Thursday, November 12, 2015

Melaka, Sailing Through Time on a Sea of Information

A Maze of Museums

            Partly due to its historical importance, Melaka has a wealth of museums to visit. Two were of particular interest to us : the Baba and Nyonya House Museum, and the Zheng He Museum (Cheng Ho Museum). The first was alluring because I knew nothing of the Baba and Nyonya community, while the second promised to teach me more about one of the most fascinating characters in history : the man who could have made China a naval power to rival Europe. Both museums offer important insight into Melaka’s storied past. But there is also the Sultan’s Palace, which has been converted into a museum, a replica of a galleon which houses the naval museum and many more, not to mention the oldest Dutch building in Asia (the Statdhuys) and other colonial relics. If you’re looking to overdose on historical information, Melaka has your poison.

The Nyonyas and the Babas
            The Peranakan Chinese are a community descended from Chinese traders and local women. The men are Babas, and the women Nyonyas. Although the community arose from mixed marriages, new generations of Babas and Nyonyas were forbidden to find spouses from outside their community. All marriages were arranged by matchmakers, a practice that is sometimes followed even today. They did this to preserve their language (a Fujian patois), and their culture. Paradoxically, they preferred to send their children to English schools, so there are no Baba and Nyonya schools. This sadly means that, with new generations often marrying outside the community and no schools to reinforce the Baba and Nyonya culture, it might not survive. The Baba and Nyonya Museum was the house of a wealthy family that lived there for four generations until the 1980s, thriving on the trade of spices first, then rubber and now palm oil.

The house was built by the Dutch, who liked to build narrow houses to avoid residential taxes, but made them very long to compensate. Courtyards were included to allow light to enter all rooms in the house. When the Dutch made way for the English in Melaka, wealthy Babas moved into the houses that had until then been reserved for the upper echelon of the Dutch community. They remodeled the houses to give them a more Chinese air, but they also borrowed from the new colonial power, the English. The furniture in the house could be Dutch, Chinese or English, or a mix of all three. Their food was Malay or Chinese or a mix of both. The first rooms were particularly luxurious, with gold, silver and mother of pearl prominently displayed around carvings of deer (prosperity), bats (happiness) and cranes (longevity), or special marble that resembled ink wash landscape paintings. These rooms were to welcome business associates and make deals, hence their extravagant displays. It was a fascinating glimpse into the habits and customs of a family, from clothing to marriage and funeral ceremonies, from decorations to Mahjong. The guide spoke so fast, and laid so much information on us that I wished I’d had enough time to visit it again. At 16RM per person for a guided tour (every hour), a second visit is well within even a penny-pinching traveler’s means.

Zheng He Museum

So This is What it’s Like to Be a Timelord
            The Zheng He Museum was 10RM. I grumbled inwardly while paying because I’d read that it was much cheaper, and there were other museums to visit that day. However, it was more than worth the price of admission, as we didn’t even have time to finish it in 4 hours, not even by running through some of the exhibits. The best way to describe it is to say it is like the TARDIS. It’s bigger on the inside, and it can transport you to different times and places. Like the Baba and Nyonya House, this museum connects a few Dutch houses that hide rooms lengthwise behind small façades, giving the impression of a neverending museum. 
The museum is somewhere in here, probably everywhere.

          Zheng He was a Muslim eunuch who rose to prominence in the early Ming court, supporting Emperor Yongle (third emperor of the Ming Dynasty) in his ascension to the throne. Being from a Muslim family, Zheng He was inspired as a child by his grandfather’s stories of the Hajj, the pilgrimage all Muslims must make to Mecca, and his desire to travel grew from there. When Yongle decided to build a fleet to open and protect trade routes and bring peace to the South Sea where Islam was spreading quickly, Zheng He, with his natural language abilities, military acumen and Muslim heritage, became an obvious choice to lead it. He made seven journeys with enough men and ships to intimidate Agamemnon’s fleet, to lands as far away as the horn of Africa. If you wish to believe the theories in the book 1421 : the year China discovered America, he went even further. The museum not only recounts the life of Zheng He, it also provides crash courses on all the places Zheng He visited. One of those places was obviously Melaka. Caught between the Kingdom of Ayutthaya and the Majapahit Empire, the newly converted to Islam Sultan of Melaka was eager to count China as an ally. He was lucky to find the leader of the most powerful fleet in the region to be someone sharing his new faith.
  Zheng He returned many times to the city. Under China’s protection, Melaka’s influence grew, its borders extending into an empire. The city became the center of trade and the base of the dissemination of Islam in the region. In Zheng He’s time, China also reached the height of its power. Yongle not only built Zheng He’s fleet, he also built the Forbidden Palace in Beijing, and strengthened and extended the Great Wall. However the « Treasure Fleet » was an expensive project, and Yongle was facing increasing pressure to put an end to it. When he died, the excursions became a casualty of power struggles between eunuchs and bureaucrats in the court. The new emperor, Hongxi, sided with the bureaucrats and burned the fleet. Zheng He was allowed one more expedition when Xuande succeeded Hongxi, but when he in turn died, his successor let the ships rot. More devastatingly, he burned the log books and navigation maps. China turned inward, halting trade missions and abandoning its role as Asia’s policeman.
Zheng He died a little before this in 1433, while accompanying the ambassador of Hormuz on his journey home. Thankfully he did not have to see his life’s work turned to ash. Without China’s backing, the Sultanate fell to the Portuguese in 1511, announcing Europe’s rise in Asia and China’s eventual downfall. I wonder if Zheng He’s fleet could have changed that narrative.

Plan an entire day to visit this museum, pack a lunch and a snack, then come back the next day because that might still not be enough time to complete it.

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