I like Portuguese settlements, I suppose—not that I have visited them often, but there is something to the concept. They do not have the buttoned-down nature of British colonies, perhaps: there is a sort of wild Catholicism to them, the sort you might see in Spanish and Portuguese streets during a major religious celebration.
Malacca was once a major trading post, controlled first by the Malays, than shifting to the Portuguese,than the Dutch, than to the British—and finally, back to the Malays in the 1950s, after independence.
Trading ports attract all manner of strange people, and Malacca turned into an extremely cosmopolitan sort of place—illustrated by stiff Caucasian mannequins wearing the traditional dress of the area’s ethnic groups at the Sultan’s Palace museum. (Why only the Thai mannequin is grinning like an idiot…well, I don’t have a suitable answer for that).
The pirates and the havoc have gone, although there is a pirate-themed theme park and you will see small children waving around plastic cutlasses. Now, Malacca is a quiet, coastal town, with a rather interesting old district and big apartment and condo buildings sprouting like mushrooms on the edge of the historic area.
Old Malacca was designated a World Heritage Site a few years back, and it is worthy of the term: curving roads set off by ramshackle shophouses, some saved as museums, gutters with unidentifiable water running by them. There are little art galleries and cafes in them now, where you can sit and watch tourists from all over the world puzzle over which semi obscene t-shirt they’d like to buy.
But it is not a crass tourism, and there is not really much of it on the weekends: you can easily wander down a small path into an antiques store piled high with vintage money and carvings from Malaysia’s Hindu era, or find yourself very much alone in some back-alley bit of town.
The food is excellent here. Peranakans are Chinese Malays, and those Nyonya restaurant you see everywhere are well worth trying. (Baba refers to a male Peranakan, and Nyonya to a female, as I learned). There is also excellent Indian food, and Chinese food as well: much like the rest of Malaysia, Malacca is a melting pot. I went out the Portuguese Settlement today: that’s another blog post.
I was thinking today about Malaysia’s identity. Most Malaysians could probably identify themself as having a heritage of something else – this is rather like the USA.
It is also interesting to contemplate how developed Malaysia is. The taxi drivers liked to discuss this with me, in the rather elegant English that seems to come easily to 60-something men here: two of the taxi drivers I rode with had been to Cambodia, and they hastened to described its poverty, its corruption. They also hastened to compare Malaysia with the rest of the world – and the rest of the world was generally found wanting.
“There is all this fighting in Syria, Muslim on Muslim,” one cabbie mused, as we drove in from the bus station. “I simply don’t understand it. Here in Malaysia, we have peace. We all get along with each other.”
Well, I’m unsure about that -and I really am, my lack of Malaysia-specific knowledge is disturbingly vast – but there is certainly a pleasant lack of tension in the air here, at least to the casual observer. I enjoy watching the shoals of hijab-donning women in colorful costumes mixing with Chinese tourists and slightly head-addled looking Westerners: the Malaysian melting pot, united by tourist attractions and food stuffs flavored with sambal.
ONE FINAL OBSERVATION:
Malaysians are absolutely wild about John Denver. I hear Country Roads multiple times a day in various locales here. Kids play it on the street, taxi drivers play it in their cabs, restaurant owners hum it while they work…what in the name of God is going on here?