The ancient town of Hoi An lies thirty kilometres southeast of the city of Da Nang, Vietnam, on the northern bank of the Thu Bon River in Quang Nam province. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999, Hoi An was once an international port town where traders from China, Japan, Arabia, Persia and Southeast Asia came to trade during the Champa period (2nd – 15th century CE) and later, traders from Europe during the Dai Viet period (15th – 19th century CE). Today, the town remains intact with more than 1,000 well-preserved building structures comprising architectural monuments, commercial and domestic houses, pagodas and temples. Hoi An has a total area of 60 square kilometres with a population of around 90,000 people.
The Hoi An Museum is a building on its own with two floors of galleries housing artefacts, sketches and photographs from the pre and proto historic periods (ancient times to the 2nd century CE), the Champa period (2nd – 15th century CE), Dai Viet period (15th – 19th century CE), and the Resistance War against the Americans (1955 – 1975).
There are two galleries on the first level of the museum. One gallery displays numerous burial jars and urns in various sizes dating back 2,000 years while the other gallery has a collection of bronze bells and Vietnamese blue-and-white ceramics from the Champa period. It is believed that the Champa people founded Hoi An, which was originally called ‘Lam Ap Pho’ or Champa City. The Kingdom of Champa in Vietnam is considered the oldest in the Malay world dating to the 2nd century CE as the people practiced Malay culture and spoke Malayo-Polynesian language originally while the Cham language became the official language later. Hoi An was a very wealthy port between the 7th – 10th centuries CE, trading in spice and silk, exporting aloe and ivory.
The gallery at the top floor exhibits artefacts from the Resistance War with the Americans. Many types of weapons and machine guns, parts of planes, bombs, clothing, torture instruments and even a trap of iron spikes can be seen here, supplemented by photos and information boards in Vietnamese.
The topmost floor of the Hoi An museum is where visitors have the opportunity to get a bird’s-eye view of the city from above. The outdoor environment also provides a picturesque scenery for visitors should they want to snap a few pictures of the ancient town in all its charm. The visit to the museum can be completed within an hour as the museum is quite small and as written on one of their information boards; ‘only some symbolic artifacts and photographs are shown’.
Our guide during the visit was the affable Chong Keat Aun who is the founder and curator of Petaling Street Heritage House. He is a writer and filmmaker and was a radio presenter for Radio Television Malaysia’s green channel, which is a Chinese language service.
Chong spearheads a project that began in 2005 to conserve the history of Kuala Lumpur’s Chinatown quarter. The project gained momentum when Kuala Lumpur’s Mass Rapid Transit project affected the Chinatown quarter, and forced some of the residents to sell their shophouses to make way for the new MRT train station. This quarter is often referred to as Petaling Street, which is a generic reference to the popular shopping street. However, the quarter comprises several other streets such as Jalan Sultan, Leboh Pasar Besar, Jalan Yap Ah Loy and Jalan Tun HS Lee. The Petaling Street Heritage House is located at 196 Jan Tun HS Lee. Other prominent landmarks along this street include the Sri Mahamariamman Temple and the Guan Di Temple.
The Heritage House is in a two-storey pre-War shophouse that has been completely refurbished. At street level, it stands out with its bright yellow façade. On the ground floor is a restaurant that serves dishes from the seven Chinese dialect groups. It operates the restaurant as a means of raising funds in order to be self-sustaining as it does not receive any government support. The upper floor houses the current exhibition detailing the theatre development in Petaling Street.
Chong explained that in Malaysia, there are seven dialects of the Chinese language spoken – Cantonese, Teochew, Hainanese, Foochow, Hokkien, Puxian and Hakka. However, in Petaling Street, Cantonese was the dominant lingua franca as most of the residents are descendants of migrants from Guangdong province in China. Chong derived much information from oral accounts of residents of Petaling Street, who had sold their shophouses or halted their business activities in the area when the MRT project began in 2010. Most of the artefacts on display were donated by these old folks from their personal collections. And some were even salvaged from backstreets when the residents discarded them when they moved out, oblivious to their intrinsic historical and cultural value!
