Traveller in Melaka

Melaka is a melting pot of people. Strategically situated on Malaysia’s west coast, halfway between Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, it attracted adventurous seafarers: Indians, Chinese, Portuguese, Dutch, and British.

Traveller in Melaka

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by Marianne on September 24, 2004

The first thing we headed for was the Dutch Square, as we wanted to find out if it was truly Dutch. The first two buildings we see are: the Christ Church and Stadthuys, which is the old-fashioned Dutch spelling and means: town hall.

Both buildings are painted darkish red. I read in a guidebook that they are painted red in keeping with Dutch tradition. I can tell you there are no wine-red painted houses in the Netherlands. Dutch houses are built of red brick. The Stadthuys has thick brick walls. Nobody, not even the friendly person at the information centre across the Dutch Square could tell me why it had been painted dark red.

The bricks are truly Dutch and really old because they were shipped from the Netherlands to Melaka as ballast on the VOC ships in the 17th century. On their outward journey, these ships had no cargo on board. This was very dangerous as it made them unstable in high seas. Therefore, they took bricks with them to stabilise their ships. These bricks were used for buildings such as the Stadthuys. On their way home the ships carried spices: nutmeg, mace, and cloves, which were easily worth more than their weight in gold in European markets.

The Stadthuys is typical of Dutch colonial architecture: louvred windows, sturdy roof beams, solid wooden doors, and thick, brick walls. These days it houses The History and Ethnographic Museum. The exhibits give a detailed explanation of Malaysia’s past.

I especially liked the Dutch room, which looked like a Vermeer, a famous Dutch painter of Dutch interiors: beamed ceiling, windows with shutters, solid oak table, Delft ware, and a collection of VOC memorabilia. VOC stands for Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie, the Dutch East India Company.

Opening hours:
Saturday to Thursday 9am to 6pm
Friday: 9am to 12.15pm and 2.45pm – 6pm
Admission: RM5 (€1,25)${QuickSuggestions}

You will need two days to see Melaka. If you have only one day or afternoon, hire a trishsaw, (see below) sit back, and relax. Your trishaw will pedal along Jalan Tun tan Cheng Lock, a narrow street lined with Pernakan style houses. Pernakan refers to Chinese descendants who have adopted Malay culture. Stop at the Baba-Nyonya Museum and in Cafe 1511 next door.

Cross the street to Baba House Hotel

This is also a Pernakan-style house, and your opportunity to take photos, as this is not allowed in the Baba-Nyonya Museum.

While being driven along the streets in Chinatown, you must look up at the carved lintels and walls decorated with painted flowers in soft pastel colours.

Your trishaw guide will end his tour at de Stadthuys. Walk up bukit(hill) St. Paul to the ruins of St Paul’s Church and the tombstones of many Dutch VOC members. The hill overlooks the harbour and you can see the reclaimed land with new housing estates. Take the stairs down and you will end in front of A’Famosa, a fortress built by the Portuguese, or at least what remains of it. ${BestWay}

It is easy to find your way in Melaka, especially when you have a streetplan But the average temperature is 30C (86F), humidity 80 %, and in these conditions you may not like to explore the city on foot.

Take a trishaw. It is a bicycle with a small seat for two persons, a canopy and a third wheel welded to its frame and rigged out with blinking lights, swaying feathers, several ‘cling-clang’ bells, one shrill electric horn, colourful brake lights, a non-functioning head light. It is impossible to overlook them.

They congregate in front of the Stadthuys. One-way trip is RM 6 (euro 1,50), a tour through historic Melaka RM 20 (euro 5)

. The bus station moved out of town, is now on the main road to Kuala Lumpur, near Tesco Supermarket. Taxi to the city centre is RM 15 (euro 3,75). The express bus to Singapore leaves every hour and takes 4 – 5 hours. (RM 14 = euro 4,50). There are frequent buses to Kuala Lumpur which takes 2 hours (RM 9 = euro 2,25).


Member Rating 5 out of 5 by Marianne on September 24, 2004

There is a large choice of hotels in Melaka, and their descriptions in Lonely Planet all sounded equally as good. We decided on Hollitel, Jalan PM 5, which is a 10-minute walk from the city centre. PM 5 stands for Plaza Mahkota, street # 5.

Plaza Mahkota is a residential area, built some ten years ago on reclaimed land. The houses are of identical architecture, and there is hardly any traffic, which makes this part of the city very quiet.

We were amazed at the great number of restaurants in this neighbourhood, and wondered if they attracted enough clients. They do, because it is customary for Malay people to eat out three times a day. Prices for meals are very reasonable, and many Malay housewives never prepare meals at home. This sounded very attractive to me. Just imagine: no shopping, no chopping, no cooking, and no washing-up.

We stayed for three days and every morning we went to our breakfast restaurant, which served American (eggs and toast) and Malay breakfast (rice or noodles). In the evening, we became regulars at a Chinese-Indian restaurant.

Our room was on the first floor; fairly small (only 2.5 x 3m), two single beds with firm mattresses, windows on two sides, air conditioning, a wardrobe, and a table with a television that did not work. That was no problem because if it had worked we would not have been able to understand any of the programmes shown on one of the three Malay channels.

