Saturday, March 27, 2010

Visiting Malacca

Malacca, Penang and Singapore- the three trading hubs known as the Straits Settlements, and governed collectively as a Crown Colony by the British.  But Malacca's history of colonisation goes back much further.  It was captured by the Portuguese under Afonso de Albuquerque in August 1511.  In 1641 the Dutch defeated the Portuguese to capture Malacca.  Subsequently, the Dutch traded Malacca with the British settlement of Bencoolen in Sumatra. Because of these successive waves of colonisation, Malacca, more so than Singapore or Penang, displays a deeper cultural diversity than either city.

My own family history says that my maternal great-grandmother, was from Malacca before she came down to Singapore and married my great-grandfather.  But my visit to Malacca was prompted more by the wish to have a little break from work and at the same time to do some shopping (hopefully a kebaya or a pair of beaded shoes).  I came back with a pair of antique earrings instead, and a comfortable feeling that my kasut manek creation will indeed stand out in comparison with anything in Malacca. 

Visitors to Malacca can't really miss the "Red Square" - the Dutch Studhuys, Christ Church and other municipal buildings. 

But one highlight of my visit has to be the climb up to St Paul's church.  The church was built by the Portuguese in 1521, surely making it one of the oldest Catholic churches in Southeast Asia.  Originally named "Our Lady of the Hill", the church was renamed by the Dutch when they took over Malacca and converted it to a Dutch Reform church. It was subsequently abandoned and has fallen into ruins over the years.  Walking around the ruins today, and looking at the tombstones around the sides of the church, the sense of history still remains strong.  Some names on the tombstones are familiar, like Westerhout and de Wind, as their descendents are still living in Malaysia and Singapore today.  Tour groups, student groups, individual tourists/families walk quietly around the site. 

In the middle of the chapel is a wired cage, marking the spot where St Francis Xavier was buried (in 1553). the saint's body was disinterred subsequently and transferred to Goa in India (another Portuguese settlement).  I was amused when a Malay family also made a little donation (maybe the little boy simply wanted the fun of putting coins through the donation slot). 

The colonial heritage  is largely in the buildings, the Peranakan influence surely permeates the culture of Malacca.  Busy Jalan Hang Jebat or Jonker Street (I love the convenience of one-street shopping!) contains shop after shop selling kebaya, pineapple tarts (I much prefer Singapore ones), kasut manek and antiques. 

Behind it,  Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock or Heeren Street is lined with the residences of the Peranakan families of over a hundred years ago.  These houses had narrow frontages but go back quite a way, with rooms arranged around 2-3 courtyards.  Today, they are in varied condition - some are part ruined, with the costs of maintenance way above the means of the families living there.  Some have been converted for other use - restaurants, or hotels (like our very nice residence).   It may be a little sad that the place is getting commercialised, but frankly since the other alternative seems to be abandoned/ruined buildings, I'm all for it.  But there is one feature which makes it so much more difficult to walk down the street compared to comparable houses in Singapore and Penang - the walls on the traditional 5-foot way, dividing one house from another.

Compared to my last visit to Malacca, some 5 years ago, it seems to me that the little town is busier than before.  Maybe it's the status of being a UNESCO Heritage site.  But maybe its also the free publicity Malacca got as one of the filming sites for the very well-received "Little Nonya" Mediacorp TV series.  Pictures of "Little Nonya" actresses could be seen in quite a few shops (no photo, I don't waste my bytes on things like this). 

More Malacca photos here.

p.s.  Hope my readers like the new look.  Yeah Blogger Template Designer!

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