The focus of the Petaling Street Heritage House is the preservation of Chinese dialect songs and its musical heritage. A famous record store called Yan Kee was located on Petaling Street. When the owner passed away in 2010, her son donated 2000 LPs (long-playing records) circa 1950 to 1960 of Chinese opera to the Petaling Street Heritage House project. This collection is being digitalized into MP3 format and preserved. Students from New Era College are conducting research utilizing the collection and the Heritage House intends to establish an aural history archive.
Yan Kee was also involved with providing radio scripts about operas to Radio Malaya and to Rediffusion, which was a subscription-based Chinese language radio service that was extremely popular in the 1960s to 1980s. The radio presenters would use the radio scripts to help listeners learn more about the characters and understand the plots of the operas.
An opera stage complete with its intricate hand-painted backdrop, a seating area and even a backstage dressing table used by the opera’s leading actress are on display, together with stage costumes and interesting stage props and even a dressing case which was used by travelling opera singers . The Cantonese opera singers of that time were mega stars and fan magazines prominently featuring them are also included in the collection.
The booming tin-mining and rubber industries and the affluent Chinese business community fuelled the growth of Cantonese opera in Malaya. The Yan Keng Benevolent Dramatic Association was formed in 1917 and its Cantonese Opera Group arm actively promoted Cantonese opera in the country. They would bring in famous stage performers from China and Hong Kong. Teahouses such as Yen Lok and Seng Kee flourished in the early 1920s. Patrons would enjoy listening to famous Cantonese ballads while sipping their tea. During major festivals like the Mooncake festival, some of the leading opera singers would perform at these teahouses.
Song lyric books of Cantonese opera known as Muyu Shu (which means Wooden Fish Book) are also on display. The reference to wooden fish comes from China where blind people traditionally sang these songs and used wooden blocks carved into fish shapes as percussion instruments. These books were preserved by Kai Chee Book Store in Petaling Street and were printed between 1920 and 1935. This was introduced by earlier migrants to South East Asia to express their feelings of homesickness. The lower income groups could not afford the luxury of spending time listening to music in a teahouse. To cater to the man in the street, some impoverished scholars copied and printed popular opera lyrics and songs for sale and this evolved into a variation of karaoke as a popular pastime for ordinary folks who would sing these songs themselves.
Opera watching and listening no longer remained the domain of the upper class following the emergence of Pu Changchun Opera Troupe and Madras Theatre at Petaling Street. The Madras Theatre was known as Chung Hwa Cinema Hall in Chinese.
The unique feature of the Heritage House is its preservation of aural history. Chong played the recordings from 1946 of an opening opera piece originating from the Chin Dynasty commonly referred to as Welcoming the Generals (and officially as The Inauguration of the Six States Prime Minister!) which was always performed during the opening night of the Opera, as an auspicious gesture to bestow luck. Chong also played recordings of the narration by Dr Too Chee Cheong of his life’s recollections about his grandfather, his father and himself. Apart from being a medical doctor, Dr Too was a renowned composer and a poet, who has also translated classic Chinese poems into English. Dr Too’s grandfather, Too Nam, is well known among older Chinese in Malaysia as a follower and supporter of Dr Sun Yat Sen. Dr Too believed that his grandfather, Too Nam, who was a Chinese tutor to Dr Sun Yat Sen in Hawaii, strongly influenced the young Sun, who, later in life, became the Chinese revolutionary credited with establishing the Republic of China. Dr Too Chee Cheong passed away last year at the ripe old age of 93 years.
At the end of the tour, we thanked Chong for his interesting tour and for his efforts in conserving the cultural history of Petaling Street. The group also contributed financial donations on a voluntary basis, as the project needs support.
I tagged along with the King’s College Alumni for a weekend tour of Malacca earlier this month. The highlight of the weekend was a walking tour conducted by Professor Johannes Widodo from the NUS School of Architecture. The tour started at the Tun Tan Cheng Lock Centre for Asian Architectural and Urban Heritage located at 54-56 Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock. A write-up on this Centre will be the first instalment of my “Professor Widodo Malacca Walking Tour” series.
Tun Tan Cheng Lock was a Baba Chinese. He was a leading member of the Straits Community and was the first elected president of the Malayan Chinese Association (MCA). He contributed significantly in the field of education, social welfare and politics. The road was named to commemorate his many contributions.
