Melaka

 



Mark Eveleigh reports from Melaka, 'the world's most haunted city,' and from the 'dark side' of Penang Island. 


"Of course I don’t believe in ghosts...but everyone knows they exist." The words of the Indian priest came back to me as I sat in the gloom of Melaka's old Portuguese fort. It was just past midnight and a sickle-shaped moon was throwing the dancing shadows of a tortured casuarina tree onto the jumbled stones of the ruin. I was sitting here for a bet but it occurred to me that an hour in company with the countless tormented souls who are supposed to haunt this crumbling edifice was a high price to pay for a couple of (admittedly inexpensive) beers!

 

 

Coming from an ordained Christian vicar, the priest's sentiments had surprised me. But then this was Melaka – often called the most haunted town in the world – and in this neck of the woods even the most stalwart realist understands that you ignore the local spectres at your peril. My thoughts jumped back to a similar warning I had received in Penang, that other historic town guarding the opposite end of the Straits of Melaka. At a temple somewhere just off the delightfully named Love Lane I had met a Chinese fortune-teller. He rattled a bundle of sticks in an ancient box that was decorated with indecipherable hieroglyphics and threw them on the table. He spent a long time analysing the way in which they fell…and then informed me that I was potentially involved in something that was 'dangerously beyond my understanding.'     

Since a British officer first had the bright idea of firing a cannon full of gold pieces into the dense jungles on Penang Island – inspiring the gathered Malay and coolie labourers to clear the rainforest in record time – the city of Penang has had a colourful history. Signs of colonial power remain in the form of the Fort Cornwallis battlements, City Hall and the imposing Eastern and Oriental Hotel but it is the Chinese who have left, and continue to leave, the greatest mark on Penang's character. Today Penang remains an atmospheric town of trishaws, shophouses, herbal pharmacies and temples that are permanently infused with incense. Some of the most remarkable buildings are the traditional kongsi clan-houses which are still maintained by donations from the descendents of 'Straits Chinese' who have settled all over the world. The most magnificent is certainly the Khoo Kongsi. It was so utterly ostentatious that, when it was built in 1901 (after 7 years of labour), nobody was truly surprised when the roof caught fire on opening night; the ancestors were clearly enraged that anyone had the audacity to build something so spectacular on mortal soil. 

In the seventh lunar month (normally around August) the gates of hell are opened and Penang officially becomes 'ghost-city central.' Hordes of ancient ancestors and recently departed swarm upon the town and local people hold feasts and make offerings, either in private homes or at the temples. Weddings, house-moving or big business deals are avoided and children are locked indoors after dark. The otherworldly guests must be appeased so that they do not feel tempted to take one or two of their hosts with them when they return to the 'lower world.'
Georgetown, Penang's capital, has the highest population of Chinese in Malaysia (over 90%) and ancient traditions are kept alive here long after they have all but disappeared even from China itself. 

Melaka too is largely Chinese and the graveyard on China Hill is said to be the biggest outside of China. Melaka's history was also marked by an impressive cast of desperadoes, heroes, vagabonds and villains. Many were apparently very reluctant to desert the town and, if local sentiments are to be believed, there are more otherworldly occupants in this city of 760,000 'souls' than there are flesh-and-blood inhabitants. I had been wandering in the old Christ Church graveyard – where pirates, adventurers and colonial soldiers have become perpetual neighbours – when I bumped into Dr Batumalai. The Indian vicar of an Anglican church, Dr Batumalai seemed to be a product of Melaka’s multi-national background: he conducts his services in English, Malay, Chinese and Tamil.

There had been stories in Malay newspapers about an upsurge of bomoh spiritual healers in Melaka. Some were harmless herbal medics who would – for the price of a few eggs or a fighting cock – cure lovesickness or arrange a lottery win. But others had been implicated in evil even to the extent of planning human sacrifice. "Don’t get involved in what you don’t understand," the priest warned me when I asked about this. He fixed me with a stern eye and shook his head solemnly as if I was already a lost case. "Don't go to the bomohs. The spirits could drag you. My advice is if you can't swim don't go in the deep water!"

