During our circumnavigation, with our yacht Pacific Bliss safely docked near Port Dickson, we were told that we should see historic Melaka, the birthplace of Malaysia. “If you go there, you will discover the soul of the nation.” Of course, I had to go!

Reportedly, Melaka is the Malaysia of yesteryear, the one broadcast to the western world by writers such as Conrad, Kipling and Maugham. Somerset Maugham describes this city-state best in Far Eastern Tales:

“A long line of rickshaws and little men running between the shafts…running with dogged steps…the sampans wedged up against each other like sardines in a tin…Chinese shops where strange medicines are sold…Bombay merchants, fat and exuberant, standing at their shop doors selling silk and tinseled jewellery…Tamils, pensive and forlorn, walking with a sinister grace…bearded Arabs in white skull caps, bearing themselves with scornful dignity…a multi-colored and excessive world.”

I wanted to gain a feel for those times gone by so we planned a tour. Gunter hired a car and driver—all day for 160 ringgits (about $43 US) and we departed, backtracking south along the coast for two-hour ride past massive industrial and land reclamation projects, condo developments, and businesses—many of them abandoned since the thwarted economic boom of the 1990s.

After we arrived, we instructed our driver to pick us up at 5 p.m. and we set off to take the Lonely Planet walking tour of old-town Melaka. The tour began at a charming town square featuring a garden with a working windmill. My Scandinavian mother would have loved this! A row of bicycle-driven rickshaws decorated with colorful plastic flowers and delicate parasols waited for passengers alongside the garden. Tourist stalls nearby overflowed with goods from all over Southeast Asia. We continued walking past an ancient cathedral and the old town hall with a massive clock tower, both built in the traditional Dutch architectural style. This city has a most intriguing multicultural heritage, from Southeast Asian sultanates to European traders—the beginning of modern Malaysia.

Dutch-themed town square, Melaka

Dutch-themed town square, Melaka

Dutch windmill at Melaka Town Square

Dutch windmill at Melaka Town Square

Waiting rickshaws, Melaka, Malaysia

Waiting rickshaws, Melaka, Malaysia

Back in the 14th century, Melaka was just another lazy fishing village. That was before it attracted the attention of Parameswara, a Hindu pirate/priest from Sumatra, Indonesia. In 1398, the rogue priest fled to Singapore. Later, he sailed to Melaka and set up new headquarters. Under Parameswara, Melaka flourished. It became a favored port for waiting out monsoons and resupplying trading ships plying the Selat Melaka, the current Malacca Strait. This port, strategically located between India and China with easy access to the Spice Islands of Indonesia, attracted merchants from all over the east. In 1405, the famed Chinese Admiral Cheng Ho arrived in Melaka bearing gifts from the Ming emperor as well as a promise of protection from Siamese enemies approaching from the north (now Thailand). Based on these early contacts with China, settlers followed and became known as the Baba or Nonya (Straits Chinese). They are the longest settled Chinese people in Malaysia and over the centuries mixed Malaysian customs with their own. The port experienced the inevitable squabbles and intrigues, but by the time of Parameswara’s death in 1414, Melaka was already a powerful trading state.

Melaka came into contact with Islam through traders from India, and in 1424, the third ruler of Melaka converted to Islam. Then his son, Mudzaffer Shah, took the title of Sultan and made Islam the state religion. From Melaka, he disseminated Islam through all of the Indonesian archipelago. He attracted Muslim Indian merchants from competing Sumatran ports and consolidated his area of control. Eventually, the Melaka sultans ruled over the greatest empire in Malaysia’s history and successfully repelled Siamese (Thai) attacks. The Malay language became the lingua franca of trade in the region, and Melaka produced the first major piece of Malay literature, the Malay Annals, the history of the Sultanate.

But all this glory ended when Europeans came on the scene. Melaka entered a period of steady and inevitable decline. It is a typical story of European conquest: the Portuguese arrived in 1509 seeking the wealth of spice and trade with China, but after an initial friendly reception, the Malaccans attacked and took Portuguese prisoners. This prompted an assault, and in 1511 Alfonso de Albuquerque took the city, causing the Sultan to flee to Johor, where he re-established his kingdom. Missionaries came and Catholicism was implanted. But while cannons could conquer, the Portuguese could not force Muslim merchants from Arabia and India to continue trading there. Other ports such as Java overshadowed Melaka.

