Both my parents were born in Malacca, Malaysia, so as a kid, we went there at least once a year to visit family (mostly Mum’s though: my aunties, uncle and grandfather). A long while ago.
It has been more than 20 years since I’d stepped into my uncle’s house. The place itself was largely unchanged, a cool, quiet respite from tropical afternoons, terrazzo floors soothing to hot, dusty feet; my grandfather’s old pedal-drive Singer sewing machine still in service.
Downtown, UNESCO Heritage listed Malacca though, brought back only occasional moments of deja vu. The bazaars and shops on Jonker Street meant little to a child, although Heeren Street, with its stately Peranakan mansions, is still impressive. We went inside a few restored shophouses; one a private museum, another a souvenir store, another a hip cafe and eatery. I have come, swept by the rush of nostalgia in Singapore, to much appreciate old buildings that were a matter of central function in ordinary history, and remain doggedly so in the present. The shophouse is an icon, the mark of Chinese trade in the region, their sheltering five foot ways a practical respite from the heat, and their breezy rambling depths and comparatively narrow breadths a nod to fiscal efficiency (shophouse owners were taxed on how broad their properties were against street fronts, not how deep they extended behind the front door). I have no decent pictures of any, so you will have to Google it.
The Malacca River, sluggish and dark with rubbish in the 80s, is now clean, concrete banked, and replete with trendy riverside eateries and accommodation.
Malacca still retains its small town soul though. Just outside the main tourist spots, Bungaraya, with it’s “aunty fashion” shops and traditional Chinese medicine clinics buzzes with Chinese New Year preparations. Metres of red – lanterns, streamers, lights, placards – with gold trim in every available hanging space. My mother looks for almond powder in a shop of such things and the lao ban niang (lady boss) with her doe eyes and thick, shiny mane assures us she has sworn by almond, ginger, and black sesame powders for the last 20 years. In what I still think of as typical Malaysian-Singapore speech patterns, it’s done in a glorious mish-mash of several languages. Maybe next time, Mum tells her in kind, pleased to have found that particular green canister of almond.
Cantonese abounds with the Chinese here (as opposed to Singapore where Hokkien is the largest dialect group), an intense and passionate speech, no matter if it’s politics or weather being discussed. I’m lost half the time, though 50% is better odds than I dare to expect. When pressed to respond I do so in Mandarin, and strangers don’t bat an eyelash, as if satisfied that it explains what this big Indian girl who speaks no Malay is doing with a bunch of tiny vehement Chinese oldies.
My uncle was anxious i should see the sights of Malacca again after so long, and enthusiastically brought us around to it all – Stadthuys, Jonker and Heeren Streets, St Paul’s hill, Sam Poh Temple and Bukit Cina cemetery (the largest Chinese cemetery outside of China).
The best part though, was getting to see all the spots i didn’t know still existed: the shophouse where my grandfather’s tailor shop used to be, another shophouse where my uncle and aunty lived with him when they were little (my mum was sent to Singapore before she was 10), and where my uncle lived while he was working. It was an enriching weekend, and when we left, bags full of food – as you do when you go back to visit – it felt also like i was part of the family again.
P.S. It is a fitting time to reflect on Malacca… On the way to Malaysia again a few days later, but this time to Kuala Lumpur, on my annual pilgrimage to my sister’s.