Melaka or Melacca. However you spell it, the place is the same heady mix of Chinese and Western influence, both now and in the past. It’s a place where tradition and modernity co-exist as though the circular concept of time is real and the linear one false. Our hostel is just behind the famous Jonker Street so we don’t have to walk far to see the city’s famous sites. Though the heat and humidity made walking quite challenging, even for we who have just come from a subtropical summer.
We start our exploration by walking through the Jonker Street area, which is heavily influenced by Chinese culture and Buddhism. Red lanterns are hung across streets and outside the terrace houses that line said streets.
We found shops that sold the cardboard luxury items that we saw people burning at Sam Poh Tong a few days ago. You can buy motorbikes, houses, treasure chests, bicycles, cardboard cans of beer (no beer obviously), electric razors and even food items all made out of cardboard. Oh and you can even buy a massage chair made of cardboard. It really is something different that I’ve never seen before.
One of the Chinese Buddhist temples was full of people burning incense and making offerings of fruit. We walked in to see what was going on and also to experience the temple atmosphere. I like that the Buddhist temples are open to the public, whether or not you are one of the Buddhist faithful. It makes the religion accessible to the curious and shows that there is nothing to hide. It is a stark contrast to the mosques and some Christian churches where non-believers are prohibited from entering either parts of or the whole place of worship. It shows that Buddhism as a practice has a sense of security about it. To me it shows a knowledge that non-believers cannot damage the faith of believers. It shows that the sanctity of Buddhist practice relies not on place but on intention and effort. And it sends a message that Buddhism is open to new believers and that those new believers can take baby steps to learn more without having to give up all their old beliefs in an “all or nothing” decision.
Back outside the temple I find the architecture of the Jonker Street area interesting and attractive despite (or perhaps because of) its age. The circular portal windows open through from one verandah to the next showing slightly different decorative styles. Square shuttered windows allow those inside the buildings to look out on the world with the option of closing themselves in for privacy. There are many art galleries here and it’s no surprise given the creative atmosphere that exists here and the historic stories from which the artists can draw inspiration.
We walk over to Melaka Old Town where the main historic buildings and museums are located. The art gallery in the old red buildings is worth a look but we found the plethora of museums a little overwhelming, both in the sheer number of museums to chose from and the volume of content in each museum. Someone really needs to come here and curate this hot mess down into a manageable story line rather than the current “let’s try to include everything” approach. Or maybe that’s just the instructional designer in me that cannot stand it when educators (museum curators are educators) try to tell people what the educator wants to tell rather than thinking “what do the people reading this need to do with the information”. Perhaps I was just spoiled by the high quality of museums in South Korea so now I expect everything to be of that standard.
Everything in Melaka is geared towards tourism. There are highly decorated trishaws, more hostels and guesthouses than you can poke a stick at, and plenty of places to eat. A lot of the tourists seem to be either Chinese or domestic tourists though we have seen a few dreadlocked Western backpackers congregating in the streets talking loudly with each other about the places they have been or are going to next. This is where modern Chinese and Western people still influence the city’s design and lifestyle showing again that time here is working in circular motion.
That’s not to say there aren’t local moments: like this fisherman diving for a catch in the river. And the young people filling the movie theatres to see the latest block buster movies. Later in the evening we went to see The Fast and Furious 7 and the cinema was totally packed. As was each of the 25+ sittings of the movie as it showed in three theatres at two cinema complexes in Melaka starting at 10am and ending at 12:50am. Actually, seatings for almost every movie showing were full all day long because we walked into the cinemas twice during the day before deciding to actually see something.
Before we went to the movies, though, we went out to see the Melaka Straits Mosque. This building is beautiful in it’s design and location overlooking the Melaka Straits. It is desperately in need of a paint job because the paint is flaking from all sides of the mosque, possibly due to the effects of the salty Melaka Straits sea spray. The mosque is quite isolated out on an island connected to the mainland by a bridge. There is a lot of construction happening out there though so it won’t be isolated for long. A massive commercial and residential complex is being built on both the mainland and island. It will be made of glass and steel with shops on the lower three floors, residential areas in the upper areas and an indoor amusement park. It’s not just one building but a complex made up of four or five huge structures that look like they will all be connected somehow.
The good thing about mosques is that there is usually a good Malaysian restaurant near them. We are finding that Chinese cuisine has been dominant in the places we have visited so far and we much prefer Malaysian food to Chinese (the Chinese food tastes like Chinese takeaway at home in Australia). Tonight we found a place where you get given a plate of rice and can select the meat and vegetable dishes from a buffet-style arrangement. I like these places because you don’t need to know what menu items are. You can see for yourself that this is ayam kunyit (tumeric chicken) or that is daging rendang (Malaysian curried meat) or that something else is unknown in name but looks delicious. The food at these places tends to be good honest food with delicious local flavour and a cheap price tag (we paid RM20 or $7.20 for two meals including hot drinks) and that was without budgeting ourselves to just one topping.
As for the movie experience later that night. I can tell you that once again the Malaysian cinemas are of excellent quality with comfortable seating. You don’t need to have seen any previous Fast and Furious franchise movies to understand what’s happening in the 7th edition because the film tells you what you need to know and is then just a fast-paced action movie. It was okay for what it was and we enjoyed the cultural experience. There were many young couples who were cuddled up to each other who obviously had not yet had the opportunity to take their relationships further than dating, which is something that we don’t see so often at home. I was almost uncomfortable by the pre-pubescent style displays of affection going on around me by couples in their mid-20s. Mind you, every time scantily clad women came onto the screen the men in the audience cheered like teenagers who had never seen a woman dressed in a bikini before. Perhaps we in the West are so used to women wearing bikinis at the beach and sexuality on our television and movie screens that we don’t get so excited about it. Or maybe we are too repressed to make audible our excitement. Either way, it was a different and new experience to have this going on around me. I guess some people will think that it is better that no women are shown in any movie wearing bikinis or skimpy clothing. But that’s not the point of my observation. I am merely observing that the men were very open in their awe at the half-naked women in the film and that the only other time I’ve heard this kind of awe at such things is when I was in primary school and snuck in to see Pretty Woman.