In Malaysia’s Malacca (also known as Melaka), a historic trading hub along the ancient spice route, the Ming Dynasty explorer Admiral Zheng He (or Cheng Ho), is worshipped by locals. There’s even a Zheng He society with members from around the region, as far as Singapore.
Zheng He – the legend
According legend, Admiral Zheng He accompanied Chinese princess Hang Li Po to Melaka (then Malacca) in 1459 when the princess was sent to marry Sultan Mansur Shah.
Malacca’s Zheng He Culture Museum is a four storey building dedicated entirely to the admiral, who is the Christopher Columbus of Asia.
I walk through a long corridor displaying exhibits of the life Zheng He from Yunnan, Nanjing, Beijing and Fujian. Also on display here are porcelain pieces from the Ming period which were dug up by local historians at the site where the museum stands and an impressive Ming Dynasty bell stands in a courtyard.
Ming Dynasty wonders
In 2000, local historians discovered a cluster of dilapidated buildings which they believed were built during the Ming Dynasty by Zheng He’s men.
The museum’s audio visual room screens short films about Zheng He, there’s a wax room showing Chinese emperor Zhu Di meeting Melaka’s ruler Parameswara and an automated puppet show that runs through Zheng He’s life.
Ming emperors sponsored seven naval expeditions that had Zheng He sailing the waters of the Western Ocean to Southeast Asia, Indian Ocean, Middle East and Africa.
My eyes are drawn to a replica of Zheng He’s ships, known as Treasure Ships. It is believed the massive ships were big enough to carry 500 people. The replica shows seven decks in the stern and four decks in the bow. The bottom deck stored barrels of fresh water and rock used as ballast; above it on the second deck was the cargo. Here rows of jars of all sizes held food, water and wine.
A model of Zheng He’s mighty fleets shows the boats sailing across the ocean to discover new lands.
There’s no other explorer in history that has attracted the controversy that surrounds Chinese voyager Admiral Zheng He. In 2002, retired submarine commander and amateur historian Gavin Menzies in his book “1421: The Year China Discovered the World”, argued that a huge Chinese fleet circumnavigated and charted the world years before the first great European voyages of discovery.
The evidence for this comes from shipwrecks, ancient maps and accounts from local people. But it’s a claim most western historians disagree with.
For those who enjoy conspiracy theories and alternative histories, Gallery 11 in the museum is themed on Gavin Menzies’ book.
Malaysia Airlines flies non-stop to Kuala Lumpur from Melbourne and Sydney. Melaka is 144km from KL; buses ply this route daily.
Where to stay
The Majestic Malacca has rooms from $US250 ($256).
Hotel Puri is a boutique hotel, once the home of a wealthy local family. Rooms from $RM120 ($38).
What to do
Admission to Cheng Ho Cultural Museum, 51 Lorong Hang Jebat, 75200 Melaka is RM$20 (A$7.50) each adult and RM$10 (A$3.75) for children, tel: +606 283 1135。