How Many Cultures Did You Kill Today?

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January 27th 2013
Published: January 28th 2013
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The guy you’re sharing a drink with at the bar is smoking a cigarette complaining about how smoky it is. How passive smoke is not only ghastly, but that it can create very real long-term health problems for those who breathe it, including cancer. “They’re killing everyone in here with their bloody smoking,” he blasts. As he takes another drag on his cigarette he derides the chain smoker over in the corner, the group of ladies at the bar who light up together as one of them passes round a packet for the others to share. Then there is the cigar smoker, who creates twice the cloud without even inhaling. He says he should give up himself, but somehow his smoking isn’t as harmful to him or others… perhaps because he smokes lights, or that he inhales deeper or takes fewer puffs, who knows? “If it were just me and you in the bar,” he says with a triumphant exhalation, right in my face, “the air in here would be, like, much cleaner!”

You may not have had this conversation, particularly since these days smoking in bars is increasingly relocated to the street in order to minimize the effects of passive smoking on the non-smoker. Yet it seems I encounter a version of this conversation every day, as tourists deride tourists for destroying the cultures they themselves wish to inhale…

We arrived late in the evening on our flight from Christchurch to Kuala Lumpur, and after travelling into the city proper and booking into our hotel it was later still. Being back in Asia after a two-year hiatus invigorates me. Kuala Lumpur is an eclectic smorgasbord of east and west; the variety of cultures, the faces, the customs, the architecture, the language and the food. Despite it being past midnight I use the fact that we hadn’t had a proper meal that evening to head out into the streets on the hunt for some street served Laksa, to breathe the air, tread the ground, smell the smells and arouse my memories.

Another perk of being in Kuala Lumpur is that we are to meet Alistair Watters, founder and CEO of But if tourism destroys cultures then surely Ali is Darth Vader? For not only does Travelblog promote tourism, it provides a platform for tourists to showcase and describe their contribution to this destruction, in intricate details replete with photographs. In fact when perusing through the site I am often reminded of those Abu Ghraib torture photos.

However, truth be known, when I allowed my family to meet Ali in person, he didn’t seem evil, far from it in fact…So disarming was this that it took the wind from my sails, leaving me afraid to ask the question I had come all this way to ask, “So Darth, how many cultures did you kill today?”


We’d been to Penang some years before, but never to one of its historical brethren, Malacca, so it made an obvious stop on our way to Singapore. It was just before dusk when we finally booked into our hotel, and again on the quest for food on empty bellies we hit the streets. However this being the monsoonal period on this side of Peninsula, we were able to get only the hundred meters or so down to the river’s edge before the heavens opened up. This close to the equator the rain isn’t cold, but the trappings of modern technology meant we had to seek shelter under
Kiva at the poolKiva at the poolKiva at the pool

Kuala Lumpur
a gazebo overlooking the Melaka River, else we suffer serious camera malfunction in the face of aerial H2O attack. But when it became apparent the rain wasn’t going to let up we needed to plan our escape. Fortunately the Casa del Rio Hotel was situated only 20 metres from where we sheltered.

Having just spent the previous two-years moonlighting as Andean Anthropologists we have evolved a quirky skill in being able to recognize that the name “Casa del Rio” doesn’t seem, dare I say it, particularly authentic to these parts, and what’s with the Mediterranean-esque architectural influence and quasi Moorish courtyard?

The rain serendipitously coaxed us into the wonderful restaurant there, and as nice as it was inside, I asked that we be sat outside under the arcade by the river, sheltered from the rain at the entrance straits as the sun went down. We ordered a selection of delectable Nyonya cuisine, which for the uninitiated is combination of Chinese, Malay/Indonesian and other influences into a unique blend, also known locally as the cuisine of the Perakanans, “descendants”.

Malacca is derived from the Arabic word Malakat, meaning market, and its evolution from a small fishing village in the late 1200s into a major trade centre by 1400 demonstrates how the commercial, social, ideological, and political products of cross-cultural contact overlap and reinforce each other.

Malacca's founder, the ex-pirate Prince Parameswara, the last Raja of Singapura (aka Singapore) was a descendant of Alexander the Great, or Hindu political refugee from Sumatra, depending who you read. In 1405 the Chinese Muslim eunuch admiral Cheng Ho, sailed into harbor with a huge armada of giant trading ships, and a trading partnership was formed, with the Chinese promising protection for Malacca against the Siamese (Thais).

Traders were attracted from the Middle East in addition to those already arriving from every seafaring nation in Asia. Islam was introduced to the Malay world, arriving along with Gujarati traders from western India. By the first decade of the sixteenth century Malacca was a bustling, cosmopolitan port, attracting hundreds of ships each year.

