- 2009/03/28 What once was lost, now is found

Malacca is a city full of ghosts with tales to tell. But just how willing are we to listen?

During his travels around Asia by land, Italian journalist Tiziano Terzani noticed something deeply profound about Malacca.

"If you wait until evening, and then walk silently along the walls, or go up on one of the hills and sit quietly on the old stones, you will hear it," he writes in 'A Fortune Teller Told Me'.

Image: Archaeologists have recently uncovered the ancient bastion of Fredrick Hendrick beside the very first HSBC building in Malacca.
Archaeologists have recently uncovered the ancient bastion of Fredrick Hendrick beside the very first HSBC building in Malacca.

"It is almost a whisper, like the breeze, but you hear it all the same, the voice of history. Malacca is one of those places. They whisper in Chinese, in Portuguese, in Dutch, in Malay, in English, some even in Italian, others in languages no one speaks any more. But it hardly matters; the stories told by the dead of Malacca no longer interest anyone."

Terzani is right. Down by the mouth of the river where the roads meet in front of St Paul's ruins, the magnificent old city of Malacca is resurfacing inch by inch. Although it is a relatively new discovery, passers-by are oblivious of its existence and relevance.

All is not lost, however. With the help of giant excavators and modern-day science, the country's leading archaeologists and historians gather here to sift carefully through ancient rubble and the ashen bones of those that lived about 600 years ago.

They are racing against time, trying their best to resurrect a history that would otherwise be lost to Malaysians forever. The excitement is palpable, even amid all the dust and heat.

It looks like a scene straight out of National Geographic, except that this is the real deal. And the real deal, it seems, takes not just an hour, but months and even years to finish.

Image: The HSBC bank is currently being given a facelift by the National Heritage Department.
The HSBC bank is currently being given a facelift by the National Heritage Department.

In the rectangular pit, nothing — not even a piece of rock or a shard of glass — is taken for granted. These are sent to state-of-the-art laboratories in Florida to see if they are indeed artefacts, and, if so, flown back to the Sultan Abdul Samad Gallery in Kuala Lumpur to be displayed.

This is part of the National Heritage Department's (Jabatan Warisan Negara) efforts in conservation.

Established in 2006, the department under the Unity, Culture, Arts and Heritage Ministry, has identified hundreds of archaeological sites, objects, artistic creations and people considered invaluable to the country. As custodian of the past, the department uncovers ancient secrets that lie deep beneath Malaysia's tarred streets and steel surfaces and documents them.

"We're doing our best to record in writing and pictures all there is to know about our history," says Mat Nasir Baba, assistant director of the archaeology and conservation unit.

"At the same time, we're upgrading and restoring age-old structures like buildings and monuments, and, hopefully, turning them into living museums so people can walk their corridors again."

Of 158 relics, three are found in Malacca —the Bastion of Middleburgh, the Bastion of Fedrick Hendrick and the dwelling of a rich village chief dubbed the icon of the new Malacca.

A place nobody knows

For now though, ignorance remains a malady in Malacca. Thousands of tourists and residents alike traipse upon the cemented walkways daily, oblivious to the magic that lies beneath their feet.

Image: One of the ancient vaults in HSBC's former office that will be preserved.
One of the ancient vaults in HSBC's former office that will be preserved.

Many do not know that the old city actually lies four feet below the new one, nor do they realise that there were whole communities, with their graveyards, fortresses and earthly possessions, who thrived there even before Malacca became a great port.

And for the longest time, the Government didn't either — until three years ago. They were in the midst of road works to gear Malacca up as a World Heritage city when they stumbled on something.

The experts were brought in, and shovels replaced excavators to prevent damage to whatever lay beneath. First, a crumbling laterite wall emerged. Then, fragments of Chinese porcelain, earthen jars, glass beads, artillery shells and Dutch coins.

Finally, human bones belonging to some of Malacca's earliest and most mysterious inhabitants — three men and a woman — were uncovered. They are thought to have preceded Parameswara, the Hindu prince who founded Malacca in the early 15th century.

The site is now called the Bastion of Middleburgh, after the fort the Dutch built when they ruled the city. From the old maps, it is believed that Malacca is encircled by eight bastions altogether. The old city, as it turned out, was completely fortified against invading enemies.

When the British forces led by General Farquhar took over in 1807, they proceeded to tear down the walls — without much success. Many died from exhaustion and diseases. Farquhar then attached a number of explosives along the base of the great wall and lit the fuse.

But there are still portions of it left, as the National Heritage Department is discovering.

Image: Mat Nasir Baba.
Mat Nasir Baba.

Recently, they unearthed the Bastion of Fredrick Hendrick. It was the biggest one ever, and lay just across the street from Middleburgh and tantalisingly close to the public eye.

