Melaka is a town hurtling towards to the future, but within its modern structures dwells a historical spirit that refuses to fade. Paula Tan takes us on a journey through time, discovering a city that refuses to sacrifice its soul.
“We travel, some of us forever, to seek other states, other lives, other souls,” Anais Nin once wrote. And that describes the feeling that infuses me every time I stroll through the historical spectacle that is Melaka.
Land of Milk and Honey
Located toward the south of Peninsular Malaysia, a two-hour drive from Kuala Lumpur, Melaka possesses a rich history that dates back to the 14th century. The Melaka story begins with the fable of the Hindu prince Parameswara, founder of Melaka, and the white mousedeer that inspired him with its spirit when it kicked one of his hunting dogs. Deciding at that very moment to erect a city on the spot he was standing, Parameswara named his new conquest Melaka, a name derived from the Malaka tree he was standing under.
Although its origin is as much romance as history, the fact remains that Parameswara’s new city was located at a point of enormous strategic importance. Midway along the straits that linked China to India and the Near East, Melaka was perfectly positioned as a centre for maritime trade. The city grew rapidly, and within fifty years, blossomed into a wealthy and powerful hub of international commerce, with a population of over 50,000. By the first decade of the 16th century, Melaka was a bustling cosmopolitan port, attracting hundreds of ships each year. The city was known around the world as a hub for the trade of silk and porcelain from China, textiles from Gujarat and Coromandel in India, nutmeg, mace, and cloves from the Moluccas, gold and pepper from Sumatra, camphor from Borneo, sandalwood from Timor, and tin from western Malaya.
War and Peace
All too soon, Melaka attracted the covetous eyes of Europe, which was at the time, extending its power to the East. It was first taken by the Portuguese after a sustained bombardment in 1511. Although the Malays counterattacked, their attempts were unsuccessful. One reason for the strength of the Portuguese defence was the construction of the massive fort of A Famosa, only a small portion of which survives today. A Famosa enabled the Portuguese to control the city until 1641, when the Dutch stormed Melaka after an eight-month siege and a fierce battle, reducing the city to ruins.
Over the next century and a half, they rebuilt the city and employed it largely as a military base, using its strategic location to control the Straits of Melaka. In 1795, when the Netherlands was captured by French Revolutionary armies, Melaka was handed over to the British to avoid capture by the French. Although they returned the city to the Dutch in 1808, it was soon given over to the British once again in a trade for Bencoolen, Sumatra. From 1826, the city was ruled by the English East India Company in Calcutta, although it experienced Japanese occupation from 1942 to 1945.
Independence did not arrive until 1957, when anti-colonial sentiment culminated in a proclamation of independence by Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra Al-Haj, Malaysia’s first Prime Minister.
Heart and Soul
Today’s Melaka is a bustling city that has, in recent years, been declared a UNESCO Heritage site. For the everyday tourist, it does not disappoint in terms of modern attractions. Sunburnt children scream in delight down the giant waterslides of the A Famosa Theme Park, Malaysia’s largest of its kind, while the party set clubs the night away at The Jetty, across from the 5-star Holiday Inn. Fashionistas are spoilt for choice by a budget-friendly selection of popular labels at the many stores and malls that fill the city. However, Melaka’s past is merely slumbering beneath the surface. Turn a corner from the biker crowd at the iconic new Hard Rock Café, and you will find yourself meandering into an earlier century. Mere steps away on Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock, the era of the Kapitan China and Nyonya refinement waits to be rediscovered in the artistry of the nation’s intermarried Chinese immigrants. In small, beautiful museums and boutique hotels, their culture continues to celebrate its past life. Nearby, hymns drift in accompaniment across the breeze from the Church of St Francis Xavier, built in the mid-1800s.
Amidst strains of Gangnam Style and the latest Minion toys that co-exist alongside beaded nyonya slippers on Jonker Street, one still catches an occasional glimpse of a bygone age. You can hear it in the old Portuguese melody strummed by the greyhaired erhu player, awkwardly out of place among strobe lights and gaudy t-shirts. See it in the rapt attention of the elderly, wheelchair-bound gentleman frequently spotted at the retirees’ karaoke stage performances. It returns with unflinching loyalty every evening in the form of the gentle Indian lady who has fed the cats beside the UMNO Museum for decades out of her own meager earnings, and has now transported her charges to the safety of the old fort.
Even as the old kongsi houses that line the Melaka River undergo a facelift (thanks to creative local artists) their cracked walls are adorned with bright murals retelling tales from yesteryear – that of the folk hero Hang Tuah, and of the people who came and made this land their home. Now converted into restaurants and B&Bs, these establishments host visitors from around the globe, a living piece of history to be shared and enjoyed. Here, where the ages merge in a rich palette, it is clear how the city is building a future largely inspired by its past.
As evening shadows lengthen across the Stadthuys’ crimson walls, I spot a middleaged couple at its entrance. Oblivious to everyone else, they are wrapped in the familiar comfort of each other, and for a moment, a thought crosses my mind. In other bodies, other lives, had they shared that very moment more than once? Entertained by the enigma, I reflect on the indomitable spirit of Melaka, forged in fire and battle, yet eternal. As the man reaches for his wife’s hand and she smiles, with no need for conversation, I decide it is possible – especially so in this city reborn.
Homepage highlight photo credit: phalinn, Flickr
Source: The Expat November 2013
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