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The Thy Tracker (continued)


May 15–23  Peranakan  24–25  27–29  Sireh  30a  30b  30c–31
Malaysia: Melaka June 1–2, Kuala Lumpur 3–4, Penang 6
Vietnam: Saigon 13–16  19-20  22  26  27 30
Nha Trang July 7a 7b, Hue 14a 14b, Hanoi 19–20
India: Pondicherry 31, Bangalore August 2–4, Kerala

MELAKA, MALAYSIA (continued)

June 1, Friday

I've just learned that my cousin in Vietnam moved her wedding in Saigon to June 16.  I will now need to travel through Malaysia through Thailand to Bangkok and arrive in Saigon by June 12 in order to take part in the preparations. I should be able to make it, but things are on the hectic side now. 

Bryan and I just recently visited Amsterdam.  Here in Melaka, I'm seeing the other side of colonialism.

Although the Dutch rule is obvious in the names of buildings and streets, the towns importance as a trading center stretches further back.

In 1405, Admiral Zheng Ho arrived in Melaka with his fleet from China. A few decades later, a Chinese princess, Hang Li Po, converted to Islam and married the sultan to encourage friendly relations.

From eastern India, Mani Purindam sailed to Melaka with seven laden ships. He stayed, was appointed a minister in the Sultan’s Audience Hall, married the treasurer’s daughter, and watched his children all take important positions in the sultanate. Much like the Peranakan Chinese, the Chitty community in Melaka are descendents of later Indian traders and envoys who settled in Malaysia.

Less peacefully, the Portuguese, Dutch, and English all ruled here. It was an important trading center while it was still a sultanate, when Melaka’s maritime laws established standards for taxation, weights and measures, how to rescue people at sea, even what to do with drifting boats. The Dutch and English later fought bitterly for control of the town, as it was an important stop on their trade routes and crucial to their spice monopolies.

I spent my first of only three days here in a long discussion about Dutch Melaka. By chance, I met Michael Weber, a curator in Dutch colonial history, and Daniel Iman, a research architect specializing in the development of traditional Malay homes. Mr. Weber spoke about the grueling journeys of the United Dutch East India Company (VOC is the Dutch acronym), and Mr. Iman shared his insights on the Dutch elements one can see in old homes. I learned that it took ships nine months to make the journey from Amsterdam to Melaka, and that the crew had to have at least 200 men to ensure that 100 would be alive for the return trip. Unlike in Singapore, where the English divided the city into ethnic neighborhoods, the Dutch segregated Melaka by class. They also imported their unusual method of taxing homes: you paid according to the width of your house. So, like in Amsterdam, the shophouses here are narrow but very deep.

Mr. Iman mentioned an old story about why the Stadhuys (the Governor’s mansion and offices) was painted red: the locals kept spitting betel nut chew on its walls to express their dislike of the colonists. Although probably not true, it seems to be a popular story that won’t die.

Next year is the 400th anniversary of the VOC. To help celebrate, Mr. Weber has submitted a proposal to the Malaysian government to convert the Stadhuys to a Dutch colonial history museum. The Stadhuys, a landmark in the town square, now houses the Melaka History and Ethnography Museum. No mention is made about where the current holdings would be moved, but everyone present very much liked the idea.

During a more general discussion, a man asks Mr. Weber why the Dutch didn’t like to dance and eat like the Portuguese. Another wonders about the history of the phrase "going Dutch" for that peculiarity of splitting a bill. I am unable to resist asking a question, the only one of the evening, about the harsh rule of the Dutch colonists. I was assured that they were "actually okay." They were "awkward" when they first arrived, and so made some mistakes in relating with the locals. That now tops my own list of understatements to remember.

I found this painted on the wall of the Coconut House, a restaurant in the antique district:

M     Mighty walls

A     Abounding in buildings

L     Land of charm

A     Attractive gardens

C     Chaotic after plunder

C     Climate feverish

A     Anemic after war

June 2, Saturday

No mistaking the Dutch-built city center. This windmill sits at the traffic circle right next to the Stadhuys. All day, traffic has been at a standstill here along Jalan Laksamana, where all the buildings are painted bright red. Sunday is the king's birthday, Monday is the Prophet Mohammed's birthday, and school has just let out. Families have flocked to Melaka to enjoy the long and extra special holiday weekend.
A man waits for traffic to clear. His cargo of fresh eggs seems fastened securely enough, but there's a pair of eggs sitting loosely on top. Not to worry. As the egg man weaves confidently through traffic, those two eggs don't move at all.
A friend of a friend, as the story goes, drove up from Singapore one day just to eat chicken rice at Chop Chung Wah. They are one of the few who still make it the traditional way, rolling the rice into balls just as the women in Hainan once did. Their husbands could then eat their lunches more easily out in the fields. The restaurant sits in the old city center of Melaka, right at the bridge leading to the Stadhuys. The rice balls, kept moist in a basket covered with a damp cloth, are soft and savory, with a hint of chicken fat richness. They remind me of matzo balls, and I begin developing a spin on chicken soup. But Chung Wah's housemade chile-ginger dipping sauce quickly brings me back to Southeast Asia.
Right in front of the chicken rice ball restaurant, Mr. Choo Tin Chai wraps poh pia nonstop at his cart. The folks inside munch on his fresh rolls while they wait for their chicken. Outside, there's always someone waiting for a takeaway order. While we chat, he keeps rolling.
Early every morning, while his wife makes the wrappers, Mr. Choo prepares all the filling ingredients. Eggs, bean sprouts, tofu, fried shallots, lettuce and sweet sauce. There's a large pan of tender, white vegetable strips simmering at the center of his cart. I guess daikon, but he corrects me: turnip. After wrapping and slicing the rolls, he spoons some of the turnip's sauce over them. "Softens them for better eating," he says.

Mr. Choo inherited the poh pia cart and recipe from his father. He himself has been in business in this same spot for over thirty years. I order one of this rolls for takeaway and finish it before I cross the bridge.

This mangosteen shaped hut sells chendol, a sweet snack of shaved ice, fruits, and colorful syrups.

For those of you who have asked, I actually do not have a laptop computer nor do I have a digital camera. It’s relatively low-tech as websites come. I hunt down internet cafés and then email dispatches to Bryan whenever I can. For the photos, Xian in San Francisco trusted me with her wonderfully light Rebel SLR. Since photo processing is inexpensive and fast in Asia (you can choose from ½ hour to 4 hour processing times), I just develop my film here and then scan them in. There may be a lag of days between writing and scanning, but it seems to be working out fine.

Next stop: Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia >

June 2001