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Saturday April 23, 2011

Crash course on Malacca’s history

Guests at The Majestic Malacca get a crash course on Malacca’s history through the hotel’s historical walk.

        You can read about Malacca in dusty history books or take boring sightseeing tours, but if you really want to soak up the city’s history, you need to walk it. Better still if your strolling companion is a Malaccan-born and bred history nut.

On a recent trip to the Unesco World Heritage site, my family and I were guests at The Majestic Malacca, a 54-room luxurious boutique hotel owned by YTL Hotels. Majestic offers daily complimentary walks for guests led by its resident historian, Donovan Casimir Louis.

Guests thread their way through narrow alleys and five-foot ways as Louis condenses the city’s colourful pastiche of cultures and 600 years of history into the three-hour stroll. Called “The Route to Malacca’s History’’, the walk weaves through landmarks like Christ Church, built by the Dutch colonists with its two-century old handmade pews and glazed tile painting of the ‘‘Last Supper’’; the 400-year-old Stadhuys, once the administrative capital of Malacca; A Famosa, the oldest surviving European architecture in Asia; and the ruins of Santiago Bastion, the remains of a Portuguese bastion built to monitor incoming ships.

The floor tiles in Majestic Malacca’s lobby lounge are the original tiles used when the hotel was built in 1927.

The walk also showcases Malacca’s multicultural roots — the influences of Portuguese, Dutch, British, Chinese, Indian, Malay and Arab cultures are reflected in the city’s buildings, places of worship and old trades.

The Chinese mansion

On request, Louis good-naturedly improvised our walk by skipping the landmarks and focusing on old Malacca streets and the vanishing trades.

And what better way to start our history lesson than with the hotel, a mansion built in 1927 by Chinese tycoon Leong Long Man.

“In the old days, it’s common to have one wife with 15 to 20 kids so Mr Leong built this mansion to accommodate his growing family,” said Louis. Completed in 1929, the sizable mansion was handed down through generations before it was sold to businessman Lim Heng Fang in 1955. Lim converted the mansion into a hotel to cater for British planters and called it Majestic Hotel. The Majestic later evolved into a budget guesthouse until it closed its doors in 2000.

The ideal way to soak up Malacca’s incredible heritage? Put up at The Majestic Malacca and join its complementary historical walk . . .

In its heyday, in the 1950s and 1960s, the hotel hosted parties and banquets for the who’s who of Malaya, movie stars and foreign dignitaries.

“There were quite a number of drunken revelries here during that era,” said Louis smiling. “And Malacca folks still remember how in the 80s, Majestic’s kitchen served delicious chicken and pork chops.”

YTL acquired the Majestic in 2006, then restored and reopened the hotel in January 2008.

YTL has retained the original facade and unique characteristics of the house that mirrors Malacca’s multi-faceted community — the Portuguese, Dutch, British and Peranakan cultures. The louvred shutters on windows are painted in their original shade of green, and the pintu pagar or double swing doors and the original ceramic tile flooring have been restored.

“In the past, imported tiles from major port cities under Dutch rule like South India and Majorca, Spain, was one way to show prestige and they adorned the stairs, frontage of homes and floors,” explained Louis.

The hotel tries to infuse centuries-old Baba-Nyonya heritage into their products and service through nice little touches. During turn down service, for example, hotel staff leave mini bakul siah containing morsels of nyonya kuih in the guestrooms. In the past, these red-and-black or gold-gilded baskets were stuffed with oranges, kuih bakul, angpow and roast pork as dowry for Peranakan families.

Even their Spa Village based its therapies on the Peranakan heritage using remedies like Malacca palm-sugar and honey body scrub, pandan-coconut hair mask and nutmeg-rice paste for body massages.

River journey

Stepping outside Majestic, we caught a whiff of the spices sold along the shops in Jalan Bunga Raya — a stark reminder of why the strategically located ancient maritime hub was the prized trophy amongst the European colonists. Apparently, Tome Pires, a Portuguese apothecary and diplomat who came to Malacca in 1512, wrote, “whoever is Lord of Malacca has his hand on the throat of Venice.”

“One bag of peppercorn was equivalent to a bag of gold,” said Louis. “Spices were used as medicine to treat diseases in Europe like scurvy and dysentery, and to preserve meat.”

Across the road from the Majestic, a wooden walkway lines Malacca River and is part of the 4.5km stretch that has undergone a 15-year river rehabilitation project. We ambled on the boardwalk shaded by the pleasant canopy of mangrove trees. This 1km stretch of trees is what’s left of a once lush mangrove forest in Malacca.

