The writing (or decorations) is on the wall
JULY 31 — As the legend goes, Malacca was founded by Parameswara, the fugitive with his group fleeing from Singapore, about 500 years ago. Later he went on to establish the first Malacca Sultanate in the 15th century.
At that time Malacca was a natural port that sheltered the sailors from the north-east and south-west monsoons in this region. The monsoons were one of the keys to the success of Malacca as a trading port in the early sailing years. The winds brought the Arabs, Indians and then the Europeans from the West and the Javanese, Bugis and Chinese from the East.
As years went by, due to its increasing strategic and commercial importance, Malacca became a battle ground as the colonial world powers and the local warlords fought to control it.
But despite all the wars and violence in the waters of the Malacca Straits, many of the early sailors, traders, pirates, warriors and labourers of various races established their new homes in Malacca.
This street has many fine examples of the Nyonya style architecture and auspicious ornamental facades built in the early part of the 20th century. This group of wealthy Malaccans displayed their financial position and social status openly.
By the early 20th century, many Chinese had settled and set up homes in Malacca. Some of the Chinese merchants had become very wealthy doing business with the colonial powers.
One group in particular, calling themselves the Baba Nyonya or Peranakan, became millionaires and they all strived to build houses that symbolised their newfound wealth.
This group kept their Chinese religious and cultural beliefs and customs but remixed their language, food, dressing, music and dance with the local Malays, Portuguese and English.
Their deep Chinese roots meant a heritage full of myths, legends and stories. Many of them continued to practise their religious customs and rituals. The rich among them built impressive buildings and adorned their facades with auspicious shapes, images and symbols. The poorer families made do with items made of paper and ink which they stuck on their walls and doors.
The dragon and the phoenix are the most popular mythological creatures in Chinese art. There is a pair of colourful flying phoenix, made of broken coloured ceramic tiles, adorning the front of this house, settled in just below the two large semi-circular windows. This fantastic creature is the queen of birds and it symbolises the sun, the heat of summer and the bountiful harvest.
In the middle of this pair of birds is a bouquet of colourful flowers also made of broken coloured ceramic tiles and it signifies a fruitful season. Different flowers represent each of the months of the year and the plum blossom indicates the coming of spring.
This type of common floral arrangement, set in colourful square frames, in different sizes and combination, is repeated in between the windows and the sides. The rest of the facade is painted all over with different floral motifs.
What can these artistic combinations of bird and flower images mean to us today? In the old days these were important symbolic and metaphysical protections for the houseowner and his family and businesses.
But many of these families (and their fortunes) have come and gone. New entrepreneurs have moved in to this touristy part of Malacca.
These new tenants or owners are also concerned about prosperity and wealth but these days they rely more on the steady supply of cheaper products from China, Philippines and Thailand and cheap labour from neighbouring countries.
This is an exquisite artistic expression of the Baba Nyonya period of the shophouses in Malacca. On this facade, the East and the West come freely together.
The Western root is in the triangular pediment which is from the Greek temples and this architectural form had come through the maritime trade route from Europe. The creative and unknown artists and craftsmen proudly put it on top of the first floor facade of this building with the other European-looking cornices, pilasters, bases and capitals.
The Chinese builders confidently inserted on top of this Greek temple pediment one of their popular goddesses — the Goddess of Mercy, Kuan Yin. This Buddhist bodhisattva has a long history which includes Roman and Indian legacies but when it reached ancient China, the Chinese decided to turn it from a male figure into a female one.
Accompanying her in her lotus garden are other flowers, birds, bats, and a pair of lions or unicorn-looking animals. This facade is a classic symbol of the marriage of the different faiths and a trust in the good omens. It’s also a uniquely Malaysian architectural heritage.
Although all this artistic imagination, still on ago old walls, had a metaphysical origin in the past, their aspirations were for the common good; living a life of peace with your neighbours and caring for a sustainable harvest or relationship with Nature are still clearly relevant to us today.