Discovering the stories of Melaka

by Karen Woo

On 27 February 2020, 14 participants from Museum Volunteers Batch 34 (Patricia, Katya, Grazia, Cen, Melissa, and Annie) and Batch 36 (Debbie, Veronika, Fazlin, and I) with our friends (Yvonne, Ryoko, and Melissa’s two children) made a day trip to Melaka. We gathered at the car park of the National Museum at 6:30 am. From there, our chartered van made its way to Melaka. Traffic was smooth and we arrived in Melaka at the Dutch Square at about 9 am where we met up with our guide, Colin Goh. Casper and Marliza (from Batch 36) also joined us during the tour in Melaka, making it a group of sixteen.

Colin introduced everyone to the history of Melaka from its founding by Parameswara, to the development of the Malay Sultanate of Melaka, and the important contributions made by its maritime laws to international maritime law. However, this followed with the decline of Melaka, to its conquest, first by the Portuguese, then the Dutch, and subsequently the British. 

Following the introduction, Colin showed us the sites in Melaka, some of which were already familiar to us, accompanied with stories told from his local perspective. A visitor to Melaka cannot miss visiting the Dutch Square where Stadthuys, Christ Church, Melaka Clock Tower, and water fountain are prominently located. However, interestingly, apart from Stadthuys and Christ Church, both Melaka Clock Tower and water fountain were not constructed by the Dutch but were proud contributions by the people of Melaka. The clock tower was erected by a Melakan Baba who made his fortune in Singapore, whilst the water fountain was built by the people to celebrate the anniversary of Queen Victoria.

First on our list of stops was Christ Church. The Christ Church, which was planned as a commemoration of a centenary of the Dutch occupation of Melaka in 1641, was only completed in 1753. Inside the church, the original pulpit and lectern were the only two remaining Dutch artefacts.  Colin also showed us the oldest Christian tombstone, which is part of the floor of the church. It is dated 1562, and it is for a lady by the name of Giomar.

The tombstone dated 1562 of Giomar found inside Christ Church

The famous Stadthuys was the office of the Dutch Governor and Deputy Governor, and it was later extended to provide residence for other high officials. The lower level was also used as a warehouse for the VOC. The Stadthuys would subsequently be occupied by the British; it is a museum today.

From there, we made our way up to St. Paul’s hill. It was a nice, shady walk with an elevated view of the Dutch Square, the vast area of reclaimed land (and buildings) with a glimpse of the replica of the Flor de la Mar in the far distance.

The view on the way to St. Paul’s hill with the replica of the Flor de la Mar in the distance

Our story continues on St. Paul’s hill. It is said that in 1521, upon deliverance from calamity in the high seas, a Portuguese captain, out of gratitude, built a small wooden church on the hill. Later, when St. Francis Xavier arrived, the Portuguese authorities gave him the piece of land to build a school and the small church was also enlarged. St. Francis Xavier used this location as a base for his missionary journeys to Japan and China. From this historical event, today, this church has established a friendship with a church in Kagoshima in Japan, and there have been exchanges between them.    

The white church on top of St. Paul’s hill served as a strategic landmark for navigators sailing down the Straits of Melaka. Upon spotting it, they would know that they were approaching Melaka.  These days, one could still see the white church peeping out from behind the Ramada and Emperor hotels.

St. Paul’s Church with statue of St. Francis Xavier on top of St. Paul’s hill

Apart from this, St. Paul’s Church had other important roles, including as a burial ground for the Dutch and the British and even as a hanging gallows. There were many tombstones on display inside and Colin regaled us with some interesting stories. My favourite undoubtedly is that of the wife of Jan Van Riebeck, founder of Cape Town in South Africa. He was posted to Melaka for two years. During that time, his wife passed away and was buried in this church. Later, a memorial was built in Cape Town for Jan Van Riebeck and the authorities requested for the tombstone of his wife. The British agreed, and today, a plaque marked the spot where the tombstone used to be. This is such a nice story, and today, the couple’s tombstones are reunited in the memorial.

The plaque to mark the spot of the tombstone of the wife of Jan Van Riebeck in St. Paul’s Church

With that, we bid farewell to St. Paul’s Church and made our way to our next must visit spot, the Porta de Santiago (of the fortress). However, did you know that this gate was not part of the fortress? It was actually known as Bort’s Gate (to the Dutch) or Old Gate (to the British). Nevertheless, those who used the gate called it Porta de Santiago. 

