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A world-heritage disneyland

The city of Malacca (alternately spelled Melaka) was, for hundreds of years, one of the most important cities of southeast Asia. Located near the southern end of the Malay Peninsula, in what is now Malaysia, the city faces the Straits of Malacca, the sea route from China to the Indian Ocean. In the early 15th century, a great fleet commanded by Ming Chinese admiral Zheng He passed this way several times. The rulers of the Sultanate of Malacca were some of the first southeast Asian rulers to convert to Islam. In the colonial period, the city was variously ruled by the Portuguese, Dutch, English, and Japanese, before the Federation of Malaya gained independence in 1957.

In more recent times, Malacca has declined in importance, being surpassed by Singapore to the south and Kuala Lumpur to the north. The city’s port was located in its river, but the river silted up and the site was in any event unsuitable for the large cranes needed for container-based shipping after World War II. More recently, the city has reinvented itself as a tourist destination. UNESCO declared the town center of Malacca a World Heritage Site in 2008 (a dual-listing with George Town to the north).

Malacca has been heavily developed for tourism. The town center has a nice hill with a ruined Portuguese church on top, but the developers felt that they also had to build an amusement park-style rotating tower ride nearby for some reason. Immediately adjacent to the historic town center is a giant shopping mall with a huge parking lot. To the north, a monorail runs in a loop along the riverfront. I have a feeling that the urban planning board of Malacca decided to build this particular attraction after watching the “Monorail Song” clip from The Simpsons episode “Marge vs. the Monorail.” (They should have watched the end of the episode.)

View of the monorail along the Malacca riverfront.

View of the monorail along the Malacca riverfront.

Long-tailed macaques (Macaca fascicularis) stalking along the elevated trackway of the monorail.

Long-tailed macaques (Macaca fascicularis) stalking along the elevated trackway of the monorail.

The monorail is emblematic of how touristy and over-commercialized Malacca has become. It isn’t tacky for the most part, but I don’t feel that the commercialization is respectful of the culture and heritage of this place. The heritage that is preserved has been over-preserved. The ruins of erstwhile empires in Malacca are too obviously stabilized. The graves of heroes of the Sultanate period have been covered with latex paint. A whole bastion of the city’s defenses has been reconstructed, but the interpretive signs act like it is the real thing. Overall, Malacca is so touristy that it feels more like a historical disneyland than one of southeast Asia’s great cities.

Signs like this along the riverfront advise tourists how to take the exact same photos as everybody else.

Signs like this along the riverfront advise tourists how to take the exact same photos as everybody else.

A rotating elevator-tower near the historic center of Malacca.

A rotating elevator-tower near the historic center of Malacca.

A wall announcing that the town center is a World Heritage Site.

A wall announcing that the town center is a World Heritage Site.

Pyramids of waste

“What can be said of a culture whose legacies to the future are mounds of hazardous materials and a poisoned water supply? Will America’s pyramids be pyramids of waste?”

–Giles Slade, Made to Break (2006)

I think that Giles Slade meant for this comment to be ironic, not taken literally. In the opening of Made to Break: Technology and Obsolescence in America, Slade compares the landfills of modern America with the pyramids of ancient Egypt. As Slade would have it, it is an indication of our societal decadence that the great mounds that we raise are not tombs for our god-kings but final resting places for our junked PCs, outmoded cell phones, and plastic pop bottles.

Of course, ordinary domestic landfills don’t really look like pyramids. Sometimes they have rectangular ground-plans; often they don’t. But there is at least one waste-containment mound that actually resembles a pyramid. It is in Missouri. And I’ve been there.

Weldon Spring Site is 30 miles west of St. Louis. During World War II, it was home to a munitions plant, which was converted to a uranium-processing facility in the Cold War. Like so many other Cold War industrial sites, Weldon Spring had plenty of radioactive and hazardous chemical waste lying around when it was abandoned in the 1960s. The Department of Energy took over the site twenty years later and began cleaning it up. All the untreatable chemical and radioactive waste from the site was entombed in an enormous mound. With its sloping sides and flat top, the mound looks a bit like a Mesoamerican pyramid, not so much an Egyptian one. (It is also a little reminiscent of the Cahokia Mounds nearby in Illinois, built by the Mississippian mound-builders.)

I should hope that some of modern America’s more inspiring monuments prove as durable as our pyramids of waste. At least what the Weldon Spring pyramid says about us is that we cared enough to clean up the mess we created (albeit twenty years late).

The Weldon Spring waste mound from across the visitor center parking lot.

The Weldon Spring waste mound viewed from the visitor center parking lot.

The sloping flank of the waste pyramid.

The sloping flank of the waste pyramid.

The stairway to the top of the waste pyramid.

The stairway to the top of the waste pyramid.

The broad crest of the Weldon Spring waste pyramid. (Where the builders of Teotiuhuacán would have erected a temple for sacrifices, the Department of Energy has placed benches and interpretive plaques.)

The broad crest of the Weldon Spring waste pyramid. (Where the builders of Teotihuacán would have erected a temple for sacrifices, the Department of Energy has placed benches and interpretive plaques.)

Pickled history

In the United States, tomorrow will be a national holiday for the birthday(-ish) of prominent civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., born in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1929. Thirty-nine years later, Dr. King was assassinated on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, when he was in the city for a sanitation workers’ strike.

More than fifty years after King’s death, the Lorraine Motel still exists – sort of. The building, no longer a functioning motel, has been incorporated into the National Civil Rights Museum, which opened in 1991 and reopened after a $27-million renovation in 2014. The district around the motel was struggling economically in 1968 when King has shot, but since then it has been aggressively gentrified. (When I visited the neighborhood in late 2014, there was even an American Apparel store a couple of blocks from the former hotel, although it appears to have since closed, along with the struggling brand’s other brick-and-mortar stores.)

The Lorraine Motel, as incorporated into the National Civil Rights Museum.

The Lorraine Motel, as incorporated into the National Civil Rights Museum.

Like the surrounding neighborhood, the motel is also gentrified. The balcony where King was shot has been preserved, but it is an island of a heritage structure surrounded by a new pedestrian walkway, a parking lot, and new museum buildings. Visiting the motel shortly after the $27-million renovation, I could hardly imagine what the place looked like in 1968.

The fateful balcony where King was shot, marked by a commemorate wreath.

The fateful balcony where King was shot, marked by a commemorate wreath.

A classic car parked below room 306.

A classic car parked below room 306.

The over-preservation of the Lorraine Motel gives a false impression of what the place was like when King was shot there. Its gentrification elides the very real economic problems the neighborhood was facing in 1968. It is as if the building has been pickled and sealed in a glass jar, without any of its context.

There is a certain sad irony that this has happened to the place where Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot while in the midst of organizing the Poor People’s Campaign, which was to include a march on Washington by the nation’s poor. This irony was not lost on the last resident of the Lorraine Motel, Jacqueline Smith, who was evicted in 1988 before the building was converted into a museum. Since then, she has protested the museum from across the street. “Gentrification is a violation of civil rights,” one of her signs said in 2014. Don’t spend $27 million on the museum renovation and $0 for the poor, another sign said; “Use the money as Dr. King would have wanted.”

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