Friday 26 December 2014

Asia Summer Series: Melaka, City of Spice (Part 1)

Over December and January, I'm running a series of my previously published print articles on Asia. Next up, the intriguing city of Melaka...

You wouldn’t think that you could run a South-East Asian city as a sort of colonial timeshare, but that’s what happened to the Malaysian city of Melaka (formerly Malacca) for almost five centuries.

Rather neatly, the Portuguese ran the place for about 150 years, followed by the Dutch for about 150 years, then the British. How long did they stay? You guessed it - about 150 years.

Standing outside the ruins of a 16th century Portuguese church on a pleasant hilltop overlooking the Strait of Melaka, you can’t help reflecting on the city’s eventful past.

The strait is, after all, the major reason the Portuguese took the city by force half a millennium ago, in a bid to control the spice trade from Asia to the Western world.

The Portuguese may be long gone, but they’ve left some interesting remnants behind, not least of which is the evocative stonework of St Paul’s.

Though the roof of the church has vanished, the rusty red stones of the wall and floor still remain, making it seem as though the structure was carved directly from the rocky outcrop it stands on.

As I step into its interior and admire the intricately-decorated tombstones propped up against the walls, clusters of visitors wander past me, many of whom are Malaysians exploring their own country’s history.

There’s a languid mood up here on the hill, as visitors relax in the soft humid breeze and stroll through the church interior.

Some bend to inspect the fenced-off area where the remains of Saint Francis Xavier were first laid to rest, before being relocated to Goa in India.

Walking down steep stairs cut into the hillside, I turn a corner to reach the Dutch-era town square.

For some reason the Dutch liked a splash of brick red in their decor, and several distinctively red civic buildings form a harmonious and lively space packed with pleasure seekers.

The laneways around the square are lined by souvenir stalls and vibrantly decorated rickshaws.

People mill around, enjoying a sunny weekend afternoon, chatting with their friends and taking photos of each other with their mobile phones.

What’s most appealing about this scene is its intimate scale; you get the feeling that though Melaka was an important port, it was never a sprawling metropolis.

Between the Stadthuys, the former governor’s residence, Christ Church, and a pillar-like clock tower, there lies a triangular garden of colourful flowers.

In the centre of this I find an elegant tapering fountain dedicated to the memory of Victoria, “a great queen”. It’s an evocative reminder of both the vanished past and the diverse empire that was ruled in her name.

That diversity lives on in Melaka today, personified partly in the Peranakan. This ethnic group descended from Chinese settlers who came to Malaysia centuries ago in the company of a princess who married into the local nobility. Over time, they took up Malay customs while retaining a Chinese identity.

Their food, known as Nyonya cuisine, is also an intriguing cross-cultural mix, and one I’m about to encounter...

[Next: Chicken kapitan, Jonker Street, a cross-culture mosque, and Medan Portugis...]

Disclosure time: On this trip I travelled courtesy of Malaysia Airlines and Tourism Malaysia.

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