Exploring Malacca–Malaysia’s Oldest City and an UNESCO City

This historic city, established in 1403 by a Malay Hindu sultan, spent centuries as Southeast Asia’s most important trading port, due to its strategic location at the choke point of the Straits of Malacca and the the protection its port provided from the monsoon winds.

The oldest, most historic section of town is focused along three primary streets and the numerous smaller streets and alleyways that run off them. The primary streets are:

  • Jonkers Street, the traditional home of middle-class traders and merchants, is packed with shophouses, only small portions of which can be seen from the road. The street, which still retains a number of antique shops that lined the street from the 1930s, when the Depression forced many families to sell heirlooms. This area being increasingly taken over by tourist shops and restaurants, as evidenced by its own Hard Rock Cafe. Still evocative of its past, if somewhat tacky.
  • A three-part street in which each block has a different commercial focus and name. Goldsmith Street, as one can guess has a number of goldsmith and jewelry stores. Temple Street houses a number of churches, temples and mosques representing all religions. Then there’s Blacksmith Street, which does indeed have one remaining blacksmith shop (complete with furnace and anvil), but also a number of shops of a broad range of craftsmen (cobblers, basket-weavers, artists and so forth).
  • Heeren Street, or Millionaires’ Row, where the Dutch colonial leaders, and then wealthy "Peranakan" (Straiborn descendants of 15th-century Chinese traders called "Babas") and Malay women ("Nyonya") lived. These families led affluent lifestyles that were build largely around Chinese culture and traditions, with Malay influences as in their clothes and food.

The homes in the historic district, were typically built with very narrow fronts (often about four meters, since the Dutch taxed homes based on frontage) but that may have extended to 100 meters in length, broken up by two or three interior air-wells through which light, air and fresh rainwater could enter. Different type houses made different use of three spaces. Working class facilities may have used the fronts as shops, followed by residences, stables and animal yards. Rich Peranakan families, meanwhile, may have bough two or three of these shophouses and combined them into palatial mansions with servants quarters.

Two such homes can be visited on Herren Street.

Number 8 Herren is a model project that provides a guide for restoring an old shophouse. It explains the evolution of the materials from which they were built, the building techniques used and details the best ways of restoring them, with a goal of enticing and helping private owners to do the same.

8 Heeren Street inside8 Heeren Street courtyard8 Heeren Street ceiling

The Baba Nyonya Heritage Museum, which is a block further up Herren Street, is an entirely different type of restoration. This "home" was originally built in the 1700s by Dutch administrators. In 1896", a wealthy Peranakan family bought three of these homes and combined them into a single, huge mansion. This mansion has been fully renovated and filled with furniture, dishes and personal memorabilia of the original family and supplemented with other period pieces into a museum that shows how these wealthy families lived and portrays customs of the times, such as around Peranakan-class weddings, birthdays and funerals, the types of clothes they wore, how they cooked and the types of entertainment they engaged in. Baba Nyonya Heritage Museum 01Baba Nyonya Heritage Museum 02

The Colonial Heritage Area, across the river from the Old Town, is the site where the river used to flow into the harbor, at least before the harbor began to silt up and the land was reclaimed. Evidence of its colonial, and pre-colonial past are all over. Examples include those from the:

  • Precolonial Era. The Sultanate Palace Museum. A reconstruction of the 15th century palace and museum dedicated to portraying the lives of the royal household;
  • Portuguese Era. These include Porta De Santiago, the remnants of one of the four original gates the Portuguese built into their 1512 Fortress and of St. Paul’s church, which they build as their primary place of worship;
  • Dutch Era. Dutch Square, which was the center of the city during Dutch Colonial rule and the site of their town hall (the Stadhuys), church (Christ Church), market square and school, and the very picturesque row of orangish red shophouses.
  • British Era. Bulldings from the British period include a number of government buildings,civic buildings (like the Clock Tower) and schools, including two of the oldest public schools that are still operating in Malaysia.
  • Japanese Era. Although the Japanese did not build much, the building from which they administered the city is still in use. So is the clock tower from which at least one source claims they hung the severed heads of those who who failed to do their bidding.

Christ ChurchClock TowerPorta De SantiagoshophousesIMG_9843

Although Malacca had been considered a strategic prize by many powers in its day, its strategic importance declined as its harbor silted up and as its role as a trading port role was eclipsed by  two other British colonial outposts–Singapore and Padang (see our forthcoming blog on Georgetown).

Malacca was a great day trip from KL. While we mingled with hoards of other tourists, it was still a beautiful town to see.

Malacca Restaurant

As this was a day trip from Kuala Lumpur, we only had time for one lunch before returning to KL in the evening. We ate at Riverine Coffeehouse, with its tranquil canal-side deck. We shared two Peranakan dishes:

  • Nyonya Laksa, which consisted of yellow noodles in thick, spicy coconut broth with prawns, hard-boiled egg, beancurd, cockles, bean spouts and sambal (Tom enjoyed it! Which meant that Joyce found it too spicy).
  • Ikan Masal, prawns braised in a light yellow curry, served with coconut milk gravy, tomatoes and pineapple. (Pretty good, although we wouldn’t rush back for it.)

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