Thursday, June 3, 2010

Sea shonky

I don’t quite know what to make of the port of Melaka in south-western Malaysia. During the 15th century, spice trading made it one of the wealthiest kingdoms in the world. In subsequent centuries the Portuguese, Dutch and British all had a crack at running the place (as did the Japanese from 1942-45). But now it seems that marketing consultants have taken a quaint historic town and submerged it in bullshit in an effort to make it more appealing. The result is half heritage theme park, half shopping mall.

To be fair, I don’t suppose they’d see it as bullshit. I mean, it’s not as if the various museums are lying about anything - on the contrary, those I visited were appealingly laid out and informative. And what’s wrong with housing a maritime museum in a replica galleon anyway? You could argue that it shows imagination and ambition. The problem, I suppose, is that I wanted to get a sense of the real Melaka and what I got felt plastic and sanitised: all ‘heritage trail’ this and ‘visitor experience’ that.

Maybe it's just that I'm prejudiced against the modern world and its reliance on marketing and PR. I reckon it’s partly down to all the freelance subbing work I’ve done on marketing magazines, with their smarmy industry jargon and insistence on referring to human beings as ‘consumers’. Like Peter Finch in Network, I got to a point where I couldn’t take any more bullshit. So I see a tourist attraction professionally presented and advertised and I complain about it not being authentic enough.

In truth, I miss the innocence of Laotian, Cambodian and Vietnamese tourist sites with their clumsily translated and often unintentionally funny signs in English. Malaysia’s too slick for me, I suspect, and all that Western brashness, which I embraced in Kuala Lumpur because I hadn’t encountered it for months, has quickly started to annoy me.

You’d never see a monstrosity like this in Vietnam, for a start. A big neon-lit mall full of Western brands and junk food, where all the posters are in English and it’s almost impossible to find a restaurant serving simple local dishes.

Surrounded by fast-food brands and with nowhere else to turn, I ate in McDonald’s yesterday for the first time in many moons. I won’t be doing so again because Malaysia has something else I haven’t seen in months: fat people.

Anyway, that’s enough stream-of-consciousness angst with a muddled political subtext for one day. Here’s a British colonialist in mannequin form, from one on Melaka’s museums.

I love how they’ve made him look like a bumbling but well-meaning twit, and I’m proud to carry on the great British tradition of wearing shoes and socks with my shorts. Now all I need is a pith helmet (or, better still, a Pythonesque knotted handkerchief).

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