Reading Emptiness: On Tourism, Appropriation and Contested Spaces.1

Ema Pires

Ema Pires

PhD Candidate, University of Évora, Portugal

The ‘essential character of space in tourism is its combination of the material and the metaphorical’ David Crouch (2002, p. 208)

On Emptiness and Tourism

This working-paper explores relations between anthropology, tourism and cultural processes. This derives from a general interest in how experience is embedded in place and how space holds memories that implicate people and events (Low & Lawrence-Zúñiga 2003, p. 13). Based on fieldwork between 2006 to 2009, the text addresses the problem of place identities and appropriation of space in a tourist-oriented neighbourhood facing the Straits of Malacca (Selat Melaka), in Malacca (West Malaysia).

Malacca’s growing importance in the complex network of trading activities in the Malay Archipelago led to the colonial rule of European powers – Portugal, the Netherlands and England, respectively – from 1511 to 1957. The city’s contemporary urban cartography still reveals the historic thickness of these successive colonial occupations. Nowadays, one of the city’s main touristic icons is Santiago’s Gate – the ruin of a 16th century Portuguese Fortress. Malacca’s history as a major trading emporium of the Straits of Malacca, has led to its recent listing (in 2008, together with the city of Georgetown, Penang) as UNESCO World Heritage City.

On the outskirts of the city lies the Portuguese Settlement. This urban village is also named Kampung Portugis (in Bahasa melayu), and Padri sa Chang (in the Creole language spoken locally); comprising an area of approximately twenty-eight acres of land, it has an estimated population of 1,200 residents. The village was “born between 1926 and 1934 as a quite literary fabricated entity resulting from the philanthropic efforts of two priests as the nucleus of residence of the ‘Malacca Portuguese’ ” (O’Neill 2008, p. 55). The group is also known as Kristangs. According to Brian O’Neill, today ‘the term Kristang has three meanings: (1) the Creole spoken by the Malacca Portuguese, (2) a person of the Catholic Faith, or (3) a member of the ethnic group of Portuguese Eurasians’ (ibid, p. 56-57).

This paper is focused empirically on the social construction of Malacca’s Portuguese Settlement. Focusing in this setting, my intention here is to explore peoples’ alternative meanings of emptiness, in relation to a place - a Square - that has been pointed out, by the Government, as an attraction for tourism; people I interviewed during fieldwork – tourists, residents, political leaders and other agents – perceive it as “empty2” and ‘read’ the square’s emptiness in different and sometimes conflicting ways. I shall address them bellow.

Emptiness is best seen as an ‘evocative category, a stimulus for rethinking conceptions of space’ (McDonogh 1993, p. 3). Here I adopt Garry McDonogh’s meaning of ‘empty space’, as ‘seen in both its limitation and its cultural definition as a place, even if defined by a cultural construction of non-use’ (ibid, p. 4). This author also refers to ‘Speculative emptiness’ as “intrinsically linked to the destruction of buildings and places as well as to the apparent ‘fallowing’ of vacant lots” (ibid, p. 7). Another alternative approach to exploring emptiness comes from Peter Brook’s (2008 [1968]) classical work on scenic spaces and the multilayered meanings of emptiness in theatre.  All these meanings are useful in framing the present context.

Planned under colonial rule as a low-income residential area for the minority group of Portuguese-Eurasians, the place has also become a Gazetted Heritage Site in post-Colonial Malaysia. Due to the agency of multiple actors, this spatial and symbolic appropriation for tourism has been followed by a land reclamation process along the seashore, in line with the urban growth policies in the region. Using a constructivist approach, some of social and rhetorical aspects of this spatial transformation are discussed here, focusing on the role public space plays, within process of imagining local as well as national cultures. This brings to light questions of agency and power, related to processes of labelling and appropriating space. I follow Sherry Ortners’ (2006) approach to conceptualizing agency: “(1) the question whether or not agency inherently involves ‘intentions’; (2) the simultaneous universality and cultural constructedness of agency; and (3) the relationship between agency and ‘power’ ” (Ortner 2006, p. 134). This relationship, when applied to the study of tourism processes, may shed light into how and why certain places are pointed out as attractions, whether or not ‘we have official guides and travelogues to assist us in this pointing’ (MacCannel 1999, p. 192).

