Malacca’s Watery Past

Written by Justin Miller
(A highly commended runner-up entry in the Travel and Water Writing Competition.)

Zanzibar, Timbuktu, Calcutta, Malacca. For me and probably for many British people, those names carry an air of exotic mystery. They bring to mind boy’s own adventure stories from the days of empire, Kiplingesque fantasies of colourful locals and the taste of spice-laden delicacies eaten after hacking one’s way through ten miles of snake-infested jungle.

Malacca River
Malacca River

So when the chance arose to visit Malacca, I immediately packed my pith helmet and a copy of Flashman’s lady and set off to parts unknown with an Errol Flynn air. I found myself on a boat on the Malacca River.

This river is where crowds gather to hurl mandarin oranges into the water on Chinese Valentine’s Day. Aspiring lovers write the name of their beloved on the orange and give it to the deep that their ardour maybe transported via the waves.

It runs through the centre of a city made charming with its old colonial architecture and 1930’s shophouses. It was here, gazing into the depths as the boat chugged along, that I had cause to contemplate Malacca’s watery history.

Not watery in the sense of being watered-down but rather watery in its many links to the liquid in question. Malacca sits on the coast of Malaysia, looking out over the Malacca Strait and its history is formed by this location. Parameswara, the pirate or prince (sources disagree) who founded the city sailed up the strait on the run from his enemies in Sumatra and named the city for the tree he rested under when the inspiration arose.

Later, when the Sultan of Malacca married a Chinese princess: Hang Li Poh, he gave her some land into which he sank a well. This well, being of strategic importance, was regularly poisoned by enemies seeking to weaken the city’s defenders. It now sits alongside a charming little temple to the god of wealth, in the shadow of Bukit Cina – China Hill, the site of the largest Chinese graveyard outside China and, perhaps strangely, a good place for a stroll.

The strait, besides bringing Malacca’s founder, brought invaders. The Portuguese, Dutch and finally the British, all sailed up this stretch of coast to take control of the city. The exquisite remains of the 16th century Portuguese fort still sits in what is now the centre of the old town. 500 years ago it was the coastline. Standing there near the whitewashed adobe and looking out, one can see the new shopping centres sparkling in the bright sun. Looking the other way,
one sees St Paul’s hill with the somewhat gothic ruins of the old Dutch church atop its summit.

These historical remnants make Malacca something special in an area of the world that tends towards demolition over preservation.

Of all Malacca’s colonists however, it is the British that have left the most enduring influence. It can be seen in the lamp chops sold in the local kopitiams (Chinese coffee-shops) and the toast that is a prevalent snack, served with kaya (coconut jam) and thick slices of butter. In fact, wandering down the beautiful little back lanes amidst the palms and mango trees, one sometimes gets a strange feeling of being in a sort of exotic Britain. Malacca is certainly its own place and very Malaysian, but its colonial past permeates it in a most pleasing way.

Water is also important to some of the communities that form Malacca’s cultural landscape. In Ujong Pasir (Sandy End), looking out over the bay, sits the Portuguese Settlement. This area is
inhabited by the descendants of the Portuguese colonists who intermarried with local Malays. Apart from being able to enjoy a local speciality here, Ikan Bakar (barbecued fish), the armchair linguists amongst you may find it interesting to listen to the dialect of 16th century Portuguese that the locals still speak as their first language. What is more, the Portuguese Malaccans are traditionally fishermen and can be seen selling their catch on roadside verges all over the district, so you can be sure that your fish will be fanatically fresh.

In fact, 750 words is scarce enough to break the surface of the veritable lake of Malacca’s watery connections. I haven’t even begun to talk about The Chinese goddess of the sea that is worshipped here in one of the most elaborate and breathtakingly beautiful Buddhist temples in Malaysia, or the natural hot springs just outside town. I could go on, but I suppose you’ll just have to come and see for yourself.

POSTED 30th SEPTEMBER 2016 by STE Web Editor STEVE HANSON on behalf of JUSTIN MILLER. The photograph is courtesy of PIXABAY.