In May 2002 I mentioned to a Singaporean family I know well - still carrying the Portuguese name Cordeiro - that I was planning to visit South East Asia again and among many other things wanted to see the important historic trade city of Malacca, on the west coast of Malaysia.
The pace of life in Singapore is fast and one hour later I got a call back. Everything was arranged. They would take the day off and if I slept for four hours after my arrival in Singapore, we could leave for Malacca by car at 4 a.m. in the morning, so we would not get stuck in the morning traffic and have better driving temperature and that it would only take some three hours of driving anyway ...
So, I arrived after some 20 hours of air flight from Sweden via Amsterdam. A few hours later I was whisked off to Malaysia - still fast asleep - to wake up to breakfast and Kopi-O (black coffee without milk) just a few hundred meters from where a beautiful Ming princess and her tourage was set ashore to marry the Sultan of Malacca some 500 years earlier. Which was one of the reasons why I had wanted to come here in the first place ...
The basic reason for that was my ambition to understand and define what constitutes "Straits Chinese Porcelain". My thinking was that if I could figure out and define the "Straits Chinese", understanding their porcelain would follow suit.
No doubt the history of the Straits Chinese begins here, being the Princess fact or fiction. Bukit China still sports tens of thousands of Chinese burial places dating back to Ming times, and down at Tekong Street the oldest functioning Chinese temple in Malaysia - the Cheng Hoon Teng - still stands there to be touched, built as it is with materials shipped here from China in 1646.
In medieval times this was the Rotterdam and Singapore of the silk and porcelain trade from China, of the trade in textiles from Gujarat and Coromandel of India, of camphor from Borneo and sandalwood from Timor, of nutmeg, mace and cloves from the Moluccas, of gold and pepper from Sumatra and of tin from western Malaya. A hundred ships came and went to this port each year. This was the meeting place for all the traders of the East as it was located midway along the spice trade route between India and China, and through the Arab traders connected to the Near East and thus the entire Mediterranean world and Europe.
The history of Malacca began in the year 1400, when the Hindu prince Parameswara fled from his Javanese enemy and after having first landed at the island of Singapore, he then advanced up the west coast of the Malay Peninsula, to found himself a city. It was named Malacca after the Melaka trees, found abundant at the mouth of the river Bertam, i.e. here.
Now Parameswaras happened to have founded his new city at a point of tremendous strategic importance. The city grew rapidly and within fifty years it had become a wealthy and powerful hub of international commerce, with a population of over 50,000.
The early 15th century was also the time of the great Chinese interest in trade and international affairs. In 1403 the first official Chinese trade envoy lead by Admiral Yin Ching arrived in Malacca followed suite by the legendary Chinese Admiral Zhenghe, arriving in Malacca in 1409 on his first of seven voyages to the Indian Ocean.
Already in 1411 Parameswara - or as he later changed his name to Raja Iskandar Shah - left his home with an entourage of 540, to pay tribute to the Ming Emperor Yung Lo.
After a number of rapid successions Iskandar Shah's son's son's son Sultan Muzaffar Shah in 1456 promotes Tun Perak to become "Bendahara" or "Prime Minister". Under his competent hands Malacca prosper and rises to power in maritime Southeast Asia. In 1458 Sultan Mansur Shah succeeds Sultan Muzaffar Shah and sends Tun Perpateh Puteh as envoy to China, most likely to offer a friendly tribute to the then ruling emperor Tianshun (1457-64).
By this time the Neo-Confucian bureaucracy, who enjoyed an influence at the Ming court they never had under Yongle had put a stop the Chinas great explorations of the sea. Zhenghe's expeditions were called "signs of fiscal madness" while other advisors, steeped in Confucian ethics, had added that merchants accompanying Zhenghe were just "parasites who wanted to make money out of others, and use sea trade as a way to avoid taxes imposed by the towns''.
