We dug a little deeper into each of Melaka’s main ethnic groups post-colonialism, who are products of moments in history. Here’s the first of our two-part revelation:
They came in 1511, they conquered and they were booted out by the Dutch in 1641. The Portuguese left quite an impressive legacy which lives on vividly in the minds and hearts of many. Intermarriage with local Malay men and women gave birth to an odyssey of flavourful Creole heritage that most of us have come to appreciate. Referred to as Kristangs or Eurasians, they have made significant contributions to the populace of Melaka by way of food, lifestyle and time-honoured traditions.
The restored St. Paul’s church, built by the Portuguese in 1521 and is also the oldest church building in Southeast Asia.
The purchase of 11 hectares of land back in 1933 was for the sole purpose of creating a community haven for Melakan Portuguese to preserve their cultural heritage. Locals called it Saint John’s Village when it used to be a simple fishing village, which was the main occupation then. As centuries went by, more kin came to be part of the Kristang family and the settlement grew from 10 wooden houses to a lively commune of Creole Portuguese descendants. Now a world-renowned attraction, the villagers are predominantly involved within sectors of the tourism industry, improving their standard of living.
Once upon a Portuguese fort in Melaka.
Rhythm and Dance
Branyo and Farapeira are vibrant, demotic dances chronicling their way of life, rewinding as far back to when their ancestors were swashbuckling seafarers. Guitars and tambourine, accordion, tambour or the Malay Rebana instruments make up beats and melodies for agile feet to jig, hop, skip and twirl merrily and make the stories come to life.
The merry jig of Portuguese folk dances.
The songs complementing these dances weave living tapestry of tales so enthralling that you’ll feel like being in another world. With vibrant costumes to boot, it really makes for a “wowsome” performance.
Song and dance comes naturally to all Kristangs.
Mention Eurasian food, referring to Creole Portuguese food in Melaka (and Singapore), tummies growl on cue. How not to love centuries of fusing traditional Portuguese fare with local spices, and other colonial influences? The diverse range of toothsome dishes have drawn foodies from across the globe like a tasty magnet as it is really unique.
So many delicious options to choose from.
Whether it’s grilled, baked, stewed or fried; Creole Portuguese food hits at all the right spots.
As a seafaring community once upon a time, most of their food condiments like Acar Ikan (Pickled Salt Fish), Cincaluk or Cencaluk (Tiny Baby Shrimp Sauce) and the ubiquitous Belacan (Shrimp Paste) were derived from fish and other types of seafood. Their meat dish, which we know people have sworn allegiance to, would be the superstar Curry Dabal (Devil’s Curry) – a fiery, vinegary dish that is a league of its own. When the colonial Dutch and British came to rule after, more intermarriages gave way to already melded Creole Portuguese fare with influences from these former masters.
The hot, sweet and sour Curry Dabal – once tried, forever hooked!
Add-ons to a small plate of Cincaluk, which consists of lime juice, sliced shallots and bird’s eye chili.
Largely due to the intermarriage factor, the Kristang language’s grammatical structure became similar to the Malay language. Although, even before their forefathers stepped foot onto Melaka’s shores, their language was already a teeny bit influenced by other places they have berthed. Predominantly an oral language, its orthography was only introduced in 1980 to standardise written grammar for the language.
There have been efforts to revive the language within the community as it has seen a steep decline in the last few decades. You’d be interested to know (although not at all surprising) that about 300 Portuguese words have been absorbed into the Malay language. Words like bendera (bandeira – flag), almari (armario – cupboard), baldi (balde – bucket) are some of the many common loanwords in the Malay language used till this day.
One things for sure, the Kristangs really know how to celebrate traditional occasions with fun and laughter. Take the Intrudu for example. A water festival meant to renew friendships and let bygones wash away in preparation for Lent (a religious observance of fasting and prayer in the liturgical calendar). In the good old days, they would head to the shoreline and use sea water for this ritual. Present modern plumbing sees the use of tap water loaded into arsenals like water guns and water balloons to up the splashing factor. It’s normally celebrated on the last Sunday before Ash Wednesday.
Splish and splash away your angst, and feel renewed after.
Another festival that many look forward to is the Festa San Juang (Feast of St. John) which falls on every 23 June. Paying homage to St. Peter, the patron saint for fishermen, the week-long celebration of singing, dancing, feasting and marvellous boat procession will culminate with the much-anticipated Festa San Pedro (San Pedro’s Feast). It’s a tradition from when the community were still earning their living as fishermen, with blessings from priests with the hope of a bountiful catch. Although few plies the fishing trade today, they still continue to ensure that this tradition will live on long after they’re gone.
All ready for the blessings of the day.
Folks from the settlement walking in procession with the bishop towards the fishermen’s boats for the blessing ritual.
They came in a large wave across oceans to accompany their beloved Princess, who was given in marriage to the Sultan of Melaka in the mid 1400’s, by the Emperor of China. For the 500 number of Princess Hang Li Poh’s sizable entourage, they had little choice but to ground their roots in Melaka and settled at Bukit Cina. Just like the Portuguese, they intermarried with local Malays and another unique cross-cultural hybrid was born.
Peranakan houses at the former Dutch settlement on Heeren Street.
Enter any preserved Peranakan house and time will stand still.
The Peranakan’s (or Straits Chinese) heritage blends some of their ancestral values with local customs. Fondly known as Baba (for males) and Nyonya (for females), they grew in size and became one of Melaka’s prominent ethnic groups.
