29-30 June, Melaka: a colonised city

29 June

I woke up early and started for Malacca, first to the nearest train station and then to Bandar Tasik Selatan (BTS). That’s the station one has to walk through to go anywhere of a far distance from Kuala Lumpur. I passed several small shops, and it seemed as if the whole country was understaffed. The service industry was exploding, and the cities were hungry for cooks, servers, cashiers, and managers.

The train took me again through the centre of town and between the oblong and spiralling buildings with all their hanging ivy, glass walls, and rooftop clubs. Men were suspended from the hi-rises, washing the windows.

On the way to BTS, layers of the city peeled away. There was a gentrified Islamic corner with British shophouses and art walls, and then that unfolded to reveal Pudu, with its yellow-stained and brick buildings and the field with the Hindu temple. There were sprawling parking lots and busy intersections, and mismatched buildings with tin roofs. I saw shanties with moldy walls, and the jungle dominated wherever concrete did not.

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Beyond the station that announced that we were in “Maj”, I noticed a lot more green space, but there were also tall and wide buildings filling up the horizon. The city was rapidly growing outward that way. The pass through Maluri and Pandan Jaya was an excellent view of the city from a distance. Farms, trees, and more green, then a small canal and more shophouses. I already felt saner than I did in the city’s belly.

I’d forgotten the name of my stop. Getting off at the end of the line, I was informed that I had to go all the way to KL Sentral. I felt like a fool, but accepted my lot and went out of the station to find a bit of food. The only thing available was a small general store and a Daily Fresh shop, which is a popular fast food franchise in Southeast Asia that sells the most disgusting food imaginable. I ordered the “Japanese BBQ waffle”, this terrible sugary thing that was made of slime and tasted like it as well. The menu also boasted a “corn shake”, and that made me feel sick.

I had to transfer to another train at some point, and on the platform I accidentally wandered into the women-only area. Noticing my mistake, I quickly moved into the neutral area. There was a girl on my end of the platform, must have been about twenty, a round face and long, black and uneven hair. She told me that she was a junior in a big university in the city, that she studied nutrition and would remain there to finish a master’s degree. She told me that she was from the northeast of Malaysia and now lived in a dormitory on the college campus, and that there was a curfew. Discussing it, she said “Rules are meant to be broken,” and directed me to the right building once we’d reached BTS.

In the BTS building I took a more substantial lunch in a Punjabi restaurant that possibly makes the heaviest food on earth, before securing a train to Malacca. On the walkway there were beggars face-down towards Mecca, another dressed in white with a skullcap, playing a stringed instrument I couldn’t identify and singing a sad Arabic song.

The train passed through dozens of kilometres of palm trees, farmland, and small developments before reaching Malacca. First there was the new, commercial end of Malacca that had sprung up to accommodate those who worked in Malacca’s expanding service sector. The port was also visible, and there were a couple huge ships out there.

I had to take a bus the rest of the way from the train station, and after a short ride was deposited in front of the antique Christ Church. The buildings in that area were all painted a brick-red, and some buildings dated back to the days of Portuguese control, but most of them had been destroyed or renovated since then and are more a representation of the Dutch and English colonial times. The clock tower and the church, the canal with the narrow boats, the old streets with the many art murals and brick roads, the fountain and the bridges, and the old government houses are all very nice and historically significant, but the history of the place is much more fascinating than the spectacle which the city has become.

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The place felt propped-up, reconstructed, and not very lived-in. It was more of an open museum with a hundred tourist shops. There was even a Hard Rock Cafe along the river. Huge coaches dropped off hoards of Chinese tourists headed by guides wielding flags that they used to lead the flock. And the tourists took their pictures; they bobbed and twisted their heads frantically, and they rented out a parade of heavily decorated trishaws and rolled through the red-brick streets from spectacle to spectacle. The trishaws blasted top-forty tracks and techno music, and they advertised themes like the films Frozen and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. At night the trishaws lit up like Christmas trees and the drivers lurked around the guesthouses looking for bored visitors.

I walked over a bridge into the part of town where all the guesthouses were cluttered. There were cats everywhere, restaurants and shops had bulging mascots, and art murals covered a good portion of the walls there. A street hawker holding some brochures commented on my hiking boots, “Going hiking?”

I mentioned that the city reminded me of Disneyland and he completely agreed with me. I sensed that he’d seen the city change a great deal in his time.

I found a decent place to stay — a bed in a big dormitory for twenty-eight ringgit — and went out to explore. The city wasn’t so bad and was really quite attractive, and I tried to accept it for what it was. But it makes me sad when a city doesn’t feel lived in. I had to discover the deeper parts of the city to find out what people were doing. I found the men haunched over small fire pits counting money, women throwing out dirty water or sweeping up, people drinking local coffee and eating from a bowl of black liquid and flat noodles. The everyday Malacca is there, if one looks for it.

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That evening I idled for a long time at a corner restaurant where the locals eat and read their newspapers. I had to ask around in one of the hidden alleys — where the city still lived — before finding it. I got the tip from a young man of Chinese heritage, who was preoccupied killing mosquitoes. His mother was standing solemnly and looking noble in the middle of the road, thinking of something.

It was a Chinese restaurant, a specialty of deep-fried oyster omelettes. Rather than going for the special, I bought some hot tea and spicy stir-fried vegetables with a fried egg. An elderly man with a squished face and a curved neck was bent over a black mess of noodles on a plate. He slurped at it with a fork for what felt like an hour before standing up and walking, bow-legged and shuffling slowly, to his bicycle, which he managed to peddle with no trouble.

