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Cuisine in Melaka

MALACCA STRIVES ON HER HISTORY

Originally published Monday, March 26, 2012 at 9:09 AM

Malaysia’s Malacca thrives with history
The hub of Malacca’s civic colonial sites is Dutch Square — also called Red Square because of the color of its buildings.

By NAOMI LINDT The New York Times

On the tranquil grounds of the Cheng Hoon Teng Temple, Malaysia’s oldest Taoist house of worship, late afternoon visitors bowed and offered burning wands of incense to a gilded statue of the Goddess of Mercy, the deity for whom the temple was founded in the 1600s. Tourists quietly watched or focused cameras on the structure’s ornate, figurine-covered roof.

The placidity was interrupted by the muezzin’s call from the nearby Kampung Kling Mosque, an amalgam of Corinthian columns, Portuguese tiles and Hindu carvings, built by Indian Muslims in 1748. And down the street at the 230-year-old Sri Poyyatha Vinayagar Moorthi Temple, the country’s oldest Hindu temple, bare-chested and barefoot men in pastel-hued sarongs and garlands made of yellow blooms gathered to pray.

It was another seemingly sleepy afternoon in Malacca, Malaysia’s oldest city, just two hours south of Kuala Lumpur and about four hours northwest of Singapore. But underneath that sleepiness, its foundation of vibrant multiculturalism, which dates back centuries, is very much alive and increasingly accessible, as it welcomes a handful of hotels and millions of international visitors a year.

“I just love Malacca — its laid-back, slow pace of life and the history in the buildings, the people, the culture,” said a local resident, Colin Goh, 66, at Cheng Hoon, surrounded by a pair of red-and-gold sedan chairs and black-and-white photos that chronicled decades of the temple’s religious festivals. “Everything you touch that is not new is old.”

With his mix of Portuguese, Dutch, Chinese and “God only knows what else” heritage, Goh, a retired civil servant who now manages 8 Heeren Street, a restored 18th-century Dutch shophouse, embodies the city’s colonial past. Founded around 1400 by a Malay-Hindu prince, Malacca, within a century, became Southeast Asia’s most important trading port, luring an international cast of colonialists and merchants seeking a piece of the region’s lucrative spice trade.

The hub of Malacca’s civic colonial sites is Dutch Square — also called Red Square because of the color of its buildings — where tourists pose in front of the century-old Queen Victoria Fountain and trishaws festooned with plastic flowers gather. Nearby are the ruins of the A’Famosa fort, one of Asia’s oldest European-built structures, erected by the Portuguese 500 years ago, and the imposing Stadthuys, or town hall, built by the Dutch in 1650 and later painted salmon red by the British, Malacca’s last foreign rulers, whose reign lasted until 1957.

On the west side of the Malacca River, which flanks the square, along the old center’s narrow, atmospheric streets, are hundreds of lantern-hung shophouses, some distinctly Chinese in style, others bearing geometric Art Deco trademarks, and grand residences with ornately tiled stoops built by wealthy families of the past. For centuries, these streets served as the town’s commercial and residential center.

Malacca’s eclectic charm, with some help from a UNESCO World Heritage designation in 2008 and its reputation as one of Malaysia’s most exciting culinary destinations, has resulted in a steady growth in tourism. Last year 12 million visitors came, an increase of over 17 percent from 2010, according to a state tourism committee.

While some heritage buildings are still occupied by generations-old family businesses — silversmiths, watchmakers, dim sum purveyors — others have newer identities. At Temple Street, a shop run by a local artist, watercolors and hand-painted tiles depict idyllic street scenes. In another building, Nancy’s Kitchen, a no-frills restaurant known for its local Nyonya cuisine, sells addictive delicacies like buttery pineapple tarts and onde-onde, glutinous rice balls filled with Malacca’s famous palm sugar, known as gula Melaka, and covered in fresh coconut.

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The Baba Nyonya Heritage Museum, in a grand, preserved residence on Heeren Street (officially known as Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock), pays tribute to Peranakans, a group of wealthy, sophisticated families that arose from the intermarrying of Babas, or Chinese traders, and Nyonyas, or local residents.

