A very Portuguese Christmas – Melacca, Malaysia

Site 1223 – Melaka and Georgetown, historic cities of the straits of Malacca

On the 22nd of December 2005 in Malacca, Malaysia, I met a small, brown-skinned, Malay-speaking man who referred to himself as being Portuguese. I’ve met a couple of Portuguese people in my time, and at a minimum they all tend to speak the Portuguese language. Generally they are also found in Portugal. But I’ve been wrong before.

It turned out that when he spoke of being Portuguese, it was in much the same sense that Americans take delight in “being Irish”. Few actual Irish people would agree with them, but they claim it as an element of their identity, and who am I to argue? Identity is treacherous ground. Ancestry and a sense of coming from somewhere are important to most people, and the existence of  “Portuguese” in Malacca encapsulates what makes this place interesting.

Malacca is a small city on the southernmost tip of the Malay Peninsula which has  existed as a settlement since the fourteenth century or thereabouts. The original rulers of the Malacca Sultanate chose a good spot: Malacca was able to dominate much of the trade through South East Asia and onward towards Europe, making the Sultans wealthy men. As was to be tediously repeated over the years, a European nation, in this case Portugal, decided that if they could take over the settlement they would be able to corner the market. They succeeded in the former but failed in the latter by an overbearing taxation policy which drove trade away to other ports . At length the colony was ceded to Britain but not before a large amount of intermarriage with the locals occurred. The result? A population of practicing Roman Catholic people with Iberian names who were in all other ways Malay.

The city of Malacca is only moderately interesting, although well sited. A river runs through the middle, complete with a population of Komodo dragons who can be seen from nearby restaurants. The main square is dominated by a number of rather ugly red buildings dating from Portuguese times or rebuilt to be reminiscent of them. They certainly stand out in this city of low Chinese shophouses, resembling sunburned palazzi for Italian expatriates.  If you delve a little further into the main town the streets get narrower and develop a more classically Straits Chinese feel with the odd Iberian flourish. But there are few traces of the truly spectacular or deeply interesting – it feels much like any busy, traffic-blighted south-east Asian city.

Malacca is paired with Georgetown in Penang as part of the same World Heritage listing, and to be honest I feel like Penang is doing the heavy lifting. Perhaps Malacca was added to beef out the submission, as I suspect it would not make the grade if it were proposed on its own. That said, my time there was not unenjoyable, especially since I had recently arrived from the tight-lipped order of Singapore. On my wanderings back to my hotel I came across what I took to be a street performance, but was actually a middle aged man doing terrible Kung Fu moves in a highly successful attempt to sell his own brand of snake oil. You don’t get that on Orchard Road.

And as for the Portuguese gentleman, he invited me to come to his village for Christmas. I rode on the back of his bike ten minutes out of town to the populated mud flat where he lived. Christmas lights had been strung up between trees, someone had found a large conifer and decorated it, and numerous plastic icons of Catholic saints adorned the front of houses. I ate and drank, smiled and nodded, and went to a very strange Mass. Naturally.

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