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Saving Malacca: The Story of an Old Town Told Through its Inhabitants
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Saving Malacca: The Story of an Old Town Told Through its Inhabitants

by Deric EctDecember 9, 2015

Boasting shop after shop selling knick knacks endemic to the state and its centuries-old heritage, Jonker Street is a good indicator of Malacca’s popularity as a tourist destination. It’s often crowded, warm and humid under the tropical sun, but people still flock over to get a hand on novel food items as well as handmade crafts and antiques.

Not immediately obvious is the fact that the very same street hosts The Daily Fix, a hidden reprieve situated inside a souvenir shop called Next KK.

Afforded several metres distance from the hustle and bustle of the old town thanks to its unique location, the cool, quiet and breezy cafe was emanating the melancholic, longing notes of the erhu on this particular Friday afternoon.

We were invited to the launch of New/Old Malacca on 27 November, a curious exhibition which involved photography, film and forums, in order to present “perceptions of the community on the state’s rapid urbanisation”. It took place in both floors of the the cafe, which dedicated its upper level entirely to the exhibition.

Throughout the three hours we spent at The Daily Fix, the inhabitants of Malacca’s old town sang, read poetry, played music, and even got cafe patrons to get up and dance to long lost music set to a dying language.

Here are a few of its townsfolk.


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MHHC’s Bert Tan helped put together New/Old Malacca.

Bert Tan and the angry auntie

Prior to the launch, we managed to sidle up to Bert Tan of the Malaysian Heritage and History Club (MHHC).

As founder of MHHC, Bert has achieved quite a bit with his non-registered organisation of over 11,800 members on Facebook. MHHC has hosted numerous exhibitions, talks and workshops to educate Malaysians about the nation’s tapestry of culture and heritage, and it’s been a highly-successful venture.

A native of Malacca who returned after a long stint in Sabah and Sarawak, Bert knew practically everybody who lived in the old town — he played an important role in the curation process of New/Old Malacca due to his extensive knowledge of his own community.

After indulging us in some trivial MHHC gossip, the jovial, laidback man took us to lunch at Long Fatt restaurant for authentic Teochew porridge. There however, he was chided by store owner Karen (who runs the restaurant with her family), publicly livid with Bert over a minor misunderstanding.

“He’s terrible, he doesn’t care for anybody but himself,” she fumed repeatedly while we dined on bittergourd, sardines, minced meat, cabbage and salted egg, among other constituents of Teochew porridge.

It turned out that the issue stemmed from some unanswered phone calls and a delivery of kueh badak for the exhibition gone awry. The traditional delicacy was sent to Long Fatt by mistake, but Bert wasn’t around his phone when Karen called to inform him.

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The exhibits at New/Old Malacca told the stories of its inhabitants through seemingly mundane items.

Although Karen wasn’t so much involved with New/Old Malacca, she was determined that those who participated did so properly. We sympathised with both her and Bert but were too busy eating the humble-looking but tasty combination of liquid rice and sharp, tangy flavours to intervene.

Bert apologised and smiled like a bemused gentleman through the entire thing, unfazed but somewhat distracted — he seemed mildly anxious for the launch but did a good job hiding it for the most part.

Bert left midway through lunch to go and chase his missing kueh badak.

We knew Bert really did care, and so did our Teochew porridge auntie, who reminded us of our own mothers on bad days.


Alethea and her surprise erhu

Under an airwell which connects a souvenir shop to a cafe, a girl sat on a wheelchair playing Teresa Teng‘s The Moon Represents My Heart on the erhu. She soon concludes the song and goes on to cover tracks ranging from Bill & Brod‘s “Madu Dan Racun” to crowd favourite “Seasons in the Sun”.

Here in The Daily Fix was Alethea, a blind teenager who has dedicated her time to playing music for her hometown folk.

On most afternoons she can be found on the steps to her home, serenading passers-by with a tune. Her reputation in the old town is akin to a songbird — as locals exited the cafe, they gave her a peck on the cheek and whispered well-wishes in her ear.

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Alethea plays traditional songs and old hits on the erhu.

Alethea is a highly-adept musician on many instruments, but her choice of the erhu — a traditional Chinese instrument she’s only picked up recently — for this particular performance provoked questions and puzzled many attendees. Was she being rebellious? Was she making a statement?

Initially, we had to ask around to find out the name of her peculiar-looking violin. This writer told other journalists it was a pipa before being informed otherwise by MHHC member Dennis Ong — maybe it was all just Alethea’s way of telling us something about ourselves!

Every once in a while amidst the din of cafe conversation, the quiet and reserved girl would open her mouth and sing a few words loudly, as if to remind audiences that she was still there, performing. She’s a part of the old town, and one that is at risk of submerging beneath the dramatic changes overwhelming her hometown at present.

On this day, Alethea is performing for a reason. She’s one of several townspeople chosen to participate in New/Old Malacca.

Alethea and her family were extremely supportive of the exhibition and were willing to let organisers have a closer look at their life and their home. As a result, upstairs in The Daily Fix are many items from their residences, which paints a picture of Alethea’s life and its proud moments, such as an ABRSM Grade 6 certificate.


Martin Theseira and Malaccan waters

Put together by the The Daily Fix, the Baba & Nyonya Heritage Museum, and MHHC, the exhibition also gave us the chills upon realising that much of our culture and heritage are precious, perishable, and its continuation dependent on the whims of powers-to-be.

