Christmas Lights at the Portuguese Settlement, Melaka

Catholic Shrine at Portuguese Settlement

The Portuguese Settlement in Melaka is home to a small community of mixed race Malaysians who can trace their ancestry back 500 years to when Malacca was a Portuguese colony.

Portuguese, Indian, Malay, Sumatran and Chinese blood flows through the veins of the population here and they have tried hard to retain their unique culture over the centuries, including their creole language Kristang and their Catholic faith.

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Christmas is a major event in the village’s calendar and the residents like to out-do their neighbours with lavish Xmas decorations and lights. The colourfully lit streets draw in thousands of tourists at this time of the year. 

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At the seaside promenade there is a small night market selling fireworks and paper lanterns to release into the night sky. Revellers also enjoy seafood dishes like clams, crab, grilled fish and scallops at the many outdoor food stalls. It’s definitely the best time of year to see the Portuguese Settlement.

Portuguese Settlement, Melaka

Melaka – Bound Feet Shoe Shop

Nineteen years ago while visiting Melaka (Malacca) my wife and I purchased a tiny pair of silk-embroidered bound feet shoes.

Just 3 inches long, these shoes were of the sort worn by countless of Chinese women over the ages. The ancient practice of binding the feet of girls while still only three or four years of age had once been quite prevalent in Malacca and in the 1920s it was reckoned that as many as 1,000 women in the town had bound feet. The practice was seen as feminine and dainty and more importantly as a symbol of wealth and status.

We bought them from Wah Aik Shoemaker of 92 Jonker Street. I know this because it was stamped on the soles of the shoes and the proprietor kindly signed them for us as you can see from this photo which I took at the time.

Wah Aik Shoemaker, 92 Jonker Street on the 9th June 1992.

By 1992, according to the owner, there were only half a dozen old ladies left in Melaka with bound feet – not really enough to sustain a shoemaking business which could account for the somewhat shambolic appearance of the shop. I suppose cobbling for crippled concubines is a good example of a sunset industry.

Returning to Melaka last weekend I thought it would be interesting to see if the shop is still there.

Not surprisingly it is no longer at 92 Jonker Street. Jonker Street, or Jalan Hang Jebat to give it its modern name, is the main tourist shopping strip in Melaka and premises there must be prime real estate.

Luckily though, not far away in Jalan Tokong I stumbled across this shop:

Wah Aik Shoemakers 'new' premises in Jalan Tokong.

Could it be the same business? I went inside and noticed that the display cabinets looked the same and I showed the old photo to a gentleman working there. He told me he was the son of the former owner who had since passed away. The shop had moved to this location some years back and they had taken the old shelving with them.

He said there were no more bound feet ladies in Melaka and the bound feet shoes were now only made for tourists. I think nowadays they probably concentrate on selling beaded slippers (another unique Melaka product).

We should not mourn the passing of the barbaric practice of foot binding. Of course modern women still like to squeeze their feet into painful stilettos and the like but at least they can take them off when they want.

The son was pleased to see the old photo of his father and he introduced me to his brothers who also work there. Business is obviously improving!

Wah Aik Shoemaker 2011

Update as at April 2018: Since writing the above article, Wah Aik Shoemaker has moved again. It can now be found at No.92 Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock (Heeren Street). 

Cape Rachado

Pulau Intan Beach at Cape Rachado

Just beyond the busy beaches of Port Dickson lies a small headland jutting out into the Straits of Malacca called Cape Rachado.  This headland is well worth exploring. It contains a forest reserve, a historic lighthouse, the site of a 400 year old naval battle and probably the best secluded beach in this part of Malaysia.

Before you can get to the beach you have to park your car outside the entrance to the forest reserve and walk 30 minutes or so up a steep road which cuts through the jungle.

Entrance to Tanjung Tuan Forest Reserve. Cape Rachado is Portuguese for Broken Cape or Cape Split. Its Bahasa name is Tanjung Tuan which means Cape Sir or Master Cape!

The whole 75 hectare area is a wildlife reserve and is popular with bird watchers as the headland lies on the flight path for eagles, hawks, buzzards, kite and falcons making their migration to Australia every February/March.

