The busy port of Melaka, two-hours south of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, was called the Venice of the East. Now a thriving cultural destination, the footprints of many cultures are mapped out on the streets of the city.
Melaka was called the Venice of the East, as it was the Asian destination to trade exotic spices and fabrics. Sheltered from typhoons, the city became a safe port for traders from China, India and the Middle East. By the early 15th century, over 2000 ships were in port from November to March, as they bought, sold and waited for the winds to change homeward. This port was the Dubai of its day. Everyone had something to sell. The Chinese sold tea and porcelain, the Persians carpets and medicine, and the Indians cotton and ivory.
Traders didn't just buy, sell, and go home again. Many stayed and brought their culture with them. Melaka maps these cultures in the footprint and heritage of the city. Little India’s tiny shops, selling vegetables, spices, and sequins, squeeze side by side down narrow streets. Across the river, Chinatown’s crowded streets are lined with traditional trades: lantern making, paper cutting, tinsmiths and barrel making. There is even a shop producing shoes in the traditional style for bound feet, just collectors’ items today. At the end of Jonker Street, the main road, Kampung Kling Mosque sits next to the Indian Hindi Temple. Both places were built in the mid-1700s and continue to welcome worshippers today.
Over the centuries, Chinese men married local Malay Muslim women forming the Baba-Nonya. Boys born to Baba-Nonya parents were raised Chinese in dress, custom and religion while the girls were raised as Malay Muslims. The former home of a wealthy 19th century trading family, the Baba-Nonya Heritage Museum, shows this distinctive blended way of life. In keeping with seclusion practices, the outer reception rooms of the house were for the men and guests with women holding the inner rooms. The outer rooms are conventional and closed. The inner open-air courtyard is large, cool and attractive. It was the heart of the home for cooking, relaxing, cleaning and bathing.
Back in the centre of town, Europeans left buildings of a different, often more formal kind. St Paul’s Church sits on the small hill, on the site of the original Portuguese fort, and welcomes the warm sea breeze blowing in from the Straits of Malacca. In 1511 the Portuguese waged war on the local Malaysian sultans to wrestle control of this lucrative trading port, but were soon replaced by the Dutch. They built the Stadhuys, a large red set of offices and meeting rooms, which now dominates the intersection between Chinatown and Little India. The Dutch seceded the port to the British in 1846. They promoted Melaka’s trading potential enthusiastically and efficiently reused existing buildings.
A perfect way to see the inheritance of this cultural blend is the boat cruise, which follows the river up through the old town. 18-storey hotels and apartment blocks contrast with the red tin roofs of the original and still inhabited Malay village, Kampung Morten. Portuguese churches and Dutch townhouses sit next to Chinese restaurants and Indian spice shops. Twelve ornate wooden painted bridges bring an Art Nouveau touch to the old town. The city’s built heritage is a witness to the different people transplanted here. But as dusk falls, the final call to prayer sounds out from the mosque’s turret across the city, a reminder that not all culture is transmitted by bricks and wood alone.