Focusing on the top of Porta de Santiago, Colin pointed out the Dutch emblem which comprises of a rectangle that is surrounded by battle weapons. Within the rectangle, a lady holding a stalk of wheat is placed on the left and a soldier bearing a shield with the words “VOC” is on the right, separated by a shield in the centre. On the front side of the Porta de Santiago, the year “1670” can also be clearly observed.

The Dutch emblem with the year “1670” on the front side of the Porta de Santiago

Colin also shared that some believed secret tunnels existed and connected the fortress to St. Paul’s hill and to St. John’s fort. The theory was that after the banishment of the Knights Templar in Europe, their remnants went to Tomar in Portugal and that order evolved into the Order of Christ. When the Portuguese came to Melaka, the Order of Christ, consisting of engineers and builders, also came along. Though the existence of the secret tunnels has not been proven, it certainly adds an air of mystery and intrigue to Melaka.

We then continued the next part of our tour to Bukit Cina by van. On the way, we passed by the Sacred Heart Convent, the Convent of Infant Jesus primary and secondary schools, and the previous site of the first Malay College in the country (before it was transferred to Kuala Kangsar). The graves in Bukit Cina date back to the Dutch era. At the foot of the hill, a temple was built for the descendants who visited the graves to perform their filial rites. There was also a famous well, Perigi Raja, that used to serve the best quality water, so much so that the Dutch built a wall, with guard posts, to protect the well, and water was delivered on a daily basis by bullock carts to the fortress.

Now, we come to the story of Li Poh. According to the people of Melaka, Li Poh was the daughter of a captain, rather than a Princess. This land was given to Li Poh and her people. Subsequently, the Dutch granted the land title to Cheng Hoon Teng temple, the oldest Buddhist temple in this country.

We were then dropped off close to Jonker Street heritage walk for the final part of our tour. Colin showed us the different styles of architecture left behind by the Dutch and the British. For example, there were some shop houses with Dutch frontage, which have no walkway, as opposed to others with the British walkways. We could also observe these changes by walking through the back lanes. This could be seen through the extension of the shop houses and the different styles of cramps used – the “C” kramp for the Dutch and the “X” cramp for the British.

The mirror image “C” kramp can be observed

Jonker Street itself went through changes – it used to be a bustling street that was a commercial and residential area for the working class. However, nowadays with the commercialisation of the street, the residents have moved out and the old-style coffee shops have also been replaced by cafes.  

Nearby is Jalan Tukang Emas (or Goldsmith Street), which used to house the goldsmiths from India during the Dutch colonial time.  Today, this street, which is also known as Harmony Street, is home to a Hindu temple, a mosque, and a Chinese temple, all located within close vicinity to each other.

After such a long day and being out in the hot sun, we were ready for our next adventure – lunch at Nyonya 63. The air-conditioned restaurant with its lovely oriental ambience was a welcome and pleasant interlude. Lunch was an absolute delight to our senses – we had chap chay, cincaluk omelette, assam fish, nyonya fried chicken, prawns cooked in prawn gravy, and buah keluak chicken. One of the group’s favourite was the prawns cooked in prawn gravy as the sweetness of the pineapple lent its flavour and mellowed the taste of the curry.  Buah keluak chicken, being a Nyonya speciality, is an acquired taste, highly recommended for everyone to try. We ended with the all-time favourite desserts, cendol, and ondeh-ondeh, courtesy of a friend of Annie’s.

After lunch, we had about an hour of free time before bidding our farewell to Melaka and its secret charms to make our way back to the National Museum. We had such an enjoyable time and were making plans for a return visit to Melaka. Would anyone like to join us for round two of Melaka? 

The 16 of us, peering from behind our hats and sunglasses, with Porta de Santiago and St. Paul’s Church in the background

Invisible Bridges and Memory Lanes: Part Two of the Melaka (2019) Journey

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

MV Trainees in Melaka (Jan 2019)

by Ilani Binti Mohammad Jamin

A morning visit to Stadthuys, St. Paul’s Hill, Dutch Cemetery, Porta de Santiago

On the fine Saturday morning of 12 January 2019, a group of 22 including MV trainers and trainees set off from Muzium Negara and arrived in Melaka at approximately 9.45 am. An experienced local guide, En Shaukani Abbas, from Friends of Melaka Museums, led our day’s itinerary. Upon introducing himself, he shared some tips and techniques on tour guiding: 1 – Understand the history; 2 – Say the facts in your own words; 3 – Tell the story from your heart using your imagination; and finally 4 – Have humour in your presentation.