The road ends at the lighthouse, said to be the oldest in the country with the original structure dating back to the 16th century.

Lighthouse at Cape Rachado

The first lighthouse on this site was built by the Portuguese to prevent their spice and treasure-laden galleons from being dashed on the rocks below as they negotiated the Straits of Malacca which are at their narrowest point along this stretch of coastline (on a clear day the Sumatran coast is supposed to be visible but I didn’t manage to see it).

Old map of the Straits of Malacca

The present lighthouse tower was constructed in 1863 by the British. The shorter concrete radar tower on the right was built in 1990. Although I was not allowed to enter the lighthouse compound (you can if you obtain prior permission), the area in front of it provided a splendid view of the Straits which were looking crystal clear for a change.

No sign of Sumatra?

A significant naval battle took place in these waters in 1606 between the Dutch and the Portuguese who were vying for supremacy in this region. Eleven Dutch ships faced twenty Portuguese galleons in a two day battle involving lots of grappling hooks and cannonball salvos at point blank range. Two ships from each side were sunk before the Dutch broke off the battle leaving the Portuguese to claim victory. The Sultan of Johor however was more impressed by the tenacity of the Dutch and threw in his lot with Holland, eventually forcing the Portuguese, some 35 years later, to cede their prized colony of Malacca to the Dutch.

The shipwrecks of the four sunken vessels  have since been found and items such as cannonballs, coins and ceramics were retrieved. This superb bronze cannon was salvaged in 1995 from the wreck of the Dutch ship Nassau and is now on display in nearby Lukut Museum.

Cannon at Lukut Museum

The other Dutch ship sunk was called the Middelburg which I suppose is Dutch for Middleton, as in Kate.

From the high point of the lighthouse, a steep footpath led down to the beach (another 15 minutes walk).

Path towards Pulau Intan beach. A lot of steps.

It was a hot and sweaty walk but well worth the effort – a virtually deserted and relatively clean sandy beach.

Clean sandy beach at Cape Rachado.

Not a plastic bag in sight!

On the other side of the headland the shore is more rocky and some local guys were about to do a spot of fishing.

Fishing spot.

Another reason why the beach was so empty (apart from the effort needed to get there) could be because crocodiles are said to be occasionally spotted swimming in these waters. Seems unlikely to me but I couldn’t hang around to find out. I had inexplicably left my water bottle in the car and was by now feeling the effects of dehydration. Time to make my way back.

Cape Rachado is certainly a very quiet and beautiful corner of Malaysia. Somebody even appears to have chosen it as his final resting place.

A gravestone perhaps?

Asia’s Cycle Rickshaws – A Dying Breed

During my recent visit to Malacca, I was interested to see how the town’s cycle rickshaws have transformed over the years.

This is how they look now, elaborately decorated with artificial flowers and fitted with a boom box under the seat playing noisy music. They don’t seem to stray far from the main square in front of Malacca’s old Dutch-era Stadhuis and Christ Church. The cycle rickshaw drivers prey on the coach loads of tourists and no doubt charge a good sum for a quick spin round the block or to pose for a photo.  Who can blame them? They have to make a living somehow and there is not much money to be made these days from cycle rickshaws as a means of public transport.

Malacca 2010

It was not always so. When I first visited Malacca way back in 1983, cycle rickshaws (or trishaws, or pedal rickshaws, or pedicabs or tricycles as they are also known ) were still used as a poor man’s taxi and they were a charming, unhurried way to get around the town centre which those days had far less traffic.  From a trishaw you could get a close up view of the streets and ask the driver to pull over anytime something interesting caught your eye. You were more in tune with the leisurely pace of  Malacca which was a very relaxed place at that time.

Malacca 1983

I was reading an article about trishaw drivers in Teluk Intan in Perak. This town is home to Malaysia’s equivalent of the Leaning Tower of Pisa (a pagoda-like clock tower with a distinct tilt). This architectural oddity attracts visitors but not in sufficient numbers to sustain the cycle rickshaw drivers, of whom there were (in 2009) only four left and of these, three were in their seventies.  Apparently they can only earn around RM300 per month (less than USD100). They have to pay RM18.50 for an annual permit. The local trishaw licensing office must be one of the sleepier government departments as they have not issued any new licenses for decades.

