Sunday, October 26, 2014

Malay Journey

"It was 1405, on a spring dawn. Three short years after Parameswara founded his empire (where a mouse deer outwitted a dog), the Sultanate of Malacca was still in an unstable infancy. In the south, the expanding Majapahit Empire was a threat, as were the Siamese, who sought revenge for the death of their regent Temagi at Temasek (today’s Singapore). As day broke across Malacca’s natural harbor, an unspeakable dread must have swept over all on shore. Ships larger than anything afloat, as far as the eye could see, had arrived in the night. Hundreds of ships, a fleet crewed by over 27,000 men, silken sails set by a forest of teak masts across the horizon. Treasure ships, as much as 125m long and weighing 1,500 tons, securely guarded by five-mast Fuchuan warships and supported by a host of transports, supply ships, and patrol boats. The Chinese had arrived."

- Malacca’s First Visitors by Mike Street

The diorama exhibit I saw at the Cheng Ho (1371-1433) Cultural Museum, Malacca, gave a vivid account of the Ming Dynasty's Armada's virgin voyage described by Mike Street. It preceded the voyage of Christopher Columbus to the Atlantic Ocean, the discovery of the New Continent and the Age of the Exploration by European powers. Malacca became the archetypical trade port of Malay, on the mouth of the river, people congregating for trade, fishing, and farming under the Muslim Sultanate.

Admiral Cheng Ho's mission was to deliver Ming Dynasty's message and gifts to enter into amicable trade relations with the Sultanate, who in response, presented tributes and sought Ming's protection and influence against Siam's (Thailand) offense. This reciprocal relationship worked well and lasted until Cheng Ho's 7th and the last voyage between 1405 and 1433. Ho reached Mogadishu and Brava in eastern Africa on the 6th and 7th voyages.

Admiral Cheng made Malacca his Armada's strategic port-of-call, primarily for waiting for change in monsoon winds, and had constructed warehousing facilities. He died from illness on the 7th voyage and the Ming Dynasty discontinued the voyage because of the exorbitant costs.

At the Cheng Ho Cultural Museum, a small vase exhibited in a glass enclosure attracted attention of a few visitors. I wondered what it was. Contained in it was his male piece. Seemingly he was an Arab boy castrated under captivity in Yunan to serve as a page for one of Ming's nobles. Growing into an active lanky young man and a good fighter in the war, he won the trust of Yong Le Emperor and quickly rose up the ranks. Malacca showed special attachment to Cheng Ho with the Cultural Museum dedicated to him.

Thriving Malacca drew ambitions of European powers and was taken over, first by Portugal (1511), second by Holland (1641), and third by England (1824). The defeated Sultanate retreated to Johor and Perak. They had to wait for the arrival of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles (1781-1826) to learn how Malacca lost its luster to Penang and Singapore. There is one legendary episode that took place in 1810. Raffles happened to be in Malacca when the old Portuguese Fort was almost totally blasted by dynamite, as it was an eye-sore to the British. Because of Raffles' respect and passion for history, a Formosa Gate was said to have been spared from destruction. We would not see the gate today if he had not intervened. Close to this gate are the restored replica of the Sultanate Palace and Malay's Independence Hall, which was the British Malacca Club where the writer Somerset Maugham liked to visit. It was here that he found inspiration for some of his short stories.

I didn't have time for the Maritime Museum nor the Malacca River cruise, but glimpsed a life-size replica of the shipwrecked Portuguese "Flor do Mar" (Flower of the Sea), close to the Watermill, the tourists attraction of the river. On his return trip, the Portuguese Conquerer Alfonso de Albuguerque ran into a typhoon and lost the Flor de Mar, fully loaded with treasures, near northern Sumatra.

Baba & Nyonya Heritage Museum was my last stop in the Jonker street area. I was attracted to the curious names. Baba is an immigrated Chinese boy and Nyonya is a local Malay girl. It was the home of the Chan family (rubber plantation owners) that housed over eight generations, built in 1861. It was a beautiful home inside, reflecting the hybrid life style and furniture of the Chinese, Malay, Indian and English. Outwardly, it looked no differently from the rows of the neighborhood houses, called shop houses with narrow frontage. I passed the Chan house a number of times. I later learned that the Dutch tax system based on frontage forced such housing structures. The tour required reservations in advance.

Today, the Chinese Malaysians occupy a quarter of Malay's total population, as the key working force of its economy. My old pen pal from Negeri Sembilan, about 90 km away, came to see me on my last Malacca night despite the rain storm, accompanied by her new husband. She is a Chinese Malaysian who is a PhD candidate and middle school vice principal. Her husband is an Indian sports journalist. The couple took me to a modern Malacca business center located more inland, to treat me to an excellent Chinese dinner.

1 comment:

Rob said...

Thanks/ arigato for another interesting blog posting. Keep up the good work!