If Malaysia is a melting pot, then Melaka or Mallaca is its cultural crucible, where six hundred years of warfare and ethnic intermarriage have formed the core of what has evolved into the modern nation. Haunted by the ghosts of battles past, this spectral city is well worth a visit, even for visitors who normally bypass cultural destinations, if only to sample the several unique local cuisines and to wonder at the barbarity of so many of the rulers. Unsurprisingly the Melakanese remember best the depredations of their most recent scourges, the Japanese, who publicly displayed the decapitated heads of their victims on the Jalan Bunga Raya bridge, in order to force others residents to toe the line.
More affectionately remembered are the Portuguese, mainly due to their avant-garde and enlightened attitude to race relations, which contrasted sharply with the prejudice of later rulers - banning all forms of discrimination and segregation, the Portuguese encouraged intermarriage and even shipped brides in to wed local men.
A good vantage-point from which to see Melaka is from the back of one of its gaudy yet attractive trishaws, which are often named after English football stars, making it not unusual to be taking a ride in a ‘Michael Owen’ or a ‘David Bechkam’. The trishaw drivers double as guides and will do their best to describe each of the city’s attractions, but are sometimes hampered by a lack of mastery of the English language – particularly the ones driving ‘David Beckhams’.
Whilst one legend has is that the ex-pirate Prince Parameswara, the founder of Melaka, was a descendant of Alexander the Great, it is more likely that he was a Hindu political refugee from Sumatra. One day, whilst resting under a Mallaca (Indian gooseberry) tree and watching one of his hunting dogs trying to bring down a mouse deer, it occurred to him that the deer shared a similar plight to his own, almost alone, exiled in a foreign land and surrounded by enemies. The mouse deer achieved the improbable and fought off the dog. Parameswara decided that the place where he was sitting was a propitious one for the disadvantaged to triumph, so decided to build a house and live there.
Malacca did indeed turn out to be a favourable place to found a town, due to its sheltered harbour, its water supplies and its prime location relative to the regional trade and monsoon wind patterns. In 1405 an ambassador of the Chinese Ming Empire, the eunuch admiral Cheng Ho (or Zheng He), sailed into harbour with a huge armada of giant trading ships. Ho, who it is likely later sailed on to discover America 71 years before Columbus, started a mutually beneficial trade partnership, which eventually culminated in Malacca agreeing to become a client kingdom of the Chinese, in exchange for protection against the Siamese. After its adoption of Islam in the 15th century and conversion into a sultanate, the town started to attract traders from the Middle East, to swell the ranks of those already arriving from every seafaring nation in Asia.
Soon after, the covetous eyes of the emerging European naval powers fell on the wealthy little nation. The Portuguese, who arrived in 1509, were at first welcomed as trading partners, but then expelled when their designs on the country became apparent. Miffed at being rebuffed, the Portuguese returned two years later, seized the city and then attempted to turn it into an impregnable fortress, bristling with seventy cannon and equipped with all the latest anti-siege war technologies. These, however, proved insufficient to keep out the Dutch, who starved the city into submission in 1641 after a six month siege, during which the residents were reduced to eating cats, then rats, and then finally each other.
When Holland was over-run by the French in the Napoleonic wars the Dutch Prince of Orange ordered all of his overseas possessions to surrender to the British. After the wars ended the British handed Melaka back to the Dutch, then shortly afterwards managed to regain the city by swapping one of their Sumatran colonies for it. Apart from a brief tenure by the Japanese during WW2, the city stayed in British hands until Malaysia declared independence, here in Melaka, in 1957.
All these disparate traders and invaders intermarried, resulting in the ethnic and cultural diversity which now make Melaka, a UNESCO World Heritage site, such a fascinating place to visit and also, for the non-culturally-curious partners of the many culture vultures who flock to the city, also a delicious one in which to eat. You get a sense of a quainter age as you meander round the old streets, an age where gentlemen wore white suits and pith helmets and briskly swung rattan walking sticks as they walked to their clubs for a snifter of gin. The rattan canes often swung a little less steadily on the way home, their owners having enjoyed a measure or two more than sobriety allowed – these were, however, easily justified as being essential for the health, due to the gin’s supposedly prophylactic properties.