It is sad but inevitable that the trishaw, as a means of public transport, is facing extinction in Asia. The only hope is that larger parts of historic heritage sites like Malacca and Georgetown (Penang) can be pedestrianised thus making the conditions right for trishaws. Of course they would have to charge tourist rates, which reach about RM30 per hour in Penang. This might attract younger people like students to do a bit of healthy trishaw driving in their spare time.

I have encountered a number of different trishaw designs in my Asian travels. Malaysia and Singapore have the driver sitting to the side of the passengers like the one pictured above.

Thailand and Macau have the driver sitting in front of the passenger, while Vietnam and Indonesia have the passenger sitting in front of the driver.

Macau 1980s 

In Macau in the early 1980s, it was quite normal to take a triciclo from the ferry terminal to somewhere like the Lisboa Hotel or Henri’s Galley, our favourite restaurant for giant prawns or African chicken. The tricilo fare was cheaper than a taxi and we would always negotiate the fare before getting in. But by the end of the journey, after staring at the driver’s sinewy calf muscles, we would often feel sorry for him and end up paying a generous tip.

Vietnam in 1993 was an ideal place for trishaw travel as there was very little traffic in those days apart from bikes. This very basic looking cyclo (as they are known in Vietnam) was typical of those found in Hanoi, where the design was lower and wider than those in Saigon. Hanoi cyclos could hold two people (slim ones) while Saigon’s were single seaters. They may have only carried one person but they could accommodate quite a few geese.

 Hanoi 1993Having a gander, Saigon, 1993.

Nowadays in Vietnam, the slow and cumbersome cyclo is banned from more and more places as they obstruct the cars, trucks and motorbikes which have multiplied rapidly in recent years. This is more or less the pattern all over Asia, though I understand that in Dhaka, Bangladesh (which I haven’t visited yet) the trishaw is still going strong, apart from on the major roads.

Ironically in the West, the cycle rickshaw has made a bit of a comeback where it seen as an eco-friendly and healthy occupation and ultra modern designed trishaws have apparently set up shop in places like London, New York, Germany and Ireland.

Hanoi 1993

Majestic Hotel, Malacca

During our recent visit to Melaka (Malacca), I was pleased to see that the old Majestic Hotel is still standing. In fact, not only is the classic 1920’s mansion still standing, it has been rejuvenated and transformed into a real beauty. We had last seen the Majestic in June 1992. Together with my wife and first-born child, then only 7 months old, we were spending an enjoyable holiday in Malaysia. After a few days in Penang, I rented a car and thought we would slowly drive down to Singapore, stopping off in a few interesting places along the way (Cameron Highlands, KL and Melaka). When we arrived in Melaka there was some event going on meaning that every decent hotel in town was fully booked (I never made advance reservations in those days). We were tired and it was getting late when we stumbled upon the Majestic. It didn’t look much from the outside. It must have been a grand residence once but by the time of our visit it was looking quite tired and run down. Still, even if it was a dump, we were desperate and I imagined that it might have some spacious old rooms inside with charm and character. Reluctantly, my wife agreed to try it.

Majestic Hotel in 1992

‘Any room for the night?’ I asked the elderly Chinese manager at the reception desk cum bar. ‘Fully booked’ he replied ‘we have one room but no good.’ We inspected the room. He was right, it was no good. It was somewhere in the rear of the hotel, tucked away under the stairs. It had no bathroom, no air conditioning and no windows!

‘How much?’ I asked. ‘Fifteen ringgit’ he replied.

‘We’ll take it’. I think he overcharged us but it is probably one of the cheapest room I have ever stayed in.

There was a squalid toilet and shower at the end of the corridor, perhaps used by staff. It was one of those sweltering Malaysian nights and the room was like an oven. After an excellent meal at a nearby outdoor restaurant, washed down by a couple of large bottles of Guinness, we retired to the room for a very uncomfortable night but at least our infant son slept well.