The Tun Tan Cheng Lock Centre is located in a townhouse along Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock. It was almost demolished 10 years ago as there was a proposal to create a walkway from the Kota Laksamana parking area to Jonker Walk. The plan to demolish this building failed due to the intervention of local NGOs.
This building was used as a maternity clinic for Dr Ong Bak Hin (one of the first Malaysian doctors who graduated in England) in 1920, Yeoh Maternity home in 1955, Aik Siow Clinic in 1977 and in 1980 as a rest house and subsequently a storage warehouse for Syarikat Abdul, an antique junk dealer. The two shoplots were sold in December 1992 to Tay Kheng Soon, a Singaporean architect, and they were finally purchased by Miss Agnes Tan and bequeathed to the School of Architecture NUS.
A 1605 Portuguese map of Malacca shows that there was a market place where this building currently sits.
In a map dating 1663, the location of building is where the orange box is. It is close to the sea which is at the bottom of the map.
All the yellow beams in the ceiling are original, but the brown wood is a replacement because the original wood was rotten.
The wall of the building almost collapsed and had to be restored. After the plaster was scrapped off, the conservationists saw different types and sizes of bricks dating from the Portuguese, Dutch, British and Malaysian eras. The plaster was not reapplied as they want to let the wall tell the story of the building. The Breaking Line of the wall indicates the movement of this building and tells us that this building was not built at one go as there were extensions forward and backward from the core.
The Line on the brick wall shows the first facade of building when the surrounding area was still the sand and was near the sea.
The steps were built after they closed the connecting door. In the beginning the neighbouring houses were connected. The subsequent owners closed the connection and they then built the second floor.
The well was shared with the neighbours.
The hole in the wall was made when the building was used as a warehouse in the 1980s when it belonged to Syarikat Abdul.
This wall collapsed and was stitched with concrete but the concrete was not covered up so that students can learn how to stitch a falling a wall.
Conservationists experimented with various types of plaster so that they can learn which one is better for conservation.
The Pit is kept open to show that there is sand inside. This used to be a coastline. You can find seashells and corals.
A connection to the Chariot House next to the Royal Press was found.
A horse stable was found as evidenced from the horse bones buried. It is speculated that the horses were used to pull the chariots.
Roof tiles used in Malacca cannot be found in Malaysia anymore. However, similar ones can be found in Vietnam. The tiles are made by placing clay on the thighs. So the sizes are not even.
Professor Johannes Widodo and team want to turn this place into a conservation clinic to show that it is possible to do a sensitive conservation and not to turn everything into boutique hotels and cafes.
During the opening ceremony, the Malacca Governor was invited to officiate and he suggested calling this place 54-56. The contractor bought 4D and was delighted when he won the first prize! He bought a 4-Wheel Drive with his winning money.
This burial, dating from the South East Asian Bronze Age (around 600 BCE to 200 CE), was discovered in Kampung Sungai Lang in Selangor in the 1960s. It is the only one of its type in Peninsular Malaysia although others of the same kind have been found in other locations around South East Asia. The grave was situated under a mound which had later been covered by mangrove and peat swamp. Eleven earthenware bowls lay between the drums, possibly vessels for food and water. Glass beads were scattered around one cluster of shards. No human remains were uncovered in this burial, probably due to the ravages of animals and the tropical climate.
It is generally thought that this grave represents a boat burial because planks of wood at the site are consistent with the same species of wood usually used in boat building. Two drums lay upside down on these planks. In the museum, one has been placed the right way up to reveal the design of geometric shapes, animals and weapons, drawn within concentric circles around a star or a sun motif (depending on the source). This important central design comprises a circle of triangular motifs, possibly representing bamboo shoots, worked in low relief, creating the points of a star that stand out in high relief. The drums originate from the Dong Son people of North Vietnam.
The drums were used to communicate with the spirits in religious ceremonies such as to ask for rain. They belonged to high-ranking people, whose remains were sometimes buried inside, so that they could keep their status in the afterlife. It is thought that the drums were arranged upside down either to show that they were not used as containers for food or suchlike, or maybe to protect the power of the surface (and that is the only thing which still remains intact!). The boat connection suggests that this might be the burial of the head of a riverine village.
The fact that we find these drums all over South East Asia indicates that trade was already widespread in the region at this time. The drums were probably also used to play music for dancers. These drums were still being made in Thailand at the beginning of the 20th century, and are still in use amongst a few tribes of North Vietnam today.