The port city suffered attacks from neighboring Johor and Sembilan, as well as from the Islamic power of Aceh in Sumatra. Dutch influence grew throughout Indonesia; Batavia (modern Jakarta) developed as the key European port of the region. In 1641, Melaka passed into Dutch hands after an eight-month siege. They ruled for 150 years, and Melaka was again a center for peninsular trade. The Dutch, however, put more emphasis into their possessions in the Indonesian archipelago.

By 1795, back in Europe, the French Revolution was raging and the French had occupied Holland. Britain was an ally of the Dutch and offered to take over administration of the Dutch colonies to prevent their falling into French hands. The British administration was principally focused on enhancing trade, so they abolished the monopolistic trading policies of the Dutch. The Brits also feared rivalry with the Dutch traders, so they forcibly removed the Dutch population up the coast to Penang. They wanted to weaken Melaka, so that if it were ever returned to the Dutch, it could not rival their own Malayan ports! Fortunately, the farsighted Sir Thomas Raffles stepped in to propose a win-win compromise: Melaka was permanently ceded to the British in 1824 in exchange for another Sumatran port. Now the British had control of Singapore, Melaka, and Penang, called the Strait Settlements, the basis for further expansion into the Malay Peninsula. Under the British, it was Singapore that became the preferred seaport while the importance of Melaka declined. Today, the port of Singapore handles 50% of the world’s shipping and 90% of Japan’s oil.

A River Runs through it, Melaka, Malaysia

A River Runs through it, Melaka, Malaysia

My favorite stop on the tour was the Baba Nyonya Heritage Museum: across the river from the town square. The house has been converted into a private museum by the descendants of a wealthy Baba-Nonya family. (Baba-Nonya is a common term here for ethnic Chinese-Malays.) These Chinese immigrant-traders intermarried with the local Malays and adopted many of their customs. This particular museum, though, is even more multicultural: it depicts the lifestyle and furnishings of the marriage of a European trader with a wealthy Chinese woman of class—a fascinating east-meets-west story. The exhibit includes Victoria-patterned china for entertaining western guests as well as sets of “Nyonya-ware,” multi-colored ceramic designs from Jiangxi and Guangdong provinces in China, made specifically for the Straits Chinese. I learned that the traditional blue-and-white Chinese china with which we are familiar was used only for special occasions such as funerals. Pastel china was for every-day use.

Pottery in a Melakan gift shop

Pottery in a Melakan gift shop

Furniture in the home is magnificent and massive: Chinese hardwoods are used in a mixture of Chinese, Victorian, and Dutch design with mother-of-pearl inlay. Marble surfaces have been imported from Italy. The staircase to the upper bedroom levels was carved by craftsmen brought in from China. The ceramic tile is Nyonya style: a blend of pink, yellow, dark-blue, and green. An open courtyard in the center of the combined townhouses allows light and fresh air. I’m impressed with the tiled drain—surrounded by potted plants—built to catch the rainfall. Our Chinese guide clarified displays depicting funeral and wedding customs and attire, the entertainment of guests, and how parlor games were played.

We continued to walk along Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock, a street also known as “Millionaires Row,” filled with more luxurious town homes of this style. Then we walked past numerous narrow long townhouses that had been converted into shops; they displayed goods for sale at the street entrances, but their private back yards were replete with traditional courtyards and fountains.

The highlight of Melaka’s Chinatown for me was the Cheng Hoon Teng Temple, dedicated to the goddess of mercy. It is the oldest Chinese temple in Malaysia, dating back to 1646. All of the building materials—and the artisans to build it—were imported from China. The temple’s interior is an explosion of black, red and gold. I watched, fascinated, as Chinese worshippers lit incense sticks and candles and presented their offerings.

Temple Street, Melaka

Temple Street, Melaka

Lighting incense at the temple

Lighting incense at the temple

After we returned to Pacific Bliss, I asked myself, “Did we discover Malaysia’s soul?” For sure, this visit to Melaka was a good beginning. I now understand more about the country’s culture and heritage. As was the case with most countries we sailed through, we needed to pause and stay for a while, observe, and interact. Discovery is always a process; it is never a quick fix.

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