Tech college student honed his work and life skills with Chinese colleagues
It is nearly impossible to imagine a world without "Made in China" today, but not in the 1970s, when most Westerners hardly knew anything about the country, leave alone working with its people.
Maltese Raymond Cutajar, now a car maintenance shop owner, was among the few. Straight out of technical college, he was assigned to the construction site of the No. 6 Dry Dock, one of the projects that China helped build in Malta.
Construction began in January 1975. When the adventurous fresh graduate walked into the huge construction site that July, he was shocked, at first, by the sheer size of the site and the machines. Fascinated by the machinery and the Chinese working there, he soon grew into the job.
My experience working along with the Chinese on the whole was a very positive learning experience.Raymond Cutajar, Maltese technician working at the No. 6 Dry Dock in his 1st job
"I was 20 years old and it was my first job. That first job helped me a lot. My experience working along with the Chinese on the whole was a very positive learning experience," Cutajar told Shanghai Daily by video.
"I was highly impressed by the whole Chinese organization. I was impressed by the discipline and the way they worked."
So impressive was the first job that the Maltese car specialist has still kept his work certificate from decades ago. The certificate states that he worked at "Red China Dock Project (Dock No. 6) as a mechanical plant fitter and diesel engine mechanic from 10 July 1975 to 27 October 1976."
The first meeting with his Chinese boss is clear as yesterday, he said, as are so many other memories with the then-48-year-old Sun Wenren "who considered me like a son."
Sun gave him a nickname, which meant "Raymond, you are like a desert fox." And young Cutajar called Sun Ninu in return.
"It is a typical Maltese name, very simple to remember and assimilate to oneself," he explained.
The machinery-loving rookie kept observing the techniques employed by the Chinese to tackle the challenges of building the dock inside a cliff, and learned a lot of trade skills from the Chinese mindset.
He was also offered opportunities to try his hand when his locally-oriented improvizations convinced Sun on two occasions.
"He (Sun) talked to other Chinese to let me have a go, and I gathered about 20 Maltese and it worked," Cutajar recalled. "It really worked!"
He was not only excited about the opportunity to try, but also impressed by the humility of the Chinese.
"I realized very early that whatever your position, it's a good idea to always stay humble," he said.
"There was no rank among the Chinese. There were five of them who I worked with closely, and a big boss. But the big boss was working as hard as anybody. Simple as this, they had a job and it had to be done."
It was not an easy job, but essential to Malta's economic transformation.
Oil tankers were getting bigger throughout the 1960s and 1970s, partially due to the interrupted traffic through the Suez Canal and the continuing oil crisis. Larger tankers can reduce transportation costs and better meet growing oil demand.
It was in the 1970s that some of the biggest oil tankers in the world were built, one "Seawise Giant" built in 1974-1979 had a length of 458.45 meters, and remained the longest in the world until 2013.
The Mediterranean lacked huge docks to host the new supertankers, and Malta wanted to seize the opportunity. China's help came at the right time.
Professor Edward Scicluna, governor of the Central Bank of Malta, recalled the journey to diversify the country's economy away from a military base toward becoming an economically independent developed country. He said the Red China Dock "allowed Malta to remain on the map as a strategic ship repair destination," according to the website of the country's Ministry of Finance.
Scicluna was minister of finance between 2013 to 2020, and made the comments in 2014, when paying tribute to two Chinese who lost their lives during the construction.
Cutajar, who left the construction sector in October 1976 to join the army, kept returning to the site over the years, the most recent being two years ago. He also remembers the tragic incidents and appreciates the Chinese efforts.
Such work mentality that Cutajar personally experienced convinced him early on that the project would pan out successfully.
"There were doubts whether the dock would ever be finished," he said. "But personally I could see the fast pace of progress, especially when they started preparing for the floor base. When that started to materialize, the project had the look of a completed picture."
According to China Communications Construction Company, the dock's builder, Chinese engineers and technicians worked day and night to tackle the challenges.
"When we faced the biggest challenges, many Western officials and technicians 'visited' and expressed their 'concern.' Then they returned home to say the Chinese would 'definitely fail'," the company said on its WeChat account.
These people would have been appalled in October 1981, when the opening ceremony was held and became big news.
For Cutajar, the project was not only where his professional career started, but also where he made friends with Sun and four other Chinese colleagues he worked with frequently.
One was a master in making things in metal, and taught him how to make keys, which proved useful to the Maltese when he forgot his keys years later. Another "very good looking young man" taught him some tactics in self-defense, "luckily I never had to use them."
"But more so especially I learned to appreciate the simple things in life," he concluded.
"It's a pity that I have never visited China, but I hope to have the opportunity one day. It's always on my travel list, with several other countries that have an amazing history. I'm sure whoever visits these ancient cultures would learn a lot and it's a huge pity that the West is not open to learning from such great cultures."