'Please help fund my trip': Begpackers linger at Melaka's Jonker Street despite ban
Foreigners selling handmade items at Melaka’s famous tourist district have been warned by authorities, but some have persisted in order to fund their travel expenses.
MELAKA: A lanky Caucasian man with tattoos on both arms strummed his guitar while seated at the heart of Melaka’s famous Jonker Street.
The tune of an Eagles’ classic — Hotel California — emanated from his small speaker, as he sang along in a soft voice, glancing hopefully at passers-by.
A handful of people dropped some money into a plastic container set in front of the performer, while others stopped to look at the items he was displaying. There were around 20 friendship bands cobbled together using twine, pin buttons and beer bottle caps.
When approached, the man stared warily at the camera.
“No photos please, but feel free to look, yes. If you like them, just pay me any amount and it’s yours,” said the man, who identified himself only as James, a tourist from Great Britain.
He gestured to a cardboard sign that said: “Please help fund my trip. I accept any amounts of cash.”
“I’ve been travelling for close to a year now, jumping from one city in Asia to the next. Been saving up to go to Thailand next,” he said in a crisp British accent.
“I hope to collect enough in two weeks because visitors to Jonker (Street) have been pretty generous,” James added.
James represents a type of tourist that has become a scourge across many cities in Asia, including Hong Kong, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Penang and Melaka — the "begpackers".
These are typically foreign visitors who busk, sell knick-knacks or simply hold a sign asking for money to fund their round-the-world trips.
They have drawn criticism from certain quarters for travelling despite not having the financial means to do so, particularly to places where the tourist dollar is important to the local community.
A small group of begpackers made headlines at Jonker Street in May, when they were pictured on social media selling items near Melaka’s Hard Rock Café Hotel.
AUTHORITIES ISSUE DIRECTIVE TO REMOVE FOREIGN PEDDLERS
In a post on Facebook, Mr Michael Quay described how some of these peddlers threatened to throw his phone into the river when he tried to take pictures of them selling items illegally.
The post brought national attention to the matter. Shortly after that, the New Straits Times reported Melaka city mayor Mansor Sudin announcing that the city council had issued a directive to the enforcement officers to have all the foreign peddlers removed.
"We understand that these people are supposedly here on tourist visas, so how can they do business or sell anything here? That is an offence. We ordered them to leave prudently and they cooperated," he was quoted as saying.
"However, if they had not adhered to our warning, then we would have proceeded to issuing notice, compounding or even confiscating their things."
Mr Mansor added then that the council had stationed two council officers to patrol the area and work together with the police and Immigration Department to stop the tourists from peddling.
Just three months following the directive, begpackers have again been spotted at Jonker Street. CNA saw a total of five people, over two days on Jul 29 and Jul 30, asking for money to fund their travel expenses.
A male US citizen of Chinese descent, who was spotted selling bracelets made of string and everyday items, told CNA that he was trying to fund his plane ticket back to Los Angeles.
“We are not even begging. We are selling items that can be used. And we don’t even disturb anyone, neither the visitors nor the businesses here,” said the man, who declined to be named.
He pointed out that he was contributing to Melaka's tourism because he stayed at a hostel and bought food from eateries in the area.
"Some of the money we earn is used to pay for rent and food. I still pay the RM10 (US$2.38) tourism tax for each night I stay in Malaysia," he said.
"THEY SHOULD BE BUYING FROM LOCALS, NOT THE OTHER WAY AROUND"
Ms Ng Shin Yun, a local who has been operating a licensed drink stand specialising in coconut shakes at Jonker Street for two years, told CNA that she has seen the begpackers every day over the last month.
“They are foreign visitors and they should be buying from locals, not the other way around. Also, they are doing business without a licence or permit or rent while we have to (be subject to these conditions),” she said.
She also expressed hope that the authorities would frequently patrol the area to stop them from operating.
“I don’t see anyone stopping them, and they do it every day from 6pm without fail,” she added.
CNA has reached out to the Melaka Town Council for comments.
While some business owners are unhappy, others noted that the presence of begpackers has no impact on the locals.
Ms Suzy Goh, owner of Kocik Kitchen, a popular Peranakan restaurant near Jonker Street, said that while she is aware of the concerns of locals, she is indifferent to whether action needs to be taken against them.
“I saw the complaints online. Yes, they have been selling near H&M and Hard Rock Hotel. Some of them have tattoos, and are very vulgar, very fierce.
“I know they are not allowed to do this without a licence, and the authorities have clamped down hard on them. But as a Melakan, I have no objections," she said.
She added: “They want to earn their living to have some pocket money. I think it’s fine. If they don’t steal, they don’t rob, I think it’s fine. As long as they don’t block the main entrances of shops or the walking paths for tourists, I’m alright with it.”