Home > Going Places > Story E-Mail this page || Print this page

Malacca: The Transition

Hugh and Colleen Gantzer witness first-hand the evolution of a historic, colonial city to a new age urban hub

Kuala Lumpur is, in most ways, a First World capital: broad roads, high-rises, glitz, glamour, razzmatazz, good dining, great shopping. If that’s what you are looking for then there’s no alternative to Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia. But if you prefer to travel at a more leisurely pace, probing behind the facade, savouring varied lifestyles and the byways of history, then Malacca, or ‘Melaka’ as the Malaysians prefer to call it, is the place for you. (We will call it ‘Malacca’ before Independence, and ‘Melaka’, after).

The proclamation of Independence memorial building
The Stadhuys, once the mansion of the Dutch governor with a mock windmill in front
Remains of the fort of A’ Famosa
Laughing Malay Muslim girls
The rebuilt palace of the Sultan of Malacca
The diorama of a Sultanís court
Shopping in Malacca

Melaka certainly captured our imaginations, and also snuggled into a warm place in our hearts. We have a soft spot for Kochi, where we spent many years; and Melaka reminded us of that Keralan city on the sea and a slow-flowing estuary. Melaka, too, is on the sea and the unhurried Melaka River. Both Malacca and Cochin...as Kochi was then known...became major trading centres under the aggressive Portuguese, Dutch and British: and left their imprint on the town and its people.

We checked into an interesting leisure resort outside Melaka. But though we were impressed by its extensive green grounds... designed for golf, tennis, horse-riding, dining, a water park and even a stockaded ‘Cowboy Village’... we still wondered why it was called A’ Famosa. We thought that it had something to do with the Taiwanese peninsula, and had been misspelt! We were wrong. A’ Famosa is the name of the fort built by the Portuguese in 1511 when Alfonso d’Albuquerque took over the town from the Malays. We drove in from A’ Famosa resort to the base of the hill on which A’ Famosa fort stood; and that’s where our discovery of Melaka began.

There’s not much left of the fort; but whatever there is, owes its existence to Sir Stamford Raffles, the founder of Singapore. He persuaded the irate Dutch to stop demolishing it, when they ousted the Portuguese in 1641. We walked through the massive stone gateway; trudged up the long flight of steps; and entered the shell of the Church of Our Lady on the Hill, renamed St Paul’s by the Dutch. A statue of St Francis Xavier stands outside. The missionary-saint was buried here in 1553 before his body was transferred to Goa.

When we paused to catch our breaths, on a slightly humid day, we looked down and saw Melaka spreading at our feet. The Portuguese, questing for food-preserving and flavoursome spices, must have prided themselves for securing such a rich prize. At the base of the hill, and slightly to the left, was the re-built Palace of the Sultan from whom the self-righteous Iberians had snatched Malacca.

The Palace has the multiple roofs associated with the temples and palaces of Kerala and China. Inside this wooden monument, for that is what it is, we saw many features which reminded us of the stately homes of Kerala: long wall-benches; rails with curvilinear balusters; perforated wooden screens. But the most striking resemblance was the diorama of a Sultan’s court which could have been a replica of the court of the kings of Travancore. The first king of Melaka was Parameshvara who, in all likelihood, was of Indian descent. Murals in the main hall depict the legend of how the king chose the location of Malacca because he saw a normally timid mouse-deer challenge his ferocious hunting dogs, here.

The descendants of the Sultans must have been gleeful when the arrogant Portuguese were evicted by the dour Dutch.

We drove past a replica of a Portuguese galleon to the flower-bright square where the old Dutch buildings stood, carefully preserved in all their red glory. The Stadhuys, once the mansion of the Dutch Governor, hulked at one side, smug in its status as a History and Ethnography Museum; at the far end was Christ Church built by the Dutch in 1753. Someone, to underscore a visual point, had erected a mock windmill overlooking the slow, brown river. Tourists in jeans and mini-skirts were being pedalled around in decorated rickshaws; others hunted in the souvenir shops built into the ground floors of buildings once occupied by the Netherlanders. Laughing Malay Muslim girls drifted through the square-like windblown petals, delighted with all this activity.

Malaysians are, clearly, very comfortable with their history and have no desire to downplay their colonial past. In fact they use it to prove how far they have come and the excellent tourist office, across the busy street from the Dutch square, offers a great deal of information about the sources of Malaysia’s eclectic heritage.