As Louis talked about the mangrove’s ecological roles, a monitor lizard slithered past below the boardwalk.

“In my three years of doing this walk, I’ve also stumbled across basking estuarine crocodiles during the rainy months of April and December,” revealed Louis, adding that the Dutch rulers changed the morphology of the river.

“Huge waves used to topple the ships from Rotterdam and Amsterdam that were heading to the Dutch enclaves, so they changed the course of the river,’’ he explained. The river has also narrowed due to years of sedimentation.

Shophouses, from the 1870s to 1930s, line the riverbank.

“The British imposed a law that required all buildings to be constructed from bricks and terracotta tiles,” said Louis. “Interesting features are the spiral staircases dating back to the 1890s.”

Used as fire escapes, these staircases are made from hard concrete. Modern-day spiral staircases are made from steel or pre-cast cement because the old skills have been lost.

“Also, unlike other Straits settlements like Penang and Singapore, only Malacca townhouses have chimneys built in the kitchens,” Louis pointed out.

We passed a Hainanese fishing village that sat along the river. It’s a jumble of dilapidated wooden homes with zinc roofs and modest brick houses.

“Time was of the essence to bring fresh seafood back to the neighbouring market,” explained Louis. The river was the ‘highway’ of the city then. Today, the community’s livelihood still depends on fishing but now they drive or ride their motorbikes to the coasts.

“What’s unique about the community here is their strong communal spirit. They still share and observe Chinese lunar calendar activities together,” he added.

A detour took us to Kg Jawa lane, known as Coolie Street in the past. Built in the 1850s, the townhouses here sport a main door and a smaller door next to it. The smaller door leads to the servants’ quarters through a narrow alley. Apparently, concubines or second wives were also relegated to that door.

“In the days of slave trading in order to facilitate tin mining and the rubber industry, southern Chinese coolies were brought in in droves,” explained Louis. “Once they checked in with the baron in the main house, they then retreated to their quarters via the small door. When I was a kid, I was invited to a friend’s birthday party. He lived here. I knocked at the main door when I arrived. Then my friend poked his head out from the side door saying, ‘Dude, this way.’

“Turned out his mother was the second wife,” Louis told us.

Today, some of the houses on this lane have been spruced up and turned into boutique guesthouses or private homes.

Vanishing trades

Just before crossing Kg Jawa bridge, we dropped in at a clogmaker’s shop. Tucked in the corner of Lorong Jambatan, Tham Fong Lin’s small wooden shop with zinc roof and blue metal folding doors is inconspicuous and off the tourist trail. She took over the business from her late father who was a clogmaker for half a century.

“He used to make clogs out of Pulai and Jelutong wood, and the straps were made from used bicycle tyres,” said Tham, in her 50s. Now she gets the readymade clogs from a factory, varnishes and paints them before attaching plastic straps. Unlike the colourful clogs sold at Jonker Street as trinkets, Tham’s plain, red clogs are still sought after by the kampung women.

“Clogs are a Dutch influence. In the olden days, nannies would stamp their feet whenever the child start crying,” said Louis. “It seems that the ‘clack, clack’ sound of clogs could comfort the child.”

But as Louis pointed out, clogmaking is just one of the many endangered trades in Malacca, along with basket weaving, silver and blacksmithing.

“Many of the existing artisans are getting older, and the younger generations aren’t keen to take up the trade,” he added.

As we shuffled across the 300-year-old Kg Jawa bridge, Louis filled us in on the infamous “ghost bridge” of Malacca.

“During the Japanese Occupation, the secret police used to target the Chinese barons. At night, they were forced from their homes, driven into an alley and decapitated,” said Louis. “Then their heads were hung along the bridge and their bodies dumped into the river below. That was how the Japanese instilled fear and control amongst the locals.”

The Chinese painted the underside of the bridge red to appease the spirits. And even today, locals dread crossing the bridge at night, Louis added. We weren’t sure if Louis was pulling our legs but we definitely quickened our pace while crossing the bridge.

Three hours of walking had certainly worked up our appetites. We made our way to Nancy’s Kitchen on Jalan Hang Lekir to indulge in scrumptious Nyonya fare.

What a perfect way to cap off our historical amble, indeed.

o For more info, visit www.majesticmalacca.com / Tel: (06) 289 8000

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