The Portuguese Settlement is about 15 minutes outside of downtown Malacca give or take. It is perhaps a 20 ringgit cab ride, probably less if you are better at negotiating than myself. The cab driver takes you through a gate and down a quiet, sun-washed lane, and deposits you at a cemented over square.
This looks straight into the Straits of Malacca, the world’s most busy shipping lane: there will be one or two huge cargo ships idling there, indefinable over the short sparkles of the water. Large palms stand over Portuguese Square, built in 1958 off a European model.
People primarily come to the Portuguese Settlement to eat Portuguese-style seafood: this is a worthy pursuit. But there’s more here than baked fish with sambal and spicy crabs, delicious as they may be.
The Portuguese arrived here in Malacca in 1511, long long ago, and it is something of a marvel that their descendents here have clung so tightly to their traditions. They have settled into the mainstream of Malaysian life, and many hold good jobs outside the community, especially in the IT sector. But they seem to find solace in hanging together, and maintaining their neat and pastel-colored houses, a bit bleached in the sun.
The little houses have little water-stained drawings of the Virgin Mary above the door, and some throw in a horse-shoe for good luck. Many of the Portuguese here keep noisy tropical birds, which chatter to one another in the heart of the afternoon.
I chose a small cafe to eat lunch, the only one open around 2:00 when I made my unceremoniously late arrival. It was November 6th and Obama had just been re-elected a world away: I ordered baked fish with sambal and sat and had muddy, contented thoughts about this while I waited for my food. Someone was playing Johnny Cash and Dolly Parton classics from somewhere down the alley, and a man sat at the same cafe as I did and quietly, methodically peeled oranges.
The light was so bright on the white tile event-area outside the restaurant, stretching to the sea, that I wished for a moment that I had the ability to retain a pair of sunglasses for more than a day. (A real pipe-dream).
After I ate lunch, I walked out by the ocean,and stood in front of a bank of shells interspersed with multicolored plastic trash, which the slightly blind might initially confuse for sea-shells. A small boat was tied to an apparently ancient jetty, and some equally antique fishing nets were strewn around. As is common in sea-side Malaysia, fat black crows barked at each other from the palms, and looked at me with the vaguest of interest.
Nearby, an enormous bank of sea-side condos was going up, and a crane moved slowly against the skyline. Malacca is growing larger every day, but the Portuguese here don’t seem inclined to give up their primo waterfront property anytime soon. They’ve grown accustomed to it.
They had a hotel in the Portuguese Settlement, named the Hotel Lisbon. It was part of a development scheme, and the people grudgingly accepted it: then the management turned out to be staffed by fools, and the place was bought up by the Limkokwing College as a satellite campus.
The locals were horrified by the notion—weird outside students? rabble-rousing?—and are fighting to have the place designated as a cultural center. It is certainly a huge white edifice made to somewhat simulate a Portuguese lodging house if you squinted at in the wobbly heat of a hot day: there was no one there on a Tuesday afternoon when I visited, and the lavishly mustachioed, uniformed guardsman turfed me out—with apologies.
I turned down the Portuguese-named streets and wandered, and soon ran into a big pack of Malaysian students, who appeared to be interviewing one of the local men. This was too good an opportunity for a bit of fortuitous snooping to be passed up, and I sat down beside the students, who were fanning themselves in the heat.
The local man helps to run the Portuguese museum—closed the day I was out there, much to my sorrow—and appears to be the person appointed to talk to student groups, errant tourists, and the media.
A little girl played around the doors of the houses and made occasional, shrieking feints at the students. She was playing Gangnam Style on her phone. All across Asia, as I have recently determined, everyone is playing Gangnam Style on their phones.
The Portuguese man—whose name I didn’t catch—was explaining why his people liked to place horseshoes over their doorways.
“For good luck,” said the old man to the students. “Of course, in your Buddhism, you do not have luck.”
“Do you have much interaction with other Portuguese communities?” asked one boy.
“We are the same all over, you know, us Portuguese.In Goa and in Malacca, and in Macau. We are of the same culture, and we are all Portuguese.”
One student found it somewhat impossible to comprehend why everyone was not sporting twee native dress. The old man assured him that they certainly did wear the elaborate traditional stuff, sometimes—and that before everyone had got into this curious pattern of wearing Western clothes, the Portuguese descendants stood out even more.
“Why do we not wear what the Malays wear? So they know who we are!” he said with emphasis, ashing his cigarette. He was wearing a white wife-beater and shorts with a US college insignia.
True: they do not want to blend in. They are Portuguese, and proudly so.
These Portuguese settlers are indeed part of Malaysia: a hodge-podge nation where a bunch of very variable people are both themselves and together at approximately the same time, which is no small feat in human history.
It is a nation of roti and chow mein and burgers existing at the exact same inconspicuous two-bit cafe: they (mostly) get along because it’s just more practical that way. And perhaps, significantly more interesting.