The Peranakans forged a distinct East-meets-West culture that represents much of what makes Malacca so fascinating: A racial and religious multiculturalism that’s been cultivated and honored for centuries.This rich cultural heritage is also being celebrated in new lodging options. In 2009, a 100-year-old residential property down the street was converted into the 14-room Courtyard (AT) Heeren hotel, which blends era-appropriate furnishings with modern amenities. At the Snail House nearby, a charming French-Malaccan couple, Serge and K.C. Jardin, rent rooms in their carefully restored century-old home, with an open courtyard, a grand spiral staircase and high ceilings, offering travelers the chance to appreciate the nuances of Peranakan architecture.

“When you’re inside, you feel as if you’re in the presence of a wealthy Baba,” Jardin said. “And though you’re in the city center, it’s so quiet you forget where you are.”

Josephine Chua, a self-described “busybody housewife,” history buff and proponent of Malacca’s historic preservation, agreed.

“This place has been built on harmony since the 15th century,” she said.

Chua, 55, traces her local roots back nine generations, to 1765, when one of her paternal ancestors migrated from Fujian, China.

“The religions have coexisted side by side for centuries — that’s what makes us so unique and the town so great to live in,” she said. This is a particularly telling statement in modern-day Malaysia, whose Muslim, Malay-majority government has been criticized for exploiting ethnic divisions for the sake of political gain. “We don’t ask each other about one’s race and religion, but what we do always ask each other is,’Have you eaten?”‘

Where one has dined is not a question to be taken lightly in a city of restaurants serving home-cooked dishes, many of which have been passed down through generations. At Aunty Lee, a grandmotherly spot with lace curtains and pastel walls just a short drive from the historic center, septuagenarian chefs cook mouthwatering renditions of classic Nyonya dishes — chicken stewed with earthy, smoky keluak nuts; a fluffy omelet flavored with dried shrimp and chili; and cendol, a shaved ice dessert topped with coconut milk and gula Melaka.

Though authentic culture is easy to find in the city, residents like Chua and Goh worry about its future. The old center is now home to a recently opened Hard Rock Cafe, and many historic buildings have fallen into disrepair or been transformed into conventional souvenir shops and hostels, with no government financing to protect them.

Perhaps the most glaring example is Jonker Street, officially called Jalan Hang Jebat. Once known for its antiques shops, the strip now draws tour groups trawling stores stocked with Birkenstock knockoffs, batik linens and cheeky T-shirts with sayings like, “If YouTube MySpace, I’ll Google Your Yahoo.” It’s particularly raucous on weekends, when a food and retail night market takes over.

Still, what captivated explorers and entrepreneurs centuries ago never seems far away, whether it’s during a contemplative moment in a crumbling church or a stroll along the old town’s back streets and its fragrant Chinese medicine shops. Or while you are sipping a steaming cup of tea during a downpour at Zheng He Tea House, a hidden spot two blocks from Jonker Street. “Once you step into Malacca, you can feel the positive energy,” said Pak Siew Yong, the teahouse’s friendly owner. “Foreigners, once they come here, they don’t want to go home.”

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Cuisine in Melaka

DOWN MEMORY LANE IN MELAKA DURING MERDEKA

Wednesday August 31, 2011
Walking down memory lane
By MICHAEL CHEANG

Heritage enthusiasts Colin Goh and Josephine Chua are passionate about preserving the history of their beloved city.

HIDDEN away in the shadow of a massive shopping complex in Malacca is an almost forgotten part of Malaysia’s history. It is a small mosaic-covered pyramid with a large ‘M’ in the middle, and it marks the beginning of Malaysia as we know it.

Once the focal point of Malacca’s Padang Merdeka, the Merdeka Monument commemorates the day that Malaya declared its independence. That’s not all. Most people forget that it was in Malacca on Feb 20, 1956, Tunku Abdul Rahman announced the glorious news that the British Government had finally agreed to grant Malaya independence. So in a way, Malacca is inextricably linked to Merdeka.

