by Muhammad Adib bin Mohd Faiz
Lunch was over, and our group had assembled at an open area near a bridge. I was catching up with my mentor, Yook Ling, when suddenly –
A driver attempting to cross the bridge had apparently been oblivious to the fact that he was driving in the wrong direction. The resulting commotion essentially amounted to a series of loud commands ordering him to reverse. Someone notes his licence plate: “Wilayah”. Well, that explains a great deal.
Yet our Wilayah driver was not the first one who had difficulty crossing that section of the Melaka River. Jambatan Tan Kim Seng was built by a wealthy Peranakan man, who had sought his fortune in Singapore and built monuments in Melaka thereafter. However, our guide, En. Shaukani, tells us of another bridge that was in fact destroyed by the British during the Japanese invasion of Melaka. In an attempt to slow down Japanese advancement, British troops carried out a ‘scorched earth’ policy of destroying bridges. That bridge lies alongside Jambatan Tan Kim Seng, but remains invisible to all save those with an awareness of the incident. This was a fitting point to begin the ‘intangible’ segment of our Melaka trip, a tour not of monuments, but of memories.
Memories: sometimes clear, sometimes hazy, and always bound to make their mark. My own memories of this part of the trip were affected by heat, low-blood sugar, and the fact that I did not set everything down the moment I returned. Nonetheless, I attempted at scratching away some notes whilst keeping up with my group in the midst of the Malaccan sun.
How does one map out a city’s history? Does the answer lie in the names of old streets and famous buildings? Or does history lie behind those streets, somewhere between the memories of those long dead and the commerce of those still living? As one recalls plodding through the streets of Melaka, such questions come to mind, a reminder that heritage is not merely about what we inherit, but how we choose to inherit.
En. Shaukani takes us to ‘Black Smith Street’ (Jalan Tukang Besi), so called because of the occupation of those who used to work there. The past tense can no doubt produce dismay; almost all of the craftsmen have since left the area, and their crafts have gone with them. As our guide points out, the old crafts have since been replaced by modern alternatives, with knives being bought from the supermarket rather than the local blacksmith. Tinsmiths and bucket makers have long departed the scene. Instead, one sees mural paintings, massage parlours, and the modern world in its various forms. Had we been on our own, we may have been left with disappointment. However, we were in the presence of a tour guide with experience on his hands, and En. Shaukani transformed the view before us into one filled with bullock carts, lorries, opium smoking, fights, and naked ghosts.
“NAKED GHOSTS?!” you exclaim, voicing your shock and disbelief to me from – well, from wherever you happen to be at the present moment. “If there are naked ghosts in the street, I am never going to Melaka!” Keep calm reader. Rest assured; if we had seen ghosts, we would certainly have behaved in a quintessentially Malaysian fashion (i.e. taking one picture for our relatives and then running for our lives back to KL). However, we saw none, for En. Shaukani merely made mention of ‘Coolie Street’ and the naked ghosts said to inhabit that area. From what I recall, these ghosts are apparently the coolies themselves, while the story was told to young children to prevent them from going to the area. Regardless of who or what actually resides in Coolie Street, I am personally grateful for not having gone there; I can take ‘intangible’ tours, but not supernatural ones.
The picture painted thus far can provide the impression of a dead city. Yet this is far from the truth, for Melaka is a city full of life and colour. Though most of the craftsmen have gone, we were fortunate enough to come across one man who has maintained a family tradition. Much later in the tour, we had the good fortune of meeting Mr T.S. Lim, who runs a shop making handmade shoes. Yet these are no ordinary shoes, but glass slippers. Remove that image of Cinderella’s footwear from your mind, for those transparent ‘one-size only’ high heels pale in comparison to these vibrant traditional Nyonya beaded shoes, made from potong beads. The rows of traditional shoes displayed at the front of the shop are like a cross between beautiful paintings and coloured candy, reminding one of the multi-coloured tiles that typify Peranakan culture. Inside the store, Mr. Lim is kind enough to share his knowledge with our group, showing us some work in progress contained in an embroidery hoop. As Mr. Lim explains to us, the design on one shoe must be a mirror image of the other shoe that forms the pair. On the shelves, one sees that Mr. Lim has created contemporary high heels featuring the potong beads on their straps, an ingenious and tasteful blend that combines modern styles with traditional techniques. It is an indication that the tradition is still alive, quite literally carrying on its own journey on the feet of others.