Thanks to the tourist office we decided to head for a fascinating network of winding streets and lanes around the famous Jonker Street. This haven for antique collectors is now known as Jalan Hang Jebat but though its displays appealed to us we are not great collectors. We much preferred to trace the roots of the many ethnic strains that make up the Malaysian people.

The Cheng Hoon Teng Temple is the oldest Chinese temple in Malaysia. It was built in 1648 and has a resplendent interior. A burly man in a black bush shirt emblazoned with golden dragons told us that Buddhists, Taoists and Confucianists alike, worshiped in this temple. A young woman in a blouse and skirt, an old man with a wispy white beard, and an executive in a button-down shirt and tie, prostrated themselves and filled the air with the smoking fragrance of their joss sticks.

A short distance away we stopped at the Sri Poyyatha Vinayagar Temple. A bare-chested pujari informed us that it was the property of the ‘Chetty Malaka Community’. A government pamphlet said: ‘Chittys are Straits-born Indians and offsprings (sic) of Indian traders who came from Panai. These people embrace the Hindu faith...’ None of the pujaris could tell us where, exactly, Panai was but they were certain that it was somewhere in India!

Around the corner from the temple, we came to the high wall of the Kampong Kling Mosque. Though there is reason to believe that Islam was brought to Asia by the missionary Abu Bakr, who built the first mosque in Kerala, there is nothing Indian about this masjid. Many of its architectural features, we were told, seem to have come from Sumatra, in Indonesia. We are not sure, however, if the multi-tiered roof, the absence of a dome, and the strange, pagoda like minaret are of Sumatran origin. As a major port on the east-west sea-lanes, Malacca attracted settlers from all over Asia. In the Baba-Nyonya Heritage Museum we saw how the marriages of Straits Chinese with Malay women, created the rich cultural traditions of the Baba-Nyonya people with their own dress, customs, and cuisine.

Sunset had begun to cast long, soft, shadows when we drove back to the base of A’ Famosa hill. Here, we walked around a museum with an excellent display of photographs, charts and documents which encapsulates Malaysia’s struggle for freedom from British rule. Forty-six years ago, Tunku Abdul Rehman had led a delegation of his people to Britain. They returned via Singapore and Malacca. On the 20th of February 1956, in Malacca, the Tunku announced that the British had agreed to give independence to the Federation of Malaya. We stood in the pillared portico of the memorial to Malaysia’s successful quest for its rightful place in the sun. This impressive building had once been a retreat for many starchy Brits who, fortified by whiskies, loudly proclaimed that ‘the natives’ were not fit to rule themselves. Fittingly, this former Outpost of Empire has now become the Proclamation of Independence Memorial in historic Melaka.

Fact File
  • Getting there
    Malacca is located on the West Coast of Peninsular Malaysia facing the Straits of Malacca, about 147 kilometres from Kuala Lumpur between the states of Negeri Sembilan and Johor. It covers an area of 1,638 sq. metres and is divided into three region namely Alor Gajah, Central Malacca and Jasin. If you are in West Malaysia, the best way to travel to Malacca is by road. Travelling down south via the North-South Highway from the KLIA (Kuala Lumpur International Airport) takes only 90 minutes. If you are travelling from KL, the journey is about 2 hours.
  • Accommodation
    This ranges from the 5-star Malacca Renaissance Hotel (RM 450-725) Fax: 06-2835351; through 4-star ones like The City Bayview Hotel (RM 318-518) Fax: 06-2836699; 3-star ones like Grand Continental Melaka Hotel (RM 200-240) Fax: 06-2848125; 2-star ones like Air Keroh Country Resort (RM 150-500) Fax: 06-2320422 down to 1-star Selecstar Hotel (RM 77-115) Fax: 06-2811668.
    Or stay an hour’s drive away at the A’Famosa Resort Hotel, Fax: (6)06-5528101.
  • Local delicacies
    Malacca is well-known for its baba and nyonya style spicy cooking which normally gets served with rich coconut milk. There are numerous specialist baba and nyonya restaurants in town and the suburb area where they serve the mouth watering food, not only known to be the best in Malacca, but in the South East Asia region too. Then there’s the ‘satay celup’ (Satay stick with raw meat/Vegas dipped in hot boiling satay sauce for cooking), ‘ikan bakar’ which literally means barbecue fish served in grilled aluminium foil or banana leaf heavily marinated with spices that tingle the senses.
  • Shopping
    Malacca is truly an antique shopper's paradise. Many artifacts and authentic antique items are available at more than 15 antique shops lining the busy streets of Jonker Street, affectionately known as the ‘street of antiques’ and is well known among the international antique collectors. The street is named Jalan Hang Jebat.