which the other tenants objected to. The landlord, Mr Sackville, watched the couple’s enthusiasm and overrode the other tenants’ objections. Later in the 1960s the business expanded and rented the basement of the building where there was room for a three-piece band and a small dance floor. Yvonne created the murals that decorated the restaurant and was instrumental in its operation undertaking behind the scenes tasks such as washing and ironing tablecloths, napkins, uniforms etc. As with all new ventures Malik did whatever was needed: buttering bread, dealing with laundry or front of house operations.
The location of the restaurant near the Palace Theatre, the night club “Mr Smiths” and Granada Studios brought many celebrities to dine there in the evening. Johnnie Ray, American singer song writer, was a regular and Roy Castle (dancer, singer, comedian, actor, television presenter and musician), became a friend of the couple.
Malik’s outward achievements such as the restaurants are well documented but his considerable contributions to the community less so. In the oral history interview with Yvonne she admits that Malik “was not a terribly good businessman, he was more a social worker, that’s what he was better at.” She recounts how all through their marriage they would receive phone calls, at any time day or night, from the prison, or the airport, the police or the hospital looking for an interpreter or other support. Often Malik would bring people back to stay with the family, Yvonne recalls “We always seemed to have visitors. Diplomats, businessmen, students. Many stayed on for months. Fortunately, I did not have to cook.”
His role with the Pakistani High Commission had given him a lot of diplomatic and business contacts. He was invited to join the local Rotary Club – our records don’t state when, but it is like to be some point during the 60s and 70s. Given the hostility, suspicion and – in some cases – outright racism of the times we feel this invitation speaks of his achievements (and wonder what his experiences within the Club were!)
He was also, at some point, General Secretary of the Pakistani Society, Manchester. As Secretary he facilitated events and visits including celebrations of Pakistani Independence Day, the visit of President Ayub Khan, the visit of General Burki, Minister for Health and Social Welfare and the visit of Pakistan High Commissioner General Yousef.
Malik sadly died in 1977 aged only 53. He was a pioneer worked tirelessly to support other South Asians who came and settled in Manchester; this blog only presents highlights of the many achievements of his relatively short life.
Yvonne comments on how highly valued he was by the community and that this was evident at his funeral. After his death in 1977 Yvonne received a letter from Mr Finn, Deputy Regional Co-ordinator, No. 1 Regional Crime Squad, Manchester sending his condolences and detailing Malik’s contributions to Mr Finn and the wider community.
“As you know our contact in recent years was rare but the time and effort that he put into the community was undiminished…..The good relationships enjoyed by British and Pakistani communities owes much to the work of Malik and they like myself, share your sorrow. I know of no one, whatever nationality, who did so much for others to his own detriment.”Extract from letter to Yvonne Bakht from W Finn (GB3228.76/2/7)
Researching and writing this blog raised many questions for us and highlighted the knowledge gaps in our collective social history. Did other mosques exist in Manchester in the 1940s, for example? This led to broader questions about the lives of people from South Asia (Bangladeshis, Indians, Pakistanis, Sri-Lankans and others) in Manchester (indeed, the North West) before the 1960s: where did they live, worship, work, shop or socialise? What were their experiences of life here?
There will be records that, in the hands of a researcher with time, skill and persistence, will help answer these and other questions. These are the stories of our wider social history, and it is not just the responsibility of specialist archives such as ours (or researchers who specialise in race and ethnicity) to uncover and add them to our collective story. These histories and experiences should be treated as important and worth uncovering by all archives and research institutes.