The motifs on Dong Son drums can also still be found from this time on traditional pottery, jewellery and textile designs. It seems that these motifs have retained their power into the modern age. In Indonesia, the Sultan of Yogyakarta was traditionally the only one allowed to wear batik sarongs with large bands of motifs similar to the ones on Dong Son drums.
This kind of burial has been found along Perak coastal areas. The slabs are arranged on top of each other with the head area larger than the foot. Although no human remains were found during excavation, the archaeologists did uncover glass beads, earthenware pottery and iron tools. This shows that these burials were used during the Iron Age from around 300CE until the end of the proto-history era, around 1400CE.
The Trunk Coffin
Gallery A shows us that the forest played an essential place in prehistoric daily life. In the past, trees were also important. More than 1000 trunk burials of this type have been found in large limestone caves in Sabah. Carbon 14 dating has revealed that they are 1100 years old. Some similar burials have been found in Thailand, but they are 1000 years older.
The coffin in the museum measures about 2 meters, but coffins of this type may be up to 4 meters in length. The trunks, made of local hardwoods such as iron wood, were cut in half and hollowed out. The handles were simple and were used to carry the coffin into the cave. Some handles were decorated with snake, buffalo, crocodile or bird heads. The coffin was carried up to the cave by slaves who could win their freedom if they arrived safely.
This coffin was probably intended for a person of high status in the community. Weapons and food remains have been found scattered around the coffins. Some indigenous groups of Sabah still use this kind of coffin.
Jar burials, the interment of secondary remains in locally-made terracotta urns, date back to the Metal Age, as can be seen from the discoveries made in the Gua Niah limestone caves in Sarawak by Tom Harrisson (former curator of the Sarawak Museum 1947-66) and his wife in the late 1950s. Other similar jars have been found in Sabah and Terengganu. In Sabah and Sarawak secondary burials in jars with the bones of several people have been uncovered.
Until modern times in Borneo amongst indigenous animist communities, it was the custom to keep the deceased within the house (usually in the upper area) so that family members could pray and meditate around the remains for a period of time, sometimes as long as a year or more. At a later date, when the body had completely decayed, the bones were gathered and put into a jar which was taken either to a high burial platform (salong) deep in the forest or interred in the ground. In some cases the body was originally buried until the family had enough money to carry out the proper rites, when the remains were dug up and transferred to a jar for traditional interment.
Later burials made use of Chinese jars, often referred to as martabans or tajau (in the local language), which have been be found widespread throughout South East Asia, and also in Korea and Japan. Jars like those featured in Gallery A, would have originated in China or Indo-China. Some tribes from Sarawak left the jars in the forest near megaliths or encased them within klirieng totem poles. Amongst some indigenous groups of Borneo, these jars represent the maternal womb; the bones are the foetus waiting for reincarnation or rebirth.
The Kuching museum contains a fascinating example of one such jar that unusually contained an entire body originally placed in a primary burial. It was found by Harrisson in the 1960s in the Kelabit Highlands of Sarawak at a burial site known as Budak Butal, and has been dated to the 2nd century BCE. An entire corpse was interred in the jar, which had been carefully bisected around the middle to hold the complete body. It was then resealed probably with resin, or local rubber. After a period of time by which time the body would have decomposed completely, the jar was opened so that the ritual for secondary burial could take place. The remains were then re-interred in the burial ground, either in the same vessel, or in another intact jar or coffin. This elaborate- and expensive- practice would have been the preserve of high status members of the community. The rattan casing was added later, most likely for transportation / display purposes – or to protect the fragile vase.
Jar burials of this type do not seem to have occurred elsewhere. The tradition was probably discontinued at least by the 1940s; the Kelabit people have now mostly embraced Christianity.
A big thank-you to Dr. Borbala Nyiri for details on the Budak Butal burial jar.
A dictionary of archaeology edited by Jan Shaw& Robert Jameson.
The Oxford companion to archaeology edited by Brian M. Fagan.
The encyclopaedia of Malaysian 4: The early history
A guide of the collection national museum Singapore: Archaeology
Co Vat Phu Tho. Edition: the culture & information.
