Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Melaka - Old Town.

"The Historic State"

Ever since we arrived in Singapore and discovered the Peranakans hubby and I have been fascinated with their culture, their highly decorated homes, crockery, clothing, food.. of course food, we have never tired of finding out as much as possible. It probably helps that we live right on the doorstep of Singapores Peranakan Heritage area of Joo Chiat. So when we recently had family visiting we jumped at a chance of a few days away to visit Melaka. Melaka is one of the 3 predominant areas for the Peranakans, alongside Singapore the other being Penang, a place to visit another day.

Melaka (Melacca in English) sits on the West coast of Malaysia. We decided to take a coach up as its only about 4 hours coach drive and this would give us a chance to see a little of Malaysia, we hadn't as yet crossed over the border which is so close to Singapore. When I could open my eyes from the sleep which seemed to descend on me the second the coach moved off I was able to see how different the countryside was the moment we crossed over the bridge into Malaysia - there was greenery! and very little urbanisation. OK the journey up was all motorway and the scenery soon became slightly monotonous. With mile upon mile of Palm oil Plantations your view for as far as you could see for hundreds of miles was of nothing but palms. Now I knew this fact but I was still shocked at the vastness of it all and in truth we only saw a little of what was actually there and this was just a tiny part of the industry here in Malaysia, it is everywhere in SE Asia with Indonesia being highlighted for the burning that causes the Singapore haze (polluted smog) Now I could write pages upon pages of rants on how I feel about the destruction of the rain forest but I will curb the urge as this post is about our visit to Melaka.... although I will just say how green can this oil be with this destruction of rain forests, wildlife and the burning that's everywhere....OK very very small rant over.... walks away from computer to stop oneself continuing........

Anyway Melaka is home to the Baba Nonyas (Peranakans) these were Straits born Chinese. The result of Chinese traders marrying local Malay women, although this a very simplistic explanation. The Baba were the men (sino-malays) and the women are called Nonya.

Melaka was originally founded thanks to the son of the Sumatran Prince Paramsevara (one time ruler of Temasek, now Singapore) who while sitting under a Melaka tree whilst hunting saw a mouse deer turn on his hunting dogs forcing them into the sea. Seeing this as a good omen and that it was a good strategic place he persuaded his father the Prince to build a settlement here, hence began Melaka.

View from St Pauls Hill
The Sultanate of Melaka became extremely prosperous trading in textiles and spices and their territory grew to cover the west of the Malay peninsular, Pahang, Singapore and the east coast of Sumatra. It was conquered by the Portuguese under Alfonso de Albuquerque in 1511 who introduced Catholicism and then again in 1602 by the Dutch East India Company who finally handed it over to the British and the British East India company on Aug 15th 1795 when it began to decline. Its decline continued under the British as Singapore became a free port in 1819. The British promoted agriculture and mining in Melaka, improved the infrastructure and built hospitals and schools. After the Japanese occupation Melaka emerged exhausted and remained so until it was designated a UNESCO world heritage city in 2008 and it prosperity has returned,but this time through tourism, a blessing and a curse at the same time.

Anyway brief history over now onto the place itself. To be honest when you visit you only visit the old town, the rest appears to be a sprawling nondescript modern city although I'm sure there are some points of interest, but we were only here on a few days visit. We stayed right on the edge of the Old Town. From our hotel we passed by the historic buildings now all painted brick red that these days house museum upon museum. Its sad that they have all been painted the same but at least they have been preserved. One building that stands out however is the police station in its blue and white uniform - loved it! somehow it felt really Caribbean to me, maybe due to the Portuguese influence or perhaps just the colours its painted. The museums are placed predominantly along Jalan Kota which skirts St Paul's hill with unsurprisingly St Paul's Church sitting atop (a great place to visit for sunrise or sunset but note it does get busy from about 10:00 onwards) with the Porta de Santiago, where the Proclamation of Independence by the Portuguese was signed in 1512, at the base of the hill. Just to the side of the Porta de Santiago sits the Melaka Sultanate Palace museum. Built in 1984 its a replica of the Melaka Sultans palace, rebuilt traditionally with no nails only wooden pegs.  Moving along Jalan Kota you come to Dutch Square and The Stadthuys (Dutch for town hall and once home to the Governor) although its called Dutch Square it does sit on the side of a small roundabout with a fountain dedicated to Queen Victoria on her diamond jubilee and built in 1904.