Porta de Santiago
Porta de Santiago is the sole surviving gateway into the huge fortress built in 1511 by the Portuguese, using slave labour and desecrated mosques and tombs, when they captured Malacca. Their lack of architectural scruples was matched by that of the British, who blew most of the fortress to bits during the Napoleonic wars – they had been loaned the fortress by the Dutch and, as it turned out erroneously, thought that they were going to have to give it back. It was only the intervention of Sir Stamford Raffles, then a young Penang civil servant on sick leave in Melaka, which saved the Porta de Santiago from destruction.
Hang Tuah Mausoleum
The title ‘Hang’, meaning ‘great warrior’, was one which the Sultan of Malacca bestowed on only his most ruthless and fearsome fighters. According to a well-worn legend, a love-struck warrior by the name of Hang Kasturi scaled one of the harem walls and seduced one of the Sultan's concubines, while the potentate was sleeping in the next room. After putting his concubine to death by ordering one of his elephants to kneel on her, the Sultan sent Hang Kasturi’s childhood friend, Hang Tuah, to kill him.
After a long and vicious exchange of blows, Kasturi dodged one of Tuah’s thrusts and Tuah’s sword hit a wall, in which it became embedded. While Tuah frantically struggled to free his sword, Kasturi swung his sword as if to cleave Tuah in two, but at the last moment deflected his swing, sparing his childhood friend and comrade-in-arms. If he did this because he loved his friend more than life, then his affection was misguided, for when his own sword got stuck in a wooden column shortly afterwards, Tuah didn’t return the favour, instead decapitating Kasturi and then presenting his head to the Sultan, who had it stuck on a spear and placed outside the city gates.
The Hang Kasturi legend has various versions in which either Hang Kasturi, or Hang Tuah, or both Hang Kasturi and Hang Tuah slept with one or more of the Sultan’s concubines. Whether the harem was indeed a hotbed of secret liaisons is impossible to determine - maybe the sultan was indeed a multiple cuckold, but the truth is now obscured by the mists of time and the millions of times the story has been verbally passed on.
Portuguese and Chinese Quarters, and Dutch Sqaure
A scenic walk through the oldest parts of the city starts at the flower-filled gardens and patios of the villas in the Portuguese quarter, and then continues past the buffalo-horn roofs of the ostentatious trophy houses in the Chinese quarter. It concludes with a meander round the beautiful civic architecture of historic Dutch Square, dominated by the fine masonry of the Stadhuys. Asia’s oldest Dutch building, this sturdy yet finely-wrought structure started life as the Governor’s Residence and is now the Melaka Historical Museum. The Christ Church, across the square, echoes the splendour of the Stadhuys and has a particularly interesting roof structure – when you look up from the inside you can see that not a single screw or nail was used in the enormous timber structure, a seemingly impossible feat which is surely a testament to the Dutch carpenters’ devotion and piety.
The Dutch rulers of Melaka consecrated the church before the pulpit was finished, leading the then pastor to find a novel way of ensuring that the back rows of his congregation were paying attention. He had the carpenters attach ropes and pullies to a chair and then, when it was time for his sermon, he would order his sextons to winch him up into the air. The arrangement was perfectly practical, except that the pastor found it difficult to terrorise his congregation sufficiently witless, with his tales of hell and damnation, while suspended in such a bizarre contraption. A few years before the British left they painted all the buildings on Dutch Square a most unsympathetic salmon pink, for the sake of conservation if not aesthetics. In an only partially successful attempt to remedy the ghastly result, the colour was later deepened to its current rust-red tone.
