Owning a rickshaw is serious business in Malaysia. It’s not just about cycling your heart out as you transport passengers from A to B in exchange for Ringgits. You need and an eye for clashing colours, a friend in the plastic flower business and Lawrence Llewellyn Bowen flair; anything to make your ‘shaw stand out from the rest. It’s a case of ‘my ‘shaw’s better than yours,’ with the aim of attracting more business.
As rickshaw novices, Monsieur and I didn’t know any of this when we presented ourselves at Dutch Square in Melaka. There, outside the Stadthuys, an imposing Dutch colonial building with a perfect dark terracotta façade, stood a clutch of rickshaws with their owners, all competing for the attention of tourists like ourselves. We almost stepped into one ‘shaw, only to be hijacked at the last minute by Cedric, a slight and smiling chap with enough front to get us away from a rival and into his vehicle before we could say ‘hello’.
Seconds later we were in the middle of Melaka traffic, our lives flashing before our eyes as Cedric pumped his chicken legs up and down furiously, weaving us through cars and lorries, occasionally of the oncoming variety. We barely had time to consider the rickshaw’s decoration on the rick-ter scale of trashy. We supposed it might be an 8, surrounded as we were by more plastic floral arrangements than you’d find in a funeral home. Then we realised that it was probably more of a 6 or 7; Cedric didn’t have fairy lights on his ‘shaw.
Cedric turned back to us to tell us what we were passing, but we didn’t understand much, partly because he was speaking a unique combination of Malay and English, and partly because the breeze carried half his words into the buzz of traffic. He turned off the road at the foot of St Paul’s Hill, “Lah lah Sin Paul Hill,” he said, pointing up at the ruins above us. I was much more interested in how we hadn’t yet crashed. Cedric only spent fifty per cent of the time looking at the road; the rest of the time he was twisting around to tell us what we were seeing, chattering away in an enthusiastic but incomprehensible manner. “What did he say?” asked Monsieur, repeatedly, thoroughly convinced that being a native English speaker, I would understand. “Haven’t a clue,” I replied with a shrug.
At St Paul’s Hill we parked near A’Famosa, a gate that is the last surviving part of a Portuguese fortress that once stood here. Built in the early part of the 16th century, that makes this lone gate the oldest evidence of European construction in Asia. Somehow, Cedric made us understand that we should go to the top of the hill and he’d wait for us at the bottom. We should take our time. This was all conveyed using an expressive selection of gestures, proving the point that spoken language is only responsible for a very small part of communication.Heeding Cedric’s instruction, up the hill we trudged, past locals hawking their crafts on picnic blankets at regular intervals. It was so humid that I wanted to plonk myself down next to them and have a rest, but Monsieur marched me on. Somewhat breathless we soon reached the top where St Paul’s Church stands in ruins. In spite of being a bit of a wreck these days, its position makes for some spectacular photos. We marvelled at the gnarled trunks of the trees by the church, wondering how old they were and what they’d witnessed in the course of their lives. Below us, the port was busy with the comings and goings of container ships, a far cry from Portuguese galleons or colonial trading vessels. We looked down the other side of the hill to the dark, peaked roofs of the Melaka Sultanate Palace, a modern building the architecture of which is based on traditional palace styles. Looking at our watches we realised we should be getting back to Cedric. We descended the hill to receive the warmest greeting from the brave little man. He made us feel like long-lost family. Nevertheless, it was with some mild anxiety that we climbed back into the rickshaw for part two of our tour.
Straight back into the traffic we went, brave Cedric riding for his life. Somewhere on our left was the Independence Memorial, not that I noticed. Cedric was driving us into the middle of the road now, in rush hour traffic. I was convinced we’d be roadkill in minutes. Cedric turned across cars which approached at a horrifying speed, braking to give way to us at the last minute. “I can’t look, I can’t look!” I yelped at Monsieur, covering my eyes as Cedric pedalled us towards a certain death. But no. Somewhat obviously, we survived, as I’m able to write about this experience, which has probably lowered my expected age of death by about a decade, and were soon travelling along calm residential streets. At last, my heart resumed a regular beating pattern.
These streets were Melaka’s answer to suburbia. The single-storey bungalows stood on smallish lots, and all seemed to have a covered porch acting as an outdoor living room. People were sitting on their porches shelling peas, drinking cola, dozing in the late-afternoon sun or listening to music. It was blessedly restful here compared to the bustle just behind us, apart from all the yelling, that is.
It was soon obvious that lots of the residents knew our man, Cedric. They shouted out to him and he looked happy and proud as he waved back, yelling something in his own, special martian lingo, yet again, as he pointed back at us. For all I know, he could have been calling us names, like ‘Pale Man No Balls’ and ‘No Good Wife’ but I didn’t get that vibe. Cedric was a hard worker; a dynamo, in fact. He was proud of us. We showed his friends that all was well with business.
Soon, we entered a massive, empty car park by the water. This was Portuguese Square, and was surrounded by hawker stalls selling fish and seafood straight from the net. Cedric was melting before us. We suggested he join us for a drink, but he politely declined, saying he would rest for 20 minutes and talk to his friends. Judging by the many people approaching him with shouts and smiles Cedric certainly seemed to know everyone in Melaka.
Monsieur and I sat by the shore, drinking beer as the setting sun cast a pink glow on Melaka. A woman sold fried fish at a portable barbecue stand near our table, her baby jiggling happily beside her in his pushchair. Crates of sea creatures, (the likes of which I’d never seen before but resembling giant armoured beetles), sat near us twitching their antennae but unable to escape. The various fish stalls and snack stands were already busy, even though it was still too early for the dinner trade thus, in its total simplicity, that seaside beer break turned into one of the most beautiful Kodak moments in my memory.
Having watched the sky change from blue to rose to mauve and purple as we finished our beers, it was time to move on. In hindsight, I wish we’d stayed there all evening, but we weren’t yet to know what culinary strangeness awaited us that evening. Cedric had recovered his energy now, so off we rode, onto dark Melaka streets. This time, the roads were quieter, thankfully, because we didn’t have the fairy lights that twinkled on some of the over-pimped ‘shaws we saw. We passed seedy hotels with narrow stairways straight off the street, massage parlours and non-descript eateries. Turning into a quieter road, Cedric became super-animated “Lah lah high school,” he pointed across at a modern brick building with student artwork taped to the inside of the windows. Things like that are so universal, it makes us remember that we’re not all so different after all.
Just before returning to Dutch Square, Cedric waved at people squeezed into an open shop frontage where food was being sold. “Lah lah, Hainanese Chicken Ball, Melaka BEST!” He lit up, perhaps indicating that he’d worked up an appetite in the previous few hours. It did have the air of a place which probably did serve the best rice balls in town, but at the same time, its location was uninspiring to say the least. That was probably the second mistake I made regarding our one dinner in Melaka. More about that later.
Superhuman Cedric was now slowing down. He deserved a ginormous serving of those chicken rice balls but heaven only knows where he’d put them; he was seriously small in stature, and now he was tired out.
Back outside the Stadthuys, we paid Cedric the agreed amount for the afternoon’s adventures, and he kindly took photos of us in his beloved ‘shaw before riding off slowly into the Melaka night. If ever I should be asked for advice on visiting Melaka, I’d say this: go to the Stadthuys and insist on finding Cedric. He’s very slim, but genial and genuine, and he rides as if he were born in a rickshaw. Don’t expect to understand everything he says but do expect to end the ride happier for having met such a man. He’s modest, he’s hardworking, he’s popular, but most of all he makes you feel like part of his family and when you’re travelling, that’s a very good feeling indeed.
To read previous instalment, click here.