Malacca, Malaysia — It seems hard to believe now. This sleepy town of Chinese shops and red-painted Dutch relics was once a pivotal point in the clash of Chinese, Malay, Thai, and European power. Its palaces and spice- trading wharves were contested by Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, Roman Catholics, and Protestants.
Today the "backwater" museum about 160 miles north of Singapore is abuzz with motorbikes, careening taxis, and a handful of pedicabs. It is also fraught with strategic significance, for the Strait of Malacca separating Malaysia from Sumatra is still a major motivating factor in Asian politics.
Over and over again Chinese spokesmen declare the Soviet Union must be blocked from its plans to seize control of the strait. If Vietnam backed by the Soviet Union consolidates control of Cambodia, they charge, the Soviet Union will be encouraged to construct a naval stranglehold on the oil-tanker clogged strait that connects the Indian Ocean with the South China Sea.
That, say the Chinese, would open the way for World War III. Hence the need to resist the Soviet Union by working in concert with the United States and, among other things, supporting the anti-Vietnamese Khmer Rouge.
Just as they did 500 years ago, smaller Southeast Asian states are looking to China as a "protector" against their neighbors. But this time the tables are turned.
Then Malacca's Malay ruler of Sumatran origin looked to China to restrain Thailand. Malaccan and Chinese envoys worked to increase cooperation.
Ultimately this approach led to the marriage of Malaccan Sultan Mansur Shah and Princess Hang Lipo, daughter of a Chinese emperor. Malacca became fertile ground for settlement by overseas Chinese, who often intermarried with Malays.
Today it is Thailand that looks to China to restrain Vietnam. Ironically modern-day Malaysia has reservations about moving too close to China because some Malaysians feel China may be even more of a long-term threat than Vietnam.
Part of the concern is that China might some day stir discontent among Malaysia's Chinese, who make up more than 35 percent of the population. The migration of overseas Chinese that began at the time of ancient Malacca's close ties with China thus tends to keep modern ties with Peking from becoming too friendly.
But how could all this have been known 500 years ago when Sultan Mansur Shah wed the Princess Hang Lipo? Amid a true honeymoon spirit the Princess converted to Islam, and the Chinese who accompanied her received land from the sultan.
It was in 1409 that China's roaming Adm. Cheng Ho sailed into Malacca to offer the Malay kingdom, ruled by the Sumatran warrior Paramesvara, protection against the Thais to the north.
He brought with him a gift: a yellow umbrella. So Malacca's rulers adopted yellow as the royal color.
In 1419 Paramesvara, a Hindu converted to Islam, visited China to complain about continued threats from the Thais. Chinese pressure temporarily stopped the problem.
But it was up to the Malaccans themselves to defeat Tahi invasions in 1444 and 1456.
"China never was able to protect the Malay kingdoms," comments one modern Southeast Asian diplomat.
When Britain took over Malacca in 1795, the musket seemed to have throughly vanquished the dangger and the spear.
Today there is little to suggest Malacca was once a spice trading center of worldwide importance.
Gazing out from the modest red brick Dutch-built house that serves as a museum, one sees but a few small freighters being loaded in the swallow waters by small lighters puttering out from shore.