Cheng Hoon Teng Temple
The Cheng Hoon Teng Temple (or ‘Temple of Clear Clouds’) at Jalan Tokong, Malacca, is the most venerable and maybe the grandest Chinese temple in Malaysia. Founded some time in the 17th century, the building was somewhat incongruously used by the Dutch-nominated leaders of the Chinese community as their court of justice, with people sometimes sent to their deaths for trivial crimes, as was the practice at that time. After the recent renovation of the exquisite gold calligraphy (in the cao-shu, or grass, style) on the columns outside the main hall, they form a glittering invitation beckoning the visitor inwards to the slightly garish but impressively fashioned central altar, which is dedicated, maybe appropriately in such a war-torn place, to the Goddess of Mercy.
Poh San Teng Remple and Perigi Rajah Well
The Poh San Teng temple was built in 1795 near the vast Bukit China graveyard, so that the Chinese community’s prayers for their dead would not be blown away by strong winds or sent back to earth by rainfall. Inside the temple is the oldest well in the country, the fabled and deadly Perigi Rajah well. After Malacca was conquered by the Portuguese, Malacca’s Sultan fled to Johore. From here he dispatched undercover agents to poison the well, killing 200 Portuguese reinforcements who had only a few days before stepped off a boat from home. The Portuguese didn’t learn from this disaster and were again killed off in numbers by well-poisonings in 1606 and 1628 carried out by the Dutch and Acheenese. The Dutch were more prudent and, after they took over, they erected a fortified wall around the well.
St Paul’s Church
A Portuguese trader called Duarte Coelho was on his way home from Mallaca in 1516 when his ship ran into a violent storm. Chained to the mainmast to avoid being washed overboard, he cowered in terror as ferocious winds snapped the vessel’s rigging, sending sails streaming and spars crashing to the deck. He desperately struggled to hold onto life as huge waves continually engulfed him and his head was battered against the mast. All the while he prayed for salvation. He promised that, if God spared Him, he would build Him a chapel and give up the traditional seaman’s vices, brothels and booze.
Duarte and his ship survived the storm with the loss of most of his crew but, more importantly for posterity’s sake, none of his cargo of spices. After he had sold his nutmeg, mace and cloves back in Lisbon, he had made a not inconsiderable fortune. Whether he kept his promise to better his conduct is not known, but we do know that he kept his pledge to build a church, for he returned to Mallaca and, in 1520, built a small chapel called the Madre Deus (mother of God) on what is now known as St Paul’s Hill.
When in 1548 the archbishop of Goa gave the chapel to the Society of Jesus, a missionary called Francis Xavier accepted the title deeds on the Society’s behalf. When Francis died in China five years later his remains were returned to Malacca and temporarily interred there, before being exhumed prior to being sent back to Goa. The exhumers were expecting a gruesome task but were stunned to discover that the corpse had hardly corrupted at all, despite nine months in the ground. Francis was declared a saint. Saints were at that time chopped up into pieces in order to distribute relics around the Christian world and, in order to obtain a relic, Francis’ right arm was cut off. Miraculously, when the surgery was performed and the saint’s arm was severed, the wound bled. Almost equally as miraculously, the 20th century statue of the saint that stands outside the church is also missing its right arm - the day after the statue’s erection, a tree fell on it and broke off the arm.
After the Dutch took over they renamed the chapel St Paul’s Church and worshipped there for over a century, until they had finished building Christ Church at the bottom of the hill, after which they abandoned St Paul’s. After stints as a lighthouse and as a gunpowder store-room St Paul’s fell into decay and has never, sadly, been restored.
In a case of six-feet-under gate-crashing, in 1818 the British started to bury their dead in the Dutch Graveyard, which now contains far more British than Dutch tombs. It has no particular aesthetical appeal and is interesting only as a witness to the very young average age at which the occupants succumbed to the town’s many wars, crimes, diseases and epidemics.
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