Take the Kristang community for instance. A disappearing breed of Malaysians, Kristangs only exist in the thousands these days.

Often referred to as “Malacca Portuguese” folk, they’re a creole ethnic group which also possesses the last Asian-Creole language on the planet. Our current rulers however look upon them as less of a gift, and more of an annoyance according to one of the state’s natives.

“They think of us as quarreling people whose problems aren’t as important,” exclaimed Kristang pickle-maker Martin Theseira, “but in reality we just want to be able to carry on living the way we always have.”

“They’ve parcelled the whole of Malacca’s coastline for reclamation to build a so-called coastal highway. But why would you want to reclaim the sea?”

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Makeshift band Martin Theseira and Kids perform Serani Teng Teng.

The sea plays a pivotal role in the history of Martin’s people.

Kristangs were mostly fishermen who lived off the Malaccan coast, but their bread and butter have long been ravaged by government and private effort to commercialise the state.

“When they reclaimed Tranquerah, we didn’t oppose. When they reclaimed Bandar Hilir, again we didn’t oppose as we were promised a canal this time,” Martin explained, exasperated.

“Even though we cooperated, late into the project they showed us our “canal” which we would use to put our boats, and it was basically a monsoon drain.”

Consequently, the Kristang fishermen chose to place their boats elsewhere on the coast, heartbroken.

At the launch, Martin led a group of community boys in a revival of long-lost tradition Serani Teng Teng. He also sang songs in Kristang, prompting two women in the audience to dance along with him.


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Stephanie Pillai and Sara F. Santa Maria read Matah Kantigah.

Stefanie, Sara and a dash of Kristang

Kristang has a very unique sound; it’s a Portuguese patois which took shape after centuries of cross-cultural interaction.

Upon first impression, it seems to have a distinct Lusophonic vocabulary, but is delivered in the lilt of nusantara islanders.

As of 2007, Ethnologue reports that out of approximately 10,000 native Kristangs in Malacca, only 2150 people still speak the language. Some Chinese shopkeepers in Bandar Hilir also use it as a second language.

Described as “the last bastion” for Asian-Creole languages, Stefanie Pillai is adamant that Kristang does not face extinction.

“A lot of families still speak it in the Portuguese settlement today,” Stefanie informed attendees.

“This is a language which has carried with it heritage of over 500 years!”

As a linguist and a dean at University Malaya, Stefanie has been working together with Sara F. Santa Maria to revive the language. Sara even gives out private tuition to teach the young how to speak Kristang.

Both Stefanie and Sara also did a reading of Kristang verses known as matah kantigah, a call-and-answer style of song performed by males and females in the community. They acknowledged that what they’ve accumulated on the language is still limited, but endeavoured to continue working on their cause.

For a vanishing language not commonly discussed in the public sphere, Kristang has benefited greatly from Stephanie and Sara’s pursuits.

They’ve put out some admirable work — just last year, a CD of Catholic prayers was released in the Kristang language. Currently the duo are collaborating on a short and simple guide to Kristang (tentatively in the form of a phrasebook) to enable the curious and the interested access to the language.


Our Friday afternoon in Malacca was wondrous because of all these honest people who felt like family.

Community took place over everything else on the day: relatives of those involved in the exhibition turned up in droves to admire exhibits and chat with one another — most of them old friends — and gladly joined in when asked to sing along to Martin Theseira’s songs.

The Daily Fix's founders Julian and Josie Yeo, with Melissa Chan and Bert Tan.

Left to Right: The Daily Fix’s founders Julian and Josie Yeo, with Melissa Chan and Bert Tan.

The physical objects and photographs sitting on tables and in frames at New/Old Malacca now seemed less of exhibits, and more of an introduction into the lives of the townsfolk. The old locks and fishing equipment may represent trades affected by urbanisation and gentrification, but the people who used to helm them are the real reason we’re here in this old town.

The actual exhibits of New/Old Malacca were its people.

“We wanted to present how the community feels about all the development taking place in the state. Do Malaccans actually connect with the UNESCO World Heritage title placed upon their town?” explained Melissa Chan, curator at the Baba & Nyonya Heritage Museum.

In her own words, the exhibition “isn’t art per se, but merely to pique the interest”. Melissa, along with everyone involved would like people to go out to these parts of Malacca we’ve spoken about and maybe even strike conversation with its folks.

“Embracing change does not mean throwing out one’s culture, tradition and relationships,” she adamantly stated.

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Spoken word poet Lian Low performs her “Rasa Sayang” poetry.

What her team has done for New/Old Malacca (with basically zero money but lots of goodwill and a close bond to their land) is impressive. We sincerely wish more people take note of not just Malacca, but their own cities as well.

Martin laments that the history of Malacca has been “written on a whiteboard with an erasable marker”. That got us thinking: how much of our knowledge today is truth, given that we’re not actually out there verifying facts?

Taking the question further, perhaps ask yourself how much has changed in your own town over the years. Did you have a say in it?

We advise you find out soon, or risk losing things to be found nowhere else in the world we live in today. Like these folks we met in Malacca, we hope you too try giving yourself a say.


The Daily Seni would like to thank all the organisers of New/Old Malacca as well as its sponsors, which include CzipLee Stationery, MyTeksi and Mile High Sounds. Read our previous coverage to find out more about the event! All pictures taken by Dennis Ong.

About The Author
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Deric Ect
Deric is contributor and former managing editor of The Daily Seni.
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