The weight of history is the soul of Malacca and the portal to its timeless, effortless beauty. But just in case the cabby does not know where or what the town square is, try saying the Dutch Square, the Tan Beng Swee Clock Tower, the Queen Victoria's Fountain or the Stadthuys, because they are all within eyeshot of each other. Furthermore, there is something even more impossible to miss: a riotous assembly of colours, all close kins of red, making the whole scene look like a botched up Matisse oil on canvas.
Close by, the Christ Church and the Malaysia Youth Museum give further lessons in the art of screaming for attention through judicious use of colour. Though frequent fresh coats of paint seem hopelessly ineffective at retaining the panache of great architectural creations of European origins, they are nonetheless an uncanny and unwitting success in the exhibition of the pomp and pompousness of empires.
Up a flight of stairs behind the Stadthuys lie the ruins of the St Paul's Church. Saint Francis Xavier was ennobled and enshrined here, while the Dutch summarily made it a graveyard for their noble dead. Today, saints, martyrs and the St Francis Xavier's Statue share vintage views from the top of the St Paul's Hill, glancing in resigned helplessness over the Straits of Malacca at lingering hardships on the opposite shore.
At the foot of the hill, the famed A'Famosa clings on as a poor fortress of its former self, while right next door, the Malacca's Sultanate Palace resurrects in wooded replicas and neon halos the glory and splendour of the ancient Malay kingdom. At its best, and with help from a few cans of Tiger Beer, the nightly staging of the Light and Sound spectacle does make it feel like the white had never come ashore. This is wishful thinking, of course, and the Maritime Museum across the road showcases a ship that succinctly explains how the Portuguese made it this far in those early days.
Indeed, some had found it hard to condone the westerners' point of view sometimes, even if it happened to be only Hollywood skulduggery. In the film Entrapment, the exorbitant Petronas Twin Towers was superimposed onto a river scene that could only have been taken from the worst of a Third World shanty town. But the truth is right here along the banks of the Malacca River, where dilapidated shacks on stilts on both sides enact a surrealistic prop of the 15th-century Fishing Village that the Portuguese had wanted so much for themselves. For vintage views of the famed river mouth, head for Iguana Riverfront, or Restoran Mahligai, or No. 2 Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock, where a cold beer is perfect complement to the touristy theatre that the historic core has become.
Old Town and Bukit Cina
There is a bridge to be crossed back at the red town square that ushers one into another world. Someone said that Malacca smells like grandpa's old, dusty trunk and if this was ever an accurate depiction of things as they are, Jonker Street and Heeren Street may still hide the trails of this elusive scent. But quicken the footsteps as the times and names are ever-changing to suit new tastes and preferences. The streets where the Dutch masters are said to have hosted themselves and their servants have since been renamed to honour a Malay hero (Jalan Hang Jebat) and a Baba capitalist (Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock). The old town has some of the best preserved relics of Straits architecture, like the Hotel Puri, The Baba House, the Coconut House Studio, Hokkien Huay Kuan, Eng Yong Tong and the grand dame, Baba and Nonya Heritage Museum.
Through good times and bad, for better or worse, other spiritual fortifications jostled for the patronage of folks who had not gone along with the white men's religion. Just take your pick from Cheng Hoon Teng's Temple, Kampong Kling's Mosque and the Sri Poyyatha Ninayagar Moorthi Temple, and outside the Peranakan wonderland, the Malacca Sikh Temple. Malacca's colourful faiths survived to tell their tales and are a poignant reminder that the world will always be big enough for everybody, despite the good intention of persistent missionaries through the ages.
Jogging among the dead is another Malaccan high. The peaks of Bukit Cina offer another breathtaking peek over the Sumatran yonder though its buried inhabitants came from much further afield. Efforts of influential persons have kept these sacred grounds repeatedly from prying hands and wayward intentions, leaving one with a splendid daily venue for a Bukit Cina jog or a spectacular mountain biking trail. Luckless Ming antique hunters too may find solace and enlightenment from this unrivalled collection of resting places showcasing the best of Chinese grave design and ornamentation. If this doesn't help, toss a coin and make a wish at Hang Li Poh's Well at the foot of the hill, or head for the sacred effigy of Admiral Heng Ho waiting next door in the Sam Po Kong Temple.
Taman Melaka Raya
Within walking distance of the sprawling Mahkota Parade Shopping Mall, more shops, eateries and entertainment joints serve a swelling local and tourist market of modern tastes. Anchored by the heavyweight Hotel Seri Costa and the colourful Hotel Portugis, there are rows upon rows of eateries, Ole Sayang Restaurant, Lagoon Seafood Restaurant, Wilson Chicken Rice; specialty shops, Hui Chun Herbal Teahouse, Chan Organic Centre; as well as pubs and discos, Ginza Karaoke, Chelsea Pub, Sparks, to name but a few.