The bathroom was not bigger than 1 x 2m, but fully equipped and had hot water.

If you feel a bit crammed, you can sit downstairs in the lounge, which has the feel of a family living-room. There are always some people to talk to, and, if you are not the talkative type, you can use their computer with broadband internet access.

We paid RM 70 for a double room. It is a very good value. If you want to book ahead, this is the e-mail address:

Hollitel Hotel Melaka
Jalan Plaza Mahkota 5, Plaza Mahkota
Melaka, Malaysia, 75000
(06) 286-0608

Baba Nyonya Heritage Museum

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by Marianne on September 24, 2004

The big attraction for me of the Baba Nyonya Museum is that it is housed in a traditional, fully furnished Pernakan townhouse.

Babas and Nyonyas are Chinese descendants who have adopted Malay culture. They are also known as Straits-born Chinese or Pernakans, and practice both Chinese and Malay customs. They are known for their unique furniture, dress style, and food, a marriage of Chinese and Malay cuisine.

The museum is a spacious two-storey home built around open courtyards. The entrance hall is divided into two by an intricately carved wooden screen that provides both privacy and ventilation.

The open courtyard, or sky well, is the main centre of activity as it is the airiest place in the house. All rooms are furnished as they would have been 100 years ago. It is a mixture of Chinese European, Malay, and Chinese elements.

One of the most important spaces in Chinese homes is reserved for the family's ancestors. This is also the case in Pernakan’s homes. In the main room downstairs, there is a small shrine, and, in front of it, a table full of offerings of food and incense. On the walls are portraits of the ancestors.

All rooms are furnished with mother-in-pearl inlaid tables and chairs. There are Victorian clocks, lampshades, and silverware. I especially liked the Dutch tiles and the multicoloured Chinese ceramics: a blend of green, pink, blue, and yellow. The plain blue Chinese pottery is used for ancestry worship and mourning. On the walls there are lavishly embroidered panels. It is only when I look closer that I can see that they are embroidered; from further away they look like paintings.

Upstairs there is a bridal chamber with Pernakan clothes, as worn by different generations, a hat stand with umbrellas and hats, more silverware, dinner services, and tea services of the finest chinaware.

The Baba Nyonya Heritage Museum, is the ancestral home of the Chan family, a Pernakan family. That’s why a small part of the house is not open to visitors. If there are enough visitors, there are guided tours, but we did not join one and walked about at our own pace.

The museum is more than an exhibition of objects. It shows the life of a rich Pernakan family in the early 20th century. They belonged to the social elite of those days and gave dinner parties, with colonial leaders as their guests. Silent witnesses of these days are the exhibits of bottles of expensive brandy, the silver cutlery, and the bone china dinner services.

Entrance RM 8
Opening hours:
Monday to Wednesday 10am to 12.30pm and 2 to 4.30pm

Baba Nyonya Heritage Museum
48, 50 Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock
Melaka, Malaysia, 75200
+60 6 283 1233

Feet as Small as Lotus Flowers

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by Marianne on September 24, 2004

Imagine this: feet as small as lotus flowers.

Today there is still one old lady in Melaka who has lotus feet. Her feet are only 3 inches long; she has bound feet. When she needs a new pair of shoes she buys them from Wah Aik, the only shoemaker in Melaka who can still make these tiny shoes.

Doll’s shoes was what I thought when I saw them in the shop window. They are made of silk and lined with red velvet and fastened with gold-threaded laces. They have leather soles, which never wear out. Women with bound feet cannot walk.

Women with small feet were desirable brides. The smaller the feet the higher the dowry. They often married men of means and thus were sure of a prosperous life with one drawback: women with bound feet could not move about freely. They could not leave the house unaccompanied. This is exactly what their husbands liked.

These women walked with a swaying gait as they tried to keep their balance. Men found this swaying gait erotic. Besides, foot binding kept women in their place. They were regarded as their husband’s property, and, without the help of his support, they could not move. They were housebound and every step was painful; yet, they were expected to raise the children, prepare the meals, and do the housework.

Walking meant excruciating pain. Therefore, some women put stools next to each other to form a chain so that they could move without their feet touching the ground; others moved about on their knees, which was almost as bad as walking.

The binding of the feet began between the ages of three and six. The bones were broken and the toes were folded under the foot. The ball of the foot buckled in and was wrapped to the heel. The fold between the heel and the ball was the preferred site for intercourse. It is dubious whether women derived any pleasure from it.

Foot binding was banned in 1911, but it did not stop right then, as so many girls were in the middle of the process. Finally, in 1949, this practice was made illegal. This means that women in their early 60's can still have bound feet.

Shoemaker Wah Aik at no. 56 Jalan Tokong in Melaka, Malaysia sells these tiny shoes to tourists.

Cheng Hoon Teng Temple

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by Marianne on September 24, 2004

"Welcome to the temple of the Evergreen Clouds," said a friendly, middle-aged man, "Cheng Hoon Teng in Chinese." And he invited me to go inside. A statue of a dragon and a lion stood guard at the entrance.