The traditional centre of activity for the bomohs was said to be the old Malay kampong, a delightful township of stilted houses with characteristic tiled steps. The stilts are useful here since this area is also home to a veritable army of giant reptiles. The monitor lizards (many 6 feet long) cruise the river or sunbathe on the dirt roads and in backyards. From time to time one of these formidable 'dragons' will snatch a chicken or, occasionally, a small dog but for the most part the human and reptile population live peacefully side-by-side. Traditionally the people of the kampong believed that on the day that one of their reptilian visitors is deliberately killed the entire monitor army will rise up and attack the village.

The majority of Melaka's old town centre is Chinese but to the south there is also a Portuguese fishing village. Until recently the language of the far-off homeland was still alive here and the community was predominantly Catholic. The Japanese too recognised Melaka's importance in their plans for a great empire. In the main square, in front of the beautiful red-painted church, there is a Seiko clock that was given to the town by the Japanese in apology for the occupation during WWII. It is said that if you press your ear against the base of the clock you can hear the howls of the tormented souls who died during the war years. I listened hard but could hear nothing. Not even any ticking; apparently, despite attempts by engineers, the clock has never been coaxed into functioning since it was put here. 

Just as the kampongs have always had their bomohs, the Catholic forefathers of Melaka too had their spiritual 'faith-healers.' The most famous of these was Saint Francis Xavier who arrived in Melaka in 1545 and quickly proved his sainthood, firstly by reviving a baby girl who had been dead for three days, and then by warning lucky sailors away from ill-fated voyages that were destined to end in shipwreck or plunder by pirates. After the saint died (of fever off the coast of Canton) his body was transported briefly back to Melaka and then to Goa, where it remains today. Legend has it that the earthly remains refused to decompose and over the centuries relics were cut off, as if from living flesh. As late as 1951 grave robbers removed the saint's left ear. The Vatican had already demanded their own 'pound of flesh' and in 1614 his right arm was cut off and sent to the Pope. 

A few metres from where I sat in the Portuguese fort, stands a statue to Saint Francis Xavier. It is all that remains of the saint in the town that was so important to him, yet even the fate of the statue was surreal. Within a very short time of it being erected here a lightning crash amputated the saint's right arm...at exactly the same point where the arm of the corpse was severed. Nobody ever found the statue's missing arm and it was just put down to another of the countless mysteries in the world's most haunted city. As for my own ghost-hunting? Well, I never heard or saw anything…but, as the priest would have said, I knew they were there all right!

 

Ultimate day city

 

 
David Whitley falls in love with Melaka within minutes of arrival, but finds the magic wears off after dark

The trishaw weaves through the narrow streets, adorned with as many flowers and spinning windmill contraptions as the driver can carry. But I hear it before I see it – the opening bars of Wind of Change by the Scorpions are blasting out at an ear-splitting level.

Melaka is like the pimped-upped trishaws that blunder through it – it’s a city that raises an instant smile. Within minutes of ambling through the streets of Chinatown, I’d already decided it was my favourite Asian city. Granted, that’s largely because I’ve only ever been to the huge metropoles that I can respect rather than love, but Malaysia’s historic port city has an immediate charm that only grows as you begin to explore it.

Part of this is about preservation. Melaka has done an incredible job of keeping its colonial-era buildings alive. Portuguese, Dutch and British influences come through as much as Chinese, Indian and Malay. The pink-painted buildings around the Stadthuys carry off a complimentary uniformity that makes the sum of the parts more valuable than any one set piece. Elsewhere, it’s a glorious hodge-podge. Teak porches, pagoda-style roofs and riverfront teahouses blur into each other around religious buildings of virtually every denomination. The mosques look like temples, and the temples look like workshops until you stroll through the entrance and encounter intricate carvings and dragon overloads.

Part of it is about what has been added. The cruise up the river is well worth taking – it passes the traditional-style village of Kampung Morten, which blurs the line between genuine housing project and tourist attraction. It’s worth keeping an eye on the boardwalk running alongside the river bank too – it’s beautifully lit up at night while monitor lizards can be found taking a break from hunting during the day.

And part of it is about the creative spirit. Among the long, narrow houses you never quite know what you’re going to encounter next. Peep into some and you’ll find shoemakers or woodworkers stitching and carving away, nosy through the doorway of others, and you’ll find brightly coloured fabricsn and art galleries then specialists selling just honey, or pineapple tarts.

Also present, I noted, were a healthy selection of cafés, restaurants and bars. This, I thought, is going to be the perfect place for a bar-hop later on.

But then the sun went down, and the lights went out. Melaka’s charm faded fast as it slipped under the blankets.

