Sunday, 8 February 2015

Miss Jo from Malacca

I love Malacca. I love Malacca even more than I love Penang, but for the same reasons. It is a melting pot of cultures. Chinatown is getting dressed up for the Chinese New Year. A stone's throw away is Little India. Mosques remind the visitor of the city's Islamic foundations. Intermarriage between ethnic groups has led to distinctive subcultures each with its own traditions and cuisines. On top of that, the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British all had a hand in its architecture.

And it's small enough that getting lost is only ever a brief experience.

I first came here eight years ago. I stayed in a hotel in Chinatown, in an building that was once an old mansion; much of its old character is still treasured. There is heavy wooden furniture with pearl inlay. I eat breakfast in a courtyard with a fountain and bamboo rattling in the breeze.

Eight years ago I chatted with one of the cleaners here - Miss Jo. She'd been a lecturer at a university but retired with no pension and so worked as a cleaner to support herself. We were delighted to share a name. She took me to a celebration at her Sikh temple and I shared a meal there.

We talked every morning, about her family and my family and whatever we read in the newspaper. She glanced continually at the young women on reception. She was in permanent trouble for talking when she should be sweeping.

I'm here again, at the same hotel. And, that first afternoon, when I saw a small woman in her green cleaner's overall hunched over a newspaper I knew it had to be Miss Jo. Our mutual delight was wonderful. So much has happened in the past eight years and we had to cover it all. Her sister has died. My grandchildren have arrived. Hers have gone to university and are successful young people.

But what pleases me most is that she is still here. She is over eighty now. She always has her broom with her. I've seen her wave it round the floor just once. And occasionally she walks around looking purposeful. But she spends much of her time reading the newspapers (provided for guests) or talking with visitors. It seems that her employers have given up trying to insist she attend to her work and have taken a more compassionate attitude. This, the Hotel Puri in Malacca, is one of my favourite hotels in the world.

And someone is doing the cleaning, because the place is spotless.


  1. Loving these posts Jo, reminding me of all my wonderful trips to Malaysia and The Far East. Have you been to a BaBa (?spelling) house in Malacca? You've prompted me to go looking out my photos later :-)

    1. There's some lovely Baba Nyonya museums in Malacca now - they have World Heritage status, and have done a lot to preserve the old shophouses and mansions. But there's still the unreliable pavements and storm drains, so it's not been prettified!

  2. Loved this post. I don't know why but it is full of positivity and human warmth.

    Greetings from London.

  3. That kind of humanity is starting to be lost here in the UK isn't it. It would be one of my favourite hotels too if that is their attitude to their staff.

  4. Lovely story about Miss Jo.Imagine still working at that age?