Wednesday August 31, 2011
Walking down memory lane
By MICHAEL CHEANG
Heritage enthusiasts Colin Goh and Josephine Chua are passionate about preserving the history of their beloved city.
HIDDEN away in the shadow of a massive shopping complex in Malacca is an almost forgotten part of Malaysia’s history. It is a small mosaic-covered pyramid with a large ‘M’ in the middle, and it marks the beginning of Malaysia as we know it.
Once the focal point of Malacca’s Padang Merdeka, the Merdeka Monument commemorates the day that Malaya declared its independence. That’s not all. Most people forget that it was in Malacca on Feb 20, 1956, Tunku Abdul Rahman announced the glorious news that the British Government had finally agreed to grant Malaya independence. So in a way, Malacca is inextricably linked to Merdeka.
“It is such a shame that an important monument to such an important event in our country’s history is so downplayed today,” laments Colin Goh, 65, a retired civil servant and one of my tour guides for the day.
Colin Goh and Josephine Chua at the Merdeka Monument.
Despite being the second smallest state in Malaysia, Malacca has always been at the centre of Malaysia’s history – ever since Parameswara founded the settlement in 1409. This once important and strategic port in the Straits of Malacca was where the Portuguese, Dutch and British once had their strongholds. Some old Portuguese maps even referred to the entire Malayan peninsula as Malacca. Therefore, it was fitting that Tunku chose Malacca, the place where it all began, to announce the birth of our nation.
Goh was 10 years old when Tunku came to town, and according to him, the atmosphere leading up to the days before his arrival in Malacca was electrifying.
“Everyone was fired up about independence at the time. Everyone in school and on the streets was shouting ‘Merdeka! Merdeka!’ even though they didn’t really know what it meant,” Goh recalls. “Back then, this was just a sleepy hollow. But when word got out that Tunku was coming here to make the announcement, people arrived on buses from everywhere just to hear what he had to say!”
Today, Goh is a walking, talking, living history book, an encyclopaedia of Malaccan history. He and his long-time friend and fellow heritage enthusiast Josephine Chua are taking me on a whirlwind tour along the heritage trail of Malacca.
They will be showing another side of Malacca’s history, one that you would not read about in books.
Chua, 55, who is on the Malacca Historical Resource Society committee, is equally passionate about preserving the history and heritage of Malacca. Her roots go all the way back to the very early days of Malacca – her grandfather was one of the founders of the iconic 17th century Cheng Hoon Teng Temple, which is the oldest Chinese temple in Malaysia.
The historical A Famosa fortress, a landmark of Malacca.
The walk around Malacca’s heritage zone is as much a walk down memory lane for Goh and Chua as it is a walk down Malacca’s chequered past.
Starting out from the St. Francis Xavier Church, we enter the designated Heritage Zone via the row of distinctly red pre-war shop houses along Jalan Laksamana to the central town square (with its iconic red clock tower), then up Jalan Kota towards the Merdeka monument. From there, part of our route includes the one that Tunku Abdul Rahman took in 1956 after making the Merdeka announcement, when he went across the Tan Kim Seng Bridge to MCA founder Tun Tan Cheng Lok’s home on Heeren Street (now Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lok) for tea.
Besides its obvious historical heritage (the ancestral homes of many influential Chinese and Peranakan families are still located here), Heeren Street also holds special significance for both Goh and Chua – they were born on the same street in adjoining buildings, at 54 and 56 Heeren Street respectively.
Ban Onn Silversmith on Jonker Street (now known as Jalan Hang Jebat), is one of the few remnants of a more idyllic, less commercial era.
As we walk along the street, Chua excitedly points out the various homes she’s lived in, and tells vivid stories about the denizens of the street.
“My aunt used to live across the street from us when I was little. During Merdeka Day, she would wave to me from across the road and I’d shout ‘Merdeka!’ from our window,” Chua recalls.
One of the most remarkable parts about being brought on a tour by Goh and Chua is that they can point out little details that you would normally have missed. For instance, at one end of the Tan Kim Seng Bridge, concealed behind a garish and completely out-of-place Dutch windmill (despite being colonised by the Dutch, Malacca never had windmills), is an engraved plaque commemorating the opening of the bridge by the British governor at the time. It also honours the contributions of prominent merchant Tan Kim Seng, who donated the funds for the construction of the bridge
Treasure trove of knowledge
You’ll also hear stories about things that happened in everyday life as well. Pointing out a prominent building on Heeren Street, Goh relates how it used to be the home of a good friend who was murdered in her own home. Passing by another building, he explains how it used to be called The Black House because it was occupied by a coal trader.
Stories like these are what make Goh and Chua so unique. They may not be historians or tour guides by profession, but they conduct private tours on a voluntary basis, usually for special occasions or selected guests, because they are driven by their passion for the city they grew up in, as well as the wealth of history and stories within its walls and along its streets.
Goh and Chua are treasure troves of knowledge on Malacca’s history, dispensing historical facts with stories from their childhood, as well as insights into how Malacca has changed.
“The first time I took somebody on a tour of Malacca was in 1965. I found myself getting more and more interested in Malacca’s history. So I started to pick up more books and articles and kept them for reference,” says Goh.
It’s not all warm and fuzzy memories though.
Goh and Chua are equally adept at pointing out the less savoury side of Malacca, which includes the over-commercialisation and over-development of the heritage area, inadequacies in the preservation of heritage buildings and even blatant disrespect of the city’s proud heritage and buildings.
As we walk along Jonker Street (now known as Jalan Hang Jebat) amid the cacophony of tour buses, trucks and motorcycles whizzing past, Goh points out, “This place used to be a thriving community. Everything you needed in everyday life was here – there were tailors, blacksmiths, laundry cleaners, electrical shops, silversmiths. But when it was turned into the Jonker Walk night market to attract more tourists, all the old residents packed up and left the area.”
“It’s become a commercial community now – everything being sold here now is catered for tourists,” Chua adds.
“Many of the things being sold here aren’t even Malaysian, let alone Malaccan!”
Yet, amidst all the tacky tourist traps and blatant commercialisation, some remnants of the old Jonker Street community remain.
For instance, Ban Onn Silversmith is one of the few traditional silversmiths left standing in Malacca. And directly opposite is The Royal Press, a 75-year-old printing press that is still going strong.
“They (The Royal Press) recently had to move from the store next door to the current one; and when they did, they arranged all the furniture and equipment in the exact same positions as they were in the previous store,” says Chua proudly.
Nevertheless, one gets the feeling that these are the dying embers of Malacca’s old history, and that they will soon be gone unless something drastic is done to preserve these heritage treasures.
In fact, oral historians and ordinary Malaccans like Goh and Chua should also be treasured, and commended for the work they have done.
For the pair, it is frustrating and sometimes painful to see the city they grew up in being exploited in the name of development and tourism.
According to Chua, acclaimed historian Tan Sri Mubin Sheppard once said that Malacca was the only place where you got a feeling of antiquity when you drive into town.
“This should have been the main motto in all our conservation projects for Malacca. How important is Malacca? Before anyone even dreamed of Malaysia or Malaya, there was Malacca,’’ she says.
From a certain angle at the Merdeka Monument, you can see the entire history of Malaysia – the iconic Porta de Santiago gate of the A Famosa fortress, the Malay sultanate palace, and the Bastion House. They represent the Portuguese, Dutch, British and Malay Sultanate eras of Malacca.
There can be no doubt Malacca is the cradle of Malaysia.