Rabu, 14 Julai 2010

Malacca, Malaysia

     If the ultra-modern architecture and forward-looking citizens of Kuala Lumpur symbolize Malaysia's hopes for the future, then the quiet, seaside city of Malacca, about 150 kilometers to the south, is the guardian charged with the reflective task of preserving its past. Five hundred years ago, an extraordinary empire rose and fell here, its power and dreams suddenly caught off-gaurd by the dawn of the Colonial Era.

     The city was so coveted by the European powers that the Portuguese writer Barbarosa wrote "Whoever is Lord in Malacca has his hand on the throat of Venice." It was a major port along the spice-route, and its harbor bristled with the sails and masts of Chinese junks and spice-laden vessels from all over the hemisphere.  Because the city was originally built of wood, there are no crumbling and stately reminders of the power once wielded by the Malaccan Sultanate, but along shores of the Malacca River the scene has probably changed little. 

     The Portuguese influence is visible in the city's architecture. As they did in other colonies, they taxed buildings relative to their width, a policy that accounts for the deceptively thin facades along the colonial streets. A building no more than twelve feet across can easily extend backwards two hundred feet, its hidden interior a linear succession of high-ceilinged rooms and courtyards.  

     On the streets themselves, however, it is the Chinese influence that is felt most. As they have done for hundreds of years, Chinese merchants advertise the wares inside their shop houses with bright red characters. Open air fruit, vegetable, and fish markets sing with cadences of people bargaining in Mandarin. On the edge of the city is the largest Chinese graveyard outside of China itself, a sprawling zone of fields, trees, and uterus-shaped tombstones. Because of the huge cemetery and the Cheng Hoon Teng Temple (the oldest Chinese temple in Malaysia) there is an entire industry in Malacca that produces goods exclusively for the dead - paper simulacra that families burn as offerings to their lost loved ones.

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