LET’S get this straight. That Malacca has evolved, as one of Malaysia’s leading cultural and heritage sites was not planned. The Sultanate may have been established there with a view to longevity, and the Baba Nyonya peoples of the region developed a new culture from their shared Malay and Chinese lineage but the colonial powers of Portugal, Holland and Britain which have left such an indelible mark on the region were thinking more of their immediate commercial gain than leaving a lasting legacy.
That so much of these disparate traditions remain intact in Malacca is again a minor miracle in a country that has undergone rapid industrialisation and urbanisation in its post-colonial period that have ravaged heritage sites in the peninsula’s major cities. It’s fashionable for expats to insist, over drinks in upmarket eateries that there is little culture left in Malaysia. Afternoons are spent in wistful remembrance of the National, the Guggenheim or the architecture of old New York, the memories and the wine flowing swiftly downstream. So, instead of bemoaning what there isn’t, concentrate on what there is. Sure, maybe in KL things take a little more finding but in Malacca it’s all laid on, and easily accessible; on foot of all things! Head for the old town and make sure you get there by lunchtime so that you can try out chicken rice balls that are the city’s speciality. Dipped in chicken fat, these cholesterol filled delicacies will fill you full of the calories you’ll need to soak up all the culture.
Most tours start out in the heart of the old city, the Town Square, at heart of the former colonial administration. For many Europeans it’s an unsettling experience because its appearance, that of an old European market square, is so incongruous in its tropical Malaysian setting. Dominating the square is the astoundingly pink Christ Church chapel. Built by the Dutch to celebrate a century of colonial rule in the region, the inside of this imposing structure is simple and austere in the Dutch Protestant tradition and oddly, features no aisles. However, with its hand-carved pews and the plaques and gravestones that catalogue the plagues and conflicts that befell the early European settlers, the church is a first-hand and very personal monument to the four hundred years of colonial dominance in the town.
Also on the Town Square, the Stadthuys, or Town Hall was the seat of colonial power in Malacca and its environs. Its traditional Dutch design may be ill-suited to the local climate but it still cuts an authoritative figure in the town with its picturesque shutter windows and fairytale air of officialdom. Today it’s home to no fewer than three museums, each charting a different aspect of Malacca’s progression. The History Museum’s collection of original paintings, maps, lithographs and photographs is a pictorial history of the town and its peoples, and each item is well catalogued, leaving the visitor in no doubt as to its provenance.
The Literature Museum is more specialised but for those interested in a deeper knowledge of the town, its research possibilities are worth many hours of visits though it is quite likely that the casual visitor will be more attracted to the Ethnographic Museum that offers detailed background knowledge about the culture and traditions of the various tribes and ethnic groups that were attracted to the region and have spawned many traditions that are now enshrined in Malacca and indeed Malaysia as a whole.
Just 50 metre around the corner, those of a more athletic bent may want to take a quick walk up the steps of Bukit St Paul to St Paul’s Church. In ruins today, this former Catholic Church is part of the heritage of the short-lived Portuguese occupation of the city. Used by the Dutch until the completion of Christ Church, the church, with its dominant position overlooking the coast, was subsequemtly used as a gunpowder store by the British administration, which also added a lighthouse in place of one of the towers. Today, the church has a serene feel despite the bustling art market that has sprung up around and inside it. Coupled with the impressive view, it’s one of the most affecting parts of the city and makes a lasting impression on those who visit it.
At the foot of Bukit St Paul, on Jalan Kota, is the People’s Museum. Not the prettiest of Malacca’s buildings, it offers a comprehensive insight into the customs of the region’s indigenous cultures and for those with a strong constitution offers exhibits that explain traditions like foot-binding, head-shaping, tattooing and many other strange practices that we insist on subjecting our bodies to. All for the bargain price of RM2. Not more than a stone’s throw from the People’s Museum is the elegant villa, formerly the British establishment haunt the Malacca Club, that now houses the Memorial Pengisyhtiharaan Kemerdekan, or Proclamation of Independence Hall. The building and club that provided the backdrop to W. Somerset Maugham’s 1927 Novel Footprints in the Jungle is now a monument to the events that led up to Malaysia’s independence, though with rather more patriotic fervour than some may be comfortable with. Just as interesting is the collection of vehicles in the quad in front of the museum, including the 1957 Chevy used by Malaysia’s first Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra al-Haj.
Perhaps the most striking artifact of Malacca’s colonial past is the Porta de Santiago, the doorway to what was once the Portuguese stronghold of A’Famosa. With its 3m thick walls, the fort, dating from the 16th Century was seen to be such a threat to the British that they had it destroyed when they moved the seat of colonial power to Penang in 1795. Only the intervention of Sir Stamford Raffles, the founder of Singapore, saved the fort from being completely razed, and the Porta de Santiago, with its glistening cannons, is all that remains.
Next door to this ancient monument is an altogether modern feat of ingenuity; the Istana Kesultanan, a recreation of a 15th Century Malay Palace. Constructed entirely from wood, and using no nails, this phenomenal building with its mulit-layered roofs is home to the Muzium Budaya or Cultural Museum. Illustrating just how much more advanced Malacca is at cataloguing its history and catering to tourists than the rest of Malaysia, the Muzium Budaya gives a fascinating insight into the development of Malacca and all its cultures. Of particular interest is the Sultan’s court exhibit where the warriors Hang Tuah and Hang Jebat fight to the death. If you’ve managed to get this far down the Heritage Trail without pausing for breath you will certainly be ready for a break by now. If you feel like trying something leisurely authentic, a few dollars will buy you a ride on a traditional, if smelly, ox cart around the Padang Pahlawan (Warriors Field) in front of the Porta de Santiago. And once this is done, you can have a look around the adjacent market selling local foodstuffs like the thick syrupy gula melaka or the pungent shrimp paste cincaluk. It’s touristy fare for the most part – wooden key rings and cheap prints – but there are some interesting items hidden away, though it will take a skilled bargaineer to get them at anything like a reasonable price.
Hidden away in the maze of streets that make up the Chinatown area are a number of temples and mosques that you can stumble across almost by accident. A pleasant way of discovering them is to combine your stroll with the week-end night markets that offer everything from duck rice to the charcoal braziers serving dried, grilled squid and otak otak. There are a number of tourist bars in the area if you fancy a drink but it’s more pleasant to sit at one of the many kopi tiam in the area and enjoy a cold beer with the smells of incense from one of the many Buddhist temples wafting across. If you still have energy and inclination by this point, the Baba Nyonya Heritage Museum and Chee Mansion are worth a visit, and of course there’s always Little India to explore with the impressive St Francis Xavier Church as a backdrop, not forgetting the Makam Hang Tuah (the tomb of legendary warrior Hang Tuah) and the ancient Cheng Hoon Teng Temple. In truth, as Malacca’s town council uncovers and improves ever more sites, it’s a list that’s growing almost as fast as Malacca’s new town. Which is all the reason you need to check your cynicism and keep on returning.
This article has been edited for Expat Go
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