Southeast Asian history is a vault whose keys have been discarded and displaced by the inhabitants who reside on upon this archipelagic paradise. The Sun shines ever so brightly in this part of the world; imbuing its lands and its people with ever-present and ever-flowing abundance.
And yet, this abundance is not merely in its bounty–but hidden in the vault of its soul. In addition to our histories, our architecture and our maritime stronghold in trade; Southeast Asian history is folkloric–cloaked in myth that feels real the moment you set foot upon its sandy shores and gaze upon mystical the Banyan Tree.
The Vanishing Vault
Southeast Asians have a long tradition of embroidering intricate motifs and complex symbols into their clothing. When I was a young child, I often saw men of my grandfather’s generation dressed in Batik shirts with western-style trousers. It was not uncommon to see men of all cultures proudly wear the traditional attire of the region.
In the course of a mere generation, this trend has vanished. It resides only in the gift shops of the museums that I once had a fondness of visiting. Our cultural heritage has become yet another commodified product that longs to tickle the tourist dollar.
Reviving ‘dead’ traditions is nearly impossible in Southeast Asia. Centuries of religious brainwashing and well-meaning western-style education has led us away from our naturally occurring roots and into the museums to learn about our heritage.
While I am always thankful for the work and the funding that is allocated to these institutions to preserve the broken pottery that has been unearthed from beneath the ground; not enough is actually being done on the ground to ensure that the intangible aspects of our heritage are passed down.
I went to the National Library yesterday and found more books by Western authors than I did on Indonesian history. That we don’t treasure our regional heritage and leave it to the curators of the museums speaks volumes about how our heritage will one day no longer be a part of us.
Perhaps it is only natural; to want move on with time and tide. But I have a feeling that when the tide returns–by which stage our memories would have grown faulty; we will have no one to blame but the baby boomer generation for instilling quicksand values into the young they brought into this world and never raised.
We go to Uniqlo to get our daily wear at reasonable prices; but in days of yore–our clothing spoke for us. The symbols and the designs that we embroidered into our clothing said volumes about where we came from; or where we had been. It was a deeply personal experience.
Clothing had an important symbolic and ceremonial function in the Nusantara. When given as gifts, they sought to bestow well-being and even fertility. For centuries–and perhaps even millennia–they were used to dress deities. I would walk past temples and small shrines; eternally curious about the choice of colour for the dress of the day. Wooden, metal or stone figures were considered lifeless works of art till they were adorned with clothing and perfumes–either by way of burning incense or offering flowers.
Silk was particularly prized and was an emblem of status. Ordinary citizens would usually opt to wear cotton; and it was generally also considered to be the preferred material of attire in the region. Cotton was also utilised in the shipping industry to make sailcloth.
Raw, readymade as well as manufactured textiles that arrived upon the shores of Singapore and Malacca were sought after by traders. Some would go on to be weaved while others would go on to be sold. Many weavers of the Nusantara adopted stylistic elements of Indian fabrics; many of which are still apparent today.
At Fort Canning in Singapore, there is a shrine for Parameswara who is also known as Iskandar Shah. He is both the last king of Singapore and the first king of Malacca.
Parameswara solidified Malacca’s position with institutional and personal connections to the two great economic engines of the time: China and India. Malacca’s rise to prominence coincided with one of the most dynamic phases in Chinese history. It was when the early Ming dynasty deployed a massive fleet and established direct relations with the rest of the Asian maritime region.
Traders sailed between the Malay Peninsula and the island of Sumatra. This was the shortest sea route between the two areas, but it was a dangerous one with many shallows and shifting sandbanks.
Despite the port’s tremendous importance and wealth; Malacca’s so-called ‘greatness’ began to recede. In 1511, the city was ruthlessly seized by Portuguese invaders who ran Malacca into the ground.
That was, of course, until they themselves were conquered by the Dutch in 1641.
The Portuguese first arrived in Malacca in 1509 and were attracted by its fine natural harbour. Two years later, the Portuguese returned with a fleet led by Afonso de Albuquerque to capture the port by firing their cannons and burning at least 12 ships that were anchored at the harbour.
Malacca was particularly wealthy due to the spice trade. Valuable spices used in food preparation across Europe included: pepper, ginger, cloves, nutmeg, mace, cinnamon, saffron, anise, zedoary, cumin, and cloves.
This is where the museum narrative begins to get really long and this is where I am typically inclined to stop reading.
The Locked Memory Vault of Southeast Asia
I’m beginning to think that it is easier to unearth artefacts from beneath the ground than it is to excavate the memories that have made us who we are. Perhaps the memories are painful. Perhaps we have no choice but to release the old memories; so that we can welcome the new memories that are destined to be created upon these shores.
But what are we going to do about the old memories?
Too many chapters of the region’s history lay discarded and unclaimed. This is primarily due to changing religious affiliations that have either softly or harshly coerced people to surrender their national identity for a religious one.
Has our responsibility to our ancestral inheritance vanished? Are we a region where our memories wash over us like the oceanic tides that come for us? Are we going to pretend the past never happened?
I suppose if we cannot bury or make peace with the past; we will have to offer it an honourable cremation.
And we Southeast Asians will do what we have always done; stare out at the tide and realise that yet another ship will soon dock upon our worldly and weary shores.