Midway along the straits that linked China to India and the Near East, Malacca was perfectly positioned as a center for maritime trade. As a point of enormous strategic importance linking west and east it became a
Dumplings Dumplings Dumplings

major trading emporium.

The city was known worldwide as a center for the trade of silk and porcelain from China; textiles from Gujarat and Coromandel in India; nutmeg, mace, and cloves from the Moluccas, gold and pepper from Sumatra; camphor from Borneo; sandalwood from Timor; and tin from western Malaya, but that wasn’t the half of it; cloth, opium, bird’s nests, tusks, medicinal herbs and forest products, salt, sugar, slaves, grains, glass, jewelry, precious stones, rice, rattan and sea-slugs…the list goes on, it really does…

Europeans like a little variety just as much as every other homo-sapien culture that has ever existed on this planet, and so they wanted a piece of the trade in exotic goods ‘n’ flavors too. The Portuguese, who arrived in 1509 were first welcomed as trading partners, but then expelled when it became apparent they wanted it all for themselves. This hunch proved accurate when they returned two years later with back up, seized the city and turned it into a fortress.

Five-hundred years before Lonely Planet and Air Asia descended upon us, Portuguese visitor Tome Pires documented on a visit to Malacca "... Moors from Cairo, Mecca, Aden, Abyssinians (Ethiopians), men of Kilwa (Tanzania), Hormuz (Iran), Parsees (Indian Zoroastrians), Turks, Christian Armenians, Gujaratees, men of the kingdom of Deccan (central India), Malabars (south India) and Klings , merchants from Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Bengal, Siam (Thailand), Malay, Cambodia, Champa (central Vietnam), Cochin China (southern third of Vietnam), Chinese, men of Brunei, Timor, Java, Palembang (Sumatra), and the Maldives."

By 1511, Malacca had a population of 50,000 people, including a resident trade community that spoke 84 languages.

In 1641, the Dutch, wanting the pie all for themselves, decided to starve the city into submission. After the Napoleonic Wars back In Europe the British took charge of the city by swapping one of their Sumatran colonies for it. Apart from a brief tenure by the Japanese during WW2, the city stayed in British hands until Malaysia declared independence, here in Melaka, in 1957.

So you can imagine after all that contamination, there is little left in the way of culture remaining in Malacca today, they even have Malls and McDonalds and such like. A small group of Eurasians of Portuguese descent continues to speak their unique creole, known as Cristão or Kristang, but they can hardly be counted as authentic. What is left of the culture here trembles in despondency like a candle in the wind. If Malaysia’s on your bucket list, you’d better book your tickets, and fast, before the last remnants of untainted Malay culture are decimated by Suzy from Essex, eating a Big Mac™ in her miniskirt whilst talking to her mom on an iPhone 5™. I mourn for these passive victims of western domination and their inevitable collapse at the hands of modernization and tourism.

So I think it turns out the guy in the bar was right; these cultures are passive recipients who need to be protected from too much contact with outsiders. A mixture of cultures is no longer authentic and any culture tainted by ours is doomed.

Our next stop was Singapore. I’d like to write more about our time there, and what I really feel about culture and such like, but a new edict calls for blogs of 1500 words or less, else the reader fades away… But being a city-state based on commercial trade, globalization, colonization and cultural amalgamation suffice to say how homogenized and bland everything in Singapore was.

Additional photos below
Photos: 37, Displayed: 28


Casa del Rio, Melaka RiverCasa del Rio, Melaka River
Casa del Rio, Melaka River

(chucking it down!)
Raffles HotelRaffles Hotel
Raffles Hotel


28th January 2013

Brilliant metaphor!
This is why those truly searching for authenticity scour Italy in search of meals free of that dastardly tomato, and snub their noses at any dish prepared with the delectable spices of Malacca when outside the peninsula. Cultural homogeneity, indeed! Of course, to kill a culture presumes that cultures are static things, destroyed by change, rather than ever evolving and transmuted through contact, trade and tourism.
29th January 2013

To kill a culture...
When we change, it's called progress; when they change by attempting to progress it's perceived as them losing their culture and themselves.
28th January 2013

Resistance is futile, you will be assimilated.
And for those that resist; "I should conclude that our demonstration was as impressive as it was thorough."
29th January 2013

There is hope, it is written...
"Alderaanians who were offworld at the time would later regularly go on pilgrimages known as The Returning to the remains of Alderaan. After the Empire wiped out a settlement created by surviving Alderaanians Ejolus, Alderaanians colonized New Alderaan which soon became a member of the New Republic..."
28th January 2013

