Gravesite, temple and magical well
Bukit Cina lies about a kilometre northeast of Melaka’s colonial district, part of a 42-hectare grassy forest that covers three low hills (or bukit). Reputed to be the site of the first Chinese settlement in Melaka, it is without debate the last home for many: Today it’s Melaka’s largest Chinese cemetery.
During the 15th century reign of Sultan Mansur Shah back in the days when diplomatic and trade deals included potential wives, the Chinese Ming Dynasty Emperor sent his “astonishingly beautiful” daughter Hung Li Poh along with an entourage of 500 to Melaka. Stunned by her attractive looks, Sultan Mansur Shah arranged her conversion to Islam and she promptly became the fifth wife of the Sultan. Sultan Mansur Shah built a palace for his new consort (and co.) on the forested hill known ever after as Bukit Cina (“Chinese Hill”).
Here their descendants continued to live until the fall of Melaka to the Portuguese in 1511. This story recorded in the Sejarah Melayu (Malay Annals) and indeed the very existence of Hung Li Poh have been fiercely debated in recent years in Malaysia, causing much racial tension.
In 1581, the Portuguese erected a fortified monastery and chapel, Madre de Deus, on the hilltop, later razed when Acehnese attacked Melaka in 1629. The tomb of Acehnese General Panglima Pidi, who lost his life in the battle, remains on Bukit Cina, along with several other unmarked Muslim graves. Another Acehnese general believed to have been killed in the same campaign, Syamsuddin Al-Sumatrani, is buried in Kampung Ketek near Temple Street. The area was used as a burial ground by early Chinese traders and perhaps Hung Li Poh’s retainers, and officially became the Chinese community’s cemetery in 1685, when the hill was purchased from the Dutch by the “Kapitan Cina” of Melaka, and donated to the Cheng Hoon Teng Temple.
In 1795, Poh San Teng Temple was established at the base of Bukit Cina as a place to pray for ancestors buried on the hill. The temple is dedicated to Fu De Zheng Shen (Tua Pek Kong), said to be the main deity for graveyard temples in Malaysia. Over time, perhaps because of the Chinese whispers of mistranslation, or perhaps based on some truth, the temple became associated with the Chinese Admiral Cheng Ho. A small statue of Cheng Ho graces the courtyard of the temple and daily busloads of Chinese tourists come to give him a rub for good luck.
Seven nearby wells are credited to have been built by Cheng Ho on one of his visits to Melaka, although according to the Sejarah Melayu they were dug by the Sultan for Hung Li Poh. Most of the wells have been lost to history, but the most famous, today known as the King’s Well or Hung Li Poh’s Well, sits within a walled enclosure adjacent to the temple, and is believed to be the oldest in Malaysia. In the past it was an important source of water for Melaka and is reputed to have never dried up, but it was also an easy target for attacks on the city, and was poisoned no fewer than three times over its history.
The surrounding wall was built by the Dutch and heavily guarded to prevent such attacks. Today the well has gained somewhat of a magical status, and the water is believed to defy the laws of displacement—our guide showed us a party trick by filling a cup with well water, dropped in coins yet it didn’t overflow. We also took a swig of the water (available filtered inside the temple), believed to guarantee a return to Melaka. A small museum with information on the history of Bukit China and the surrounding area is tucked away at the back of the temple. Nearby a stairway leads up Bukit Cina to a popular local jogging track weaving between the plots. It’s an easy climb to check out some of the ancient graves and admire the city views.
These tours are provided by Travelfish partner GetYourGuide.
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