“It is such a shame that an important monument to such an important event in our country’s history is so downplayed today,” laments Colin Goh, 65, a retired civil servant and one of my tour guides for the day.
Colin Goh and Josephine Chua at the Merdeka Monument.

Despite being the second smallest state in Malaysia, Malacca has always been at the centre of Malaysia’s history – ever since Parameswara founded the settlement in 1409. This once important and strategic port in the Straits of Malacca was where the Portuguese, Dutch and British once had their strongholds. Some old Portuguese maps even referred to the entire Malayan peninsula as Malacca. Therefore, it was fitting that Tunku chose Malacca, the place where it all began, to announce the birth of our nation.

Goh was 10 years old when Tunku came to town, and according to him, the atmosphere leading up to the days before his arrival in Malacca was electrifying.

“Everyone was fired up about independence at the time. Everyone in school and on the streets was shouting ‘Merdeka! Merdeka!’ even though they didn’t really know what it meant,” Goh recalls. “Back then, this was just a sleepy hollow. But when word got out that Tunku was coming here to make the announcement, people arrived on buses from everywhere just to hear what he had to say!”

Walking encyclopaedia

Today, Goh is a walking, talking, living history book, an encyclopaedia of Malaccan history. He and his long-time friend and fellow heritage enthusiast Josephine Chua are taking me on a whirlwind tour along the heritage trail of Malacca.

They will be showing another side of Malacca’s history, one that you would not read about in books.

Chua, 55, who is on the Malacca Historical Resource Society committee, is equally passionate about preserving the history and heritage of Malacca. Her roots go all the way back to the very early days of Malacca – her grandfather was one of the founders of the iconic 17th century Cheng Hoon Teng Temple, which is the oldest Chinese temple in Malaysia.
The historical A Famosa fortress, a landmark of Malacca.

The walk around Malacca’s heritage zone is as much a walk down memory lane for Goh and Chua as it is a walk down Malacca’s chequered past.

Starting out from the St. Francis Xavier Church, we enter the designated Heritage Zone via the row of distinctly red pre-war shop houses along Jalan Laksamana to the central town square (with its iconic red clock tower), then up Jalan Kota towards the Merdeka monument. From there, part of our route includes the one that Tunku Abdul Rahman took in 1956 after making the Merdeka announcement, when he went across the Tan Kim Seng Bridge to MCA founder Tun Tan Cheng Lok’s home on Heeren Street (now Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lok) for tea.

Besides its obvious historical heritage (the ancestral homes of many influential Chinese and Peranakan families are still located here), Heeren Street also holds special significance for both Goh and Chua – they were born on the same street in adjoining buildings, at 54 and 56 Heeren Street respectively.
Ban Onn Silversmith on Jonker Street (now known as Jalan Hang Jebat), is one of the few remnants of a more idyllic, less commercial era.

As we walk along the street, Chua excitedly points out the various homes she’s lived in, and tells vivid stories about the denizens of the street.

“My aunt used to live across the street from us when I was little. During Merdeka Day, she would wave to me from across the road and I’d shout ‘Merdeka!’ from our window,” Chua recalls.

One of the most remarkable parts about being brought on a tour by Goh and Chua is that they can point out little details that you would normally have missed. For instance, at one end of the Tan Kim Seng Bridge, concealed behind a garish and completely out-of-place Dutch windmill (despite being colonised by the Dutch, Malacca never had windmills), is an engraved plaque commemorating the opening of the bridge by the British governor at the time. It also honours the contributions of prominent merchant Tan Kim Seng, who donated the funds for the construction of the bridge

Treasure trove of knowledge

You’ll also hear stories about things that happened in everyday life as well. Pointing out a prominent building on Heeren Street, Goh relates how it used to be the home of a good friend who was murdered in her own home. Passing by another building, he explains how it used to be called The Black House because it was occupied by a coal trader.

Stories like these are what make Goh and Chua so unique. They may not be historians or tour guides by profession, but they conduct private tours on a voluntary basis, usually for special occasions or selected guests, because they are driven by their passion for the city they grew up in, as well as the wealth of history and stories within its walls and along its streets.