Police Station
Porta De Santiago
Melaka Sultanate Palace Museum
Sun shining through the remains of St Pauls
Dutch Square with the fountain commemorating Queen Victorias diamond Jubilee
St Pauls 
The square, roundabout and Jalan Kota are where you will find Malaka's crazy trishaws, these are highly decorated contraptions decorated with kitsch bling adornments, fairy lights and loudly playing music from gangnam style and other tunes that would be right at home on the Eurovision Song Contest! At night they come alive and are a fantastic sight to see, everyone waving, smiling, taking pictures or posing for them, although the drivers are after business they're not pushy but friendly and willing to pose next to their "inventions"

Crossing over the Melaka river you enter the Old Town and straight in front of you is Jonker Street. This street that was once home to old antique shops, traders and the like - it is now tourist heaven... or hell. The antique shops have been replaced with tourist gift shops, clothes shops, cafes and of course food shops. This is the main street and I have to admit I was slightly disappointed. I knew it would be busy and tourist oriented but its just not my "thing" but certainly worth a visit and do so at different times of the day and week. In the evenings on Friday, Saturday and Sunday the street is closed to traffic and stalls are put out and its transformed into the famous Night Market. A must place to go and experience the street food that its known for, but be warned it is busy, very busy.

The Night Market before it got dark and busy!!!
For me it was much better to escape Jonker Street and explore the back streets where you get to see the architecture and structure of this place. The houses are highly decorated but perhaps not as "manicured" as in Singapore, although there is much restoration happening and I'm sure if we return in a few years the rough charm of the place may have diminished somewhat. The shophouses are still fronted by the storm drains, the roads are narrow and with the many cars and yes even buses squeezing themselves down the one way roads it makes for an interesting experience walking along them!

One great thing about Melaka is the number of artists that abound. On one street which we were drawn to we first visited a potter and succumbed and bought a candle holder, he was asleep in the back but finally awoke and came through, he was happy to talk and showed us through to the back and his studio, with ferns and orchids growing in the open courtyard of this old shophouse, we came back the next day and bought more!! Further on we came across a printer who proudly showed us his homemade printing press that he had made out of an old rubber press. He had spent the last 2 years reproducing all his works again after finding better "paper" that was made from the pulp of the mulberry, an off waste of the silk industry. He explained the paper doesn't leak and over time doesn't yellow or give sunspots. A very passionate young man, he went to school with the potter we had just visited. He was trying to transfer much of his business onto the Internet as he believes he will not be able to afford the rent in the future or that the building will be sold. This he said was happening all over the old town, and indeed you could see much renovation taking place. He explained the street originally housed many of the paper offering shops that are burnt for their ancestors. Just next door had housed such a place with a lovely elderly uncle that would tell him tales. However it had now closed as the extended family had decided to sell as the building had soared in value, it now stands renovated and empty....

Our really friendly printer proudly showing us his printing press made from an old rubber press and other odd bits.

I guess the next most well known road would be Heeren Road (millionaires row) with some extremely large and decorative shophouses, home to clan associations and even what appears to be a French Chateau! Along this road is also the Baba Nonya museum. After thoroughly enjoying my visit to the Baba house In Singapore   http://www.singaporetales.co.uk/2014/02/baba-house.html   It was great to visit another and compare the similarities. This one was considerably larger as it encompasses 3 original shophouses but basically its on the same principles as the one in Singapore. We had another excellent guide to this museum.