Our first stop was the Stadthuys, a prominent red building believed to be the oldest surviving structure of the Dutch in the East; if a modern Dutch visitor wishes to see a historical Dutch building, Melaka is where it can be found. The Stadthuys was built in 1641 on top of a Portuguese building as evidenced by Portuguese wells found below the ground. It was the official administration centre and dwelling of Dutch governors and officers. In 1982, it was converted into a museum displaying the rich history of Melaka’s colonial past and local customs and traditions. Its Dutch-style architecture can be clearly seen in its steep and high roofing as well as its wide doors and windows.

One of the rooms has ornate engravings on its ceiling; this room is believed to have been the living room of the governor. Also on display are items traded during the Dutch period in this region under the Dutch East-India Company (VOC) and portrait paintings of the Directors of the company are hung at one corner of the room. Just outside of the building but connected by a walkway is the kitchen, also known as the Big Toaster. In the olden days, servants would bake bread overnight in order to serve it fresh to their masters the next morning. The original brick flooring and massive ovens give the space a rustic feel.

Photo taken from

Moving deeper into the museum, dioramas on traditional wedding and ceremonial events are displayed and they provide an overall glimpse of the various cultures and customs practiced by the multi-racial people of Melaka. It was especially interesting to learn about the Chitty ceremony of shaving a baby’s head and the Baba Nyonya wedding bed for newlyweds. The remaining tour in the museum was regarding the Melaka sultanate, Portuguese and foreign invasion and miniature models of the A Famosa fortress.

After an information-packed session at the museum, we walked up St. Paul’s Hill to visit ruins of the church. Propped up against a wall are headstones, which were well preserved and have beautiful patterns carved onto the stone. It is believed that the headstones were brought from overseas, as the material is not found locally. We also came across St. Francis Xavier’s statue, which was given by the Archbishop of Melaka. The statue is missing a right arm and En. Shaukani told the story of a nearby tree that fell onto the statue during a storm, hence the missing limb.

As we descended the hill, we saw an old Dutch cemetery and we learnt that despite its name, only seven Dutch graves are found there while the rest of about 30 plus graves are those of British military personnel and their wives. We continued walking towards Porta de Santiago, the only gate that survived the destruction of A Famosa. We took a happy group photo there under the scorching sun. By this time, we were ready for a lunch break to fuel ourselves for the rest of the afternoon in the historical city of Melaka.

For Part 2, click here.

MV trainees on a guided tour of Melaka – Part 2

By Leslie Muri

(Batch 28’s trip to Melaka – after lunch)

Were we walking in the footsteps of Parameswara?  Had Admiral Cheng Ho passed this way?  Did Princess Hang Li Po grace this riverbank with her 500 maidens on their way to Bukit Cina?  Did Laksamana Hang Tuah sail by this spot on his voyage to Majapahit?  Fast-forward over 500 years and after lunch we found ourselves walking along the river pathway beside Hard Rock Café, turning the corner at Jalan Tukang Besi along side Kiehl’s.  Obviously, Melaka is still a centre of commerce today, but now for consumers.

This narrow old street is now a haven for backpackers, with scant evidence of its namesakes, tinsmiths.  Within a block its name magically transforms to Jalan Tukang Emas with even fewer signs of goldsmiths.  However it has acquired another popular name, Harmony Street, for important places of worship of several different religions are found close to each other on the street.

Along the way, we were treated to a delightful detour to see whimsical street art in an alleyway.  We met a charging water buffalo who had left his padi fields behind, a Chinese girl at her window with her woven and lacquered basket, a demure Malay girl draped in a sarong opening a shutter, a Chettiar money changer, an escaping Sang Kancil leaping from a window, a pair of rambunctious orang utan who have just tossed banana peels onto the road, a tin smith bent over his fire and children pulling each other on upi, the fallen palm fronds.