Already in 1416 in China the north-south Grand Canal had been repaired to ensure that safe grain shipment from the south to the northern capital could be done by canal, instead of by sea. This had done away with the need for navy ships to protect grain shipments against raids by pirates. Near the end of 1420 the construction of the Imperial Palace in Beijing was basically completed and Beijing (North city) was then designated the "first capital," and Nanjing (South city) the second. In 1421 the Ming Dynasty officially moved its capital to Beijing.
It is beyond me to tell if the Malaccan envoy actually knew this and thus managed, or bothered to, visit Beijing. Maybe they settled for a visit to the Ming relatives and merchants still living in Nanjing instead. In either case, the Malaccan envoy must have learnt that tribute or not - they were now on their own, deprived of the overwhelming military backup power of the Chinese Imperial fleet. So, history now takes a new turn.
No factual documents remains to confirm that this actually took place but tradition still maintain that much to Sultan Muzaffar Shahs great surprise the Tun Perpateh Puteh voyages back with the Chinese Princess Hang Li Poh as a return gift - and intended wife - to the Sultan.
According to the legend Sultan Mansur Shah then probably re-composes his facial expression and invites the Chinese Princess with her "five hundred youths and several hundred women attendants of noble descent who were sent along to wait on her and keep the princess company in her new home" to settle down at the hill which to this day carries the name Bukit China.
To the personal comfort of the Princess the Sultan also orders a special well to be dug. Many more wells were available around the hill to the comfort and use of her follower and may we assume, to the Sultan and local habitants of Malacca. This well is still there and to this day, is called Hang Li Poh's well.
During the many wars that have been fought in this area over the centuries, this well has been poisoned at least four times. It was the Dutch who had a wall built up around it and actually placed a sentry post here, equipped with a cannon to stop others from doing what they themselves had found so effective. Quite possible they just throw a dead animal down here, or worse.
The Bukit China Hill - is today also filled with tens of thousands of overgrown and long forgotten Chinese graves. The oldest dating back to the Ming dynasty.
If we still without considering the truthfulness of the legend, I believe the graves of the Bukit China pretty well proves that a large group of Chinese established themselves here during Ming times.
Whatever the legend tells whether this consignment consisted of Chinese women only, men only or both, they eventually must have inter-married with the local Malay population to at least some degree. Their cultures and traditions must have mixed and developed. And any way we look at it, these new families marked the beginning of a new generation of people in Malaya, the Peranakans or "Local Born". A group who maintained their Chinese ancestry while creating a new and exciting culture of their own, in many cases based on extreme material wealth. From an outsiders point of view I personally think that the culture and traditions around "women" in this culture lends support to the legend of Hang Li Poh.
Already by the first decade of the sixteenth century Malacca was a bustling port, attracting hundreds of ships each year. Unfortunately, the fame of Malacca arrived at just the moment when Europe began to extend its power into the East, and Malacca was one of the very first cities to attract its covetous eye.
In the year 1509 the first Portuguese trading expedition, commanded by Diego Lopez de Sequiera, arrives in Malacca with a fleet of 18 ships. In 1511 the Portuguese are back with a fleet under Alfonso d' Albuquerque. The sailors and soldiers carefully weighted the pros and cons of looting the place against the necessity of afterwards building a fort to defend themselves and eventually hold the place against its rightful owners - and finally settled to take the bad with the good. The 10th of August 1511 Malacca passes into colonial hands after a sustained bombardment.
The fortress A Famosa or Porta De Santiago was promptly erected and the Malay Sultan Mahmud who had fled to Johor, counter attacked the Portuguese repeatedly to no avail.
The A Famosa ensured Portuguese control of the city for the next one hundred and fifty years until in 1641 after an eight-month siege and a fierce battle Malacca was captured by the Dutch, in almost complete ruin.
In 1650 the Dutch administrative center and home of the Governor - the Stadthuys - was built and over the next century and a half the Dutch would occupy Malacca largely as a military base, using its strategic location in their ambition to control the Straits of Malacca.
