“You say Melaka, I say Malacca, Let’s call the whole thing…”
The cool, bare wooden floorboards are dark polished teak and lovely on my hot, dusty traveller’s feet. The old Chinese shophouse has a facade of pink, peeling paint flowers and high battened ceilings.
Outside the traffic noise is deafening – scooters humming and beeping. The faded historical buildings in the town centre give a very familiar European feeling. However, I’m not in small town Italy or Portugal, I’m in Malaysia.
Melaka was once at the centre of world politics and trade. It’s position overlooking the vital sea route – the Straits of Melacca – and a safe anchorage in which ships waited for the monsoon winds to change and carry them back to Europe made it a place where fortunes could be made, and lost.
It was what is known as an entrepot, a trading post that does not impose duties on importing goods. The traders who controlled Melaka could then onsell at a profit to ships going onward to other markets. Rich and varied goods from all over the world poured into this floating marketplace.
As a result the 16th century European powers – the Portuguese, followed by the Dutch and then British – fought bitterly over this scrap of land. “Whoever is Lord in Malacca has his hand on the throat of Venice,” the infamous privateer Barbarossa supposedly said.
The 500-year-old Santiago Gate is all that is left of the Portuguese time. A‘Famosa was their fortification, taken over by the Dutch East India Company and finally destroyed by the British so that it could not be used against them. Stamford Raffles allowed only a single gate to remain.
The Maritime Museum is set inside a restored Portuguese ‘Noa’ ship, where I read about the well regulated trading administration of Melaka that was based on Islamic principles. Curiously I find reference to “the kiwi law”. From what I could infer I think a kiwi was the title of an official responsible for the trading on each ship. Whatever it was I’m sure it was a good thing.
As the heat of the day relents into a balmy evening, I’m sitting on the grassy bank outside St Paul’s church on the hill. A cowled St Francis Xavier looks down on the town from an alcove in benediction. Across the red roofs of harbourside warehouses the sea glitters. It is a very peaceful evening and I reflect that Melaka could now be described as a cultural backwater, past glories long fled.
But just think of all the different languages that must have been spoken on Melaka’s streets over the centuries! Catholic Eurasians spoke a medieval Portuguese dialect called Cristao but we’re not just talking about the representatives of the abovementioned European empires. There were Indian, Moslem and Chinese traders stopping here long before Alfonso de Albequerque turned his mind and a trading mission to Melaka in 1509.
Chinese settlers merged with indigenous Malay culture to create a unique strain of ‘Straits Chinese’. The ancestral homes of the Nonya are in Chinese Palladian style, with carved teak doors and red lanterns strung up that open into courtyards sweet with the smell of incense and the sound of water.
Rows of hand-painted tiles reflect an embroidery of cranes and flowers in silks so faded they have a translucent sheen.
The Cheng Hoon Teng Temple is the oldest Chinese temple in the country, built in 1646 and its roof is a mass of ornately carved mythological dragons and flowers in bright lacquer colours. Each house has its own shrine, whether elaborate or humble, piled with flowers and fruit bought at the nearby market.
The Straits-born Indians termed themselves “Chittys” and brought a dogmatic Hinduism. The Kampung Kling Mosque is one of the oldest in Malaysia, with Sumatran architectural features and a Moorish-style minaret – another incredible melding of east and west.
Melaka may now languish in the shadows of history but this cultural melting pot to end all cultural melting pots offers a vibrant insight into multi-ethnic Malaysia.
By Natasha von Geldern
Have you been to a place like Melaka, with such a fascinating historical and cultural mix?