Goh and Chua are treasure troves of knowledge on Malacca’s history, dispensing historical facts with stories from their childhood, as well as insights into how Malacca has changed.

“The first time I took somebody on a tour of Malacca was in 1965. I found myself getting more and more interested in Malacca’s history. So I started to pick up more books and articles and kept them for reference,” says Goh.

It’s not all warm and fuzzy memories though.

Goh and Chua are equally adept at pointing out the less savoury side of Malacca, which includes the over-commercialisation and over-development of the heritage area, inadequacies in the preservation of heritage buildings and even blatant disrespect of the city’s proud heritage and buildings.

As we walk along Jonker Street (now known as Jalan Hang Jebat) amid the cacophony of tour buses, trucks and motorcycles whizzing past, Goh points out, “This place used to be a thriving community. Everything you needed in everyday life was here – there were tailors, blacksmiths, laundry cleaners, electrical shops, silversmiths. But when it was turned into the Jonker Walk night market to attract more tourists, all the old residents packed up and left the area.”

“It’s become a commercial community now – everything being sold here now is catered for tourists,” Chua adds.

“Many of the things being sold here aren’t even Malaysian, let alone Malaccan!”

Yet, amidst all the tacky tourist traps and blatant commercialisation, some remnants of the old Jonker Street community remain.

For instance, Ban Onn Silversmith is one of the few traditional silversmiths left standing in Malacca. And directly opposite is The Royal Press, a 75-year-old printing press that is still going strong.

“They (The Royal Press) recently had to move from the store next door to the current one; and when they did, they arranged all the furniture and equipment in the exact same positions as they were in the previous store,” says Chua proudly.

Nevertheless, one gets the feeling that these are the dying embers of Malacca’s old history, and that they will soon be gone unless something drastic is done to preserve these heritage treasures.

In fact, oral historians and ordinary Malaccans like Goh and Chua should also be treasured, and commended for the work they have done.

For the pair, it is frustrating and sometimes painful to see the city they grew up in being exploited in the name of development and tourism.

According to Chua, acclaimed historian Tan Sri Mubin Sheppard once said that Malacca was the only place where you got a feeling of antiquity when you drive into town.

“This should have been the main motto in all our conservation projects for Malacca. How important is Malacca? Before anyone even dreamed of Malaysia or Malaya, there was Malacca,’’ she says.

From a certain angle at the Merdeka Monument, you can see the entire history of Malaysia – the iconic Porta de Santiago gate of the A Famosa fortress, the Malay sultanate palace, and the Bastion House. They represent the Portuguese, Dutch, British and Malay Sultanate eras of Malacca.

There can be no doubt Malacca is the cradle of Malaysia.

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Cuisine in Melaka

A HERITAGE GEM

A restored 18th century shophouse in Malacca illustrates a successful model for conservation and adaptive re-use.

Sandwiched between 19th century Peranakan townhouses that are grander and more ostentatious, No 8 Heeren Street Heritage Centre is easy to miss.

Colin Goh, No 8 manager.

Many visitors to Malacca, including yours truly, would have sauntered past its narrow and unassuming facade, oblivious of its significance in Malacca’s chequered past. But built in the mid-late 1700s during the Dutch colonialists, No 8 is the earliest example of the shophouses and modest residential structures erected in the bustling port city between the mid-1600s and late 1800s.

“No 8 epitomises the humble dwelling of the common local or foreign traders of that era and resonates with the social, cultural and historical fabric of Malaccan community,” says Colin Goh, the amicable manager who took us on a tour of the house on Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock, formerly Heeren Street.

This type of building has assumed many roles in its time, from stable, shop and residence to storehouse and dormitory for labourers working in the port.

“Sadly, due to the urban renewal that came with the introduction of rubber, and the need to show a new and modern ‘Malacca face’, there aren’t many such shop-houses left today,” Goh points out.

Today, the house serves as a base for heritage tours, a venue for exhibitions, workshops and corporate events, as well as an advisory centre on Malacca’s heritage environment and the conservation techniques for this building type. A Badan Warisan Malaysia (Heritage of Malaysia Trust) model conservation project, No 8 is owned by the Cheng Hoon Teng Temple Trust.

