Of all Malaysia’s World Heritage sites, Malacca (now Melaka) is a fascinating melange of culture and history. It’s only a couple of hour’s drive from Malaysia’s sleek high rise capital, Kuala Lumpur, yet it’s a world away when you compare Melaka’s old-world ambience to that of Malaysia’s capital.
World Heritage Sites
You could spend days wandering around Melaka’s historic centre where the buildings are a potpourri of Malay, Portuguese, Dutch, British and Chinese architecture. Walking around Melaka is like strolling through a living museum where shops, restaurants, hotels and homes are housed in historic buildings. Many of these buildings also house museums that exhibit the city’s wealth of history.
The port of Melaka was founded in the 14th century by Parameswara, a Sumatran prince. It was once a thriving centre for traders from China, India, Arabia and Europe.
Melaka’s history reads like a children’s fairytale. Legendary warriors such as Hang Jebat and Hang Tuah were part of Sultan Mansur Shah’s coterie. The Sultan and his warriors lived during Melaka’s romantic age of magic and mystery.
The original palace occupied by the Sultan and his warriors burnt to the ground centuries ago but fortunately for history lovers it has been reconstructed and now houses Melaka’s Cultural Museum.
The museum is a three-storey building with chambers and galleries that display Malay weapons, Malay traditional wedding costumes, jewellery, brassware and the royal bedchamber. Exhibits include prints and photographs.
Ming Dynasty princess
During the 1400s, Ming Dynasty princess Hang Li Po was sent to Melaka by the Emperor of China to marry Sultan Mansur Shah. Hang Li Po brought 500 attendants and followers with her to live in Melaka. Evidence of this migration can be found at Bukit China, China Hill, which is the largest Chinese graveyard outside China with 12,000 graves.
Admiral Zheng He (or Cheng Ho) is believed to have accompanied the princess on her journey. In 2000 local historians in Melaka discovered a cluster of dilapidated buildings which they believed were built during the Ming Dynasty by Zheng He’s men.
The Chinese explorer, who is popularly referred to as the Christopher Columbus of Asia, is revered in Melaka. And one of the best ways to learn about Zheng He is to visit Melaka’s Cheng Ho Culture Museum, a four-storey building dedicated to the admiral. The Cheng Ho Museum has exhibits 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. An impressive Ming Dynasty bell stands in a courtyard.
There is no other explorer in history that has attracted the controversy that surrounds the Chinese voyager. 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 Portuguese were the first Europeans to make their mark on Melaka. Alfonso de Albuquerque’s Portuguese fleet captured Melaka from Sultan Mahmud Shah in 1511. The Portuguese ruled until the Dutch took control in 1641. Then in 1795, the British booted the Dutch out and ruled until Malaysia gained independence in 1957.
The original wooden bridge that was the main target of Portuguese attack still stands today. Tourists swarm through the remains of A Formosa “the famous” Fort that protected the Portuguese for 130 years.
Near the fort there are 140 steps that lead to the ruins of the Church of St Paul built in 1521 by a Portuguese sea captain. At the ruins, you can buy rice-paper water colour paintings of the river and the town. But remember to haggle.
In Dutch Square, sightseers click away at the historic buildings. Rows of trishaws line the shaded sidewalk. Trishaw drivers rest with their feet on the handlebars, listening to traditional music while they wait for the next customer that will have them peddling furiously beneath the blazing sun.
The main building in Dutch Square is Stadhuys, a distinctive Dutch colonial architectural structure with solid doors, louvered windows and bricks imported from Holland. Stadhuys is now home to the History and Ethnography Museum. But it was once the town hall and the Dutch seat of power during the 17th century.
Spice shops and antique galleries
Throughout the city, narrow streets built for oxcarts and rickshaws are lined with mysterious-looking shops that beckon enticingly. Jalan Hang Jebat or Jonker Street is an antique-lover’s paradise for both genuine and reproduction antiques. Narrow terrace shops are piled high with furniture, porcelain, silverware and brassware that once belonged to sailors, princes and wealthy traders.
