It's only Wednesday and already it's been a long week. The kind of week that makes me wish I had a regular watering hole, a comfortable spot where they know me and I know them, where it's impossible to walk in for a pop without leaving whatever's weighing on me at the door, where a bit of idle conversation over a tipple carries erases the work day and carries me to dinner.
If I were in Malacca this is where I'd be this evening: at a beautiful eighty-over year-old timber bar burnished from years of spilled drink and water rings and rubbed smooth from hundreds, probably thousands of forearms. A bar with just few seats and one table, occupying the ground floor of a century-old shop house. A bar run by the great-grandson of its founder and his wife, a shy couple who never really open up unless you stop in a second, and third, time.
We discovered Sin Hiap Hin last May while in Malacca to report on its situation three years after being named a Unesco world heritage site. As I wrote in this post on finding old Malacca (it's not easy, but possible) the old town's prognosis isn't good. Everyone I interviewed for the story was frustrated, even despairing, of the public funds spent on new attractions while the city's historical architecture and living culture deteriorates, evaporates. As one of the local conservationists I spoke with said, "Malacca is overflowing with history and richness and culture. We don't have to create anything."
Sin Hiap Hin isn't in any of the brochures touting Malacca's viewing tower, its reconstructed fort or the shopping mall built on the padang where Malaysia declared independence from British rule. It's not in the "Where to Drink" sections of guidebooks that direct you instead to watering holes along Malacca's sanitized riverbanks or to the bars around Jonker's Walk.
Sin Haip Hin is just a nondescript little place on Java Lane, which in the early part of the 20th century was Malacca's entertainment center. Up the street is Tay Boon Wah barbershop, which also opened in the 1930s. Around the corner was the Chinese Theater. Surrounding Sin Hiap Hin were brothels and other bars and opium dens and cheap lodging houses.
Java Lane is dead quiet now, especially in the evenings. But if you sit in Sin Hiap Hin around sunset you can almost imagine the street outside teeming with life -- with new arrivals and hustlers and theater goers and men and women out on the town.
With a bit of coaxing Lian Suan and her husband will reminisce; they'll talk about the laborers who used to convene here for beers and stronger stuff when the Malacca River was still busy with boats ferrying goods from the big ships docked at its port to the warehouses just across what used to be known as the Iron Bridge. "Oh, it got noisy," she smiles wistfully. "We were open very late!" No longer. Come after 630pm or 7 and you'll likely find Sin Hiap Hin's doors shut tight.
On our last visit we admired the bar's fine vintage dram measures; Lian Suan's husband offered them to us as a gift. We couldn't accept. Family heirlooms they are, not something to be handed over to strangers. But later we wondered if we'd done the right thing. The bar's customers are dwindling, and Lian Suan told us they'll probably sell the house eventually. What will become of that beautiful timber bar? Will those dram measures be treasured by the couple's children or their children? Or will they be viewed as junk and tossed in the trash?