When Badan started the facelift in 2001, the building was crumbling and had been left vacant for years.

“The initial challenge was getting information on the history of the building, its ownerships, use, etc,” says Elizabeth Cardosa, executive director of Badan.

Wall bricks, the floor in the courtyard and the well are original features dating back 200 years.

“There was nothing in the archival records, possibly because it’s a modest building with an ordinary ‘life’ and it wasn’t related to the life of any important personality or dignitary.”

But the restoration team managed to cobble together some information from oral history. Building materials were sent for testing, for example, timber samples were sent to Forest Research Institute Malaysia for species identification so that the team could decide on the type of timber to use for restoration.

“We sent lime mortar samples to the Scottish Lime Centre to get a profile of the material for our records and to make further restoration decisions,” says Cardosa.

Materials from the site, like roof tiles and timber, were salvaged and recycled. The original walls were intact and so only needed some re-plastering job.

“All materials were sourced in Malacca — and while not all were originally from Malacca; for example, the terracotta floor tiles from Vietnam — we were able to find them from a supplier in Malacca,” she adds.

The team settled on exposed wiring for the electricity to avoid unnecessary hacking and damage to the walls.

In the past, the front of No 8 served as a shop, while the back and the second floor were living areas.

“Most contractors who have no conservation experience, or those who have no interest or sensitivity regarding restoration, will find it ‘easier’ to just hack away the old, and replace it with modern materials,” Cardosa explains.

“Conservation and restoration is a methodical and painstaking process, and it requires patience and a curious mind to uncover the ‘layers’ of history and materials.”

The project was partly financed by the US Cultural Ambassador’s Fund, with the team of architects, engineers and Badan members chipping in with their time, expertise and travel costs. Restoration work was completed after 2½ years.

“The final big challenge was to promote the interpretation of this site as a model project of a modest Dutch-styled shophouse — many people did not see the heritage value of such a modest building,” adds Cardosa.

Lessons in heritage design

No 8 reflects how the city’s streetscape evolved from the earlier timber-and-thatch structures to brick-and-clay-roof-tile buildings. It was built on a long and narrow lot, extending back 20-30m between parallel walls.

A door and a large shop-front wooden window with woven screen commonly used for privacy, and overhanging tiled roof make up the facade of the building.

Interestingly, like Kyoto’s traditional machiya (merchant houses) where property tax was based on the width of the building’s street-frontage, Malaccan houses built during the Dutch era were also narrow because of taxation.

An open courtyard in the middle of the house allows light and natural ventilation. The form and materials used are also an indication of the strict and detailed building and planning regulations during the Dutch rule.

A window looking out to the courtyard.

During our visit, despite the sweltering and muggy conditions on the streets, the interior of the house stayed cool and comfortable.

“Walls and the internal courtyard of the air well were built with local clay bricks that were manufactured in Malacca and fashioned in the Dutch style,” explains Goh, who pointed out the house’s standout features.

Lime-based plaster and lime-based paint made from local corals covered the walls. The air well is inspired by Chinese architecture and a well is shared with the neighbouring house.

“The use of stone or wooden corbels to support the beams reflects the Dutch influence while the metal hinges and brackets on the door and windows are distinctly European in style.”

Since restoration work completed eight years, No 8 has undergone the usual wear and tear. The plasterwork on the walls is affected by salt precipitation and flaking, and so requires constant cleaning. A pest control company has to be called in to monitor termite activity on the wooden floors and beams.

“The roof tiles have begun to shift due to ground vibration whenever a bus or a heavy-duty vehicle drives past; during the rainy season, we get some leaks,” admits Goh.

But overall, No. 8 seems to be in good hands. Goh’s enthusiasm is infectious and his knowledge, sound. Also, it’s rare to find such archaic structures in Malacca or Malaysia these days, especially one that has been painstakingly restored and which stays true to its original characteristics.

If you’re ever in the neighbourhood, be sure to drop by No 8.

? No 8, Heeren Street Heritage

Centre is open seven days a week, 11am-4pm. Admission is free. For enquiries, call (06) 281 1507.

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