45 minutes by car out of the red town square in the direction of the North-South Highway, a leafy affair stands ready to soothe nerves jangled by an overload of historical facts and fiction. Here, nature and green is the theme, variety the creed and wholesome entertainment on sale at Recreational Forest, Butterfly Farm, Crocodile Farm, Malacca Zoo, Mini Malaysia, Mini ASEAN, Aboriginies Museum and the Ayer Keroh Lake.
And there lie within the Ayer Keroh woodlands and lakes on these precious soils of the Malacca Sultanate a multitude of excellent golf courses, including Tiara Melaka Golf and Country Club, Orna Golf and Country Club, Golden Valley Golf Resort, to serve an affluent lifestyle, which was once strictly an imperial taste but has since gone mass market.
History of Malacca"He who is lord of Malacca has his hand on the throat of Venice.'' Barbarosa, Portuguese writer.
Thus began the wondrous journey of Malacca into historical fame and prominence. Its fortunes and misfortunes depending on how you look at it were destined by geography or, more precisely, by water. The city's modern history began sometime in the 1390s with the founding of the Malacca Sultanate by Parameswara, a fugitive Sumatran prince. He could not have chosen a better place to set up his kingdom. Malacca sat on the pulse of the divine waters flowing between two important oceans'the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea.
Not one to squander the obvious golden goose, the first sultan of the Malay Peninsula shrewdly crafted a lucrative enterprise on the needs of the passing traders and traffickers, and secured the patronage and protection of the Ming dynasty. And he was raking it in, becoming a source of considerable pride and nostalgia in modern Malay minds, a notion succinctly captured in the Malacca's Sultanate Palace and the Museum of History. Malacca soon established itself as an important trading port for China and traders began to flock here.
In 1405, Admiral Cheng Ho sailed into the Malaccan harbour in great style and grandeur with a crew of 37,000 in 317 ships. Malacca was Admiral Cheng's logistical headquarters for a total of seven expeditions between 1405 and 1433 when he navigated his navy to such distant and exotic places as Ceylon, Maldives, Mecca and Zanzibar. For sure, the man would have loved to visit again, but his luck ran out with the resurgence of isolationist Confucius thinking in the Chinese ruling bureaucracy. All that remains of the wonder sailor are the commemorative Sam Poh Kong Temple and the Hang Li Po's Well.
Parameswara's successors continued to prosper as a Ming Protectorate and from the tested formula of greasing the wheels of maritime trading. Islam had arrived earlier with the Arabic and Gujarati traders in the 1200s and become entrenched with the conversion of the rulers to the faith. At the height of its glory, the Sultanate of Malacca owned a tributary empire embracing the whole of the Malay Peninsula and much of eastern Sumatra, and won a battle or two against the forces of the famed Siamese kingdom of Ayutthaya. Then in 1511, under the naval craftsmanship of Alfonso de Albuquerque, the second Portuguese governor of India, the Sultanate succumbed to Portuguese guns and powders.
"To serve God and his Majesty, to give light to those who sat in darkness and to grow rich as all men desire to do" was a popular and convenient motto for successive generations of fired-up opportunists and oppressors alike. The God was initially a Roman Catholic, and the earliest man of God to descend in conquered Malacca was also one of the first seven Jesuits. He was no other than Saint Francis Xavier, who was enshrined in St Paul's Church and had the St Francis Xavier's Church named after him.
The Portuguese built A'Famosa, which helped keep out other colonialist vultures until 1641, when the Dutch, victorious after an eight-month siege and some heavy-duty fighting, became the new master of a Malacca in complete ruins. The town was rebuilt but its status in the Dutch scheme of things was relegated to a military outpost because the new boss had Batavia for a mercantile headquarter. Nonetheless, the Dutch's impact on the architectural landscape of Malacca was lasting and permanent, and their influence can be readily discerned from a number of surviving buildings, including the Stadthuys, the Dutch Square and the Christ Church.
By the dawn of the 19th century the Brits' fortunes were rising after several decisive victories in the past century in the theatres of war on European continent and in the colonial world. After India, Malacca came under the possession of the British East India Company by the 1824 Anglo-Dutch Treaty of London and became a member of the Straits Settlements. She remained in this state of affairs, until eventually the British played casualty to the Nazis and the Japanese. The might of Empire was no protection against Japanese brutality and Malacca made it through the darkest nights on the strength of her own people and faith.
The day arrived when history came round, scores were settled or ignored, lands returned, and this Sultanate slotted effortlessly into the independence chapters of Malaysia. The Proclamation of Independence Memorial and the Independence Obelisk near the Padang Pahlawan exist as much as tourist sights as irrefutable testimonies to the outcome of the independence struggle.
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