The Same Hotel in 2010.

As you can see from the recent photo, the hotel has been restored to its former glory. The renovation has been done tastefully and the interior layout of the lobby area has been left more or less unchanged. Many of the original architectural features have been preserved. Even the floor tiles in the lobby are the same as those in 1992, only a lot cleaner and shinier!

A high rise extension has been added at the rear which houses the 50 or so rooms and suites. The original building serves as the lobby, bar and dining areas.

The new owners, the YTL group (who manage a few other classic hotels in Malaysia), deserve a pat on the back for a job well done. It would have been so easy, and possibly more lucrative, to demolish the old building and redevelop the whole site but then the charm and character of the old hotel would have been lost forever. Of course, the rooms cost a bit more than RM15 per night these days. According to the website you could expect to spend upwards of USD250 per night. Being The Thrifty Traveller, that is rather more than I would normally spend but if I ever feel the need to splurge, the Majestic Hotel would definitely be my preferred choice in Melaka.

Anchor Shandy, Majestic, June 1992

Malacca’s Hero Banker

Yesterday I took the family for a drive to the historic Malaysian city of Melaka.

Christ Church     

Inside the famous old Dutch-built Christ Church (above left) was a plaque honouring local civilians (all westerners) who fought and died during World War I. Since it was Remembrance Sunday this week I paid more attention than normal and an inscription on the memorial caught my notice: Captain Edward Hampton Moss, H’Kong & Shang. Bank. Malacca.

Memorial inside Christ Church Melaka

As The Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation is an organization with which I have had more than a passing association, I thought I would see if I could find out some more information on Captain Moss. Thanks to the miracle of the internet, quite a few details about his life are available.

Edward Hampton Moss was born in 1878 in Yokohama where his father, C.D Moss ,was serving as Chief Clerk and Registrar of ‘the H.B.M. Supreme Court for Japan’. (I am guessing that HBM in this context stands for Her Britannic Majesty and that there was a British-run court in Yokohama at the time to administer justice for the foreign community living in Yokohama’s international settlement.)

Edward Moss attended Cheltenham College until 1895 and perhaps he joined the Bank after school. He would have been familiar with HSBC which opened a branch in Yokohama in 1866. No details of his banking career are readily available from the internet but at the outbreak of WWI he was seemingly working as Agent of HSBC in Melaka.

Britain declared war on Germany on 4th August 1914. Caught up in the patriotic fervour of his generation, Moss must have dropped his pen immediately and returned to England by sea. Just a month later, in September 1914, he enlisted into the 18th Battalion (1st Public School) Royal Fusiliers. He was subsequently commissioned into the 10th Battalion Gloucestershire Regiment.

Edward Moss

In September 1915, the British government was keen to go on the offensive and urged her reluctant generals to advance on German positions not far from Lens in the north-east corner of France. The British had insufficient artillery to soften up the German trenches. Poor Edward was to pay the ultimate price for this logistical failure. To compensate for the lack of firepower, Britain tried chemical warfare for the first time ever (poisonous chlorine gas). Unfortunately this was only partially effective as a change in wind direction wafted the gas back over British lines.

According to one account, at 6:30am on 25th September it was Captain Edward Moss himself who blew the whistle that launched the infantry’s charge from their jump-off trenches and thus signaled the beginning of what came to be known as the Battle of Loos. No doubt Moss would have led from the front. Like so many others, he died that day. His battalion was decimated by German machine gunfire. 

The battle continued for just 18 days at the end of which Britain had suffered a tragic 50,000 casualties, several times more than the total British casualties in all wars and conflicts since the end of WW2. The battle had gained a miserable 1,500 yards of territory for the allies.

Moss has no known grave but he is commemorated in a number of places. Besides the memorial in Melaka, his name appears on the Cenotaph in Singapore, a memorial in the Foreigner’s Cemetery in Motomachi, Yokohama and, along with 20,000 others with no known grave, he is remembered with honour on the Loos Memorial in France.

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