Chris Rojek’s proposition concerning the role that myth and fantasy play in the social construction of tourist sites (Rojek 1997) is another conceptual tool for analysing the social construction of places for tourism; according to his view, as a social category, ‘the extraordinary place’ spontaneously invites speculation, reverie, mind-voyaging and a variety of other acts of imagination” (ibid, p. 51). Asian countries appear as a particularly fertile context to question some of the politics of tourism underlying these processes, also due to ‘Asia’s transformation from mere host destination into a region of mobile consumers’ (Winter et al. 2009, p. 4).  Domestic travelling, as illustrated in the case of Thailand (Evrard & Leepreecha 2009) presents one striking example of the political dimensions of tourism in relation to nation-building, and the act of gazing upon ethnic minorities as a part of ‘feeling Thai’ (ibid, p. 251).

In Malaysia, a comparable process (to the one described above) seems to be taking place. Official tourism discourses emphasise the economic and political dimensions of tourism activity, noting that it ‘plays a very important role in energising the nation’s economy to keep it dynamic’ (Melaka Tourism n.d., p. 4). Governmental tourism discourses also highlight Malacca as the historical centre of the nation. Within this rhetorical landscape, the Portuguese community is a portrait: one piece among the multicultural and colourful heritage of the nation’s past and present. Historical references highlight the original name of the place, Padri sa Chang (Priests’ Land) and the two missionaries whose agency enabled its founding, in the late 1920’s (ibid, p. 4).

In the national context, the Malaysian federal government, celebrating the 50th anniversary of independence in 2007, has launched a tourism campaign (Visit Malaysia Year 2007) within which Malacca’s Portuguese Settlement is also represented. The ‘cultural extraordinariness’ of the place – and its touristic relevance – is central in one particular public space – the Portuguese Square. Additionally, the place is also indexed with references to Portuguese architecture, cultural performances and gastronomy. Images of the square in official propaganda discourses depict ‘a square similar to the central square in Lisbon, Portugal’ (Melaka Tourism n.d., p. 4). In the Malaysia Travel Guide, the Settlement is also represented as a place ‘where visitors can enjoy its lively square and eat Portuguese–inspired seafood’ (Malaysia Travel Guide n.d., p. 19). The ‘liveliness’ of the place is pointed, in particular, towards the existence of cultural shows with musical performances3.

Appropriations and Contested Spaces4

Place names may tell us a lot about ownership, appropriation and significance of spaces. In this case, Malacca’s Portuguese Settlement clearly stands as an example of colonial production of space, a process carried out in a close alliance between the British colonial government and Christian (Roman Catholic) missions. Up until today, street names (named after Portuguese sailors and other agents) are an enduring marker of its colonial production.

Interviews with elderly residents confirm that the social appropriation of the place, by the first settlers, occurred in the early 1930’s. The first residents were mostly fishermen and their families. After 1957, already in post-colonial times, the Kristangs themselves would creatively integrate a new Portuguese identity as a dimension of their ethnic identity such as through music and dance performances (of Portuguese folklore). This process of symbolic appropriation would provide economic revenue during the 1980’s and 1990’s, when tourism started to spread more vigorously in the city. Meanwhile, the neighbourhood’s physical environment would start to reflect this rhetorical identity: in 1984, the Malaysian Government built a Portuguese Square. The opening speech, given by the Prime Minister himself, discloses some of the political meanings of the place:

On Medan Portugis the Prime Minister said it could be used as a place for the Portuguese community to promote its unique culture through tourism. ‘Although the Portuguese were once our conquerors, we need not have hang-ups about this,’ he said. He added that if the community could retain its culture and could profit from it through tourism, it was free to do so. He hoped that the square would be central point for the community’s cultural and traditional activities”. (The Star 25 Jan. 1985, p. 2)