One night in the early ‘70s. It is past midnight. The stage is set. The crowd waits in anticipation. Gene Ang and his Hawaiian Crackers are playing popular Hawaiian music of the day, performing for one night only at the Chinese New village in Taiping for the legendary striptease artiste, Rose Chan. Suddenly she appears from behind the curtains. The band works hard to keep their music in tempo to Rose’s moves as she gyrates and teases her audience. Unbeknownst to the audience, Rose is wearing three pairs of undergarments. Excitement builds as Rose takes off the first of three of her brassieres and swings it to the audience. She then takes off her second brassiere and again throws it to the crowd. And just as Rose is removing her third brassiere, Gene snaps a string of his lap steel guitar. It was all too much for him.
1958: What do a postman, surveyor, storekeeper, optical shop assistant and bank teller have in common? Nothing much, except that they all were all once members of the same band! Gene Ang and his Hawaiian Crackers was the only performing band in Taiping from the late ‘50s up to 1976. The band comprised of Gene’s neighbour, Zain, who was a postman; Poh Kee who worked in Chartered Bank (now known as Standard Chartered Bank after the 1969 merger with Standard Bank); Singgam, an Army storekeeper; ‘T.A.’ who worked in an optician’s; and Gene whose day job was with the Government Survey Department.
Hawaiian songs and the hits of Elvis Presley were very popular back then so the band concentrated on playing these songs. Most of the music was learnt by ear after listening to vinyl records. They did not have the luxury of music sheets. As the only band around, Gene Ang and his Hawaiian Crackers was in high demand performing at weddings, private evening functions and birthday parties. And during the weekends, they sometimes performed for doctors’ private functions, the police inspectors’ mess, nurses’ dances, and in private clubs. The band even played at the cinema before showings of Elvis Presley movies. One of Gene’s fondest memories is performing in the band which was chosen to play during the opening of Parliament in 1962. Gene’s instrument of choice was the lap steel guitar (a.k.a. Hawaiian guitar), but he could play almost all stringed instruments including the guitar, ukulele, double bass, mandolin, and violin, as well as the gendang (double-headed drum). How and when did Gene develop this passion for playing and performing?
Here is his story…
1929: Ang Leong Tooi was born in Ipoh to a Baba family from Medan. He would later adopt the name Gene after Gene Autry, the Singing Cowboy who was popular in the 1940s. Gene’s father worked as a Chief Customs Officer while his mother tended to their six children. Even from the early age of five, Gene was drawn to music. His first instrument was the violin, which he learnt to play from a Ronggeng (Javanese dance) troupe. His family moved to Teluk Intan when he was 7 years old where he was introduced to a friend of his father who played for a Chinese Opera troupe in Taiwan. From him, Gene learned to play the big drum and also observed how to lead a band. But life took a different turn in 1942 during the Japanese Occupation when most of the schools and shops were closed, a period where Gene also stopped playing music. In 1943, his family moved to Taiping. After the war, Gene resumed his studies at the King Edward School there (now SMK King Edward VII), starting Standard 4 at the age of 17 years old. He would later complete his education at the age of 20 years in Penang in 1949. Sadly, Gene’s father fell ill in December the same year and passed away at the beginning of 1952. With no means of supporting himself through further education, Gene joined the Government Survey Department in Taiping and worked his way up to be a land surveyor.
As luck would have it, soon after the war, while Gene was still at school in Taiping, he met Emile Nicholas who later became a Major (then Colonel) in the army. The duo played guitar at weekly Saturday campfires and sing-a-longs. It was also during these weekly campfires that Gene met his future wife, Judy Foo, who was only 15 years old when they met. She was his sister’s classmate. They dated for 7 years before getting married in 1954.
In the early ‘50s, Gene was invited to play for the British at the Military Club, the Australian and New Zealand clubs in Kamunting, the Customs Recreational Club, and the New Club near Lake Gardens in Taiping. When Nicholas was transferred to Ipoh, he invited Gene to play the double bass in his band at St. John’s Red Cross Hall and at joget (traditional Malay dance) dances in Perak. After his experiences in Nicholas’ band, Gene finally formed his own troupe in 1958, calling themselves The Hawaiian Crackers with Gene Ang as the band leader. The band performed together until 1976 when Gene had to move to Pahang as the land surveyor for a Federal Land Development Authority (Felda) scheme.
