Eat, Pray, Shop
With Chinese, Portuguese, Dutch and British influences, Malaysia’s Malacca is a pulsating melting pot of food, culture and religion. Dig in. Words Tatyana Leonov.
There is something about being surrounded by charming Dutch architecture that makes you feel as if you’re in a fairytale set somewhere in the Netherlands. But not only is Malacca city not in the Netherlands, it’s not even in Europe. It’s the capital of the Malaysian state of Malacca.
That’s hard to believe when you’re standing in the middle of Dutch Square (Jalan Gereja), rimmed with maroon buildings more typical of Amsterdam. The architecture is just one fragment of Malacca’s fascinating melting pot of cultures. The Malays, Portuguese, Dutch and British all ruled the state throughout history and the city still has structural remains from each era.
In the 14th century, Hindu prince Parameswara transformed the-then fishing village into a busy trading port. Upon hearing about the prosperous city, Chinese immigrants came early in the next century and many settled and married Malaysians. Not long after, the Portuguese became the first Europeans to call Malacca home, conquering the city in 1511. Malacca was then passed into Dutch hands in 1641, before the British took over in 1795, returning it back to the Dutch in 1818, albeit in ruins.
From there it seemed no-one wanted to claim the city as theirs, but in 1824 it was finally brought under British administration. After Japan had a short ownership stint, it eventually gained its independence and became part of Malaysia in 1963.
Fast-forward to the present and the historic city (known also as Melaka) has been proclaimed a UNESCO World Heritage site and the unique destination, located about halfway between Singapore in the south and Kuala Lumpur in the north, is once again a bustling metropolis — with the tourist dollar its currency du jour.
Say a little prayer
Dutch Square is the heart of historical Malacca. Here, peddlers hawk local delicacies, groups of tourists follow flag-bearing guides and families attempt to squeeze into elaborately decorated trishaws blasting loud music. The square is almost as photographed as the Dutch-built Stadthuys (Jalan Gereja), which served as an administrative centre for the Dutch and British, and today houses a museum. The original Dutch architectural features remain almost unscathed by time. It’s a similar story at Christ Church (Jalan Gereja). Built in 1753, the handmade pews and the ceiling beams, which are each made from a single tree and constructed without any joinery, are marvellous.
Churches of all faiths abound in Malacca, which is not surprising considering its history. St Peter’s (166 Jalan Bendahara; www. stpetersmelaka.org) is the oldest functioning Catholic church in the country, while the Church of St Francis Xavier (12 Jalan Banda Kaba) is famous for leaning a little to the left.
Although St Paul’s (Jalan Kota), built in 1521, is no longer intact, it’s one of the oldest churches in Malaysia and attracts a steady stream of visitors. It’s located at the peak of St Paul’s Hill near the A’Famosa fort (Jalan Parameswara), yet another one of the town’s architectural drawcards. It sustained severe structural damage during the Dutch invasion but, like St Paul’s, that’s part of its attraction. The fort also offers stunning city skyline vistas.
Then there’s Harmony Street. Known to locals by many different names, the strip is home to Buddhist, Hindu and Islamic temples, including the Kampung Kling mosque, which all stand just a few metres apart. It’s a beautiful representation of the cultural and ethnic tapestry that gives Malacca its magic.
Most day-trippers visit Malacca’s old quarter in the afternoon, to eat, shop and explore the dynamic streets. There’s not much you can’t buy here, with everything from gramophones and T-shirts to jewellery and furniture for sale — and many of the shopfronts feature artisans demonstrating how to make their wares.
One such person is cobbler Raymond Yeo Kheng Chuan at Wah Aik Shoemaker (56 Jalan Tokong; +60 6 284 9726; wahaikshoe makermelaka.webs.com), who, following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, has been making Chinese foot-binding shoes for years — now only as mementoes. It takes up to five days to make a pair of the delicate brocade satin shoes and, watching Chuan work, you can see just how arduous the task is.
When the Chinese came to Malacca they brought many of their customs — foot-binding being one of them. The unusual practice became somewhat established in the city as Chinese immigration grew. On average, the petite shoes are less than 10 centimetres long and were historically worn by women as a symbol of beauty.
According to Chuan, there were close to 1000 women with bound feet in Malacca in the 1920s, but by 1990 there were just a few — not enough to sustain a shoe-making business.
Today however, the shop is one of Malacca’s most visited. Having branched out to supply to a tourist market always on the lookout for exotic souvenirs, Chuan has tapped into a niche, while also preserving a fascinating part of the city’s history.
There are plenty of other speciality craftspeople around the old town. You’ll find wooden toys, baskets, masks, fans and furniture.
When you tire of shopping, there are a plethora of busy eateries peppered through the old quarter. Judging by the line outside Kedai Chop Chun Wah (18 Jalan Hang Jebat), its reputation for serving the best Hainanese chicken rice balls seems likely to be true. The wait is worth it. The rice balls are perfectly spherical and the succulent chicken chunks inside are cooked to perfection.
While you’re in these parts, try Baba Nyonya-style cuisine, which mixes Malay and Chinese cooking techniques. Amy Heritage Nyonya Cuisine (Bandar Hilir 75, Jalan Melaka Raya 24, Taman Melaka Raya) is a good place to experience the food, typically incorporating plenty of spice and coconut milk. Try ayam buah keluak, a chicken stew (of sorts) using the black keluak nut from Indonesia. The bold flavour adds depth and a slight bitterness and, like Malacca itself, the dish is a rich and complex experience.
Virgin Australia offers flights to Kuala Lumpur with its codeshare partner Singapore Airlines. To book, visit www.virginaustralia.com or call 13 67 89 (in Australia).