In contrast to the glitz and modernity of Singapore, visiting Melaka is like stepping back in time. There is heaps of interesting history to this Malaysian port city, but it strikes of a place that invested in tourism several decades ago and hasn’t yet truly reaped the rewards.
Bars and restaurants were pretty much empty when I visited, riverfront paved walkways were looking worn and the museums seemed a little tired (Singapore’s by contrast were extremely well laid out). With some more love, this could be a great city for tourists.
The origins of Melaka are debatable, but according to legend, the rulers of Temasek abandoned what is now Singapore, 127 miles away, in the early 15th century and created a new settlement, which became one of the richest trading empires in the East. Melaka, at the mouth of a muddy stream, provided safe anchorage and became a prominent port of call for traders from China, India and beyond.
At first the rulers were Hindu, but visiting Arab traders converted them to the Muslim faith and the town became an important centre for studying the religion. The Istana Kesultanan Melaka, at the foot of St Paul’s Hill and housing a museum, is a recreation of what the original 15th-century Malay palace is said to have looked like.
Some have compared medieval Melaka to London given its importance. The aforementioned palace was surrounded by palm-thatched wooden homes, a mosque and a lively bazar. And Melaka was said to be a cosmopolitan place, with some 80 languages heard by a Portuguese trader at the busy port.
But Melaka never regained prominence during rule by three successive colonial power – the Portuguese, Dutch and finally the British. Other cities in present day Malaysia and Singapore prospered at Melaka’s expense.
Melaka was however considered important enough for it to be awarded UNESCO World Heritage Status in 2008. Take a walk around the city’s historic core on St Paul’s Hill and you’ll realise the accolade is well deserved.
When Melaka fell to the Portuguese in 1511 they quickly worked to strengthen the city’s defences. The Porto de Santiago – an entrance gate at the foot of St Paul’s Hill – is the sole survivor of the A’Famosa stone fortress which was built in 1512 by Alfonso de Albuquerque and boasted three metre thick walls. But after the Portuguese’s arrival, many of the town’s inhabitants packed up and moved elsewhere, which had a considerable negative impact on Melaka.
By the early 17th century the Dutch’s interest in the region was growing. An assault in 1603 by the Netherlands on the Portuguese ship Santa Catarina laden with valuable cargo on board, including spices, porcelain, silk and other luxury products, which the captain surrendered in order to spare the lives of the 800 souls on board. It was the beginning of the end for the Portuguese’s influence in the region.
In 1641 Melaka fell to the Dutch after a three month siege and the Stadthuys, overlooking the main town square, was built a decade or so later as the seat of colonial administration. A reproduction of the town hall in Hoorn, in the Netherlands, it is believed to be the oldest Dutch building in the East and is today occupied by a number of museums.
Christ Church, in the town square and painted red to match the Stadthuys, was built by the Dutch in 1753 to mark a century of rule in Melaka. It was consecrated for Anglican use in 1838 and includes both Dutch and British tombstones inside.
But the Dutch would find Melaka to be relatively unprofitable and there was even talk of abandoning it. They were much more interested in what is today the Indonesian archipelago.
The British initially had little interest in southeast Asia – their focus was on India. But they did want to reach China and it was along the Straits of Melaka that they wanted to find a secure stopping off point. Melaka fell into the hands of the British in 1795, initially temporarily to keep it out of the hands of the Napoleon who had annexed the Netherlands.
Given that they thought that Melaka would fall back to the Dutch at the end of the war, the British prepared to abandon it and move its people back to Penang. Consequently the great stone Portuguese fortress was demolished in 1807, but thankfully Sir Stamford Raffles – the founder of modern Singapore – managed to ensure remnants were preserved.
But some British traders thought that retaining the town of Melaka for the British could have commercial appeal. The port was therefore placed under British protection as part of the Anglo Dutch Treaty of 1824 and two years later, together with Pedang and Singapore, became part of the ‘Straits Settlement’ (it became a Crown colony in 1867).
At the summit of St Paul’s Hill stands St Paul’s church, dating from 1521. Abandoned after Christ Church was completed, it is now in ruins. St Paul’s was built by the Portuguese, originally called Nossa Senhora da Annunciada, and it was given the present name by the Dutch – it still boasts a number of 17th century Dutch tomb stones.
If you get away from the tacky souvenir shops, Chinatown is one of the most absorbing parts of Melaka. Jalan Tun Tan Cheng is perhaps the nicest road as it contains restored colourful 18th-century townhouses, most with narrow facades as the Dutch colonial authorities imposed a tax on property width.
Many of the buildings are now galleries, guests houses and cafes. But to see what a townhouse would have been like inside during colonial times, I visited the Baba-Nyonya Heritage Museum (Baba-Nyonya being another name for Straits Chinese, which originated from the intermarriage of Chinese traders and local Malay women).
The house, which can be visited via a fascinating one hour guided tour, is actually three adjoining houses, which were brought together as one in 1896 by a Baba-Nyonya family who made their fortune in the rubber trade. Inside, the ornate interiors blend together Eastern and European designs, with teak floors, Chinese wall hangings, English tiles and crockery, and Dutch furniture.
Interesting features include a glass partition, with peeping holes for women to see male visitors in the Guest Hall. The house still remains in the hands of the same family (which now has interests in the palm oil trade) and members return to pay their respects at the Ancestral Altar every year.
From displays of stamps to the Malaysian youth movement, there seems to be a museum for everything in Melaka, but they don’t all hit the mark in the same way that the Baba-Nyonya Heritage Museum. The Maritime Museum, the first part of which is located on a replica of the 16th-century galleon Flora de la Mar, is interesting enough – displays chart the ports development (or lack of) under successive colonial powers.
But then the second part, in a conventional building seems to be somewhat clutching at straws. Display cases are given over to items as obscure as life rings and electric fans. The panels charting turtle life in Malaysia seem the most dated however.
Just as Melaka existed in colonial times in the shadows of rival ports elsewhere in present day Malaysia and Singapore, it still seems a minnow compared to other places in the region. But if you are in the area, I would still recommend a visit for a night or two.