Some cities are day cities – Toledo, Adelaide and Vancouver spring to mind – whilst others spring to their full glory at night (Madrid, Berlin, Bangkok). Melaka, I found to my dismay whilst trying to find one of those lovely cafés from earlier that was still open, is a classic day city. I trawled for something good, and settled for something available. A bar hunt for a few post-dinner beers was similarly unsuccessful – drinking on your own at a table in an empty pub is no fun. I had, to be fair, missed the supposed ‘food street’, but that’s basically just a lane with a few restaurants along it.

I went to bed early, disheartened.

The next day, I peered out of the window at the old water wheel by the river, the huge replica wooden ship in the distance and the streets containing a wealth of curiosities. The city looked magical again. All was forgiven. But it would have been nice to not have something to forgive.

Batik

 
David Whitley tries to find his hitherto undiscovered inner artist at a batik-painting workshop in Malaysia 

Art was never my strongest subject at school. Ham-fisted daubing characterised my attempts at painting, rather than delicate brushstrokes. My mother would always feign delight when I brought one of the hapless bodge jobs home, then they’d quickly get hidden.

With this in mind, choosing the tiger was madness. I could have picked something that required a few clumsy splodges. But no, I had to go for the thing with lots of stripes and finicky detail.

The Kompleks Kraf, not too far away from the Petronas Towers in north-eastern Kuala Lumpur, is a tourist-focused shopping complex of the most agreeable kind. It’s full of individual hand-mate items rather than mass-produced tat, and a lot of it is made on the premises – many artists and craftspeople have their workshops and studios here.

One such craft that you’ll not be able to avoid in Malaysia is batik. Hyper-colourful patterned fabrics are turned into shirts, dresses, cushion covers, you name it – and they’re created by using wax along the patterns before adding the dye. Essentially, the wax pens the dye in so that colours are kept separate from each other, and it is removed later once the dye has dried.

Down in a little hut below the main body of Kompleks Kraf, it’s possible to have a go at making your own batik piece. For less than £5, an artist will let you pick out one of her designs and paint it yourself using paints she whisks from the corner, then hand it to you in a frame when you’re done.

“It’s OK,” I’m told after revealing my levels of artistic ineptitude. “You can’t really paint outside the lines, because of the paraffin wax.”

I’m pleased to say that I proved her very wrong. Within a few dabs, I’d managed to get the black paint I was attempting to paint the stripes with into what was supposed to be the bushes behind the tiger.

You’ll note that I said black paint, there. I’d forgotten primary school rule number one – always do the light colours first so you can paint over any mistakes with the darker colours later.

After a while, a technique begins to emerge, however. It’s wise not to even attempt to paint right up to the edge. Dab the brush in the middle of the area you want to turn a particular colour, and the cotton soaks the paint in, spreading from where the brush lands across to the great wax wall.

But if the great wax wall isn’t sealed properly, the paint is going to seep around it. And, scout’s honour, I swear this is why Smudge the tiger had “artistic” big black marks in the middle of the bits that are supposed to be yellow.

Errors or not, there’s something tremendously calming about the process. I spend just over an hour lost in a world of tongue-out concentration, all that had been running through my head previously completely banished.

Towards the completion of the monsterpiece, I decide I can rescue it with a bit of freestyle creativity. The sky is a boring blue, so I decide to put a sun in it. A bit of yellow in the corner and… oh, a green ball. That’s awful. Maybe I can make it look deliberately arty with some red and purple bands?

It doesn’t look arty. It looks worse. Every bit of corrective surgery makes it look worse. Still, I’m sure mum will try her best to pretend to like it…

Disclosure: David stayed in Kuala Lumpur as a guest of Trader’s Hotel


Putrajaya

 

David Whitley gawps at the showy buildings and monuments of Putrajaya, but finds no-one who wants to be in them 

As acts of grandiose willy-waving go, the creation of Putrajaya has to be near the top of the all-time list. Looking down on the city from the conference centre – which looks like the sort of launch hub that will open up and spew a spaceship out at any minute – it is a breathtaking scene of posturing.

There’s nothing subtle about it – the buildings rise high, and the monuments around the lake are clearly designed to impress.

Each bridge is showy in a different way – one with a decentred support �?sail’ holding the rest up is particularly snazzy, while the Putra Mosque is a ballsy, grandstanding pink affair. It can accommodate up to 15,000 worshippers at any one time, but it seems as though the powers-that-be think that’s not enough. So they’ve built another huge mosque – this one much more metallic and futuristic-looking – further along the lake shore.