On the ground, this spatial transformation would bring relevant changes in the built environment and appropriative practices in Kampong Portugis. Locally, the decision to build a square in the village gave rise to residents’ contestation; the main reason was the place chosen for it: the Padang (an open-air playground where the people of the place usually gathered at sunset for leisure activities). The open space of the Padang, facing the sea, would then give birth to a new volumetric building, which would soon become a marker for the appropriation of tourism in the community. The ‘destruction’ of the playground would create a rupture between residents and their political leaders over contested meanings ascribed to the square. Political leaders viewed the new building as a desired centre for community life, as well as a tourist attraction. For many residents, however, the square became a symbol of the Government’s take over of their Padang, interrupting a long time relationship to the place and creating a new exogenous spatial marker. Designed to resemble a Portuguese Plaza and Market, near the Malacca’s seashore, its built form was designed, from the beginning, as a leisure and tourism complex with multiple uses.

Despite initial contestation about the building, the people I interviewed generally suggest that the square would gradually be appropriated by the Kristangs and become a gathering place for both tourists and locals. Its uses, though, were regulated from the beginning. It was a place to eat local Portuguese food at the restaurants existing inside it, and to watch weekly performances of Portuguese Folklore on the local stage by one of the several cultural troupes of musicians from the community. There is also a community museum, a souvenir shop and, in an adjacent building, a Community Hall used for religious practices. In 1988, Kampung Portugis was listed by the Government as a Heritage Village5, and would start to be represented more strongly as one of the symbolic centres of Malacca’s cultural heritage. In line with the rhetorical appropriation of the Settlement by the government and other external agents, the spatial and symbolic appropriation for tourism and leisure purposes was followed by land reclamation of the seashore not far from the Portuguese Square. Previously built just across the seashore, the land reclamation process has put the building further inland, as another new portion of the seashore gave way to new reclamations.

In 2000, political changes in the management and ownership of the Square were also underway. The Portuguese Square had been under the administration of the Malaysian government from 1984 to 2000 at which time it came under the management of the local community leaders, the Regedor’s6 Panel. This was preceded by complaints concerning abandonment and low maintenance of the equipment. The complaints, made by Kristangs themselves, were supported by tourists (who were asked by the Regedor’s staff to write suggestions on ‘how to improve the place’). The Regedor’s agency was directed to administer the Square from the State government. Following this negotiation process, the owner of the building would soon stop the patronage and funding of cultural activities in the place, but would keep the ownership of the Square. Consequently, since 2005, there have been no more weekly cultural shows in Portuguese Square.

In 2006, another six more acres of seaside land were reclaimed7 by the Malaysian Government, for the building of a hotel named after the Portuguese capital, Lisbon. The design of the new building slightly resembles the Portuguese Square. Locally, the opening of this government-owned hotel in June 2007 has given rise to open debates over ownership and appropriation of space. Among residents, this land-reclamation process has been more strongly opposed by local fishermen, who have pointed out how that the changes in ecological system have endangered their activity.

The contestation had its peak in 2007 National Day (31st of August). During this day, part of the Settlement’s residents, organized in a Residents’ Action Committee, gathered in an open-air stage area near Hotel Lisbon; by using the surrounding area through leisure practices (namely, through football, and other games), the residents’ actions reclaimed symbolic ownership of a place that, in the past, used to be the Settlements’ playground. In contrast, the nearby Hotel Lisbon is generally perceived as a space of alterity. Local reactions to it seem to vary between indifference and passive rejection. Resident John Sequeira 8 notes that:

[The Hotel] is something very wrong. […] Our people should manage it […] To me, they have done something wrong. They should have put everything [in] black and white, […] and [should have] provided [that] it is run by our People [Kristangs]. That’s why [we] are very angry:  when you do something you [should] sit down carefully, think it over and plan it carefully, and make sure it’ll benefit us…otherwise, what is the point?