In 1645 the Cheng Hoon Teng was founded by Kapitan Lee Wei King. It is the oldest functioning Chinese temple in Malaysia today and is still in Tekong Street. Its materials were shipped directly from China in 1646.
The Dutch remained in power in Malacca until the English East India Company temporary took over between 1795 until 1818 during the Napoleonic wars. During this period, the English began to transfer the city's population north, to Penang.
In 1819 the Sultan Husin Mohamad Shah had decided to hand over Singapore to Sir Stamford Raffles and the British East India Company.
In 1824 the Dutch and the British agreed to reshuffle their possession. The Dutch got Bencoolen in Sumatra and Malacca became British.
Due to this in 1826 Malacca, Penang and Singapore could be incorporated under the British India government as The Straits Settlements. Until 1867 this was the state of affairs, until The Straits Settlements became a separate "Crown Colony" under the Colonial Office in London.
During this period Malacca had lost in importance. Singapore under the leadership of Sir Raffles on the other hand, had taken off and established itself as a world maritime trade hub of great importance. By the end of the 19th century the first rubber trees were planted and somehow the rest is history. Amazing wealth was created here as a result of the combined efforts of East and West. In the midst of this was the Straits Chinese, working as middlemen between the colonial powers and the diverse industrious forces at work, rambling to create pure gold out of the endless opportunities created by cheep labor, tin ore, rubber plantations, and the features of a world trade port at their beck and call.
Every ship brought more workers looking for job. To salaries amounting to a bowl of rice per day raw materials was exported to the hungry factories in the west. Modern industrial products were distributed to the thousand of islands making up the Southeast Asia through the harbor of Singapore. Then came the war and with that endless possibilities to export rice, preserved pineapples, tapioca, rubber for wheels and clothing, tin for the tin cans needed to feed the fighting armies of the west, creating untold fortunes. The economic difficulties became seriously noticeable around 1927 and finally the "gold rush" ended in 1942 with the Japanese occupation. After the Japanese surrender in Singapore in 1945 Malacca was restored to the British.
In the 31 August 1957 Malaysia gained independence from the British, forming a new nation with Malacca, Singapore, Sabah and Sarawak.
Thus was the foundation of the unique Straits Chinese culture - a mixture of Malay and Chinese traditions with a dash of the Indian British colonial way of life. The men and women of the Straits Chinese were called "Babas" and "Nonyas" and among them were many wealthy and influential people in the business world.
The extreme wealth of many of these made it possibly to create an exceptionally lavish material culture and a unique textile tradition of their own. Something to set them apart from the Chinese laborers, who came by the thousands over the centuries, from the end of the fifteenth century and well into the 20th century.
The Nonyas was more often then not brought up specifically to serve their men in their career. Much care was spent on developing their cooking skills along with all skills needed to make their men "feel at their most appreciative".
Few peranakans could actually speak Chinese. They were usually conversant in Malay, many who originally came from South China had their Chinese Hokkien dialect in common. When the British colonized the country, the Peranakans were among the first group of locals to adopt the English language as their lingua franca.
The Baba's traditional costume was a Chinese "sam fu" dress, with intricate embroidery, sometimes sewn by gold thread.
The ladies - Nonya's - dress was based on a Malay design called "sarung kebaya", a heavily embroidered Malay-style tunic with a Western style long skirt combined with silver ornaments like kerongsong (broaches), hairpins, earrings, pendants and embroidered shoes and textile pieces - items of extremely refined workmanship and today highly sought after by art and antique collectors as well as the local living descendants of the Straits Chinese themselves.
The Nonya cooking and Peranakan food is advanced, meticulous and time consuming to prepare. Still traditional Nonyas are fiercely proud of their unique cuisine and well prepared to spend a better part of their lives in the kitchen. As an amalgamation of Chinese and Malay dishes, with its blend of spices - employing pungent roots like galangal, turmeric and ginger, aromatic leaves like pandan leaf, fragrant lime leaf and laksa leaf, together with other ingredients like candle nuts, shallots, shrimp paste and chilies - is has a distinct flavor of its own.
