Gautier Battistella - 2011-06-07
Located in South-West Malaysia, Malacca is a breath of fresh air with scents of ocean spray, a city to be experienced and dreamed of. We take a stroll around this crossroads of silk and spices in the company of writer Serge Jardin.
“It’s three in the afternoon. Clouds are gathering to the south west. The ventilator fan blades cut thick slices into the electrically charged air. With my elbows leaning on a window of the Maison de l’Escargot, I watch the swiftlets swoop down low above Tun Tan Cheng Lock Road before they dissappear behind closed facades.” This is how Serge Jardin opens his book dedicated to Malacca and the writers who have loved her. The atmosphere of this small town in Malaysia is somewhat reminiscent of Orwell's descriptions in the History of Burma.
“Malacca is the name of a tree”, Serge Jardin explains. “A fugitive prince named Parameswara used to rest under the shade of this tree. This was around 1400 CE. One day he was suddenly awoken by his dog which had cornered a mouse deer. This omen pleased the Hindu priests and the city Malacca, whose emblem became the mouse deer, was founded on that spot.”
Situated on a major commerce route between China, India and the Middle East this City-state rapidly became the most important port in the region. From then on Malacca became the name for the city and the straits, the river, hill and soon a maritime empire that in the second half of the 15th century ruled over the silk, spice and ceramics routes. At that time it extended from the eastern coast of Sumatra to the eastern coast of the peninsula.
This geographical location sharpened the appetites of the European powers: first the Portuguese, who appropriated the spice trade and erected churches and fortifications, then came the Dutch and finally the British. Francis Xavier, co-founder of the Society of Jesus with Ignatius of Loyola, spent several months in Malacca in the mid 16th century, where he laid the groundwork for a mission in the Moluccas islands.
However Singapore soon displaced the dreamy Malacca which was not unhappy, in its haze of opium, to return to its provinciality. Its dreams were more of serenity than glory and of nature rather than commerce. Although the same cannot be said for the presence of the Chinese who became the majority populace from the 19th century onwards. Spurred on by these Babas (the Chinese born in the Straits), Malaysia became the largest rubber producer in the world at the dawn of the 20th century.
Climbing the old town on the hill overlooking the harbour which now has little evidence of its former Portuguese presence, Serge recounts the legends of his city. It had been a refuge for dreaded pirates and an Islamic land which welcomed the great religions of Asia. Malacca then became Melaka to signify its rebirth, and to shake off a past it now considered cumbersome due to its connections with large colonial expeditions. However its maze of streets and lanes (with their widths based on social categories) lined with stately homes, still rings out with the clamour of its history.
It’s now 7pm and we’ve been walking for two hours in the humid heat. Serge interrupts, runs his fingers through his beard and places his finger on his lips inviting us to listen. The muezzin’s call rings out above the roofs. Then ghosts from the past slowly appear before our eyes – the ear cleaning barber, the collector of birds’ nests, the scribe, the coconut presser, the umbrella repairer. They all come out speaking volumes of a yesteryear of lanterns and large ship crews.
The night creeps in and the shadows of the past fade away. A fleet of flamboyant rickshaws in bee colours and creams and red peppers, pour into the streets in a tsunami of sound and colours. Decked out with monstrous decorations, covered in multicoloured LEDs and speakers, these supercharged monsters are driven by young people with bulging muscles, cigarette in mouth and spitting sizzling sodas. This is the other side of Melaka, a tourist town in summer invaded by hordes of Chinese.
Serge sneaks through the crowd. With the handle of his cane, he splits open the flow of irascible vehicles and opens up junctions. This former professor of geography moved to Malacca twenty years ago with his wife, a native of the city. He bought one of the lovely houses in the colonial district of Bukit St. Paul - an old distinguished lady, a peranakan cina house which he converted into a guest house - the famous Maison de l'Escargot. With its spacious rooms, high ceilings, wooden staircases, billiard tables, fans and mosquito nets: the colonial spirit of harmony, light and serenity is here in its entirety. The rear garden provides the loving couple with herbs and fruits for cooking. There is even a well. The guest house can’t be found in any guide and we came here simply because of its reputation. Friends send their friends. "I like the way word of mouth works. I choose my guests who are all recommended because they share common values and interests, "says Serge. A warm gust of wind arrives almost carrying his hat away. "Since I’ve lived here, I’ve lost at least thirty hats. They’re my gift to Malacca!”, he says smiling.
Serge organises guided tours of the city for his guests which are all centred around the theme of gardens: Memory gardens (maritime museums, spinning tops and kites), gardens of the dead (cemeteries and tombs), gardens of the gods (from the muezzin's call to St. Francis Xavier), gardens of flavours (essential for Malacca, with hybrid dishes such as Nyonyas - the Malay grilled fish, not forgetting the Creole cuisine from the descendants of the Portuguese). Then there are also the gardens of power, pleasure, knowledge etc. …
It would be wrong to close this page on Malacca without mentioning Liyana, the young guide who Serge introduced us to. The only thing which compared to her gentle smile was her intimate knowledge of Malaysian history. Liyana is the director of Bamboo Adventures, a tour operator based in Kuala Lumpur, specializing in travel to Malaysia.
La Maison de l’Escargot, Serge Jardin’s house in Malacca
76 Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock
Dreaming of Malacca, The LemonGrass - a collection of writings about Malacca with a very nice introduction by Serge Jardin.
Bamboo Adventures Sdn Bhd
Liyana Sarah Rafae, 22A, Jalan 21/11B S.E.A Park 46300 Petaling Jaya
Tel: 603 78 77 67 40 ; fax : 603 78 77 67 41.