Gene still remains sprightly and full of energy to this day. He does his daily exercises by walking every morning and evening. After he stopped playing music, his passion turned to cooking and baking.
Batang Kali is located along the route to Genting Highlands. It has a dark past being the place where the Seventh Platoon, G Company, 2nd Scots Guard shot dead 24 unarmed villagers. This incident took place in 1948 during the Malayan Emergency at a rubber estate in Sungei Rimoh, Batang Kali.
Today, Batang Kali is a quiet place but this predominantly Hokkien town has a unique cultural experience to offer its visitors. I participated in a tour recently through Lokalocal. The tour guide was Tek Eng Seng, a local resident of Batang Kali who is passionate about promoting the town.
The group met at KL Sentral before 10am and we made our way to Batang Kali. After an hour on the road, Eng Seng greeted us at Econsave and he gave us some local cucur udang (prawn fritters) to try. We had a fun-filled educational trip that is best told in photos.
Our first stop was at Five Q Brothers Enterprise where we learned how to make loh mee from scratch. These noodles are a signature dish of Batang Kali and are traditionally cooked in a thick and starchy broth with a touch of black vinegar to give it a zing. Our noodle-making session was followed by a sumptuous lunch of Loh Mee (of course), Hokkien Mee and Lor Bak at the Hokken Town restaurant.
We then made our way to the organic Guava Fruit Farm. There is also a bee farm on the premises and we tried out various types of honey. I bought a box of wax honey.
We then went to Kuil Siam Buddha Sakya Tharig Centre, which is actually a Tibetan Buddhist monastery. This was followed by a coffee break at Zhen Zhen Restaurant. Eng Seng bought various type of pau for us to sample.
Our next stop was at the World of Phalaenopsis where we took lots of pictures of the orchids. Phalaenopsis is the scientific name for a genus of orchids, known commonly as the moth orchid. Many species of multi colours are grown at the World of Phalaenopsis.
We then soaked our feet in the sulfur ponds at Cholo Cholo Hot Spring. Some of us had lobster feet but it was a good rejuvenation session even though the sulfur gas made my eyes smart. Eng Seng is such a gentleman that he bought me some eye drops.
Next, we visited the Fu Quan temple, which is located on a hill. This is the main temple of Batang Kali. We had quite an adventure here having been got locked out of our van. Luckily a local mechanic came to our rescue.
We ended the day with a sumptuous dinner at Hock Lay Restaurant. Eng Seng treated us to a delicious meal of Boned Pork, Fried Tofu, Tom Yum Prawns and Claypot Veggy.
Although other ports on the Malayan Peninsula and in Sumatra existed along the Straits of Malacca, none of these ports could rival Melaka itself in its heyday, with the entrepôt attracting traders from all over the world. Those who look back upon this period often express nostalgia for a “Golden Age”, with Melaka’s power, wealth, and cultural refinement evoking the image of a distant kingdom, imbibed with majesty and magic. But nostalgia can often cast too strong a spell, and Melaka’s legendary status can obscure the actual reasons for the empire’s success. Though Melaka’s success was partly due to its strategic location, it was largely Melaka’s efficient administration that was central to its success as an international trading hub. The term “administration” does not merely refer to a group of officials, but to “the process or activity of running a business, organization, etc.”. Melaka’s efficient administration was the result of two things: a clear system of law and an efficient system of governance. The region also benefited from effective communication and mutual cooperation, points that will be touched on toward the end of this article.