With this discovery, the department snapped up a stately, old building that stood beside Fredrick Hendrick. It served as the very first Hong Kong Shanghai (HSBC) Bank in Malacca after opening in 1906, and remained so for most of the next century. About a decade ago, however, HSBC deserted the place and it became like a ghostly spectre in a fast developing city.

It is now in the midst of a face-lift.

The National Heritage Department is trying with all their might to restore the mansion, with its massive iron vaults, high plaster ceilings, wooden beams, wire mesh walls and big, airy windows. It is no easy task, though, because some of the building techniques have long since been abandoned.

"It isn't possible to return the building to its initial state, but we're trying very hard to retain at least 98% of its originality," says Mat Nasir.

"For instance, we need to do away with most of the vaults because they weren't consistent with our plans. Some of them haven't been unlocked in years. We don't know what's inside, and we'll get a specialist to open it for us soon. Who knows, we might get lucky!"

The good, the bad and the ugly

Another building the National Heritage Department has chosen for protection under the Heritage Act is the 19th century home of one Abdul Ghani Abdul Majid. Jaws have dropped at the sight of it.

Situated within Kampung Merlimau, 24km outside the city, this traditional Malay-style home stands out like a sore thumb. Although it was built in 1850, it was aesthetically way ahead of its time.

From the outside, the house is Malay in every sense. It stands on stilts, has a big airy verandah and enough rooms to accommodate all the members of an extended family and then some. However, look closer, and you'll realise that it is the by-product of someone's wild imagination: gaudy, extravagant and anything but humble.

But make no mistake: Abdul Ghani was highly respected, and had enough wealth to be deemed a "mini king" among the villagers.

His fortune enabled him to buy a 1.5-acre plot of land (0.7ha) and build this spectacular home. There are Chinese dragons carved into the doors, brightly coloured European tiles on the pillars, mock deer antlers mounted on the walls and even Romanesque baths in the open-air courtyard.

Image: Caretaker Ramli Abdul Ghani.
Caretaker Ramli Abdul Ghani.

A lone caretaker — Ramli Abdul Ghani, the eighth direct descendant of Abdul Ghani — bustles about the house daily, making sure everything is spick and span. He keeps a stray cat for company, but is all alone otherwise. His siblings, meanwhile, have moved away to look for a better future.

Visitors can drop in for free. Even though the National Heritage Department has contributed substantially towards the maintenance and upgrade of the house, Ramli, 35, fends for himself financially, and lives on tips.

All of Abdul Ghani's riches apparently disappeared along the way. Despite this, his huge personality and wealth of worldly influences still permeates the walls of his home. However, he isn't the only one who's left behind a remarkable legacy in Malacca.

"Malacca is the most haunted city in the world," writes Terzani. "All of those who lived there had left their monuments, tombs, memories, legends and innumerable ghosts."

The responsibility to preserve the past weighs heavily upon our generation. But are we doing enough?

According to Terzani, a feng shui expert had mentioned more than a decade ago that Bukit China, the largest Chinese cemetery outside of China, was the lung of the city, and, without it, Malacca would suffocate. But for that warning alone, one of the city's most historic and romantic places would've been handed over to speculative builders and bulldozers.

"This erratic development is happening all over town," observes writer Chin Lye Phat, 51, who's been living in Malacca for the past decade.

"Everyone I know has complained about how unrecognisable Malacca has become. There are unsightly shopping malls in the historical areas and rivers cemented over to make way for more buildings.

"I'm not against progress, but we've got to be very careful with history because it is fragile and fleeting. We need to observe how it's being done in Europe. They did a wonderful job safeguarding their medieval sites," she says.

Many others share this sentiment. In late 2008, National Geographic Traveller ranked Malacca among the most badly persevered historic destinations in the world, after considering impacts such as uncontrolled growth, mass tourism, neglect and the ravages of nature.

The reason?

According to the publication, there is very little left in Malacca that is authentic.

Image: The house that Abdul Ghani Abdul Majid built with its intricate carvings.
The house that Abdul Ghani Abdul Majid built with its intricate carvings.

"The city has been Disneyfied and commercialised to a degree that has to be seen to be believed. Landfill on the town side of the Straits has forever altered the historic connection with the Straits," writes one of the panellists.

On the health scorecard, Malacca lagged dramatically behind its main contender, George Town, which according to the Traveller, still "has its future at risk, although locals are working hard to keep the integrity intact".

Chin remains cynical about Malacca's future, even after learning about the National Heritage Department's work. She cites the Bastion of Middleburgh as an example.

"One of their biggest mistakes is building a replica right on top of the archaeological site," she says, looking somewhat horrified.

"You can't do that. Do it in an amusement park, for goodness sake, and not in the way of history itself! Other than that, I'll give them the benefit of the doubt. We'll see how successful they are soon.

"Try as I might, however, I'm convinced that the old Malacca is gone for good. The city has forever lost its soul," she laments.

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