Bridge Lane used to be the entrance to one of the most populated and morally corrupt streets in Malacca during the first half of the 20th century.
Imagine telling your four-year-old grandson that grandma used to live on “The Gateway To Hell”.
Wouldn’t you be the spookiest, coolest grandma at the crèche playground? Many places on earth have been dubbed gateways to hell. Among them is Fengdu in China, the city often also referred to as “The City of Ghosts”, and Iceland’s’ active volcano, Mount Hekla.
Little may know, however, of the small unpretentious lane in the heart of historical Malacca, that appears to have stayed almost unnoticed by the flocks of tourists nowadays descending on this Unesco World Heritage City.
Bridge Lane, or more commonly known by its Bahasa Malaysia name, Lorong Jambatan, used to be the entrance to one of the most populated and morally corrupt streets in Malacca during the first half of the 20th century.
Java (or Jawa) Lane, named after the overwhelming Javanese population who used to reside there, was the quintessential gangster’s paradise.
When locals wanted to get “a bit of the good stuff”, they had to pass through Bridge Lane and then cross the Malacca River via Kampung Jawa Bridge. Thus Bridge Lane became known as The Gateway To Hell or Guai Moon Gai in Cantonese.
Some feel that the name of the street has been wrongly translated.
“Guai Moon Gai also means heavenly gate. It’s all a matter of interpretation”, says a chuckling Teo Kim Fong, 62, a resident of No.18, Lorong Jambatan.
Others hold that bad feng shui is to blame for Bridge Lane’ unlucky nickname. Whatever the reason for the small street’s moniker, the place is an enigma enshrouded in mystery.
Kampung Jawa Bridge, originally situated a little bit more to the left of Bridge Lane, also added to the eeriness in that area. The twice destroyed bridge used to be an iron structure with gas lamps lighting up the path at night.
During the Japanese Occupation of Malaya (1942-1945), many Chinese businessmen were beheaded on Kampung Jawa Bridge by the Japanese Military Police, the Kempeitei. The bridge also became known for the suicides that it started to witness over the years.
Today, locals refer to this river-crossing as Ghost Bridge. Many who are familiar with the stories of Ghost Bridge are still weary of travelling on it, especially at night.
In July 1887, a new Chinese Theatre was built in Java Lane. Theatre goers had to pass through Bridge Lane to get to Java Lane. The theatre very quickly became the entertainment highlight of the Chinese community in Malacca. In October 2001, the much beloved theatre was demolished.
A market, built in Java Lane in 1920, no doubt also added to the influx of people passing through Bridge Lane. This market no longer exists.
In 1963, the wiping out of old houses in Java Lane commenced. Although Bridge Lane escaped this large scale demolition, the absence of the market, theatre and other forms of entertainment in Java Lane, left its mark.
When Malacca was declared a Unesco World Heritage City in 2008, the number of tourists to Chinatown significantly increased. However, rather than attract more tourists to Bridge Lane, it has been Jonker Walk (formerly Jonker Street, or Jalan Hang Jebat) and other streets with Unesco-declared buildings that have gotten the most out of tourism.
Today Bridge Lane is probably one of the most quiet places in the Chinatown area. Some family businesses on the street have survived up to four generations and are still open every day except for Sundays.
“In the 1970s and 1980s, the street was full of people. Bridge Lane used to be a market place where people could buy fish, meat and vegetables. Families with up to 10 children stayed in these houses ... downstairs used to be all shops and upstairs the families would live,” says Chen Kin Chok, 62, a frame maker at house No. 14, Lorong Jambatan. “The street is quiet now. It’s better.”
Many residents and shop owners on Bridge Lane seem to share Chen’s sentiment that “quiet is better”.
“It’s better now,” says Lai Peh Fang, 59, as she works unrelentingly on her mother’s 1950 Singer sewing machine. Fang has been a shopkeeper in No. 12, Lorong Jambatan for over 40 years, selling everything from knives, cake pans, locks and scissors to mouse traps and soft toys.
Others feel that the decrease in people passing through Bridge Lane has been bad for business.
Some younger residents on the street have tried their hand at tourism. Numbers 5 and 16 Bridge Lane have been turned into homestays by Lai Kuen Long. The 26-year-oldgrew up on the street and he firmly believes in the preservation of a rapidly modernising world.
“Many people think I’m crazy for opening a guest house here. I like having a cafe or guest house in a hidden place rather than a busy one. The street has a very attractive feel to it. I hope they can keep businesses on the street for as long as possible,” says Long.
On the subject of pre-WWI street architecture, the whole of Bridge Lane is lined on both sides by old Chinese shophouses.
The shophouses on Bridge Lane are some of the earliest forms of Chinese shophouses in the country. The interiors are characterised by wooden staircases, beams and shutters. Except for the ground floor, the upper floors are made of timber. The walls are made of brick and lime, and air vents can be observed.
“The houses on the left side of Bridge Lane (as you approach from Kampung Jawa Bridge) are built 14x20 feet. The houses on the right are slightly bigger at 14x22 feet. All the houses are two-and-a -half to three storeys high,” says Yoong Dong Yuan, 57, a goldsmith who lives in shophouse No. 22.
Bridge Lane is also an excellent surviving example of the historical migration of the Chinese to Malaysia as all the residents and shopkeepers are of Chinese descent.
Teo Kim Fong is a fifth generation Chinese Malaysian from the Hakka clan. According to Fong, his ancestor Chong Pieng came from Chengchen in China during the time of the Opium War.
“Chong Pieng was rewarded with 15 hectares of land for his military duties under Yap Ah Loy. This land in Pulau Gadong is our ancestral land,” says Teo.
Tan See Peng, 57, a locksmith at No. 19 Bridge Lane, is a third generation Chinese Malaysian. His Hokkien grandfather came from China. Peng has worked as a locksmith since he was 21, following in the footsteps of his father.
His grandfather was a second-hand dealer. Peng still lives with his wife in his ancestral home, No. 24 Bridge Lane.
The Rubber Stamp Manufacturer shop owned by the Yam siblings on No. 8 Bridge Lane, has been in the family for over 70 years. Their father came from Canton in China. The shop is also their ancestral home.
Visiting any of the businesses on the street, one is struck by the old world charm that possesses both shop and owners. Jewelry making tools, rubber stamp machinery and key making equipment from many decades past are still functioning and serving their masters as if in a living museum.
Has the concealed nature of Bridge Lane been it’s saving grace or will it eventually be it’s downfall? One thing is clear though, hell has no fury and regret always comes too late.
If you happen to find yourself in Malacca next time, instead of throwing yourself into the throng that is Jonker, take a stroll down Bridge Lane.
“Still round the corner there may wait, A new road or a secret gate.” J.R.R. Tolkien hit it on the spot!