Bukit China, Melaka's Chinese cemetry, is situated on a hill just outside the city centre. Chinese cemeteries are always built on higher grounds, so the deceased are closer to heaven.
As Melaka's climate is hot and humid, it was too far to go on foot to Bukit China. Therefore, we hired a trishsaw. They congregate near Stadthuys right in the centre of the city. We haggled over the price, and paid RM4, which was money well spent, as our driver proved to be an excellent tourist guide.
"The graves are very much neglected," he began. "There are some 12,000 of them, and the oldest date back to the 17th century." We bumped along trying not to inhale exhaust fumes.
At the foot of the hill, we got out and, together with our guide, climbed the hill, which was more a gentle slope than a true hill. There were graves all around, semi-circular in shape. Many of them were overgrown by trees, grass, and weeds, and the Chinese characters were eroded. A few graves were still in remarkably good condition.
Our guide asked us if we knew the story of the Ming princess. "No," we said.
In ancient times, Melaka and China wanted to outwit each other. One day a Chinese ship moored in Melaka harbor with its interior pinned together with a multitude of gold pins. It was as if the walls were made of pure gold. On board was a Chinese diplomat who had a message for the Sultan of Melaka, a message from the Emperor himself: I have a subject for every gold pin, if you can count their number then you know my power.
Here I tried to interrupt our guide as I wanted to know why the diplomat was on board and how the interior was pinned together because this was not clear to me, but he ignored my questions and continued.
The Sultan was very much impressed and sent a ship to China in return. Its cargo consisted of bags of rice. And this was his message: If you can count the grains, you will have guessed the number of my subjects and you will know my power.
The Chinese Emperor was intrigued and sent his daughter, Princess Hang Li Poh, to marry the Sultan. She came with 500 handmaidens. The Sultan gave them Bukit China as a place to live. And, until today, it is in possession of Melaka's Chinese community.
Whether this is a true story or not, I don't know. But it is a fact that in the 15th century a Chinese Princess, Hang Li Poh, married the Sultan. The purpose of this marriage was to strengthen diplomatic relationship between China and the Melaka Sultanate. The princess’s handmaidens married local Malay men. Their descendants are the Pernakans, which means "born locally." They are also known as Babas and Nyonyas.
Soon more Chinese traders came to Melaka, all with high expectations of success in trade. Some were successful, but others died before achieving success. They were buried at Bukit China. Their families had not traveled with them, and there was no one to pray for their souls and look after their graves. But the Chinese Kapitans took care of this.
Kapitans are appointed chiefs of Chinese societies or clans. The Chinese immigrants had language and cultural problems when they came to live in Melaka. Soon they formed clans that were self-governed. These clans took care of education, finance, and also had a social function. This system still works today.
Today, Bukit China is not only a cemetery, but also a park where many Melakans go jogging and mountain biking in the evening. Others practice Tai Chi while enjoying the view.
If you have only one afternoon in Melaka, Bukit China is not the most important place to see, but if your stay is longer, I would strongly recommend you see it.