I have always felt a special connection with Malacca, a heritage city with a rich past, situated on the west coast of Peninsula Malaysia. This was where my ancestors originated from. My great great grandfather Chia Ann Siang was born here in 1832 before going to Singapore to seek his fortune in 1850s, following the footsteps of many Malacca Chinese men like Tan Tock Seng and Tan Kim Seng, who made indelible contributions in Singapore. Thanks to painstaking research by my cousin Anthony Sng and the Bukit Brown Heritage Society in Singapore, we discovered that he and his father Chia Poh Lay made donations to the famous Cheng Hoon Temple in the 1800s and these are recorded on the temple's old donor walls.
Also, the family ancestral home at 18 Jonkers Street is still there. So a perfect reason indeed to take my aged parents and 2 aunts for a "back to the past" holiday. Of course, my trusty Brompton came along too for the trip, taking absolutely no space in the boot of my father's car thanks to its compact design.
We stayed at Cyclamen Cottages, a beautifully restored boutique hotel in the outskirts of Klebang, just 3km from town. What draws me is that it is full of character as it is built in 1937 and oozes old world charm. The architecture is Anglo-Malay and are the only ones in this part of town. It reflects with great dignity the era when Malaya was part of the British Straits Settlement and must be seen to be fully appreciated. The owner Chris is an avid collector of Peranakan jewellery and furniture, and has tastefully furnished this house with priceless antique pieces, where some rooms even have a classic metal 4 poster bed.
When everyone was still asleep and the sun was just starting to poke out of the horizon, I unfolded the Brompton excitedly for a morning ride to town. It had just rained and the roads were still wet but there was a certain freshness in the cool air. I was surprised to find myself riding on well defined bike paths along quiet roads and moved along briskly. With only the sound of spinning 16"wheels, with the breeze in my face, I was in heaven.
As I passed by Wesley Methodist Church, I turned in to have a poke. Was delighted to discover that the 100 year old school was none other than Anglo Chinese School, my alma mata in Singapore. It was interesting to see the teachers dressed smartly with ties welcoming the students at the gate and I suppose waiting to pounce on the late birds. My mom has taught in ACS Singapore for 40 years and it reminded me fondly of my care-free student days so very long ago. I'm heartened to see the education efforts of the Methodists bearing fruit in various cities of the Straits Settlement.
Its not easy to navigate Malacca as many roads are one way but on a bicycle, riding against traffic seems acceptable so long as its done safely. I stopped many times on my way to town just to take pictures of the living museum coming to life before my eyes. The rich Peranakan culture of yesteryear is reflected in the design and architecture of many old shop houses and residences, some in ruins and some lovingly restored.
Pic credit - Andy Enero
When I arrived at the iconic orange red Stadthuys, there was not a single soul there save for a lone visitor and a sweeper hard at work getting the place ready for the hordes of tourists to come later. Christ Church and the Town Hall were build by the Dutch in 1650. When the British took over Malacca, Christ Church became an Anglican Church in 1838 and services are still going on there.
I decided to return via the newer part of town. This was where the sea front used to be but sadly, it has been reclaimed like Singapore. Many new developments were under construction and sprouting out like there is no tomorrow. This has got conservationists and heritage groups up in arms. They have worked hard to fight for the preservation of historical landmarks but the cheap lure of the almighty dollar is a formidable foe, and many priceless treasures have been destroyed in the name of modernity.
For example, the Padang (big field) where Malaysia's Independence from the British was proclaimed in 1956 has fallen victim. Architects Lim and Jorge, authors of Malacca - Voices from the Street (pg 39) , write, "But it is the open wound of a construction site that has replaced the Padang's celebratory stage, as Malacca trades her history for yet another shopping centre."
Riding back via the new coastal road to Limbongan, I felt a tinge of sadness despite the excellent road and clean modern lines of new glass and steel buildings and shophouses that passed soullessly before me. I completed the 3km distance in record time as there was absolutely nothing to capture my interest and the Brompton was spinning in top gear.
Thankfully, I was soon back in the old road and since it was still early, I wandered off into the smaller, quiet roads. It felt like I went back in time where small wooden houses stood haphazardly and where chickens and cats owned the roads. One abandoned mansion that caught my eye was Tiong Hoe Villa. I knew the name because it was etched on the top of the once glorious house, all faded and worn. Looking around what is left of the structure, it is clear that this was the home of a very rich family and I wondered what happen to the people who once lived there. How did they get their wealth? How did they lose it? Where are their descendants now?
One last old house that caught my eye was a Malay style kampong home that was in ruins. All the wooden structure and wood were crumbling and it was a typical house that the average family would dwell in. It made for beautiful and contrasting backdrop to my relatively modern Brompton bicycle and I enjoyed some creative time with my small IXUS.
Before meeting my family for our scheduled breakfast at the hotel dining room, I made a quick dart into the food centre to get some Fried Carrot Cake and that was much appreciated by all at the breakfast table. It was easy to pack my Brompton back into the case, and make it disappear into the boot.
Although the morning ride was barely 2 hours, I felt like I had accomplished much. Worked out enough to help compensate the over-eating! But more importantly, cycling through the epicenter of the rich history of Malacca was a spiritual experience. It humbled me and reminded me of how short our life is. We are given only a pre-determined portion of time by our Creator and what we do with it is perhaps the most important question we must all answer.
The words of a young Armenian found inscribed on the tombstone of Christ Church are worth reflecting upon...
Greetings, you who are reading this tablet of my tomb in which I now sleep. Give me the news, the freedom of my countrymen, for them I did much weep. If there arose among them one good guardian to govern and keep. Vainly I expected the world to see a good shepherd came to look after the scattered sheep.
I, Jacob, grandson of Shamier, an Armenian of a respectable family whose name I keep, was born in Persia near Inefa, where my parents now forever sleep. Fortune brought me to distant Malacca, which my remains in bondage to keep. Separated from the world on 7th July 1774 A.D. at the age of twenty-nine, my mortal remains were deposited in this spot of the ground which I purchased.
As with all trips, it is the people that we go with and the people who we meet that make or break a trip. I'm very grateful and privileged to meet Jo Chua and her lovely family. Jo is a prominent local Malaccan Nonya who is an expert in its history as well as latest developments. What is exciting is that she can trace her family's ancestry all the way to the 1700s where one of the Kapitan Cina is her forefathers! We were bowled over by her warm hospitality, generosity and kindness. Being a key member of the Cheng Hoon Temple restoration committee, we were honored to be given first hand accounts of the 400 year old temple. My father was thrilled that he shares the same Chinese name as the temple!
Thank you very much Jo, Keong and Daniel for making our adventure into the past so rich and meaningful.
Note - This book, Malacca - Voices from the Street, was recommended by Jo for anyone who is keen on the history and heritage of Malacca.