There were a few other tourists at the restaurant, and they were all of European descent. I noted that — the Asian tourists generally didn’t go looking for stuff like the cheap hole-in-the-wall restaurants. Instead, they pursued either luxury or franchise. They came from a different background and were looking for very different experiences.

Two of the tourists spoke a language unknown to me, and another came alone. He was missing a hand and had a prosthetic leg. The rest of the clientele were elderly locals. They were grey, carried canes, and sometimes were accompanied by their grandchildren.

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That evening I bought a couple of cheap beers of an unknown title from a small place across the street of my guesthouse, then sat in the lobby by myself to watch Trainspotters. The men in the shop were all watching football on a small television, and there weren’t many tourists in town other than the Chinese, who typically stayed in the big hotels somewhere else in town. My only occasional company was the Burmese woman who lived there with her husband, but she kept to herself.


30 June

It was hot in Malacca, and it was normally hot in Malacca. That morning the staff were smoking out the mosquitoes and the guesthouse was difficult to breathe in. No one was in the kitchen, no one at the billiards or in the living room, but there was music playing, always pleasant classics from the sixties-onward. There was a poster from Australia on the floor, symbols of kinship and aboriginal culture. Most of the books on the shelves were written in Mandarin, Korean or Japanese, with a bit of Dutch, French and German.

I wandered around the cloudless streets and explored a strange old shop that sold handmade lotus shoes, the kind used in the Chinese Song dynasty to bind women’s feet. The shop owner tried to sell me some of those bizarre souvenirs, always pointing to different things and saying “This is for sale. Yes, yes, that’s for sale! You buy? It’s for sale!”

I returned, “Everything in this city is for sale”, and walked out of the store even as he continued after me, “Which country you from? You buy? Just buy one! Which country, mister?” Of course, not everyone was like that in the city; I was only annoyed.

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A bit later I spoke with a lady who worked in one of the snack shops. They sold some amazing durian cream pastries that were really like nothing I’d ever tasted before. She told me that a famous Korean chef had visited the store some years back and had said about the same. I ordered some kopi and the woman and I talked about tourism, about the low wages and how her children had no savings, and how tourism had made prices in the markets go up. She told me that you could still eat cheap if you cooked at home, and we talked about the city that no longer felt lived in, how one had little choice but to work in tourism, and how the owners of the shops are locals but they hire foreigners, especially Burmese (her co-workers were Burmese and she seemed a bit sour at the fact). I tried to talk positively, but she became hopeless. “The government will not do anything.”

I didn’t agree that all was hopeless, but then I’m not a local either. I told her about the project I took part of in Thailand, about sustainable tourism and social media. I don’t think she considered most of it, but she was nonetheless a good lady. 

Back in the street I sweated out, I was soaked and feeling strange. The stores were quiet this close to the end of Ramadan and on this awkward day of the week, but the street lamps were flickering as early as three in the evening, birds were gliding around the river cafes as the sun baked the cobbles and boats rumbled by. The red buildings and renovated brick roads were an attractive background for the old trucks that rolled through town. Old Malays and Indians walked in and out of restored doors across the glistening green canal, walls were covered with placards that read “Don’t Mess With Melaka!” and vintage jazz adverts (one of them declared “Honky Tonk!”). There were interesting gatherings of people at the cafes, such as the French lady with the two Indian boys behind me, who chatted about her adventures while sipping plum tea. My dish of the day: cheap chicken and vegetables by the riverside with a glass of hot kopi and another of iced lime and plum juice.

I sat there for a long time, reading Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, trying to take my mind off of how the capital had left me feeling broke and underinvested in life and its possibilities and troubles. Ultimately I decided to leave Malacca and return to Kuala Lumpur before heading up to the Cameron Highlands.

It was two hours before the bus arrived, and all public transportation seemed to be running extremely late. It was a peculiar part of town, Cendol Jam Besar (Red Square). I sat beneath the manicured trees, and for a small moment there was no traffic and I could hear the falling water of the fountain. Even the trishaws were quiet for a moment. Then the noise resumed. Guards patrolled with semiautomatics, they were tall and had the darkest skin, they wore aviators, skullcaps and black uniforms. The Chinese tourists were dressed up for their photoshoots, and some were quite attractive.

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The people came and went. Tour buses, beggars, buskers and men painted blue, and there was even a minor accident between a coach and a taxi. The trishaws paraded by. I took ice cream across from the bus stop (there really was no specific bus stop), durian and ice cream “cendol”. It was heavy with sugar but I wanted something to flood my senses with. I felt guilty for only scratching the surface of the place, and because of the awkward time that I’d arrived I missed the famous night market scene, but this was how I visited Malacca, and then I departed.

It was a forty-five minute journey back to Kuala Lumpur, and this time it felt different. That’s probably because I did not spend much time in the opulent city centre. There was a mix of buskers around Bandar Tasik Selatan that day, and I got another sense of how hard everyone in that city worked. It was also the first time that I noticed the hidden strip clubs and snooker bars in the more heady part of town. The traffic was getting heavier, and seemed only to worsen as Ramadan came to a close. On the train there was a kid coughing hard, and another that bolted just as the train started and he bumped his head pretty good. To me it was somehow a message about life.

I noted the KFC’s, the Pizza Huts, the Shell and TESCO Lotus gas stations and Michelin tire shops. The city was surrounded with franchises, and with big warehouse outlets that sold lighting, doors, mirrors. There were countless hotels, condos, terraced houses, repair shops, apartments, and it was all for sale, and there was always a promotion.

It was supposed to be a four-hour journey to the hills, before traffic, and it was already getting late, so I decided to stay around Petaling Street for another night and depart in the morning. After all it was a night of good food, a shower, and a pleasant night’s rest.

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