Boats from different horizons, Malay, Chinese, Indian, Indonesian, Portuguese, Dutch or English, have unloaded crew and cargo throughout the years, making Malacca a fantastic melting pot of cultures which contributed to the classification of the city as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008.
Malacca, the European
Facing the Chinese district, Asia slowly fades in to give way to yesterday’s conquerors. Standing neatly in a row is the Dutch Stadthuys, or pink city hall, built between 1641 and 1660, while the coral-coloured Christ Church (1753) was built with bricks from Zeeland. Add to this a windmill, a clock tower, a fountain built to honour Queen Victoria, and you have a fantastic European cocktail.
The Porta de Santiago, last remains of the old Portuguese fortress A’Famosa, shouldn’t even be here. It is thanks to one dedicated man who fought against its destruction in 1808 that it still stands – Lord Raffles, the founder of Singapore. Past the door, a staircase will take you to the Saint Paul Church ruins (1571). Saint Francis Xavier, the evangeliser of Asia, often stayed in the city. He was even buried there until his remains were transferred to Goa.
Malacca, the Chinese
The best way to discover that part of the city is to rent a trishaw. Always decorated with fake flowers, luminescent colours and blasting music, they are part of traditional Malacca. Hop on one and let it carry you across the streets to the Chinese district. First, stop by the Baba Nyonya Museum, located in an old mansion with surprising neo classical engraving on the façade, and step into a slice of traditional secular China.
You will find typical engraved panelling, antique paintings and furniture, half Chinese, half Victorian, and Jiangxi porcelain specially made for the Chinese community living along the Strait. Another witness of this privileged relationship between Malaysia and China stands 100 meters away: the Eng Choon Clan House, with its doors guarded by two massive bearded warriors.
The Chinese clans can be found in every major port in South East Asia. They are associations founded by the descendants of the immigrants, and are organised by region of origin. The Eng Choon were from the Fujian Province in South China, directly opposite Taiwan. Baba means father, while Nyonya means mother, a distortion of donha in Portuguese. Together, they form the Chinese Malaysian minority of Malacca.
So numerous are they (about 32% of the entire population) that the old cemetery of Bukit Sina is supposed to be the biggest in the world outside China. The oldest of the 12,500 graves dates back to the Ming Dynasty. The space is so scarce now that only the Cheng Hoon Teng Temple members of the board are allowed to be buried there.
It is impossible to summarise Malacca in a couple of words. Only a twohour drive from Kuala Lumpur, it is a quaint city with a heavy heritage, absolutely worth a trip. A day – or a couple – will be an immersion into what was once the gateway to Asia.