Malacca combines past and present, East and West Malaysian port city treasures its history

December 22, 1991|By Knight-Ridder News Service

MALACCA, Malaysia -- The monsoon winds blew tall trading ships to Malacca for centuries, east from India and west from China, laden with silk and spice and the great cultures of the world.

Muslims were the first to arrive, followed by the Chinese and then the Portuguese, who fell to the Dutch, who gave way to the British, who brought in the Indians.

And so Malacca remains to this day a bowl of curry noodles and a mug of Guinness Stout, as interesting as one of its fabled antique shops on Jonker Street, unspoiled by the "progress" that has helped turn Kuala Lumpur and Singapore into

glass-and-steel boom towns searching for their souls.

Where else but Malacca, a city of about 88,000, would a Dutch colonial church offer Anglican Holy Communion in English, Mandarin and, every fourth Sunday of the month, Tamil?

What other city in Malaysia has a Chinese pagoda, a Hindu temple and a mosque -- on the same street?

Where else in the world is archaic Portuguese still spoken, by a close-knit Eurasian community descended from the first spice traders, who came and conquered in 1511?

The answer is nowhere else.

"If Malacca loses its historical nature," says George Schumacher, a Malaccan of British, German and Ceylonese ancestry, sitting at a cafe in the Portuguese quarter, "Malacca loses a lot."

It's early morning on Bunga Raya Street. A Chinese woman rolls back the iron grates from the front of a noodle shop as the day begins in Malacca, a little sleepy now that the big ships don't dock here anymore.

On Dutch Square, Lim Teng Son sweeps leaves from the sidewalk in front of Christ Church, where two old Chinese men sit on a bench with their heads buried in the morning papers. Two Malay women, their heads covered in accordance with Islam, sit on another bench, chatting quietly.

"This one, 1650, very nice, long time," Mr. Lim says in his broken English, motioning toward the Stadthuys, home of the old Dutch governors.

"Come, come," he says with a whisk of his broom, hurriedly walking across the street to the foot of a small bridge spanning the Malacca River. There, he pulls back a shrub to reveal a plaque. "Ton Kim Seng's Bridge, built under the auspices of the Honorable Col. Cavenach, governor 1862."

The bridge leads into Chinatown, the oldest one in Southeast Asia and probably the largest undisturbed expanse of classic shop-house architecture left in the region.

There are blacksmiths stoking and pounding on Blacksmith Street, not to mention a tinsmith, a tile engraver and a Chinese coffin maker, all practicing their age-old crafts in the shop halves of their houses, in full view of all who pass.

Blacksmith Street soon becomes Goldsmith Street, where the goldsmiths have vanished but a 19th-century Hindu temple remains in active use. (The oldest Hindu temple in Malaysia, built in 1728, is a couple of blocks away.)

Three shops down Goldsmith Street from the Hindu temple stands the Kampong Kling Mosque, one of the oldest in Malaysia, with an odd minaret shaped like a Chinese pagoda, a hint, perhaps, of what's to come. Because Goldsmith Street becomes Temple Street, where the smell of incense fills the air and vendors sell soybean juice and garlands made of jasmine in front of the Cheng Hoon Teng Temple, the oldest Chinese temple in Malaysia, founded in 1646.

Antique shops

The antique shops on Jonker Street, a block over, are known throughout the region for the porcelain made by the local Chinese, or Straits-born Chinese, as they're known, though for years the antique trade was the exclusive domain of the Indians.

Now the Chinese and the Malays have established a foothold on Jonker as well. Fatima Antiques is selling old photographs of Dutch Square in 1910, which looked pretty much then as it did earlier in the morning as Lim Teng Son swept leaves from the sidewalk.

A short walk from the square, an artist named S. D. Abansha can be found most afternoons in the shade of a katapang tree on St. Paul's Hill. From where he sits, Mr. Abansha can look down at the ruins of the Portuguese fort, built in 1511 and impregnable for 130 years, and the old Malacca Club, built by the British in 1912.

The red-tile roofs of Chinatown and the spires of Cheng Hoon Teng Temple are all well within the gaze of a Portuguese friar on the other side of the hill, chiseled in marble and missing his right hand.

Two freighters anchor a quarter-mile out to sea, where the water slides from sandy brown to aquamarine to royal blue. The river, the city's lifeline for centuries, has silted in and impeded progress, lucky enough for Malacca.

"For me, Malacca is a unique town," Mr. Abansha says. "Kuala Lumpur is like something artificial, a business center. Like Rome, when you come here, you can feel it -- very old. That's why I say it is a unique town."

Mini Vanessen, a Dutch tourist, listens as he speaks, part of his coterie. She came to Malacca three weeks earlier and wasn't sure when she was leaving.

"It feels like home"

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