If Malaysia is a melting pot, then Melaka or Malacca is its cultural crucible where six hundred years of warfare and ethnic intermarriage have formed the core of what has evolved into the modern nation.
Haunted by the ghosts of battles past, Melaka is well worth a visit, even for visitors who normally bypass cultural destinations, if only to sample the several unique local cuisines and to glimpse the layers of history beneath the city's outer shell.
Present-day Melaka reflects its tumultuous history—a multi-racial population of Malays, Indians, and Chinese call this historic city home. Most notably, Peranakan and Portuguese communities still thrive in Melaka, a reminder of the state's long experience with trading and colonization.
A scenic walk through the oldest parts of the city starts at the flower-filled gardens and patios of the villas in the Portuguese quarter and then continues past the buffalo-horn roofs of the ostentatious trophy houses in the Chinese quarter. It concludes with a meander around the beautiful civic architecture of historic Dutch Square, dominated by the fine masonry of the Stadhuys. Asia’s oldest Dutch building, this sturdy yet finely-wrought structure started life as the Governor’s Residence and is now the Melaka Historical Museum.
The Christ Church, across the square, echoes the splendour of the Stadhuys and has a particularly interesting roof structure—when you look up from the inside you can see that not a single screw or nail was used in the enormous timber structure, a seemingly impossible feat which is surely a testament to the Dutch carpenters’ devotion and piety.
The Dutch rulers of Melaka consecrated the church before the pulpit was finished, leading the then pastor to find a novel way of ensuring that the back rows of his congregation were paying attention. He had the carpenters attach ropes and pullies to a chair and then, when it was time for his sermon, he would order his sextons to winch him up into the air. The arrangement was perfectly practical, except that the pastor found it difficult to terrorize his congregation sufficiently witless, with his tales of hell and damnation, while suspended in such a bizarre contraption.
A few years before the British left they painted all the buildings on Dutch Square a most unsympathetic salmon pink, for the sake of conservation if not aesthetics. In an only partially successful attempt to remedy the ghastly result, the color was later deepened to its current rust-red tone.
A Famosa and Porta de Santiago
Porta de Santiago is the sole surviving gateway into A Famosa (the Famous One), a huge fortress built in 1511 out of dismantled mosques and tombs, commissioned by the Portuguese using slave labor.
The Portuguese lack of architectural scruples was matched by that of the British, who blew most of the fortress to bits during the Napoleonic wars. It was only the intervention of Sir Stamford Raffles, then a young Penang civil servant on sick leave in Melaka, which saved the Porta de Santiago from destruction.
Cheng Hoon Teng Temple
The Cheng Hoon Teng Temple (or "Temple of Clear Clouds") at Jalan Tokong, Malacca, is the most venerable and maybe the grandest Chinese temple in Malaysia.
Founded sometime in the 17th century, the building was somewhat incongruously used by the Dutch-nominated leaders of the Chinese community as their court of justice, with people sometimes sent to their deaths for trivial crimes, as was the practice at that time.
After the recent renovation of the exquisite gold calligraphy (in the cao-shu, or grass, style) on the columns outside the main hall, they form a glittering invitation beckoning the visitor inwards to the slightly garish but impressively fashioned central altar, which is dedicated, maybe appropriately in such a war-torn place, to the Goddess of Mercy.
Poh San Teng Temple and Perigi Rajah Well
The Poh San Teng Temple was built in 1795 near the vast Bukit China graveyard, so that the Chinese community’s prayers for their dead would not be blown away by strong winds or sent back to earth by rainfall.
Inside the temple is the oldest well in the country, the fabled and deadly Perigi Rajah well. After Malacca was conquered by the Portuguese, Malacca’s Sultan fled to Johore. From here he dispatched undercover agents to poison the well, killing 200 Portuguese reinforcements who had only a few days before stepped off a boat from home.
The Portuguese didn’t learn from this disaster and were again killed off in numbers by well-poisonings in 1606 and 1628 carried out by, respectively, the Dutch and Acehnese. The Dutch were more prudent and, after they took over, erected a fortified wall around the well.
St Paul’s Church
St. Paul's Church was built in 1520 by a Portuguese trader named Duarte Coelho, who survived a violent storm by promising God that he would build Him a chapel and give up the traditional seaman’s vices, brothels and booze if he survived the ordeal.
After the Dutch took over, they renamed the chapel St Paul’s Church and worshipped there for over a century, until they had finished building Christ Church at the bottom of the hill, after which they abandoned St Paul’s. After stints as a lighthouse and as a gunpowder store-room St Paul’s fell into decay and has never, sadly, been restored.
In a case of six-feet-under gate-crashing, in 1818 the British started to bury their dead in the Dutch Graveyard, which now contains far more British than Dutch tombs. It has no particular aesthetic appeal and is interesting only as a witness to the very young average age at which the occupants succumbed to the town’s many wars, crimes, diseases and epidemics.