THE main streets of Malacca once bore the names of illustrious colonial officers who had served in the state.
These days, not many are familiar with Wolferstan Road (Jalan Bendahara), Egerton Road (Jalan Temenggong), Newcome Road (Jalan Munshi Abdullah) and Templer Avenue (Jalan Laksamana Cheng Ho).
The names of these prominent tuan besar of the British era have largely faded from memory, except for one — FJ Morten.
Tucked away along the Malacca River, the historical city’s most famous Malay village is named after the former collector of land revenue, who held various posts in the Malayan Civil Service before retiring as Colonial Secretary of the Straits Settlements in 1938.
Kampung Morten, is probably the only remaining traditional Malay riverine village in the country retaining its old-world charm despite being nestled within the confines of city comforts.
During the 1960s and 1970s, it used to be a rather quiet place, largely cut off from the hustle and bustle of the town.
The exceptions were during weddings, which were always followed by entertainment in the form of joget lambak (group dancing).
I remember cycling there with friends from my own urban kampung of Templer Avenue (named after Sir Gerald Templer and once also known as Jalan Panjang) to join the merriment.
Such entertainment, however, was frowned upon in the 1980s and eventually deemed unIslamic.
Today, joget lambak is just a tourist attraction. On special occasions, it is still performed in Kampung Morten and elsewhere in the city for the benefit of visitors.
As for Kampung Morten, it has evolved become a hub for Malacca’s tourism activities since being declared a heritage village under the state’s Preservation and Conservation Enactment in 1989.
Everyday, visitors ferried by tour buses, throng its streets to get a feel of what life is like in a typical Malay village.
Most of those who take the Malacca River Cruise, make it a point to go to the enclave, lured by the awesome views from the boat.
Others stumble upon it while using the picturesque pedestrian walkway that winds its way along the river in the heart of the city.
A trip to the village would not be complete without going to its oldest and best preserved traditional house — Villa Sentosa.
The house was originally built by village headman Datuk Othman Muhammad Noh in 1921.
He was the leader of the Malay community that lived about 2km downstream in present day Kampung Jawa.
When the colonial government gazetted the land for a municipal market (now long demolished) in 1920, Othman identified a nipah and mangrove forested area which teemed with mud crabs, as the site for a new settlement.
According to Othman’s grandson, Ibrahim Hashim, 74, a former veterinarian who now manages the ‘living museum’ of Villa Sentosa, people in those days followed their leaders when they moved.
Othman and another community elder, his brother-in-law Demang Abdul Ghani, approached Frederick Joseph Morten to start the village on a patch of land that was often waterlogged but teemed with mud crabs.
With Morten’s help and influence, Othman secured a loan of 10,000 Straits Dollars, a huge sum in the 1920s.
According to a 1930 Straits Times report the loan was taken from the Hindu Mohammedan Endowment Board.
Ibrahim said Othman was its only guarantor and the loan was eventually paid.
“The land was originally subdivided into 100 housing lots. When the families had all moved in, there were several proposals for its name, including Kampung Baru, Kampung Bunga Raya and Kampung Tanjung,”
“As suggested by my grandfather, they decided to call it Kampung Morten, in appreciation of his help,” he told a group of students from Brunei who visited the house last week.
But Othman’s role and contributions to the village have not gone unrecognised.
The Malacca state government has honoured him by naming the main street surrounding the village, on which Villa Sentosa stands, as Persiaran Datuk Othman.
The private museum which solely depends on contributions from visitors for its maintenance, provides an insight of how nine generations of Othman’s descendants lived in the house and kept its traditions.
The house itself is an architectural gem, with an open courtyard, 14 windows, potted plants and intricately carved air vents which keep it cool, even during the hot mid-day sun.
With much pride, the youthful-looking Ibrahim would guide visitors into all parts of the house, telling fascinating stories about the photographs and relics in it.
There is a special wedding room with a dais which had been used for 20 weddings of descendants so far.
Among those who have visited the house and posed on the elaborately decorated seats are the Yang diPertuan Agong and the Raja Permaisuri Agong.
The house is also a sought after place for photo shoots, including a magazine from Italy.
Among the other attractions are antique furniture, ceramics, ancient weapons, and a 200-year-old gong, which is believed to be able to grant the wishes of visitors who hit it.