The spice shops are packed with wicker baskets of nutmeg, cinnamon, cardamom and dry chillies. Other shops are jam-packed with souvenirs, sandals and clothes. Art galleries displaying modern art, traditional oil and Chinese paintings sit side-by-side with western-style cafes, bars and local eateries.
Amongst the warren of antique stores is the aptly named Street of Harmony. This is perhaps the only place in the world where three houses of worship from three different faiths stand almost side by side – a mosque, a Buddhist temple and a Hindu temple.
The legacy of Melaka’s multicultural past can be experienced by investigating the city’s unique cultural enclaves. One such cultural gem, the Baba & Nyonya museum, is tucked away amongst the antique shops. The museum is a restored Chinese Baroque mansion with Neo-Classical European architecture. It pays homage to the unique Baba and Nyonya culture mainly found in Melaka, Penang and Singapore.
The Baba and Nyonya’s (or Peranakan Chinese) were Chinese settlers who assimilated their culture with the Malay language, culture, spicy cuisine and dress style, yet retained most of their ethnic Chinese religious customs, including the practice of ancestor worship.
Among the museum’s highlights is a Chinese Blackwood dining set with inlaid mother-of-pearl, Dutch and Victorian antique pieces and a magnificent carved hardwood staircase decorated with gold leaf ornamentation.
When the British colonised Malaya, the Babas and Nyonyas earned the nickname “King’s Chinese” because they gave their children British educations and embraced British culture; many converted to Christianity.
The delicious spicy Nyonya cuisine is one of Melaka’s delights. The food is fresh and cheap. Popular dishes such as Nyonya Laksa, a spicy dish of noodles cooked in thick, curried gravy with hints of lime leaves and cockles, Nyonya Popiah, tightly packed spring rolls filled with sliced prawns and a variety of vegetables can be ordered at any Nyonya restaurant.
The roads at the Portuguese Settlement have names like Texeira and Sequeira. Crucifixes and framed portraits of the Virgin Mary hang on the walls in the homes.
The Portuguese part of town leads to the waterfront, where there are plenty of local al-fresco restaurants that dish up aromatic food. On the menu you’ll find curry and cook barbecued fish wrapped in aluminium foil. Papa Joe’s Restaurant in Medan Portuguese (Portuguese Square) is the place to watch Portuguese folk dancing. You could easily be somewhere in South America not Malaysia. Dance troups of young men and women dressed in Portuguese peasant costumes entertain diners. The women wear flouncy skirts with puffy-sleeved blouses, stockings and red-patterned scarves. The young men are smartly dressed in bolero-style suits with red waistbands. The sport black hats.
Melaka’s Portuguese community has clung to Portuguese traditions, religion and language passed down through the generations, mixing these with aspects of Malay culture. Although they live in Malay-style houses, speak fluent Bahasa Malaysia (the national language and language of the Malay people) and dress in traditional Malay clothing, the community is staunchly Catholic.
Their unique inheritance is a Creole Portuguese, Papia Kristang, spoken only among members of the community (although a similar language is spoken in Macau).
A visit to Kampong Chitty offers another interesting peek into yet another aspect of Melaka’s culture. The Chitty community has a low profile, even within Malaysia. Long before Hindu prince Parameswara founded Melaka in 1401, traders from the Kalinga Empire on the Coromandel Coast of south-eastern India had already found this spice nirvana.
Over the years, their descendants gradually lost contact with their homeland and adopted local customs. Chitty traders thrived during the Portuguese rule but when the Dutch arrived the new conquerors moved the Chitties to a two-hectare plot of farmland and relegated them to a life of farming.
Up until today, the Chitties have remained committed Hindus. They have classical Hindu names and are divided into castes that are identified by their last names, such as the Raja (ruler), Naiker (farmer) and Pathair (goldsmith).
They continue to invite priests from southern India to conduct rites in Sanskrit (even though no one in the Chitty community understands the language). But this is where the connection with their ancestry ends. Their features are more Malay than Indian, as is their attire, cuisine and language.
The Chitty Living Gallery has displays of antiques, such as a Malay wedding Kris knife, an antique European-style clock, a rusty charcoal iron, metal water containers and crystal decanters.