Melaka owed a great deal of its nineteenth-century economic recovery to its Chinese community: it was one Tan Chay Yan who first planted rubber here, and a Chinese immigrant called Tan Kim Seng established what became the great Straits Steam Ship Company. Most of these entrepreneurs settled in what became known as Chinatown, across Sungai Melaka from the colonial district. For many visitors, it’s the most interesting part of town.
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Tales of Melaka’s burgeoning success brought vast numbers of merchants and entrepreneurs to its shores, eager to benefit from the city’s status and wealth. The Chinese, in particular, came to the Malay Peninsula in large numbers to escape Manchu rule. Many married Malay women, and descendants of these marriages were known as Peranakan or “Straits-born Chinese”.
The expatriate Chinese merchants, and their descendants, became the principal wealth-generators of the thriving city. The Babas (male Sino-Malays) were not ashamed to flaunt their new-found prosperity, filling the lavish townhouses that they appropriated from the Dutch with Italian marble, mother-of-pearl inlay blackwood furniture, hand-painted tiles and Victorian lamps. The women, known as Nonyas (sometimes spelt Nyonyas), held sway in the domestic realm and were responsible for Peranakan society’s most lasting legacy – its cuisine. Drawing on the best of Malay and Chinese styles, and traditionally eaten with hands instead of chopsticks, its dishes rely on sour sauces and coconut milk (see Nonya food).