Street art

Craftsmen still ply their trades along narrow streets, many of which Lingam described to us as ‘dying trades.’  The rattan shop sported dim sum steamers, marketing baskets, back scratchers and the infamous rattan stick, sometimes used to beat the dust out of mats and pillows and sometimes the sillies out of wayward children.  The plants in pots growing right in front of his shop formed a modest at-hand medicine chest as there were cures for coughs, centipede stings and flavourings for curry.  Another common tradesman of old was the tinsmith who fashioned pots and pans, kerosene lamps and mended leaking containers.  Craftsmen who make the carved Chinese name boards were at work.  Calligraphers and tombstone makers were there.  There were funeral shops, where hell money and possessions for the afterlife are produced and paraphernalia for prayers are sold, popular on All Souls’ Day once a year.  As Lingam pointed out, the next generation does not want to do these jobs anymore.  The skills may die, but we hope their values do not fade away.

Inside a rattan shop

The first house of worship we came upon was Sri Poyyatha Vinayaga Moorthy Temple, the oldest Hindu temple in Malaysia.  It was erected on land given to the Chitty community by the Dutch in 1781 and built by Kapitan Thaivanayagam Chitty, head of the community.  Being dedicated to Vinayaga or Ganesha, it features a sculpture of the elephant deity, with altars honouring his mother, father and Lord Murugan, his brother.  Interestingly some aspects of Dutch influence are found in its design, as it does not have a round tower covered with carved deities but a flat one with three niches for relief images.  Our guide, Mr. Lingam, showed us the place at the temple entrance, where coconuts, which are pure, are offered to fulfill vows. Good events, such as marriages or births, involve offerings of fruit, while sad events like funerals are without fruit.

Sri Poyyatha Vinayaga Moorthy Temple

The Kampong Kling Mosque, so named because of the South Indian Muslims who built it during the Dutch era, was our next stop.  The mosque, at the corner of Jalan Tukang Mas (or Jalan Tokong) and Jalan Hang Lekiu was first built of wood in 1748 and later reconstructed in brick and cement in 1872.  Although not the oldest mosque in Malaysia it is one the earliest and reflects Sumatran, Chinese, Hindu and Malay architectural aspects, just as Melaka of old was home to many cultures.  The three-tiered roof is typical of Melaka mosques, while the minaret resembles a pagoda.  English and Portuguese glazed tiles were used and the columns are Corinthian in style.  Mr. Lingam showed us the structure used in slaughtering livestock during the Hari Raya Korban or Aidil Adha observations.

Kampong Kling Mosque

Lastly, we came to the oldest Chinese temple in Malaysia, the Cheng Hoon Teng Temple, where Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism are all practiced.  The building of the temple, in 1645, was under the patronage of Kapitan Cina, appointed by the Dutch to oversee the Chinese Hokkien community.  The beautiful corners of its roof soaring heavenward tie in with the Chinese name, Merciful Cloud Temple.  The elaborate building materials and experienced craftsmen were all brought from China.  Additions and refurbishments were made in 1704 and 1801.  The central prayer hall honours goddess Kwan Yin while smaller surrounding chambers are devoted to scholars, ancestors and other deities.  Traditionally an empty lot is found across the street from temples for the temporary staging of Chinese operas, but this temple is fortunate to have a permanent building for operas across the road.

Decoration on archway leading to the Cheng Hoon Teng Temple

Beside the opera house is a Malay kampong house, which was rescued from certain oblivion and restored.  Features of such wooden houses have been preserved here such as; stilts which; keep the occupants above floods, allow a protected storage place for rice on the ground, provide a cool place to sleep on a hot afternoon and allow cooling breezes to pass under the floor.  Typical of Malay houses but found only in Melaka are the concreted front entry steps decorated in colourful tiles.  Three sections of the house provide a visiting area in the front verandah, a sleeping area in the slightly higher centre and a kitchen/cooking area in the lower back area.

Our last stop was a visit to the Chitty Museum on Jalan Gajah Berang.  The origins of this fascinating community were among the Hindu traders from South India who arrived during the period of the Melaka Sultanate.  Having to depend on the monsoon winds, they have to stay in Melaka for about six months between changes in the monsoons. This extended layover allowed for intermarriage with the local women, thus producing the group known as Indian Peranakans or Chitties.  They soon adopted Malay food, dress, some customs and language, while retaining their Hindu religion.  They flourished during the Sultanate and under the Portuguese, but not under the Dutch who maintained a trade monopoly for themselves.  They then turned to various crafts such as gold smithing and eventually to agriculture.  Today many Chitties work as clerks and technicians.  To this day they speak Malay infused with Tamil and words from other languages and maintain many of their elaborate rituals, such as complex wedding observations and extended ceremonies related to childbirth and girls’ coming of age.  Beef is not part of their diet. They are not to be confused with Chettiars, who were more recent Indian immigrants from a mercantile community, involved in money changing, money lending and land businesses.

