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On Walkabout At: The Bukit Chinese Cemetery in Malacca, Malaysia

Basic Information

  • What: Bukit Chinese Cemetery
  • Where: Malacca, Malaysia (Note: Malacca is also commonly spelled Melaka)
  • Admission: Free
  • More Info: AsiaExplorers.com

Narrative

In recognition of Halloween this year I figured I would do a posting on one of the many cemeteries I have visited during my various travels around the world.  The cemetery I decided to feature is the Bukit Chinese Cemetery located in Malacca, Malaysia:

This cemetery is located up on a hill within walking distance of the main tourism area in Malacca granted that it is a pretty long walk:


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The cemetery is one of the oldest and largest Chinese cemeteries located out side of China.  The first Chinese traders arrived when the famed Chinese Admiral Zheng He made his seven epic voyages across the Indian Ocean between 1402-1433.  At Malacca he created a fortified trading port in order to control the trade that runs through the strategic Straits of Malacca.

Image of Zheng He from JourneyMalaysia.com

Over the years more Chinese would immigrate to Malacca to where today a very large Chinese community continues to call this port city home.  Eventually a place was needed to bury people who died so in 1685,the hill was purchased by the Chinese community leader Lee Wei King and donated to the Cheng Hoon Teng Temple.  Despite being officially bought a made a cemetery in 1685 the oldest grave found in the cemetery dates back to 1622 that suggests that the hill was being used by the Chinese community as cemetery long before its official purchase by Lee Wei King.  Today it is estimated that up to 12,500 graves are located at the Bukit Chinese Cemetery and no more space remains on the hill.  The only people who can be buried here are those who already have plots as part of a larger family plot reserved for their use after they die.

I was surprised to see that many of the graves had been trashed over the years for unknown reasons:

While other graves were in good shape and appeared to be well taken care of:

That leads me to believe that it is up to the families of the people buried here to care for the graves and if they don’t the tombs just erode and rot away.  Something else I saw of interest in the cemetery was how elaborate some of the grave sites were.  For example here is a tomb that had a complete Chinese style wall and gate around it:

The green glass decorating the wall upon closer inspection was revealed to be from broken beer bottles.  Another grave had an elaborate European style sailing ship next to it:

Malacca at one time was colonized not only by the Chinese, but by the Portuguese between 1511-1641, then the Dutch between 1641-1825, followed by the British from 1825-1946.  You could even throw in another foreign colonizer when the Japanese occupied the city from the British during World War II.  The historical legacy of these various colonizers is still visible all over Malacca in the city’s architecture, culture, and people.  Maybe the person buried with the replica sailing ship was once a sailor on one of the many classical European ships that passed through the city?

There are still other graves that pay tribute to the city’s colonial past such as this one that has a replica of the Dutch Square called Stadthuys which is located in downtown Malacca and is a major tourism site in the city today:

On the very top of the hill there is a tomb that according to a nearby marker stated that it was actually just a symbolic tomb in commemoration of everyone buried at Bukit Chinese Cemetery:

From the top of the hill there was some nice views of the Malacca area.  Here is the view looking inland where it was more of a rural country setting:

Looking in the other direction on the hill the scene was much different due to the densely populated city:

Here is a view looking west where the famed Straits of Malacca can be seen in the distance:

After checking out the views I walked back down the hill once again towards the city:

At the base of the hill I decided to make a stop at a Chinese temple called Poh San Teng:

The Poh San Teng Temple is located at the bottom of the hill and adjacent to the Bukit Chinese Cemetery.  The temple was built in 1795 by a leader of the local Chinese community named Chua Su Cheong.  Chinese leaders were called Kapitans by the local Dutch government at the time.  The Kapitan decided to build the temple because people had long complained about having to offer prayers to people buried in the adjacent cemetery sometimes outside in inclement weather.  The construction of the temple gave people a place to offer prayers to their ancestors without having to be exposed to the elements:

The inside of the temple is quite beautiful and the locals have no issues with tourists coming in and taking a look as long as they are not bothering people offering prayers in the temple:

Adjacent to the Poh San Teng Temple is the Perigi Raja or King’s Well:

The King’s Well was dug sometime during the rule of the Sultan Mansor Shah of Melaka (1458-1477) for his wife Hang Li Poh of China.  The water from the well was used for the daily needs of his wife and never ran dry.  Due to the well never drying up eventually a legend started that stated that anyone who drank for the well was guaranteed to return to Melaka. This was important in a city with a maritime economy where many people sailed on ships.  In 1551 Malay soldiers from the nearby province of Johor secretly poisoned the well and killed a number of Portuguese people who at that time were using the well. The Dutch ended up using the same trick in 1606 and poisoned the well to kill Portuguese citizens.  After the Dutch seized control of Melaka from the Portuguese they realized the vulnerability of this well and built a wall around it and secured it with cannons and guards.  During the British colonization of Melaka they did not maintain the fortifications and they were left to rot until the Chinese temple annexed the well.

Conclusion

For anyone visiting Malacca I definitely recommend taking a visit to the Bukit Chinese Cemetery.  It is a pleasant walk up a forested hill that is a welcome escape from the densely populated city of Malacca.  A visit to the cemetery is also an interesting look back into the city’s Chinese past that continues to be a major part of Malacca today.

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