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 travelblog.org. 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
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
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.
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