Diorama showing a Chitty wedding at the Chitty Museum

We applaud the MV trainers, for arranging this trip, which gave us so much insight into Melaka of the past and present.  Having experienced so much first hand we will definitely remember what we saw, heard and learned.  Who can forget the searing memory of reading the gravestone in Christ Church of the mother and her three children who all died of diphtheria within 15 days of each other in the 1850s? Lingam was an ever-respectful guide who willingly shared his knowledge of all things Melakan.  He also set a standard for us to live up to.  It was a great day and a good time was had by all.

Click here to view Part 1 of this story.

Fruit from the Melaka tree

MV trainees on a guided tour of Melaka – Part 1

by Rama Ramanathan

Twenty-three of us were on the JMM (Department of Museums Malaysia) bus as it departed Museum Negara for Melaka at 7.45 am on Tuesday 10 October 2017.

Apart from our trainers (Jega, Karen, and Jean-Marie) who accompanied us, most of us were from Batch 28 and had delivered or watched presentations in Gallery C about Melaka. Some of Batch 28 trainees are professional guides who’ve seen Melaka often, but most haven’t. We looked forward to seeing how what we said or heard about Melaka during our training would match-up with reality.

In Melaka, we were met by Lingam, a local guide, at 10.00. After introducing himself to us, he briskly took us to the riverside where he explained the origins of Melaka. We heard again about the Hindu king Parameswara from Indonesia who fled to Temasek (now Singapore) where he killed a noble and, fearful of vengeance by the King of Siam, fled to Melaka, about 600 years ago.

Our guide said Parameswara sailed to Melaka and, while resting under a tree, he observed – as we’d heard so often – a mouse deer (kancil) turn aggressor against hunting dogs, one of whom fell into the river and was consumed by a crocodile. To many of us this was a new version on an old story, a version now set in stone in a piece of art, which the local authority has put on display by the river. He continued, “the fighting spirit of the mouse deer made Parameswara choose to settle there.”

The kancil story, immortalised in stone

Our guide next walked us to the Church of St. Francis Xavier, built in 1856 by French missionaries on the site of an old Portuguese church. The architecture of the church is neo-Gothic, modelled on the Cathedral of St. Peter in Montpellier, France. It is worth observing that the French named the church after the Spanish monk known as the “Apostle of the East” and “Patron of Missionaries.” Like the famed Spaniard, the French were Jesuits, members of the Society of Jesus.

We also saw, on the church grounds, the statues of Francis and Anjiro, the Japanese convert whom Francis met in Melaka. Francis had Anjiro trained in India before commissioning him to do missionary work in Japan. (Anjiro translated the gospel of Matthew into Japanese before returning to Japan with Francis; Francis wrote it out in ‘Romanised’ form and often read it publicly in Japan).

Church of St. Francis Xavier

We then walked along the Melaka River to the Protestant Christ Church, which sits on the town square. En route, the guide pointed out a Melaka tree. Many of us thought the Melaka tree was of the palm family, so we were surprised to see that it is tree, which provides ample shade and yields prolific quantities of an edible gooseberry. Of course, we insisted on sampling fruit from the tree. Most of us were disappointed, but some discovered a new fruit they enjoy.

Our guide told us the Tamil name for the gooseberry is ambalakka, and that over time this morphed into “Melaka.” This is a good story, which many of us will re-tell, though we know there are no records to support it! (Other suggestions are that “Melaka” is derived from mulagas, a salted fish exported from the state; also malakat which means “meeting” in Arabic.)

Melaka tree

The old town square has a clock tower and a fountain.

The clock tower was gifted to Melaka in 1886 by Mr. Tan Jiak Kim in memory of his father, Mr. Tan Beng Swee. Originally, the tower had two clocks, imported from Britain. In 1982, the clocks were replaced with four units from Japan. This upset the older population because they did not favour doing business with the nation whose soldiers had caused them much hardship during the Second World War.