Melaka had an effective legal justice system, which provided a clear framework for the facilitation of trade. Melaka has a clear legal system, with the region having two important legal codes that governed the affairs of the region. The first was the “Laws of Melaka” (Undang-Undang Melaka), a combination of customary and Islamic law that covered the special rights of the ruling family, dignitaries’ duties, government protocol, and both criminal and civil offences. This meant that there was a clear system that determined the state’s internal affairs, providing a stable basis for the day-to-day activities that took place in the area. But Melaka’s system also encompassed matters of trade, with the “Maritime Laws of Melaka” (Undang-Undang Laut Melaka) providing “rules for the proper conduct of trade, rules governing accidents at sea and regulations for boats and ships”. A clear system of taxation, import duties, customs duties, and gifts was outlined, with the details “varying according to the trader’s country of origin”. These laws provided a clear framework for the functioning of trade, minimizing the potential for large disputes with regards to transactions. The laws also applied the same principles governing affairs on land to those at sea, with captains “possessing power and authority akin to that of the ruler on land”. In a world where so much human activity took place aboard ships, these laws greatly reduced the potential for chaos that could disrupt trade. The laws also covered safety regulations, covering “regulations for the safety of a prahu while at sea”. The law even detailed how sailors should deal with cargo in the midst of “a violent storm”, stating that the nakhodah must hold “a general consultation” of the crewmembers and not “indiscriminately” dispose of the cargo. The clarity and detail of these codes meant that traders “understood what kinds of laws governed their trade”, with the “element of arbitrariness” being “removed” from commercial activity. This provided a sense of security that encouraged traders from all over the world to bring their merchandise to Melaka.
However, a legal system is useless without an executive body to implement it, and Melaka possessed a clear system of governance to implement the region’s laws. Melaka had a clear bureaucratic system that managed the affairs of the region. Authority was centred on the sultan, whose sovereignty was not to be challenged. This notion of sovereignty or daulat was the cornerstone of Melaka’s social order: “without a king there could be no kingdom; without a kingdom there could not be ordered social life”. However, the king was at the summit of a larger governmental system, with the task of managing the country being regulated by a larger bureaucratic structure. Beneath the king were four principal officials:
The Bendahara – The Prime Minister or vizier
The Penghulu Bendahari – The state treasurer
The Temenggong – Head of Security and Law and Order
The Laksamana – Admiral of the Navy and chief emissary of the Sultan
These officials existed with the framework of a larger governmental system called “The Fourfold System of Officials” (Sistem Pembesar Empat Lipatan). Beneath the four principal officials were eight lower-ranking officials, beneath these eight were another sixteen officials, and beneath these sixteen another thirty-two. This created a chain of command for the execution of orders, distributing power across a system akin to a civil service.
The regulation of the traders themselves fell to four harbour masters (shahbandars), each of whom regulated the traders from a particular region such as Gujerat or the Malay Archipelago. The shahbandar was “often a foreign merchant who had acquired the trust of the ruler” who would “mediate between merchants of his home area and the ruler”. They also were responsible for many tasks, such as managing transport and making sure that the weights and measures were accurate. But the Malay rulers along the Straits of Malacca also understood the need for cooperation with the more nomadic elements in the society, who possessed skills important to the region as a whole. For instance, the Malay rulers established an alliance with the Orang Laut, “nomadic boat dwellers” that were a large percentage of the population. By establishing alliances with this group, the Malay rulers were able to maintain the safety of Melaka, with the Orang Laut using their seafaring skills to help “keep piracy within limits”. Similarly, the Malay rulers formed alliances with the hinterland dwellers, “gatherers of forest products” who were the “ancestors of the … Orang Asli”. The “bonds of personal loyalty” forged between these two groups resulted in “commercial and military benefits”.
Justice, efficiency, and a willingness to work with others: these three components were ultimately the underlying factors that determined the overall administration of Melaka. It was this form of administration that ultimately brought about Melaka’s success as an entrepôt, making it a meeting place between cultures and civilizations. As we look back upon this “Golden Age”, the centrality of these principles in the proper functioning of Melaka are worth bearing in mind. For after visiting the kingdoms of the past, we must ultimately return to the shores of the present. And what good is a journey if you don’t return home with something useful?
Miksic, John. “Entrepôts along the Melaka Strait.” In The Encyclopedia of Malaysia: Early History, edited by Prof. Dato’ Dr Nik Hassan Shuhaimi Nik Abdul Rahman, 116–7. Singapore: Editions Didier Millet, 1998.
Osman, Mohd Taib. “Trade and administration.” In The Encyclopedia of Malaysia: The Rulers of Malaysia, editorial advisory board chaired by Tun Ahmad Sarji bin Abdul Hamid, 114–5. Singapore: Editions Didier Millet, 2011.
Velupillay, Jegatheesan. “The Golden Age of Melaka.” In A Malaysian Tapestry: Rich Heritage at the National Museum, edited by Rose Gan and Maganjeet Kaur, 99–109. Kuala Lumpur: Department of Museums Malaysia, 2015.