Digging for roots in Malacca

Filter out the air-conditioning pipework, compressors, TV antennas and other tiny details of 21st century life and you could well be looking at the same Malaccan roofscape several hundred years old ago. Change has come to Malacca, as it has everywhere else – and not all of it good – just check out the gridlocked streets in the old quarter for one thing. So I find relief and comfort, looking at the old tiles of these rooftops to know that some things still don’t change. If these tiles could talk, what stories they could tell!

And one of them, could well be that tiny piece of historical jigsaw that makes my heritage complete. It is this tiny piece that I have returned to Malacca recently to find.

Over the span of two days and one night last week, we made a quick trip up north to Malacca. While Malacca has practically been like a second home to us, having made numerous visits there yearly for more than 10 years, this trip has been one of discovery in terms of our personal history as we explored family links previously unknown. How often have we driven along Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock and never knew how intertwined our paths are with those who lived and worked here so many years ago.

This is Eng Choon Association. My maternal great-great-grandfather was the first known president of the Eng Choon Association. His picture hangs up on the wall in this old hall today. Eng Choon (Eternal Peace) is the name of the village in Fujian province where they came from. As with all new migrants landing in this part of the world, the clan associations and village associations provided a haven for newcomers from the same village to find help and support in their new lives in Malaya. Eng Choon Association was set up for that purpose.

It’s been an interesting journey. I have learned that I am a 7th generation Peranakan, which means “locally born”. As a quick aside, the Peranakans were a unique blend of cultures when immigrant men from China settled in Malaya and married the local Malay women. Over time, the Chinese and Malay influences melded together to create a new culture of food, language, traditions, dress etc. If you ever visit Singapore, the well-curated Peranakan Museum gives a great overview of this culture.

Through the hard work of my uncle, who very enthusiastically did all the detective work in hunting down our ancestry and long-lost relatives, we can now trace our lineage all the way back to China in the 1600s.  Now I know that certain roads in Singapore were named after my ancestors who were influential individuals in their time.

I also now know that the extended family stretches far and wide.  For instance I never realised that my colleague and I, who’d worked together for several years, were actually distant cousins. We share the same roots.

Malacca now holds even more significance for me. More than just a travel destination, this is where it all began for me and my family some 200 years ago.

Here’s a quick pictorial journey of our trip to Malacca.

Details of a stone pillar at Eng Choon Association, Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock.

Colourful lanterns

In the front bedrooms on the second floor of most of these traditional houses, there is usually a cleverly cut-out slot where the owners can peek through to see who is calling. Very useful for the ladies of the house when it came time for match-making to see the match-maker visit with proposals from prospective grooms!

Along Heeren Street are these two interesting restored old houses side by side (above). Both were used as clinics for some time in the 1950s but fell into disrepair after some time. They have since been restored by a team from the National University of Singapore.

A dragon lures the crowds down the narrow Jonker Street where street hawkers, cheap souvenir stands and snake oil salesmen jostle for attention.

Note the old two-storey shop across the street called Kedai Kopi Chung Wah? That’s our favourite chicken rice joint in Malacca. Their rice balls are tasty and do not have the hard, manufactured feel that other places have. They’ve been around for more than 40 years and even today there are long queues at the door. Some say the rice balls are too mashy and soft but we like them that way.

Malacca river - quiet in the morning

roof details

We stayed at the Hangout@Jonker which is right at the mouth of Jonker street and the Malacca river, within walking distance to the red buildings at the Stadthuys and St Paul’s Hill. A little further and you hit the shopping zones of Dataran Pahlawan and Mahkota. Plus from it’s 4th floor terrace you get a bird’s eye view of Chop Chung Wah, convenient for keeping an eye on the queue length – and an easy sprint across if the queue thins out.

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3 Responses to Digging for roots in Malacca

  1. prechienannygoat50 says:

    I enjoyed my first visit to the town where my hubby was born in 2008. I had a FANTASTIC time.I want to return to Malacca.

  2. Phil says:

    Went back last year 2014 for a week but missed walking around old haunts. Previous visit was 2005. Noticed beautiful changes and much cleaner too.

  3. Ken Bolton & Lynette Yeow says:

    We too went looking for roots in Malacca and ended up at the Eng Choon society, grandfather was the 2nd president of the society so we also looked up in respect at that wall and the photos on it. . We did ask at the office there for further information about grandfather but unfortunately the people there seemed to know very litttle about the heritage of the society and its beginnings and had no records from that time.

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