Said to be the only functioning colonial fountain in Malaysia, the Victoria fountain was built in 1901 to commemorate the longest reigning British monarch. It has the following inscription: “Victoria Regina 1837-1901, erected by the people of Melaka in memory of a great Queen.” Our guide said it was built with marble imported from Britain.

Next, we entered Christ Church, built by the Dutch as a Presbyterian church in 1753, now used by the Anglican denomination. The impressive roof structure is held up by 40-foot long beams of beautiful, hardy local wood. Behind the altar, is a representation of the Last Supper, a glazed ceramic artwork made abroad and shipped to Melaka. According to our guide, it was found broken into three pieces when it arrived, but was so skilfully assembled that the cracks can hardly be seen.

Christ Church has many notable features, but space only permits mention of one more: a “tombstone” (no body beneath) with a Kurdish-Armenian inscription which translates into:

Hail! You who read the tablet of this tomb in which I now sleep, give me the news, the freedom of my countrymen, for whom I wept much. Did there arise from among them one good guardian to govern them and to keep them? Was it in vain that I expected in the world to see a good shepherd come to look after the scattered sheep?

I, Jacob, grandson of Shameer, an Armenian of a respectable family whose name I keep, was born in a foreign town in Persia, now Inefa, where my parents now forever sleep.

Fortune brought me to this distant Melaka, which keeps my remains in bondage. I was separated from the world on the 7th July, in the year of our Lord 1774, at the age of 29. My mortal remains were deposited in this spot, in ground which I had purchased.

Cornell University digitised version of Robert Norman Bland, Historical Tombstones of Melaka, Paternoster, London, 1905; page 5.

Tombstone with Kurdish-Armenian inscription

We departed Christ Church and entered the Melaka Museum, which is housed in Stadthuys, the Dutch word for “Town Hall.” Built in 1650, it is the oldest surviving Dutch building in the East. It served as administrative centre and housed the Dutch governor and his deputy. We learned that the stones used on the stairway of the main entrance came from the Netherlands as ballast on ships.

Just past the paid entrance, the museum architects have exposed some of what lies beneath the floor: a section of the drainage system incorporated by the Dutch into the design to preserve the building from flooding and erosion.

There is much of interest in the museum, both objects and paintings, with descriptions in both Malay and English. Exhibits that caught my eye include a collection of tortoise coin currency (so bulky and heavy!), a watertight trunk for luggage, and a collection of crockery.

The museum includes a re-creation of the Dutch bakery, which was integral to the design of the building – the colonialists needed their bread! Outside the building are the remains of a well, which supplied water to the building and a large statue of Zheng He, the Chinese Muslim eunuch Admiral who was a frequent visitor to Melaka.

A museum buff should budget at least 3 hours to thoroughly interact with and digest the exhibits.

Stadthuys staircase

From the museum we walked up to what remains of St. Paul’s church. For Catholics, the main attraction of these ruins is that it is the place where the remains of St. Francis Xavier were housed for nine months from March to December 1553. Francis died in Sanchian Island south of mainland China in 1552. His body was buried there, then exhumed and re-buried in Melaka. Then it was exhumed again and taken to Goa where it still is – except for one or more parts which were removed and sent to one or other places. It’s complicated!

Many recovered tombstones are on display. The visitor is struck by the young ages at which these visitors from foreign lands, many of them missionaries, and their local-born infants died in Malaya. Perhaps the most striking tombstone is one dominated by a skull and crossbones.

The guide explained that according to researchers the “pirate symbol,” taken together with other markings upon it, indicates that the person buried under it was a Jesuit Cardinal.

St. Paul’s church is a place to ponder the vagaries of history. The Star, in an article dated 7 December 2013, well summarised its significance:

The St. Paul’s Hill Complex, now a Unesco Heritage Site, mirrors a different “complexion” for the state’s “conquerors” of those yesteryears whenever St. Paul’s Church is brought into focus.

To the Portuguese, it was a place of worship and was the hallowed grounds where St Francis Xavier walked and preached.

To the Dutch, it was a Protestant church, a burial ground for members of nobility as well as a fortress.

While to the British, the church and hill was an artillery bastion and lookout point commanding a wide view of the Straits of Melaka.

According to our guide, the British removed the most of the roof of the building so that their lookouts could walk around the tall walls and spot potential attackers.

