“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. 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.”
Tiziano Terzani, “A Fortune-Teller Told Me”
Chinatown smelled heavily with incense. I looked at the pile burning right by the bowls of rice decorated carefully with flowers and I saw banknotes in it. Are the Chinese businessmen so prosperous now? Nah, it’s not Malay ringits, they’re burning Hell Dollars – the currency of ghosts. Because in Malacca there are ghosts. They have to eat and they need some convenience, too! The Chinese Festival of Hungry Ghosts started several days ago. With a bit of faith and imagination you could see the misty silhouettes scoffing the offered rice and observing the everyday life of their kids and grandkids.
I scanned the book that accompanied me, The Ghost Bride, a story of a girl from an impoverished family set in Malaccan Chinatown, who was promised as the wife of a great catch: a handsome, rich, educated young man who… had just died. The boy’s parents did not want to let the soul of their bachelor son be condemned to eternal loneliness, while the widowed, opium-burning father of the girl knew that with his social status Li Lan could become someone’s third wife or first concubine at best and never make it in the hierarchy.
Following the pages of The Ghost Bride, I searched for the ghosts of the locals and the colonizers roaming around the colonial houses, on the Red Square, on the hill, wondering what, how much and how has changed since then.
A group of people came out of a Chinese temple accompanied by gongs and made their way towards a restaurant, a Chinese one, of course, and very popular. At least two thirds of the Malaccan companies are managed by the Chinese. Rumour has it that a large part of them puts money in the first place. In the second place is the family, preferably those with whom they run the business. Then there is work ethics and finally friends. Is it allowed to take a friend’s recipe for a product that they developed and kick them out of the business? Yes, if it is to bring profits. Does one then call the friend to meet and have tea together, as if nothing happened?
Ok-lah, no problem-lah, as Malacca says, because it’s also a part of hierarchy that is so crucial in their culture.
Recently, I heard the local open secret. The couple that runs that popular restaurant couldn’t have children of their own, and her brother and his wife already had five and barely made ends meet. When the sixth one came, they gave the boy up to their family for adoption. Now all siblings are adults and nobody says it out loud, but there’s this punching feeling… From the sixth son of the first wife of a poor husband the boy became the firstborn of the first wife of a wealthy husband. The twenty-first-century version of Cinderella, only nobody loses their shoes.
Just outside the city there’s a haunted island. Once some Chinese businessman built a hotel there, even though everyone warned him that it was a terrible idea, because it’s better not to get in the way of ghosts. Shortly after opening the hotel, the owner’s daughter became seriously ill. The doctors were helpless, but the fortune tellers were unanimous: they have to leave the island immediately and abandon the hotel. And so they did, and the daughter recovered, and the hotel is still standing there and only ghosts stay in it. Sometimes, some curious living souls pay a visit, but nobody dares to stay for the night.
“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. It is almost a whisper, like the breeze, but you hear it all the same, the voice of history.”
Are we still willing to listen?
I’m staying in a house with girls from Slovakia and South Africa, we often hang out in a Frenchman’s bar, at the flea market I’ve met an American and a couple of Australians. Enumerating every expat could take a while. Malacca sucked them all in and wrapped them like a spider web. One day, this will be the city of the most cosmopolitan ghosts.