Sunday, February 21, 2010

Melaka

For centuries an important port and prized possession for control of Southeast Asian trade, Melaka (sometimes spelled Malacca) today seems to have settled into a comfortable role as a tourist magnet. Here one glimpses the perhaps unintended consequences of commercial success, as village traditions seem to have given way to souvenier shops, trinket stalls, and other trappings of the tourist trade.

This doesn't make the town entirely unpleasant. With its meandering river, well-maintained streets, and neat assortment of Dutch, Portugese, Islamic, Hindu, and Chinese architecture, Melaka is nothing if not picturesque. One just needs to get away from the tourist core, and have an appreciation for history, to get a sense of what the town is all about.

Come hither and I will tell you a tale of sultans and spies, of gods and emperors, of seafaring rogues and exotic spices so fragrant and rare they moved empires to battle.

It starts in the early 14th century, when a Hindu prince by the name of Parameswara tried to break his principality away from the Southeast Asian Mahajavit kingdom, and was forced to flee to Singapore. Turning to piracy on the Straits of Melaka, he soon incurred the wrath of the mighty Siamese army, and fled further northward to what was then the small fishing village of Melaka.

Needing protection from the Siamese, Parameswara sent envoys northward to the Chinese emperor. The emperor, never one to pass up an opportunity for political influence, sent back one Chinese Admiral by the name of Zheng He, "the three-jewelled eunuch prince" (how do you lose your jewels, and still end up with three?) to keep the Siamese at bay. A wave of Chinese immigrants soon followed, married local Malays, and laid the foundation for the Straits Chinese, or Peranakan culture, mentioned in an earlier post, whose influence is felt in the region's architecture and cuisine to this day.
Under this arrangement, Melaka, mid-way between India and China, soon became the most important trading post between those two great nations. Islam was brought to the region by Indian sailors; when the third ruler of Melaka converted to Islam, he took on the title of sultan. At their height, the sultans of Melaka had a power equal to the mighty Siamese and Burmese kingdoms to the north, and were a major reason for the spread of Islam throughout Southeast Asia. Hundreds of years later, these sultanates would eventually become the foundation for the modern Malaysian nation.

The Portuguese, with the typical European diplomatic finesse of the era, sacked Melaka in 1511. But while they captured the city, they lost most of the trade, which followed the exiled sultan to his new home in Johor Bahru. Melaka thus fell into a period of decline, reviving slightly in the 1600s when the Dutch took the city from the Portuguese and used it as a port for their trade to the Spice Islands (modern Indonesia). Later, Melaka was ceded along with several other Dutch possessions to the British, but the British developed Singapore at the expense of Melaka, and the city never regained its former glory.

In light of this history, tourism may be no more nor less cataclysmic an event than any other to which Melaka has borne witness. What I will say about Melaka is that it's relatively easy to escape the tourist shuffle and find oneself on quiet streets. Away from Chinatown and Dutch Square – with its kitschy bicycle taxis bedecked in plastic flowers and blaring disco from tinny radios – Melaka seems a town where people go about their business at a languid pace. Strolling along the Melaka River one can even feel one has the town to oneself, and the sense of history reflected in the architecture provides ample opportunity for reflection.

I cannot say I found Melaka spectacular. It has its share of interesting museums and some excellent regional food (I intend to put together a fuller catalogue of Malaysian eats in a future post), but it's all served up just a little too neatly for my taste. Nonetheless, a trip to Malaysia would not be complete without a stop in this town. Melaka provides a glimpse into how Malaysia came into being, and further evidence of how the country's economic engine just keeps churning.

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