When Penang was known only for its oysters and Singapore was just a fishing village, the influence of MELAKA (also spelled “Malacca”) already extended beyond the Peninsula. Political and cultural life flourished in this trading centre under the auspices of the Melaka Sultanate, founded early in the fifteenth century, and helped to define what it means to be Malay.
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The city subsequently suffered neglect from colonial rulers and fared little better after independence, but in some respects this added to its faded charm. Recent years, though, have seen such developments as a land reclamation project that created the Taman Melaka Raya district and, in 2008, the gaining of UNESCO World Heritage Site status jointly with Penang. The latter has helped to encourage the development of a new wave of guesthouses and restoration projects, but has also brought some less welcome tourism schemes. Melaka remains, nevertheless, an undoubted highlight of any Malaysian itinerary.
Melaka has its roots in the fourteenth-century struggles between Java and the Thai kingdom of Ayuthaya for control of the Malay Peninsula. The Sejarah Melayu (Malay Annals) records that when the Sumatran prince Paramesvara could no longer tolerate subservience to Java, he fled to the island of Temasek (later renamed Singapore), where he set himself up as ruler. The Javanese subsequently forced him to flee north to Bertam, where he was welcomed by the local community. While his son, Iskandar Shah, was out hunting near modern-day Melaka Hill, a mouse deer turned on the pursuing hunting dogs, driving them into the sea. Taking this courageous act to be a good omen, Shah asked his father to build a new settlement there and named it after the melaka tree under which he had been sitting.
A trading centre
Melaka under its sultans rapidly became a wealthy and cosmopolitan market town, trading spices and textiles with Indonesia and India. This meteoric rise was initially assisted by its powerful neighbours Ayuthaya and Java, who made good use of its trading facilities, but they soon found that they had a serious rival as Melaka started a campaign of territorial expansion.
By the reign of its last ruler, Sultan Mahmud Shah (1488–1530), Melaka’s territory included the west coast of the Peninsula as far as Perak, the whole of Pahang, Singapore and most of east-coast Sumatra. Culturally, too, Melaka was supreme – its sophisticated language, literature, hierarchical court structure and dances were all benchmarks in the Malay world.
The colonial era
It took a sea change in Europe to end Melaka’s supremacy. The Portuguese were seeking to extend their influence in Asia by dominating ports in the region and, led by Alfonso de Albuquerque, conquered Melaka in 1511. They maintained their hold for the next 130 years, introducing Catholicism to the region through the efforts of St Francis Xavier.
The formation of the Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie (VOC), or Dutch East India Company, in 1602 spelled the end of Portuguese rule. The primary objective was trade rather than religious conversion, but due to their high taxes the Dutch relied ever more on force to maintain their position in the Straits.
Weakened by French threats to their posts in the Indies, the Dutch handed Melaka over to the British East India Company on August 15, 1795. Yet the colony continued a decline that hastened when the free-trade port of Singapore was established in 1819. The British wanted Penang to be the main west-coast settlement but attempted to revitalize Melaka, introducing progressive agricultural and mining concerns. They invested in new hospitals, schools and a train line, but only when a Chinese entrepreneur, Tan Chay Yan, began to plant rubber were Melaka’s financial problems alleviated for a time. After World War I, even this commodity faced mixed fortunes – when the Japanese occupied Melaka in 1942, they found a town exhausted by the interwar depression.
Whatever damage was wrought during its centuries of colonial mismanagement, nothing can take away the enduring influence of Melaka’s contribution to Malay culture. Taken together with the long-standing Chinese presence – with intermarriage fostering the Peranakan community – and the European colonial influences, Melaka has a fascinating heritage that understandably appeals to tourists.
To the cynical eye, though, there’s something about the modern centre of Melaka that smacks of slapdash “preservation”, apparent in the brick-red paint wash that covers everything around Dutch Square. The UNESCO listing has, in some respects, not exactly helped. As landowners have scented money and rents have skyrocketed, long-established businesses have been forced out and replaced by shops aimed at the tourist dollar. Ill-fated and incongruous tourism projects have included a giant wheel called the Eye on Malaysia, and a monorail north of the centre that memorably broke down on its first day – it turned out that it couldn’t operate in the rain.
Worse is yet to come: almost unbelievably, a large Hard Rock Café is due to open right in the centre. It’s not all bad news, though, with the regeneration of the riverside particularly welcome; it is to be hoped that this kind of project may continue to breathe life into the historical core, rather than turning it into a theme-park version of itself.
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.
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.
The colonial centre
The heart of Melaka’s colonial centre is Dutch Square, dominated by the Stadthuys; beyond that lie St Paul’s Hill and numerous museums. The square is one of the oldest surviving parts of the city, although two of its main features date from much later times: the marble fountain was built in 1904 to commemorate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, while the clock tower was erected in 1886 in honour of Tan Beng Swee, a rich Chinese merchant. Rather older are the ruins of the Bastion of Fredrick Hendrick, where you can see the alignment of the old Portuguese defensive wall.
While there’s more than enough to keep you occupied in Melaka, there are also a few popular getaways within day-trip distance. These include several opportunities to see animals: the tranquil coastal village of Padang Kemunting is a hatching site for hawksbill turtles, while Ayer Keroh has several wildlife parks as well as cultural attractions. Alternatively, the nearby island Pulau Besar provides an opportunity to feel some sand between your toes even if the sea is fairly polluted.
Padang Kemunting Turtle Sanctuary
Padang Kemunting is one of the last nesting areas of the hawksbill turtle and the painted terrapin in south Malaysia. Although open all year, it’s only worth visiting the turtle sanctuary during hatchling season (March–Sept). It’s a friendly place with lots of information, including an introductory video about the turtle population of Melaka.
If you’re looking for a beach getaway and don’t have time to go further afield, then PULAU BESAR (“Big Island”, though it covers just sixteen square kilometres) may fit the bill. The island’s beaches and hilly scenery are pleasant, although the waters are fairly polluted.
Located 5km off the coast of Melaka, Pulau Besar was known as the burial ground of passing Muslim traders and missionaries; as a result locals – particularly Indian Muslims – see the island as a holy place and visitors are asked to behave accordingly.