Well, let's see how many cultures were killed in Malacca...
First, the Malays destroyed the culture of the aboriginal inhabitants of the Malay peninsula. Then it was either the Hindu Hinda raj (Indian) or descendent of Alexander the Great (European) founder of Malacca who destroyed the culture of the Malays. And once it became a trading center, the cultures of the "...Chinese, Moors from Cairo, Mecca, Aden, Abyssinians (Ethiopians), men of Kilwa (Tanzania), Hormuz (Iran), Parsees (Indian Zoroastrians), Turks, Christian Armenians, Gujaratees, men of the kingdom of Deccan (central India), Malabars (south India) and Klings , merchants from Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Bengal, Siam (Thailand), Malay, Cambodia, Champa (central Vietnam), Cochin China (southern third of Vietnam), Chinese, men of Brunei, Timor, Java, Palembang (Sumatra), and the Maldives" who destroyed the culture. This was followed by the destruction wrought by the English, Dutch, and Portugese in the 16th century onwards. And finally, the culture of not only Malacca, but almost the entire civilized world was destroyed by the American culture of movies, music, clothing, and fast food restaurants; and the dominance of the English language. I make that 30 cultures destroyed in Malacca. In another few centuries the dominant culture will look back on the culture of Malacca of today just as we are looking back at the culture several centuries authentic. I prefer to think of this blend like you described "Nyonya cuisine, which for the uninitiated is combination of Chinese, Malay/Indonesian and other influences into a unique blend, also known locally as the cuisine of the Perakanans, “descendants”. The 30 cultures did not destroy, but created a unique blend. I agree, however, that when you are in the midst of a cultural takeover, we regret the passing of the previous culture. I regret the impact that the American culture has had on the world, just as I regret the passing of the American culture of earlier generations. I also agree that tourists can accelerate cultural decline. I recently visited Thailand after having been away 25 years. I was aghast at the changes to their culture. Twenty five years earlier the Thai celebrated just a few events for themselves (Songkran in April, Loy Kratong in November, etc). Now there were celebrations almost every weekend for the tourists, and the dances and costumes used were glitzed up to appeal to the tourist audience. That's why when I was in Fiji and ran across a dance celebration by Fijians for Fijians, with me and a friend as the only foreigners, I felt that I was seeing an authentic cultural event. Anyway, I look forward to seeing Ali's response to the question you didn't raise in KL, but did here!
29th January 2013

The (re)invention of culture
An anthropologist, and dear friend, told me a story about how she was once with an eldery Fijian lady in Fiji, who was complaining about western tourists who come to Fiji and parade about topless on the beaches there. They are disrespecting and destroying our culture, she said. Of course when missionaries first arrived in Fiji many years before, they were horrfied to discover the local indigenous women walking around topless, and put a swift stop to all that sinful behaviour. The same friend also recounts how she had her elderly mother over to Fiji on a vacation. After watching a lovely local song and dance performance in a small village her mother purred over how authentic it all was. She didn't have the heart to tell her that most of these songs are locally translated versions of old Protestant hymns brought over by those same missionaries. As for the Thais (re)inventing culture and tradition for a tourist audience...all cultural practices and traditions are invented, even those 'original' traditions that were invented before our time on this planet, and those that will be inevitably (re)invented after it.
29th January 2013

The conclusion is...
the search for authenticity is futile. I heard somewhere that no scientific observation is accurate as the mere act of observing influences the results.
29th January 2013

If people believe that a mixture of cultures is no longer authentic and that any culture 'tainted' by ours is no longer authentic, then logic dictates that the tourists' quest is a doomed one. As their mere presence in seeking leads to those very cultural changes, hybridizations and contaminations (at least in their mind) they deplore.
29th January 2013

And after the authentic cultural dances...they changed from their authentic cultural dress...and put on their authentic denim jeans & T-shirts...and went out on the town with their friends...can't get more authentic than that!
30th January 2013

Fair dinkum comment, mate.
The origins of this term came from the Victorian Goldfields where Chinese workers used the term Ding kum to confirm a deal that is honest and true. 'Din gum' meaning ‘real gold’ in Chinese
29th January 2013

I would like to add something intelligent
But I fear I will fail, so I won't... Especially since I see we are now moving into the field of physics, with all this talk of seeing is changing ;) In that regard I say, everything is relative, it fits nicely into all of this.
30th January 2013

And a matter of power, who has the right to decide
1st February 2013
Kiva in the tropical rainforest

Hes so big now!
Its hard to believe this is the baby that you brought to the philippines, or i may be mistaken
20th February 2013
Kiva in the tropical rainforest

That is indeed that baby!
Incidentally, in the next blog I will write about his return to the Philippines... I just have to get around to writing it;-)

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