Sometimes, lemon, tamarind, belimbing (carambola) or green mangoes are used to add a tangy taste to many dishes. Some of the more traditional Peranakan dishes include pongteh (chicken, potato and mushroom cooked in gravy with sugarcane, fermented soya bean and Peranakan spices), ark tim (sour duck soup), bak wan kepiting (crabmeat), otak-otak (barbecued curry fish) and chicken kurmah (chicken cooked with spicy prawn paste).
Yet, despite of the adoption of various cultures in their daily life, they have clung to their Chinese identity in some aspects. They celebrate festivals like the Chinese New Year and Moon cake Festival on a large scale. The older generation continued to observe Chinese religious beliefs and rituals, though many younger Straits Chinese eventually converted to Christianity.
One of my goals with visiting Malacca was to take a look at the private museum in Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock (Heeren Street). The purpose was to for myself see a true home reflecting the rich culture of the Peranakan. Walking through this museum which was originally the home of the late millionaire, Mr. Chan Cheng Siew, one gets to relive an era when the Baba Nonya heritage was at its pinnacle. The museum comprises of three houses elaborately decorated with intricately carved fittings adorned with gold trimmings. The museum also holds precious antiques belonging to the Chan family and typically Peranakan rosewood furnishings, clothes and kitchen wares which of course was of special interest to me.
The architectural style of Peranakan homes is very characteristic - being a fusion Eastern and Western designs. The Peranakan homes and buildings are easily identified even till today. Seen from the outside the most distinct feature is the full-length French windows. Indoors the floor plan as well as the use of colorful ceramic tiles on the floor and wall sets the Peranakan hose apart from the ordinary. A typical Peranakan house has a main hall, second hall (tiah gelap), one or two courtyards, bedrooms, bridal chamber and kitchen. In those days, visitors to the house were normally allowed to the first hall. The second hall or tiah gelap was usually used by unmarried Nonyas (who in everyday life was not allowed to be seen by members of the opposite sex) to peep through small openings dividing the first and second halls. Elaborate and striking Chinese carvings adorn the pillars. Being an affluent community, the Babas and Nonyas spared no expense in acquiring Chinese blackwood furniture and Chinese porcelain vases to decorate their homes. The expensive tiles are believed to have been introduced by the Dutch.
In Malaysia today Peranakan houses where they lived during their heyday can be found along a number of major roads in Penang including Magazine Road, Sultan Ahmad Shah Road (formerly known as Northam Road), Burmah Road, Prangin Creek and Muntri Street.
In Malacca, Peranakan buildings can be seen along Tun Tan Cheng Lock (Heeren Street) and Hang Jebat Road (Jonkers Street) this later being the main street for antiques, even if the locals consider it devastatingly expensive. I can only agree.
Nowadays the intermarriage between Peranakans and other nationalities have resulted in a more diluted Nonya culture in the old Straits Settlements. Still many Straits Born Chinese are strong believers in traditions and they still observe their traditional heritage on special occasions such as Chinese New Year, weddings, birthdays and the first month of a newborn. For one thing, as part of their extremely intricate wedding ceremonies, during their wedding night the new couple would drink sweet tea, a gesture that symbolizes the sweetness of their coming days together. Sticky rice is also served to signify the permanency of their union. Only blue and white dining sets would do while mourning their deceased. For celebrations such as, well, weddings and birthdays, only colorful porcelain sets could be used.
The trip back went smooth on the modern highway. I could not help comparing this with the sorry state of roads along the Malaysian east coast which I traveled last year in September on my way to Mersing. As a strange symbol of mutual distrust between the mostly Islamic state of Malaysia and the multi cultural melting pot of Singapore, stands the Woodland checkpoint building with its feng shui and geomantic based architecture. Never failing to send a chill down my spine when I approach it. Something with this building makes me half-and-half expecting Darth Vader to show up in the pass port check point window, wheezingly asking me for my new entry permit into Singapore. Interesting ... this is, still.
Singapore May, 2002