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Articles Blog

Malacca, Malaysia

Karyn Planett

Choke Point

“Whoever is Lord of Malacca has his hand on the throat of Venice.”

So wrote a gentleman named Tomé Pires, a Portuguese apothecary who lived in Malacca from 1512 to 1515. He wiled away the steamy afternoons putting pen to paper and creating a masterpiece about Asian trade. Entitled Suma Oriental Que Trata do Mar Roxo até aos Chins, it contained his impressions from his travels about the region. Translated to mean, “Summa of the East, from the Red Sea up to the Chinese”, you must admit this fellow did get around. The “Summa Oriental”, as it’s also known, is considered a masterpiece by many as it covers a range of topics about the area not least of which is Islam in Indonesia in that period. 

What’s really quite curious, though, is that this extraordinary work was supposedly lost until 1944 then “discovered” in some dusty archive. Pires’ account of the very early days of Europe’s interest and involvement in Southeast Asia is an historic treasure. 

It’s All In The Spelling 

If you look on one map, this place is spelled “M-a-l-a-c-c-a”. On another, “M-e-l-a-k-a”. So, pick your poison, choose a spelling. Just know it’s found in Malaysia’s Southern Peninsula, identified as the southernmost region of continental Asia. With the waters from the narrow Strait of Malacca washing its shores, this city has kept a watchful eye on one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes for centuries. 

Consider the story of its origins when the exiled Hindu Sumatran Prince Parameswara founded Malacca in 1400. According to legend, it was he who named the city for a melaka tree that grew nearby.  

But its geography literally put Melaka on the map. Hundreds of years ago, creaky wooden ships cast off with cargo holds laden with goods, calling in ports the world over. If you look on a globe you’ll discover Melaka is nearly mid-way between India and China making it a strategic east-meets-west gem. Through these waters passed a treasury of slaves, opium, gold, silk, even tea, each with a priceless price tag. Indonesia’s spice islands were also important in Melaka’s success. 

Early on, an interesting chapter in history began to unfold. Locals feared their enemies from Siam and called upon the Chinese for help. In the opening days of the 15th century a representative from the court of a Chinese Ming emperor sailed in, offering protection. He was a Chinese Muslim Admiral named Cheng Ho. An influx of Chinese came aboard more vessels and set down their own roots. Over time, these “Straits Chinese” intermarried with locals and the population grew. This growth, the geography, and the influence of this area were soon known far and wide. Within 50 years the official religion of this trading state was Islam and the world’s eyes were upon it. 

The lure of lucrative spices and such brought the Portuguese whose mission it was to introduce the influence of the Catholic Church. The Dutch wrote their chapter in Melaka’s history and ruled over the area for one and a half centuries, also leaving their mark. 

Next, the British were to have their say following a brief stint by the French. All the while, neighboring Singapore and Penang, Melaka’s partners in something called the Straits Settlement, flourished and ultimately overtook Melaka’s trading importance. 

That was then, this is now. Melaka has once again caught the eye of world travelers who come to discover exactly why the city’s Chinatown was awarded UNESCO World Heritage Site status. 

Baba and Nyonya 

Also known as “Peranakan” and “Straits Chinese”, the Baba and Nyonya (or Baba-Nyonya) are descendants of and a handsome blend of Chinese traders, Malay and, as you’ll read later, others including Indians. Some interpretations of their ethnic identity are put forth but it’s fair to say these people are often descendants of migrants who arrived in the region in the early 16th Century, some as early as the 12th Century. There’s even a popular love story that traces them back to a Chinese princess who married a local prince. Just know that the Malay and Indonesian term “anak” means “child” and refers to those who are “locally-born descendants.” So there are Straits Chinese Peranakans, Peranakan Jawi, Peranakan Chitty and others. 

Their distinct touch is all around. In fact, the terms themselves are respectful names of honor given to Straits-born gentlemen (Baba) and Straits-born ladies (Nyonya). From trading families, their wealth was often displayed in several ancestral homes, called rumah abu, some open to the public today. Perhaps one of the most interesting features is the thia gelap, or dark hall, where Peranakan women peered through inlaid mother-of-pearl screens while men chatted about their booming businesses and lucrative empires. Their wealth came from such commodities as gambier, a type of plant used for medicinal purposes, and rubber grown to meet the needs of an industrializing world. They even spoke in their own unique language, which was called Baba-Malay. 

You’ll hear more of these and other stories while exploring Malacca and its surrounds.