Baba Nonya museum
French Chateau?
Just a few houses away from the "chateau"
Interspersed amongst the tattered beauty of the shophouses ever few feet you seem to come across temple after temple with mosques and churches too just highlighting the diverse history of this once tiny but extremely important trading town. Again Melaka is also famous for its Nonya cuisine a mixture of Chinese, Malay with just a bit of other cultures thrown in for good measure. There are numerous restaurants around the town and we did our best to sample some but its a good excuse to return to try more. A must try is the Ayam Buah Keluak, a chicken dish using nuts from the pangium edule. These nuts are highly poisonous and need to be soaked for a long time. The end of the nut is then cut off exposing the inside which is carefully scrapped out mixed with prawn and spices etc before being stuffed back in and cooked in a spicy sauce - delicious!!

The remains of the pangium edule nut after we had eaten its stuffing - delicious!
On the morning of our finally day we left the hotel early and walked up the Melaka river to find Kampung Morten. This kampung was named after the British Officer and Civil servant F. J. Morten who purchased and donated the land in the 1920s and it's now a heritage village. As we walked up the river the otherwise plain and unadorned backs to the shophouses were painted in street art and historical Melakan figures which was an enjoyable surprise and not what we had expected to see.

Great way to brighten un the otherwise bland backs of the shophouses along the Melaka river. You can take river cruises up and down here.
As we turned a bend in the river we were greeted by the looming dark shape of a huge retail, hotel and condo development that blotted out the sun and cast the whole of the area into shadow. It seemed so out of place but then there's no escaping "progress" is there! On the far side of the bend and at that time of the morning in shadow from this development nestled Kampung Morten.

A home in Kampung Morten overshadowed by one of the new developments
We wandered around taking photos, the only westerners there at that time in the morning but were still met by smiles and greetings from the inhabitants. This kampong is protected and as such is used to the "tourist invasion" and in some ways this is what keeps it as it is. Still I would suggest a "must see" place. The homes are wooden or metal sided constructions built on stilts with again wooden or zinc roofs. Architecturally they are decoratively designed.

After leaving Kampung Morten we walked down the other side of the river back into town. We passed another kampung, this time clearly not protected or with any money given to it (although I have since learnt that there has been some regeneration inland from the river). This was Kampung Jawa (Java) and at first looking at these ramshackle rubbish strewn shacks I thought it was a derelict area but no, looking closer bikes were lent up against the corrugated panels that were hanging from posts and indeed you could see signs of inhabitants inside what I can only call slums. The buildings sat upon rubbish strewn mud with the river coming right against them although we walked over a boardwalk with the river one side and the kampung on the other. There were fairy lights hung as a curtain to somewhat shield the view. As much as I enjoyed visiting kampung Morten Jawa intrigued me, I hadn't seen it mentioned in any of the booklets or guides we had and I wanted to find out more and why this place was so neglected......

The differences are quite stark between the two kampungs which are close by

The little I have been able to find out is that from the 1850s it grew from a small village into a busy commercial centre with markets, hawkers, a bus station and even a cinema. It then declined with competition from other areas and after a fire became something of a residential slum. It was a Javanese settlement home to the Orang jawa (Javanese) with as many as 10,000 that had migrated to Melaka in the early 16th century.

There's is a wealth of history and culture to explore here and we only slightly scratched the surface of viewing it. So, so, SO completely different from Singapore but, a place I would be happy to settle, I believe with a feeling of slightly hippy, artistic feeling and existence, surrounded by friendly people and I could quite easily believe you would feel at home here :)

The 150 year old Kampung Kling mosque
The 230 year old Sri Poyatha Vinayagar Moorthi Temple just next door to the mosque

Maternity home?

From the back of our hotel sits the reclaimed land of Taman Melaka Raya. Here amongst the buildings you will find an evening fair. Not sure when health and safety last looked at it! It reminded me of the fairgrounds of my childhood. Quite sad in one respect but the smiles from the few children and adults showed their excitement. 

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