Social access is restricted and the building’s gated entrance poses a physical as well as social boundary. Inside the gate, the Lisbon Hotel stands forlorn, facing Selat Melaka, not far from another rather empty building: the Portuguese Square.

How should we read the emptiness of the Portuguese Square? In contrast to the centrality that is given to it in official tourist narratives, this is a rather abandoned social space. At the entrance, colourful signs indicate a museum (temporarily closed for renovation), some restaurants and a souvenir shop. However, the emptiness of the place is only diminished at meal hours or when the souvenir shop’s loud music fills in the space as a strategy for stimulating tourist consumption practices. A general perception of emptiness is corroborated by the people who work in the place. Restaurant manager Rosemary de Silva9 demonstrates this in reference to her costumers:

 […] And when the costumer comes and asks, at what time is the cultural show? – I’m sorry; there is no more cultural show. Every time is the same answer. And they ask: how come? In the brochure we have that on weekends there is a cultural show! […] At the time we don’t know what to answer […].

During fieldwork, my own interactions with European tourists also infer that their experience in the place is one of disenchantment. Experiencing the real place seems to be less pleasurable than imagining it and anticipating it.

 (In)Conclusive Remarks

The Kristangs as a group imagine Padri sa Chang as the stage upon which social memory is constructed, where locality is ‘produced’, and as a site for touristic performance in local, national as well as trans-national contexts. It also seems to be a symbolic arena for negotiating place and identity, a space for coping with the media and politics, and an intense economic contact zone during festive events. The symbolic appropriation of the village by the Malaysian government forefronts Kristangs’ religious identity, and how their spatial practices are appropriated into national rhetoric by Malaysia’s Islamic State. The exoticness present in the narratives about the place draws into the discussion the transformation of a Christian ghetto into a touristic place10. David Greenwood’s (1989) classic study on commoditization of culture might be a useful comparison here in terms of the dense process of appropriation of this place by multiple agents. Furthermore, European Tourists’ disenchanted perception of the Portuguese Square and Settlement may be helpful empirical tools for deconstructing the social meanings of emptiness in tourist settings. Finally, the place of the Settlement in official tourism discourse highlights relations between power and tourism, regarding processes of ideological investment in the construction of sites. From its colonial production to its post-colonial appropriations, this seems be the case in Malacca’s Portuguese Settlement. Analyzing tourism, anthropologically, is all about reflexively unpacking these processes.


1. Grant by FCT (Portuguese Foundation for Science and Technology, Reference no. 29852/2006]). A travel grant by ASA/RAI also enabled me to attend the 2008 ASA Conference, on Ownership and Appropriation (Auckland, December 2008).

2. In kristang “empty” is translated as ‘bazidu, kosong, nteh nada’ (Baxter & de Silva 2004, 108).

3. The relationship between music and tourism has been analysed by musicologist Margaret Sarkissian (Sarkissian 2000).

4. Contested spaces are “geographic locations where conflicts in the form of opposition, confrontation, subversion, and/or resistance engage actors whose social positions are defined by differential control of resources and access to power” (Low & Lawrence-Zuñiga 2003, p. 18).

5. ‘Gazetted’ (local adj. broadly used in Malaysian English) refers to the act of being recognized/valued as a ‘heritage-listed’ place, in this case, a whole village

6. Historian Gerard Fernandis refers that the ‘Regedor is a Portuguese word which means the administrator. In this context, it means the headman of the Portuguese Settlement’ (Fernandis 2004, p. 291). This author notes that the ‘position was set up when the Portuguese Settlement began in the 1930’s and the Regedor acted as a liaison man as well as an agent for the government’ (Fernandis 2004, p. 291).

7. Reclaiming, here, refers to the act of making land which was previously under water (the Strait of Malacca) proper for building purposes.

8. Personal communication, September 18th, 2007.

9. Personal communication, September 11th, 2007.

10. I thank anthropologist Maribeth Erb for her comment on this.


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