Sunday, March 14, 2010

Melaka, Malaysia, and "Enduring Beauty"

When traveling, I usually ask the bus driver to let me know when we reach my stop, and sometimes I ask another passenger. In Melaka, Malaysia, better known worldwide as Malacca, the passenger sitting next to me not only advised my of my stop but also got off the bus with me, before he had reached his own destination, in order to help me find the guesthouse where I had reserved a room. I half expected that he would try to follow me in, or show up later, but he just kindly said goodbye, advised me to walk slowly so as not to tire in the tropical heat, and I never saw him again.
I left my shoes at the entrance of the Samudra Inn before checking in to my $3 per night room with a fan and a shared bathroom, complete with a water hose to be used rather than toilet paper.
Since it was Chinese New Year, many local people were traveling and the inn was full of Malaysian travelers rather than foreigners.

Malaysia, slightly larger than New Mexico, is populated by a beautiful mix of cultures including mainly Malay, Tamil Indian, and Chinese.
This cultural mix produces some wonderful hybrid cuisine! This photo shows an Indian grocery. The man in the photo was a recent immigrant from India.
Malaysia gained independence in 1957 after centuries of colonialism under the Portuguese, Dutch and then British, with a brief period under the Japanese during World War II. Singapore was initially a part of Malaysia but broke away in 1965.

Before it was first colonized in 1511, most of peninsular Malaysia was first a Buddhist Malay kingdom, then a Hindu kingdom and finally a Muslim Sultanate. During the Muslim period, Malacca became a regional trading center with Chinese, Arab, Malay and Indian merchants. This rich trade attracted the European colonists.
I visited a reconstructed Sultanate Palace, the Portuguese fortress, Catholic churches built by the Portuguese and Dutch, the residence of the Dutch governors, Chinatown, and several mosques and Chinese temples.
Melaka Sultanate Palace and Cultural Museum is a replica of a 15th Century Malay palace.
Christ Church, built by the Dutch, was converted into an Anglican church by the British.
St. Francis Church, built in 1849 .
Kampung Kling Mosque, with Sumatran architectural features, is one of the oldest mosques in Malaysia.
I also visited The People's Museum which, in addition to displays on the cultures of Malacca, had an exhibit called "Enduring Beauty." This exhibit explored the things people of various cultures do or have done to their bodies in order to appear attractive by their cultural standards. "Enduring Beauty" is a double entendre meaning lasting beauty and also referring to the pain people must endure in order to achieve this "beauty."
The exhibit included piercings, lip ornamentation, tattoos, neck elongation, head flattening, foot binding, and the European and American focus on a woman's waist.

Since the 14th and 15th centuries, from bodices to corsets to hoop skirts and other garments which didn't allow women to sit down, European and American women have had an obsession with the "wasp waist." This obsession obstructed free movement and, in addition to much discomfort, caused deformed and cracked ribs, weakened abdominal muscles, deformed and dislocated internal organs and fainting due to an inability to breathe properly. Seventeenth century American feminists opposed clothing which restricted women's movement, and proposed bloomers which were ridiculed and never caught on. It was not until World War I when women who needed to move freely in order to enter the workforce began to abandon the use of corsets.

But the Western obsession with tiny waists has not faded, as evidenced by the prevalence of eating disorders and the occasional women who still strive for the wasp waist.
During the 1930s through 1950s, Ethel Granger was famous for having the world's smallest waist, at 13 inches.
From an American perspective it is easy to assume that an emphasis on the female waist is universal, but I don't think that is so. Traditional Japanese clothing such as the kimono completely obscures the waist as a focal point of beauty.

Other forms of "enduring beauty" currently prevalent in the modern world are high heeled shoes, cosmetic plastic surgery, and some types of hair removal.

While on the topic of style, I should mention head scarves. Malaysia is the first primarily Muslim country I have visited. Sixty percent of this ethnically mixed population is Muslim, and the Muslim women wear head scarves. Americans tend to view head scarves as an onerous restriction on women, but I was surprised to see that Malaysian head scarves are quite beautiful, brilliantly colored, in several styles and sometimes beaded.
I saw them fashionably displayed on mannequins in shopping malls.

I enjoyed seeing Malacca along with a handful of Dutch tourists and many Malaysians who were home for the holidays. From Malacca I headed up to Taman Negara, possibly the world's oldest rain forest. Blog entry coming soon.


Anonymous said...

Melaka looks great in your pictures, Kimi.
The wasp waists look painful. Enduring beauty, indeed.
Glad to see you continue to encounter helpful pleasant people on your travels.
- Eileen

freebert said...

Hey Kimi ,
Correction - The church shown in your posting is actually St Francis Built in 1849 , hehe . Best Regards
Bert - Riverine Coffeehouse Malacca

K said...

Thanks for the correction, Bert. I changed it in the original post. I really enjoyed chatting with you at your riverside cafe!