Putrajaya was custom-built, starting in the mid-1990s, as Malaysia’s administrative hub. The capital, around 25km to the north, is still Kuala Lumpur. But the plan was to move all the government pen-pushers out to a specially created planned city, alleviating the crowding in KL. The offices of the Prime Minister alone are staggering. They’d count as a national palace anywhere else, but Putrajaya isn’t exactly short on palaces – the Sultan of Selangor and the Malaysian King (oddly, the kingship is passed around nine sultans on a five year term rotational basis) get one each.

But those palaces tell the story that the glossy coat tries to hide. They may belong to the Sultan of Selangor and the King, but the Sultan of Selangor and the King can rarely be found inside them. They’ll come if they have to for a ceremonial occasion, but they’d prefer to live elsewhere. This isn’t an uncommon stance. Most Malaysians seem to talk about Putrajaya with a dripping contempt – billions and billions of dollars have been spent on what is seen as a massive vanity project. It is what Australians think about Canberra multiplied by a factor of thousands.

The aim is to create a city of around 300,000 people. The infrastructure is all there, but the life isn’t. Generous estimates have the population at a sixth of the target, and the shiny apartment buildings ringing Putrajaya don’t have nearly as many inhabitants as the authorities would like to pretend. This is despite rents being so cheap they may as well be giving the apartments away.

The unfortunate truth is that no-one really wants to live here. Some government employees might bite the bullet, citing reasons like “it’s a good place to bring up the children”, but most people would rather commute from KL. It’s all about life – and Putrajaya may as well be a morgue after dark.

And thus there’s something transfixing about standing there, staring at all the grand buildings that no-one wants to fill. It is a quite magnificent shell.

Disclosure: David Whitley visited Putrajaya as a guest of Tourism Malaysia.


Asian malls

 

If you were stuck in a giant steam room for two hours you’d do whatever it takes to get out of it. That’s pretty much the justification I gave myself for visiting a ridiculous number of shopping malls during our time in Asia. As someone who avoids shopping wherever possible I never thought I’d spend so long in these vast commercial temples, yet day after day we ended up wandering willingly through the door of yet another mall.

 

 

 

 

It’s possible to avoid the air-conditioned lure of the Asian mall but it’s certainly not easy and quite frankly after a couple of hours in the heat and humidity they do have a strong appeal.

 

 

 

Shopping malls in Asia are cleverly designed to keep customers trapped within their confines for as long as possible. Maps are scarce or completely absent, designed to prevent you from just nipping into a shop to buy a single item. On one particular visit to the absurdly large Mall of Asia (it’s literally as big as a country, with the total area equivalent to that of the Vatican state) a search for a drugstore to buy a packet of plasters for a blister caused in no small part by trudging around too many malls, took us over 20 minutes.

 

 

 

The moment you enter any mall you feel the same Arctic blast from the all-powerful AC units. Look at the coats and jackets on sale in the many clothing stores and you suddenly realise that the mall is the only place where anyone can wear this type of clothing. So people go to malls to buy fashionable clothes that they then wear for going to the mall – commercial genius at its best.

 

 

 

If you’re after food that has a fair chance of having been prepared in a hygienic kitchen, the malls offer a bewildering variety and a samey, sterile but ultimately air-conditioned environment in which to enjoy your meal. Wander through the food court and you can easily forget where in the world you are (unless you see halo halo on offer, as no-one outside of the Philippines classes this blend of ice and strange things as real food).

 

 

 

Plot a walk between two points in the centre of Kuala Lumpur and the chances are that there will be at least one mall on your path. In some cases there are extensive walkways that allow you to cover long distances without ever emerging into the glaring heat. When heading to KL Sentral (the main transport hub of the city) we trekked from our hotel to the nearest monorail station on a route that took us through a couple of malls and allowed us to carry our backpacks for over a kilometre without getting sweaty.

 

 

 

If you think Asian malls are just about the shops and food courts, think again. We found an ice rink in Manila where people even brought their own skates (imagine owning a pair of ice skates in Manila) while in KL malls we passed on the opportunity to ride on a rollercoaster and visit a scientific discovery centre. It appears you can do pretty much everything in a mall apart from getting married – although I’d be surprised if that wasn’t possible too.

 

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