They say Malaysia is where the monsoons meet: the Southwest Monsoon, which sails in from the Australian desert April through September, and the Northeast Monsoon, which sweeps in from China the rest of the year. They also say that there are two seasons in Malaysia: one rainy, and one rainier.
But these are only the literal monsoons. For Malaysia, and specifically the city of Malacca, was also the point of encounter for two metaphorical monsoons, namely the eastern cultural behemoths of China and India.
Situated at the southern end of the Malay Peninsula, Malacca sits alongside the strait that shares its name—a narrow stretch of water connecting the Indian and Pacific Oceans that has long been one of the most important shipping lanes in the world.
Drawn in large part by a desire for spices, people have been trading in the area since the dawn of the first millennium. As sailing technology improved, trade increased, but it wasn’t until the arrival of a homeless King in 1402 that Malacca would become a wealthy, cosmopolitan entrepôt.
His name was Parameswara. According to the Malay Annals, he was the last King of Singapura before the Javanese Majapahits took over in a battle so bloody, it is said to be responsible for the red tint of Singapore’s soil today. Fleeing his homeland, he roamed the western coast of the Peninsula searching for a site to lay ground for his new empire.
One day, the King was hunting with his hounds when he came across a “mouse deer,” an animal generally as small and as meek as its name implies. Instead of running away, however, the brave critter fought back. An impressed Parameswara decided that a place where even the diminutive mouse deer was tough was a good spot to set up shop, and thus was founded the Malacca Sultanate.
The location had more things going for it than just a courageous population of mouse deer, however—namely, the potential to be a great trading destination. Parameswara and his heirs would make sure it lived up to that potential by creating a trade-friendly infrastructure with low port fees, effective piracy protection and a governing body that included representatives from each of the major trading groups.
Those trading groups included the Chinese, who would start arriving in the fifteenth century, as well as Indian merchants like the Hindu Tamils and the Muslim Gujerats. The descendants of these immigrants would collectively become known as “Peranakans,” and develop their own distinct cultures identities: “Baba-Nyonya” and “Chitty,” which refers to those of Chinese and Indian descent respectively.
And yet another monsoon was blowing; this time it came from the West. In 1511, a Portuguese fleet led by Afonso de Albuquerque conquered the city, disrupting the trade network, which would never recover. They would be booted out not long after by the Dutch, who in turn ceded it to the English in 1824. Independence wouldn’t come until 1957, when the federation of Malaya was formed.
All these waves of people have made Malacca one of the most ethnically and religiously diverse little cities in the world. After all, the Strait of Malacca may be where the monsoons meet, but the Port of Malacca itself is well-sheltered, offering protection to those ships that blow in with the wind—and, so long as they accept the laws of the land—a home to all the people on board.