As for our own feet, we found ourselves on yet another road: Harmony Street. The road owes its name to the presence of the Sri Poyatha Moorthi Temple, the Kampung Kling mosque, and the Cheng Hoon Teng temple, each of which is located beside the other. The close proximity of these historic places of worship is a reminder that peaceful co-existence and acceptance is not a new invention in Malaysia, but an established part of our country’s traditions. The Sri Poyatha Moorthi Temple was built by the Chitty community on land given by the VOC (Dutch East India Trading Company), and is one of Malaysia’s oldest Hindu temples. It thus occupies a unique place in our country’s history, not least because Chitty temples are now a rarity in Malaysia. Just as historic is the Kampung Kling mosque, originally built by Indian Muslim traders. The mosque has the tiered roof that is characteristic of many traditional Malaysian and Indonesian mosques. Yet like so many Malaccan mosques, the Kampung Kling mosque also bears elements of Chinese architecture, with the main structure having a pagoda-like feel. En. Shaukani also points out to us the use of pineapple motifs on the mosque’s archway, the pineapple being a traditional Chinese symbol of prosperity. Unique to Southeast Asian Chinese culture is the use of Peranakan tiles, which adorn the mosque with a variety of colours. These elements do not merely co-exist; they work in harmony to create a new effect, one that is greater than the sum of particular artistic influences. In an age when religion often feels dry and harsh, the Kampung Kling mosque is a loving reminder of the beauty of faith.
I would return to the mosque later, but for the time being it was on to the next building: the Cheng Hoon Teng temple. Yet to refer to its current function as a temple does not reveal the complex history underlying this building. Though it is currently a house of worship for Mahayana Buddhists, the building was originally a community centre commissioned by Tay Kie Ki, a kapitan or leader of Melaka’s Chinese community in 1645. As En. Shaukani tells us, Melaka’s community had a “kapitan system”, with En. Shaukani mentioning three kapitan: kapitan Melayu, kapitan kling, and kapitan Cina. As far as I can understand – I was writing whilst standing, so the shorthand is vague – the Dutch would liase with the various kapitan in question. But the British abolished this system, and the building was subsequently converted into a temple. According to Kenny Mah, the building is a reflection of Southern Chinese architecture, and every aspect of the building is aligned with feng shui. The use of red makes this building a truly stunning sight, befitting of this beautiful Chinese monument.
We passed by many other buildings, each with some story of its own. An apparently insignificant building is really a property once owned by Tan Cheng Lock, with the house being the site of many meetings held to discuss our independence. The house of the Chi family links us unexpectedly back to home, with the Chi family helping to finance Raja Abdullah’s tin mining in Kuala Lumpur. Yet what stood out most for me was the Aik Cheong Coffee Roaster shop lot. Although it is now a location selling packaged coffee, the lot was once a coffee shop; En. Shaukani recounted how the smell of roasted coffee used to fill the air. Once again, it was not the tangible that counted but the intangible, a history not tucked away in dusty archives but written on the tablets of human memory.
We had come to the end our tour, but some time remained for us to explore the city on our own. For myself, I needed to make a trip back to the mosque to perform the canonical prayers. Though modern mosques have taps, the Kampung Kling mosque has a square-shaped pool for worshipers to perform the ritual purification (wudu), at the centre of which is a golden fountain. In the midst of the Malaccan heat, taking cool water from the pool reminds one of the desert oasis. One also thinks of the words of the Prophet (SAW): “I go before you, and I am your witness. Your tryst with me is at the Pool”. I cannot remember if these thoughts entered my head at the time. What I do remember is looking up and being calmly but clearly confronted with reality, with the gravestones of the deceased being in front of the pool. They were slightly to the left but inescapably in view, and though one can laugh at the thought of ghosts, one cannot truly behold the men and women who have gone before without thinking of what lies ahead. It is a reminder that the true bridge is an invisible one, visible only to those who remember.
Lings, Martin. Muhammad: His Life Based on the Earliest Sources. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1983.
For Part 1, click here