Malacca: A City of Eclectic Cultures

Malacca, the oldest Malaysian city, was founded by a Sumatran prince in exile, Parameswara, in the rear 1396, and became the first sultanate kingdom among the various states in Malaya. Its golden era was the reign of Sultan Mansur Shah (1458-1477), when it rose to be one of the well-known entreports in the world and an international emporium. Its fame attracted Chinese, Indian, Arab and Southeast Asian traders, with their myriad goods and produces, to trade in the city. Some of the traders subsequently settled and raised their families here and their descendants have helped to mould its plural society into what it is today.

The Kingdom of Malacca came to a tragic end in 1511. It was ruled, successively, by the Portuguese, the Dutch, the British and the Japanese for close to 450 years, all of whom left their varying marks. It became a state of independent Malaya in 1957.

It has achieved many firsts in its turbulent but glorious history. Islam reached Malaya from the Middle East via  Malacca. It has the oldest extant Chinese temple, Christian church, Islamic mosque and Hindu temple in present day Malaysia and neighbouring Singapore; and Tengku Abdul Rahman, the first premier of both Malaya and later Malaysia, first broke the news of Malaya’s impending independence from the British colonial rule to a cheering crowd of 50,000 here. Malaysia came into being in 1963 and now comprises not only the former states of Malaya but also Sarawak and Sabah, with its capital in Kuala Lumpur.

Malacca shares several similarities with another ancient city in Vietnam, Hoian. Both have the rare distinction of having the entire city conferred the coveted World Heritage Site status by UNESCO, both have many centuries old monuments and other historic buildings of Asian and European vintages in very good state of preservation, as well as the fusion of eastern and western cultures, as it, too, was a significant international trading port in  its heyday. Also,  just like Malacca, Hoian was colonised by foreign powers before Vietnam regained its independence.

Malacca  has always been one of the favourite weekend holiday destinations of Singaporeans, as it is only about 220 kilometers from Singapore and it takes about three hours by car to reach there travelling along Malaysia’s excellent North-South Highway. The completion of the Second Link at Tuas, which connects Singapore to Malaysia by a splendid new causeway, is a real boon to Singaporean motorists bound for Malaysia’s historic city of Malacca and further north to Kuala Lumpur and beyond. It has greatly relieved perennial traffic congestion at the older causeway, especially at peak hours and holiday period. Many Singaporeans own seaside condominium apartments in Malacca as their second homes as they are much cheaper than those across the causeway.

Recently, my wife and I had a most enjoyable motoring experience using this new link en route to Malacca for a three-day stay. We cleared the respective immigration checkpoints in next to no time, a commendable feat compared with the three-hour bumper-to-bumper traffic jam we got ourselves into at both ends of the older causeway in last December.

The initial drive to Senai along the expressway was a breeze. The refreshing sight of the seemingly endless stretch of palm oil plantations, bathed in brilliant sunlight and surrounded by vast expanses of uncultivated land with distant mountain peaks, contrasted starkly with the highly-urbanised cityscape of land-hungry Singapore. Arriving at Senai about half an hour later, we entered the  North-South Highway for a straight and smooth two-hour drive to Malacca, exiting at Ayer Keroh.

One often reads about heart-breaking fatal accidents on this highway, sometimes involving whole families. For our own safety, I drove safely and defensively and was ever vigilant in keeping to the speed limit of 110 km. I was also on the constant lookout for reckless drivers and inconsiderate road users, not to mention the occasional straying animals.

Despite its small size, Malacca has much to offer visitors. There are more than fifty attractions listed by the local tourism board, with twenty within the city precincts and the others in the outskirts. With limited time available, and being a regular visitor as it is one of my family’s preferred Malaysian destinations, we decided to take it unhurriedly in order to soak in the ambiance of our favourite spots, and leaving the others for our next trip.

Happily for tourists, many of the popular attractions are conveniently situated in the old town and are best covered by foot or trishaw, whose bilingual rider can cheerfully double up as a knowledgeable guide at no extra cost! But do agree on the fare first.

Our first stop was the History Museum, which is appropriately housed in the Stadhuys, a massive 17th century Dutch edifice. It was the administrative hub of the colonial offices and residence of the Dutch governor and it dominates the entire old town square. This gave us an excellent overview of Malacca’s colourful past and its subsequent development.

Right next door is the impressive Christ Church built by the Dutch, which dates back to 1753. Its original church organ and hand-made pews are still in very good condition. The church bell predated it and is of early 17th century vintage. It is still a thriving church and one of the most visited tourist spots here. There are a couple of notable Catholic churches in other parts of town that are well worth a visit for their outstanding architecture and historical significance.

We continued walking a short distance to the Santiago Gate, the only surviving gate of the once mighty Portuguese fortress built immediately after their conquest of Malacca in 1511. Within its original walls were  churches, hospitals, schools, the governor’s residence and living quarters of other senior government officials. The fortress, which is the pride and the most recognisable landmark of the city, was severely damaged, but later repaired, by the Dutch during their successful siege of Malacca in 1641. It was blown to smithereens by the British occupation forces in 1807 for fear that it might otherwise fall into a hostile hand.

Behind Santiago Gate is the famous ruins of St Paul’s Church, completed around 1520, which sits at the top of St Paul’s Hill which can be reached by concrete steps. The body of the highly-venerated Jesuit priest, St Francis Xavier, a frequent visitor to Malacca and who died in 1552, was interred at this church temporarily before being removed to Goa in India for final entombment. There are many old Portuguese and Dutch tomb stones scattered among the ruins.

