We are back from our trip to Melaka. It was a blast, although it was pretty hot for most of the time. We took the 9:30 bus from Puduraya Station in KL and got to Melaka by 11:30. It’s an easy trip on a nice air-conditioned bus. Once we got there, we set off for the middle of the historic district.
To explain the significance of Melaka, it is worth it to recognize that when people talk about the Golden Age of Malay history–the specifically Malay one, as opposed to the other golden ages of the region like those of the Majapahit in Java and the Srivijaya in Sumatra–people talk about the Sultanate of Melaka. Parameswara, a Hindu ruler from Srivijaya, left Sumatra and founded a settlement in Temasik (now Singapore) and then later the Sultanate of Melaka. He converted to Islam and changed his name to Iskandar Syah around this time, c. 1400 AD. For over a century Melaka was a powerful trading kingdom whose influence extended from Ayutthaya in Thailand to include most of Sumatra. This period of history has been romanticized in works of literature such as the Sejarah Melayu (Malay Annals). Melaka received delegations from China and India and was visited several times by the famed Chinese eunuch admiral Cheng Ho.
Then, in 1511, the Portuguese came. Under Alfonso de Albuquerque, they invaded and conquered and set up a fortress, called A’Famosa, through which they dominated the key trade routes through the Straits of Melaka. They ruled there until 1641, when the Dutch managed to seize it to protect trade to Batavia (Jakarta). They had Melaka until 1795, when the British took over while France had invaded the Netherlands. The status of Melaka was in limbo until 1824, when the British traded their off-shore Sumatran holding Bencoolen (Bengkulu) for Melaka. By this time, the Dutch had almost all of present-day Indonesia, and the British were firming up their control over the Malay Peninsula.
So the city is more than just an important part of Malay history and culture, it also reflects various periods of colonialism. The Portuguese left little except for a fascinating Portuguese Eurasian community that still exists today, the orang Portugis. The Dutch took most of what the Portuguese had left and converted it to their purposes–the Catholic Church Nosa Senhora became St. Paul’s. Because of the Vereenidge Oost-Indische Compagnie‘s policy of extracting surplus value from the locals and not wasting time converting them, few Dutch intermarried with Malays. However, the Dutch did build a great administrative center, the Stadhuys, and a beautiful church of their own. The English came and literally blew up most of the defensive fortifications because they wanted to move their trading empire to Penang in the north, but they did save St. Paul’s, which they used as an armory. Aside from that, all that remains of the Portuguese presence, aside from St. Pauls, is the gate to A’Famosa, which currently has a VOC emblem on it anyway. The British converted the Dutch Reformed Church into a Anglican Church called Christ Church, which is still there having services every day.
So we got to see St. Paul’s, the Stadhuys, the gate to A’Famosa, a bunch of cool graves, and Christ Church all in fairly good condition. The Stadhuys actually houses a pretty cool museum. We also got to walk around a bunch in the old British and Chinese section of town, which was crawling with neat little shops and restaurants as well as temples galore.
The other thing that Melaka has, as alluded to before, is an eclectic mix of cultures. Aside from the orang Portugis, there is a large community of Peranakan Chinese, or Straits Chinese, descendent from Chinese settlers from way back in the 1500s and before, as opposed to the majority of Chinese Malaysians, who arrived in the 1800s or later. Peranakans usually came from Chinese men who married Malay women, keeping names and religion but losing language and many traditions. (Few, if any, Chinese women came in these first migrations.) There is also a distinct Chitty community, referring to a similar group made up of Indian men and Malay women who intermarried hundreds of years ago. All of this makes for great people watching. It also makes for great food, which we sampled in abundance. We had Portuguese-style Devil Curry, different from what we had last night and much better tasting, plus some other neat treats like English-inspired pineapple tarts and Peranakan roast fatty pork with spicy bean paste. And then we hopped back on the 6:00 bus and were home in time for a meal of Indian breads in KL.
We’ll put up pictures soon, we promise.
Dave July 9, 2005
Hey mister foreign-name-maestro man, what does Iskander mean? It shows up frequently enough in Rushdie books that I suspect it has some titular significance apart from being just another forename.
Tom July 9, 2005
Iskander is the Muslim (Arabic, Persian, Turkish, etc.) rendition of the name Alexander. When I was in Turkey, I had iskander kebab, which is apparently the style of kebab that Alexander the Great used to like. Or so they say.
fazu July 11, 2005
The descendants of the Portuguese-Malay intermarriages all those centuries ago are also more commonly referred to as “orang Serani” (serani from Arabic “nasrani” for Christians) and in recognition of their long presence in the country, are given Bumiputera status. (ironic that descendants of the belligerent warmongering portuguese are given special status but offsprings the chinese and the indians who came in peace are not.)