A traditional Peranakan wedding
Rhythm and Dance
Music and dance seems to be the love of the Peranakans. There never was a celebration where they could do without it. They spend a lot of time indulging in one of their favourite pastimes, which was (and still is) Dondang Sayang. It’s about impromptu banter in the form of poetic songs – sometimes humorous, sometimes romantic while accompanied with violins, rebana, accordions and guitars. The clan would gather in a semi-circle as the male and female duo have a go at it, which can sometimes stretch to a few hours! More often than not, the audience will participate by gently swaying their arms and body to the mesmerising rhythm of the music. These have roots to their Malay ancestry including the banter, as it is conducted in the Malay language and the melodies are akin to Malay music.
Dondang Sayang in full swing.
Keroncong music is another favourite folk music of the Peranakans. Derived from the name of the ukulele-like instrument, it actually evolved from the Portuguese instrument Braguinha and the music was adapted to suit local music tastes. Back when the Portuguese introduced this genre of music in the 16th century, many locals were quick to pick it up and sometime in 1880, the instrument was accompanied by the Hawaiian ukulele. As time went on, the Keroncong was influenced heavily with Indonesian melodies and it spread across Southeast Asia. Today, the music is still a must-play at gatherings, although less popular with the current generation.
The Braguinha – the instrument that started it all.
Another pastime were the Joget sessions, with upbeat music by similar instruments to fuel the lively dance. A legacy from their Malay ancestry which has become one of the country’s popular traditional dance.
Joget lambak (in a big group).
Why is the range of Peranakan cuisine so delicious? Because it’s a fusion of Chinese cooking styles syncing with flavourful Malay spices. Each bite is comforting to the soul, with closely guarded family recipes that only few within the clan would inherit.
Comfort food at its yummiest!
The exotic fusion of Peranakan cuisine always tantalises taste buds.
The quest for spices in the 15th and 16th centuries brought many Chinese traders flocking to the spice port hub of Melaka, mainly to escape poverty and hunger in China. Local spices such as clove, pepper and nutmeg were grown by the European colonials to meet the demands of the booming spice trade at the port. Eager to trade these spices for riches, the Chinese traders settled in Melaka and made it their home. Like Hang Li Poh’s entourage, most of them married locals and contributed to the expanding list of Peranakan cuisine.
Some of the aromatic spices that were traded at the Melaka port.
A hodgepodge of Indian, Indonesian and even Middle Eastern condiments can be found in their cuisine, apart from Malay spices. Signature dishes like the Curry Laksa (a coconut milk-based spicy soup noodle), Pong Teh (soy sauce and sesame oil meat dish) and Ayam Keluak (chicken cooked with Keluak – “football fruit”) are testaments to the burst of mixed flavours of Peranakan cooking. Not forgetting the Nyonya Kuih, a dessert of firm, pudding-like mini cakes or Kuih that is simply scrumptious.
Chicken Pong Teh in all of its scrumptious glory.
Colourful Nyonya Kuih just waiting for you to sample.
Like everything else in their mixed-breed heritage, the Peranakan clothing style borrows a lot from their Malay lineage. Women were traditionally garbed in either a Baju Panjang (a long dress adapted from the traditional Baju Kurung) with Chinese motifs or the more eye catching Kebaya (a figure hugging embroidered top with slim fitting batik sarong). Baju Lokchuan (a mandarin collar Chinese top paired with trousers) was the go-to outfit for men, although some prefer to wear tailored western suits on occasion.
Don’t they look elegant in their Baju Panjang’s?
Most modern Peranakan weddings still see the bride and groom wearing traditional bridal wear.
While fashion aesthetics was important, they incorporated practicality as well. Ensuring comfort in the sweltering humidity, the ladies (or Bibiks) only used cloths made from cotton for their Baju Panjang. They eventually moved on to silk as it was considered luxurious at the time and was still airy enough to wear the entire day. Only in the 1920’s did they switch to the exquisite Kebaya – a form fitting top that tapers to an exquisite lacey embroidered hemline in front. Adding to the beauty of the outfits, accessories such as Kerongsang (a three-tiered brooch) embellishes the front to give it that show-stopping dazzle.
The Kebaya Nyonya flatters anyone regardless of age and body type.
Intricate embroidery of the Kebaya Nyonya.
Moving on to footwear – the Kasut Manek (beaded slipper) completes the stunning ensemble with unique designs inspired by colourful Peranakan porcelain and batik sarong. Painstaking yet lovingly laboured over, each bead sewn slowly become gorgeous patterns of things within nature. They were worn as flats and even as bedroom slippers. But as time went on, modern elements found its way into the designs and heels were also added.
The modern version of Kasut Manek.
A labour of love and patience.
The Peranakans practice Chinese beliefs and most of its traditions. For those of Hokkien descent (which is most of them), the Wangkang (Royal Barge) Festival is one of the most important festivals that they celebrate. They will tug along a huge boat in a procession through the city of Melaka in their quest to cleanse the streets of evil spirits. Other celebrations are similar with their Chinese brethren like Chinese New Year, Summer Solstice, and many more.
The hauling of evil spirits onto the “ship”
Follow the Dragon…
Hundreds of devotees joining in the procession for a “cleaner” Melaka.
Want to know more? Stay tuned for Part 2…