We then walked down the hill, past many Dutch and British graves, to A’Famosa gate. This is the only part of the Portuguese-Dutch fort of Melaka, which survived the dynamiting of the fort by the British beginning in August 1807. As we stood there, I remembered the response the British action awoke in Munshi Abdullah, one of the Malay world’s greatest writers: “The fort was the pride of Melaka, and after its destruction the place lost its glory like a woman bereaved of her husband.”

The Dutch entrusted Melaka to the British in 1795 for “safe-keeping” so they could focus on defending the Netherlands from the French. When they returned in 1818, they “got Melaka back,” minus its main fortification and “glory.”

It was 1.00 pm. Physically exhausted, but mentally invigorated, we headed off to find lunch and savour the sights and sounds of the morning.

The adventure continued after lunch and can be viewed here


Baba Nyonya Culture – MV Training Tues 27 Nov

By Hani Abdullah (Batch 16)

Display at Gallery B
Display at Gallery B

Today we learnt the acronym OCBC refers not to the bank, but the way mainstream Chinese may look upon the Baba Nyonya community in Malaysia – as Orang Cina Bukan Cina (Chinese yet not Chinese).

This is because as the community took root and evolved in Malaya, slowly at first perhaps in the 12th century and flourishing from the 18th to 20th centuries, these Malay speaking descendants of Chinese immigrants to Malaya were seen as forsaking their own culture in order to assimilate.

Not only did they seemingly lose command of the Chinese language by choosing to speak in Malay, they also seemed to abandon patriotism for their homeland China, preferring to swear allegiance to the ruler of the day, be it the Dutch, British or Japanese.

To dilute their roots further, the men (Babas) began to dress more and more Western, and sound as English as the English, while the women (Nyonyas), who already spoke mostly Malay, dressed more and more, well, Malay. But all throughout this time, according to Cedric Tan who presented on the subject, the Baba-Nyonyas remained steadfastly Chinese at heart.

What may be confusing at first is that the Baba-Nyonyas celebrate every festival under the sun, regardless of race, religion or culture. As Chinese, they take part in the myriad of Chinese festivals, ancestral worship and customs practiced, which come from a mix of Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism. However the Baba-Nyonyas also personally participate in Hindu rituals, pray to Jesus and abstain from pork on certain days of the Muslim calendar. Because you see, “We don’t rely on Chinese deities only,” was Cedric’s rationale.

In a presentation as vibrant as the community itself, Cedric went into great detail on the quirky history and evolution of the community; the development of the Baba-Nyonya language (which really is the fusion of 4-5 different languages); the subtle differences between the terms Peranakan, Straits Chinese and Baba/Nyonya; and the intricacies of each festival celebrated, each custom practiced and the whys.

Thanks to Cedric, we know why the community produced in their heyday such a rich tapestry of cultural products from the clothing and embroidery found in the Nyonya kebaya and other linens, to jewellery, ceramics, furniture, elaborate architecture, and not least their epic cuisine.

Cedric also gave us many insider tips, for instance, “Buy the sarong first, then select the kebaya top material, but keep the colours bright!” He also said that while the community has in recent years gained more public interest and awareness, Media Corp Singapore’s production Little Nyonya makes the mistake of making the characters speak in Mandarin and not localised Hokkien, or even Malay for that matter.

Thanks Cedric, we had a great time.

The Keris – MV Training Tues 16 Oct

By Lena Koh Maltesen (Batch 16)

En Nadzrin with one of the keris’ in his collection

The presenter for the topic of keris which is a Malay weapon was En Mohd Nadzrin bin Abdul Wahab, who among  his other editing and translation credentials, is the founder of several Malay culture-themed blogs and websites. Of mixed heritage ranging from Yemeni, Iranian, Indian, Malay and Portuguese, he has studied seven silat forms (Malay art of self-defence) and trains in three of them. He has won several silat competitions in Gold, Silver and Bronze categories. He has a day job as a corporate trainer at Accenture Solutions.  En Nadzrin arrived in full Malay traditional costume complete with gold-black sarong, “songkok” (a Malay hat) and traditional sandals, a sparring partner for silat demo purposes and his personal collection of keris and books on silat.

En. Nadzrin discussed the history, origin, design rationale, ownership, care, myths and geographical implication of the keris.

There are many theories on the origin of the keris.  One of this states that it originated in AD 1361 in the Malay Archipelago of Majapahit at Nusantara on the island of Java. In 2005, UNESCO designated the Indonesian keris as the “Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity”. According to En Nadzrin, his silat master Guru Jamaludin Shahadan stated that the keris is the most scientifically designed weapon (2004).

