24 April 2015: Malacca Style

Without roots it is impossible to embrace universal values. But belonging is not synonymous with conservatism; on the contrary, it is the prerequisite to modernity. Knowledge of local traditions is vital to producing today’s style – Serge Jardin

malacca styleAlthough the reader is forewarned that Serge Jardin’s colourful tribute to Malacca is “not a book about culture and history”, it indirectly raises questions which have piqued the curiosity of people worldwide – have historical and cultural identities been vastly overrated? Can one move forward and still hold on to one’s traditional and cultural values? Once upon a time, the [Malacca] style was a hotchpotch of Malay, Chinese, Indian, European and sundry influences. Today, asserts Serge, the styles are both contemporary and fusion. But in seeking a formula for maximum popularity, have the state’s custodians inadvertently reduced Malacca city to a ‘kitschy’ shadow of its former, historically-rich self?

Malaccan ceramic art

Malaccan ceramic art

The Malacca of today, as featured in Malacca Style, although still proudly bearing the vestiges of its tumultuous history of conquests, colonization, trade and migration, has also seen fit to add new forms of seemingly incongruous influences – Japanese, Syrian, Italian, Latin American, American and what have you. The reasons for these elements are vague, but one could, like Serge, conjecture that Malacca, “lacking a cultural identity of its own, borrows from the periphery.” Not content with that, city fathers are also tagging Malacca with a mélange of labels, from ‘historical city’, ‘world heritage site’ to ‘green city’ and whatever possible angle they can think up to package and sell Malacca as a consumer product. Everything about Malacca is for sale, apparently.

Neatly divided into three main parts, the book begins with an archetypal history of Malacca and its cultural makeup, before moving on to people and their crafts – the denizens of the so-called ‘organic living town’ and architecture. Here we meet a gamut of Malaccans old and young with their skills and crafts, both traditional and contemporary – silversmith, calligrapher, undertaker, woodsmith, tailor, potter, tattooist, soap maker, pebble artist and more.

Serge believes that any plan to revive Malacca today will warrant intellectual debate and discourse, preferably from the inside, as the state is “inseparable from its local people, and eventually too many newcomers may destroy the fragile social fabric of Malacca.” Whether one chooses to agree or disagree with that statement, Malacca Style is nonetheless an interesting and provocative read. Published by Lemongrass, Malacca Street is sublimely photographed by Tham Ze Hoe. It is now available from Areca Books at RM75 per copy.