Malacca: an intriguing mix of cultures Over 800 years, many peoples left mark on Malaysian port

October 27, 1991|By Michael D. Moore

I'm like Heinz's 57 Varieties," the man on the boat proudly announced. "I'm Dutch, Malay, Chinese, Portuguese and English."

The guide was obviously making a spiel to his group of tourists, but a face that could only be described as Portuguese-Oriental, and the fact that he spoke Bahasa Malaysian on the dock, English to the tourists on the boat and Portuguese to the crew, showed his pitch was probably true.

This is how it is in the Malaysian city of Malacca (also spelled Melaka), where the forces of history have produced an intriguing mixture of cultures. Malaysia's population is already an explosively exotic blend of Malays, Chinese, Indians and small -- doses of other groups, but in Malacca the soup does come close to reaching 57 varieties.

In the early 13th century, a river, a good harbor and a strategic location not only made the city a prosperous trading center, it also attracted outsiders. The Chinese were the first to come in 1409, leaving settlers called Babas or Straits Chinese and, interestingly, the Islamic religion.

The Portuguese who took over in 1509 left a remarkably strong and enduring cultural imprint that included Christianity. Public buildings and churches seem to be the most significant remnants left by the Dutch, who controlled the area from 1641 until 1795.

The British, who dominated the entire region until its independence, except for a short period of Japanese control during World War II, left formidable baggage, including some of the institutions and traits necessary to make Malaysia a potent economic and political force. The British also intensified and complicated the cultural mix by importing large numbers of Indians and Chinese as laborers and bureaucrats.

Today Malacca's commercial importance has been diminished greatly by the growth of Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, business and trading centers. As a result, it has become a peaceful, slightly faded, backwater sort of place that invites low-keyed exploration.

The center of town is found near the waterfront on the eastern bank of the Malacca River, where the Malacca Tourist Centre is located. From here it is possible to walk, or take a bicycle rickshaw, to virtually all of the sights in town.

Across the street from the tourist center are Christ Church and the Stadthuys Building, both built during Dutch occupation. Christ Church, which can't be missed because of its bright red color, was completed in 1753. It's a traditional Dutch structure with 15-foot beams, each made from a single log, supporting its ceiling. Now an Anglican church, its services are conducted in English, Tamil and Mandarin, a tribute to Malacca's cultural melange.

The enormous salmon-pink building next to the church is the Stadthuys Building, a town hall built by the Dutch between 1641 and 1660. Today the impressive building with its heavy wooden doors and thick walls houses government offices and the Malacca National Museum.

An easy walk up the small hill behind the Stadthuys leads to St. Paul's Church, a Portuguese structure completed in 1590 by the Jesuits. The church has been neglected since the departure of the Portuguese and is now in ruins, but the view from the hill and the Dutch tombstones, which have been placed on graves in the crumbled nave, make the visit worthwhile.

To the west at the bottom of the hill is a stone gateway guarded by a couple of cannons, the meager remains of what was once a huge Portuguese fort called La Famosa. The fort, which was also used and modified by the Dutch, was torn down by the British when they gained control. The gateway, known as Porta de Santiago, was saved from destruction by Sir Stamford Raffles, the man who made Singapore a British trading center.

Across the river from Christ Church is the older, predominantly Chinese section of town in which most of the remaining tourist sights are to be found.

The Cheng Hoon Teng Temple, founded in 1645, is the oldest functioning Chinese temple in Malaysia. The brightly colored, ornate structure, which pays homage to San Y Chiao, the three teachings of Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism, is still the cultural center for the Chinese community in Malacca.

Down the street is the KampongKeling Mosque, a Sumatran-type mosque with Corinthian columns, English and Portuguese tiles and a Victorian chandelier -- making it a monument to cultural diversity. Around the corner is the Temple of Sri Poyyatha Vinayagar, a Hindu temple dedicated to Vinayagar -- the deity with a human body and an elephant's head. A beautiful black stone statue of him can be found in the temple.

A short distance away is the Baba and Nyonya Heritage Museum, one of the most interesting sights in the city. The Chinese settlers who came in the 1400s mixed with the Malays, forming a cultural group called Peranakan, the females of which are called Nyonyas and the males Babas. The museum, which is privately operated by Peranakans, is a typical 19th century Peranakan home. It is certainly worth the $2.75 entrance fee.

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