I entered an open courtyard; from here I could examine more closely the dragons on the green tiles roof with its up-turned eaves. The walls were decorated with clay figurines and more dragons. There were tortoises intertwined with snakes, elephants, lions. "Symbols of Taoism," my host told me.

I was a bit hesitant to step inside, as there were many people; some were arranging offerings on large tables, while others were burning incense. Two men were sitting on the floor, throwing wooden cubes to predict their future.

Chinese temples are very hospitable places and I went inside. I did not feel like an intruder. People continued their daily rituals and were not bothered by on-lookers. On the contrary, they liked to explain their religion to outsiders and point out interesting architectural features of the temple.

This temple, like all Taoist Chinese temples, was built according to feng shui principles - all aspects of life are related to keeping perfect harmony with nature. The temple was built facing and overlooking the river and the sea. At its back is a hill, which is home for potentially dangerous dragons. It is structured in such a way that air is allowed to circulate freely. This is necessary as the hall gets filled with the smoke from the joss sticks.

The temple is elaborately decorated: golden dragons and phoenixes, fine porcelain, and cut-and-paste shard work. The longer I looked the more details I saw.

The lay-out of all Chinese temples is the same: a courtyard with a large bowl for incense and paper offerings. Beyond it is the main hall with an altar-table on which are placed: an incense burner, candlesticks, flower vase, offerings of fruit, and soft drinks.

The main altar in the Cheng Hoon Teng Temple houses the image of Kuan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy. She is associated with fertility, good fortune, and peace.

The most striking colour in the temple is red, which symbolises the sun and also suggests joy, festivity, and prosperity. The temple was built in the 17th century from building materials especially imported from China, as were the craftsmen. Cheng Hoon Teng Temple is an example of typical South Chinese style.

In the street outside the temple, there are shops that sell paper offerings. These are paper models of any worldly possession. By burning these models at a funeral or ceremony, it is believed that these possessions will brighten up life in the next world. People’s favourite possessions are represented: a big house complete with DVD player, stereo set, flat-screen television, paper Heineken beer cans, and credit cards.

Cheng Hoon Teng Temple is in Jalan Tokong, right in the centre of Chinatown.

Bukit China

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by Marianne on September 24, 2004

Bukit China, Melaka's Chinese cemetry, is situated on a hill just outside the city centre. Chinese cemeteries are always built on higher grounds, so the deceased are closer to heaven.

As Melaka's climate is hot and humid, it was too far to go on foot to Bukit China. Therefore, we hired a trishsaw. They congregate near Stadthuys right in the centre of the city. We haggled over the price, and paid RM4, which was money well spent, as our driver proved to be an excellent tourist guide.

"The graves are very much neglected," he began. "There are some 12,000 of them, and the oldest date back to the 17th century." We bumped along trying not to inhale exhaust fumes.

At the foot of the hill, we got out and, together with our guide, climbed the hill, which was more a gentle slope than a true hill. There were graves all around, semi-circular in shape. Many of them were overgrown by trees, grass, and weeds, and the Chinese characters were eroded. A few graves were still in remarkably good condition.

Our guide asked us if we knew the story of the Ming princess. "No," we said. In ancient times, Melaka and China wanted to outwit each other. One day a Chinese ship moored in Melaka harbor with its interior pinned together with a multitude of gold pins. It was as if the walls were made of pure gold. On board was a Chinese diplomat who had a message for the Sultan of Melaka, a message from the Emperor himself: I have a subject for every gold pin, if you can count their number then you know my power.

Here I tried to interrupt our guide as I wanted to know why the diplomat was on board and how the interior was pinned together because this was not clear to me, but he ignored my questions and continued.

The Sultan was very much impressed and sent a ship to China in return. Its cargo consisted of bags of rice. And this was his message: If you can count the grains, you will have guessed the number of my subjects and you will know my power.

The Chinese Emperor was intrigued and sent his daughter, Princess Hang Li Poh, to marry the Sultan. She came with 500 handmaidens. The Sultan gave them Bukit China as a place to live. And, until today, it is in possession of Melaka's Chinese community.

Whether this is a true story or not, I don't know. But it is a fact that in the 15th century a Chinese Princess, Hang Li Poh, married the Sultan. The purpose of this marriage was to strengthen diplomatic relationship between China and the Melaka Sultanate. The princess’s handmaidens married local Malay men. Their descendants are the Pernakans, which means "born locally." They are also known as Babas and Nyonyas.

Soon more Chinese traders came to Melaka, all with high expectations of success in trade. Some were successful, but others died before achieving success. They were buried at Bukit China. Their families had not traveled with them, and there was no one to pray for their souls and look after their graves. But the Chinese Kapitans took care of this.

Kapitans are appointed chiefs of Chinese societies or clans. The Chinese immigrants had language and cultural problems when they came to live in Melaka. Soon they formed clans that were self-governed. These clans took care of education, finance, and also had a social function. This system still works today.

Today, Bukit China is not only a cemetery, but also a park where many Melakans go jogging and mountain biking in the evening. Others practice Tai Chi while enjoying the view.

If you have only one afternoon in Melaka, Bukit China is not the most important place to see, but if your stay is longer, I would strongly recommend you see it.

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