Encik Nadzrin demonstrating the teratai movement of silat

Silat masters requested the blacksmiths to design a weapon that could be used as a secondary instrument at close combat and that does not need any form of training in its usage. It must be simple to use and conforms to the ergonomics and utility of the hand. En  Nadzrin demonstrated how the “teratai” (lotus) movement of the silat allows the keris to penetrate into critical organs with just one stab. The most important parts of the keris are the two last “lok”(waves) of the blade that allows it to penetrate into the nape of the neck, the lung, stomach, heart and the part between the anus and scrotum and bring immediate death to the victim with just one jab. Traditionally the blade of the keris is made of 2 metals, usually nickel and iron but now also steel. The hilt must be rough and non-slip and the sheaths can be made of wood, ivory, horn of female buffalo and bone.

The hilt of the Malay keris is pistol shaped and less ornate than that of the Indonesian kris. The Indonesians prefer to work in metal to allow for a more ornate design thus increasing the value of the keris whilst the Malay keris is commonly sheathed in wood.  Traditionally, Brunei, Singapore and Sumatra prized their keris as a form of weapon whilst Bali and Madura considered them as a magical talisman. The Bugis, being taller and bigger in physique, designed the hilt of their keris to be bigger, wider and longer. Sulu keris, being heavy, was used for slashing. In Brunei, Singapore, Malaysia, the keris is either treasured by aficionados as collectors’ or heirloom pieces or preserved by silat practitioners which means there is smaller demand of keris as a whole but those being sought are specially commissioned at a higher price. These are usually made in Kelantan. A good keris sells about RM600. Some master craftsmen still have a backlog of orders by several years. By contrast, Indonesia has a demand for simple keris as it is considered more of a talisman. Only the Malay royalty still regards the keris as a symbol of prestige and power. The Sultan has a personal keris and the longer keris panjang (long) or keris kuasa (power) which are passed down through the royal generations. In the olden days, the keris panjang was used as a messenger tool by the king’s emissary and also for execution.

Legends of the keris having magical powers includes re-directing fire, killing by pointing, warning the owner of danger. Although the keris is capable of maiming its victims and causing death, ironically in Malaysia, it is not considered illegal to possess one. To-date, En Nadzrin stated there has been no case of injuries or deaths by keris in Malaysia in modern times.

The Keris can be cleaned with brasso or by the traditional method of dipping in coconut water, then rubbing the blade with lemon and smoking it with incense which does not leave  a white residue.

The presentation was very engaging as we had the chance to watch a silat demo and how the keris is used in close combat and the opportunity to touch and see the the keris up close and personal.

Early Malay Kingdoms – MV Training Tues 09 Oct

by Anne Lemetter (Batch 16)

This week, our schedule was a bit changed and we started by listening to Professor Dato’ Dr Nik Hassan Shuhaimi bin Nik Abdul Rahman, discussing the early kingdoms in Malaysia before the rise of Islam; covering topics in Gallery B of Muzium Negara.

Professor Dato’ Dr Nik Hassan discussing Early Malay Kingdoms with Batch 16 on 9 Oct 2012

Professor Dato’ Dr Nik Hassan is the President of the Association of Malaysian Archaeologists and the author of a number of books on archaeology.  He has been (in his own words) a “contractor” to the museum for the past 17 years and is an authority in the field of archaeology and pre-Islamic Malay Culture and Civilisation.

He started his talk with a short overview of the tools available for reconstructing the history of this period from various sources and highlighted the difficulty of combining archaeological evidence with evidence from literature into a coherent story that is reliably dated.

He then introduced the different Malay kingdoms, their rise as well as insights into the evidence of the existence of these kingdoms (inscriptions, statues, candi, graves …). He went through a series of pictures of artefacts and maps of this period, giving us a nice visual impression of this extensive overview.  He ended his talk with a quick overview on the current debate on the foundation of Melaka in 1262 vs 1400s.

After Dr Nik’s presentation, our team did a series of 3-minutes presentations, from the coconut tree, to the Gupta Stone, the tin animal money, the Ming export ceramics to the arrival of Islam to Melaka.

We ended our session by a Tour of Gallery B with Lee Choo Sim, an engaging story-teller.

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