From colonial Portuguese and Dutch relics, we climbed up the Bukit China (Chinese Hill), which is some distance from town. It has a fascinating history and is reputed to be the largest Chinese burial ground outside of China. Old tombs abound, with some dating back to the 16th century. Many still have inscriptions on them revealing the identities of the tomb occupants.

The first Chinese probably settled in Malacca during the 15th century. However, following the epic sea voyages of the great Chinese admiral and explorer Zhenghe to Nanyang, including Malacca, and as far as East Africa from 1405-1433 China’s prestige overseas rose immensely, and more Chinese migrated to Malacca and other parts of Southeast Asia. They were warmly received by the natives.

Many legends of the Admiral’s exploits in Malacca have been passed down from generation to generation. An 18th century temple, the Sam Po Kong, is dedicated to his memory. It is at the foot of Bukit China. There is a romantic story about the origins of Bukit China. When Sultan Mansur Shah married Princess Hang Li Poh, a daughter of a Ming emperor, he built her a palace on this hill, with living quarters for the imperial bride and her entourage of 500. He also decreed that it be for the exclusive use of the Chinese community in perpetuity, a promise the state government still honours today. Whether this marriage did happen has never been firmly established and the official Ming History did not record it.

The Cheng Hoon Teng Chinese Taoist temple was founded by Kapitan Tay Hong Yong, the local Chinese chief, in mid-1600s. It is well-preserved, and has elaborately-carved wood works and exquisite stone sculptures as well as delightful lacquer pieces for adornments. It is a must-see for its Ming style architecture when one visits Malacca.

Across the road from the temple is the historic Kampong Kling’s Mosque, which is about  250 years old. Its architectural uniqueness is reflected in the harmonious fusions of  Moorish, Chinese and European influences.

No visit to Malacca is complete without taking a leisurely stroll down the narrow Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock, commonly called the Millionaires’ Row. Built as the town houses of the wealthy Peranakan (local-born) Chinese families, many of these sumptuous terrace houses, measuring some 60 meters from front to rear with courtyards, are 200 to 300 years old. Some are still lived in by the original owners’ descendants, while others had been converted into art galleries and other commercial enterprises.

To experience the once lavish lifestyle of the affluent Babas and Nyonyas, the local-born Chinese men and women , we dropped in at the Peranakan Heritage House, which had an interesting and informative conducted-tour for a small admission fee, to experience the way of life of of the rich here in their heyday before WW II. It was well worth a visit. I was most impressed by the exquisite teak and gold-gilted staircase leading to the spacious living quarters.

When the Portuguese conquered Malacca, they encouraged their men to marry local women and they also brought over from Portugal their own women to be the wives of the high-born local Malay men. They believed that mixed marriages will ensure that their rule will continue indefinitely as these descendants would owe allegiance to Portugal and be proud of their heritage. Thus, the Portuguese Settlement came into being and is still inhabited by their descendants. The more ambitious among them had long ago sought greener pastures in Singapore or Kuala Lumpur and many had become prominent civil servants, lawyers or doctors. Those who stayed behind generally earn their living as fishermen or run modest restaurants or provision shops at the settlement, which is in a suburb of the town. It is not a popular tourist spot except for those interested in Malacca history.

To round off our sightseeing in Malacca, we boarded a large Chinese junk for a 45-minute cruise with commentary on the Malacca River. It had played an important role in the history of this ancient city, especially in its international maritime trade, the daily life of its residents and in its defence against the invading forces. We passed very close to the old quarters, with their centuries old houses and other well known landmarks and old settlements. These gave us a better insight into this delightful town and its changing fortunes through the vicissitude of times. I will certainly recommend this interesting and informative cruise to all visitors.

Jalan Hang Jebat, the renowned Antiques Row, runs parallel to the Millionaires’ Row, and boasts of more than 50 antique shops and art galleries. A few even have cafes at the rear. It is de rigueur for all visitors to spend an enjoyable time here to browse and, perchance, to find an exceptional bargain! Among the good buys are antique Nyonya silver belts and other Peranakan ornaments. Some Singaporeans are drawn to reproductions of antique Malacca furniture and old Nyonya ware porcelain with its polychrome of colours.
Yet another delight is the ubiquitous Peranakan food, being a mixed Chinese and Malay cuisines, which has a distinctive and unique flavour all its own. Although the dishes are somewhat limited in variety,  they are so delicious that it is easy to be addicted to it.

We love coming to Malacca from time to time because of its medieval feel and laid-back charm of a bygone age. We particularly enjoy traversing its back lanes and alleyways which make us feel like being transported back in time to the 19th century.

Be that as it may, Malacca is no longer a “sleepy hollow” it once was. Several new townships have sprung up, with quality shops, chic restaurants, ultra-modern condominiums and theme parks to enhance them. There are also international-class hotels and holiday resorts to cater to the more demanding tourists, besides the budget hotels for the cost conscious ones.

All too soon our exhilarating and relaxing holiday came to an end. But we know that we will be back again before long.

Lam Pin Foo
1.11.08

One thought on “Malacca: A City of Eclectic Cultures

  1. its heartening to read how you like malacca. and yes, you are right its not so a sleepy hollow anymore esp weekends. its weird that as much as i want it to be buzzing, but i dont want it to progress to another city in malaysia. haha.

    but if tourists like you and all still enjoy the a bit more modern malacca, then i guess its fine 🙂

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