If you’re exploring Peninsular Malaysia and nearby stopovers destinations while transiting in the capital Kuala Lumpur, then put Malacca (Melaka) on the list. It’s only a two-hour drive from Kuala Lumpur and is brimming with culture, rich heritage and an abundance of good food. Since young, Malacca has been one of the places I frequented for short family getaways, aside from the equally charming state of Penang and nature-rich Pahang.
Malacca’s history holds great intrigue, a city once ruled by Portuguese, Dutch and British leaders. The Straits of Malacca was a strategic waterway and as a result, the city played host to Chinese, Indian and European merchants who brought with them spices, silks, ornamental carvings, porcelains – and of course, cultural influences to the local people. The traces of Malacca’s rich history can today be seen in the design of the shophouses, its cuisine, existing (but slowly fading) businesses and religious centres.
The best way to explore the city is by foot – so I joined the free walk tour hosted by the Majestic Malacca for her guests. We meandered through tiny lanes exploring small shophouses, some dating back 100 years and lasting through four generations. We watched tinsmiths, prints-men, barbers, goldsmith, Chinese tea sellers and tailors busy at work, unperturbed at the speed of the day, but drumming to their own carefree rhythm.
We stopped at a century-old bar where the owner is thought to have extraordinary knowledge in concocting healing medicine laced with alcohol. We stopped by a wood carvers workstation, thought to be the only wood carver in Malacca that made Chinese signboards by hand. I revelled in the skill and patience of the carver – attentively chiselling away from the wooden plank.
Then we stopped at a shophouse where skilful shoemakers with perfect vision sat attentively stitching small micro-beads to make beautiful beaded shoes for ladies. It takes up to a month to complete a pair of shoes and they retail for a few hundred ringgits, but every cent spent on a masterpiece like this is worth it, because these skills are slowly fading, one generation at a time.
The gruesome foot binding practice which originated in China was also introduced to Malacca during the fusion merchants boom. Apparently, there were several shoe makers who specialised in foot binding, but only one remains today in Malacca. The practice, however, has been put to a stop due to the inhuman implications on young ladies who failed to walk or even perform day-to-day activities without falling over or aided with a walking stick. I held a shoe in my palm and was baffled at a how a foot can fit in – it was smaller than the pair of shoes my almost three-year-old wore. The shop still makes these minute shoes for keepsakes.
Beelining past busy Jonker Street where activity is abuzz, we stepped into Masjid Kampung Kling. The mosque, built in 1872 resembles a Chinese temple at first glance, with the minaret resembling a pagoda instead of a dome. The interiors of the temple are decked with wooden wall carvings and hanging chandeliers, with its structure held up by Roman pillars.
When the mosque was restored in 2013, craftsmen replaced old and missing tiles by replicating the design of old tiles. Our guide told us to look closely at the tiles to spot the difference. The new tiles were stamped with the year ‘2013’ while the old tiles remained as is. This interesting observation applies for many other restored shophouses and buildings within Malacca.
The refurbishment of these old buildings, shophouses and religious centres have much to be celebrated. I returned from my three-hour walk tour and stood in awe of Majestic Malacca, once an old mansion owned by a wealthy businessman with four wives who tragically died from tuberculosis and whose sons squandered his fortune leaving the beautiful structure to waste. Many years on, the mansion was bought over by a hotelier who found the house too big for his family and so he converted the first floor to a simple hotel with single bedrooms and shared toilets. On the ground floor, his family lived in four spacious rooms and he built bar and reception which still remains today in the modern-heritage Majestic Malacca.
The hotel survived 20 dark years of abandonment after it failed to fly with the rise of larger hotel chains. It also faced the threat of being torn down – but hope arose when YTL Hotels bought it over and delicately restored it to its former beauty. Today, the unsuspecting mansion still stands, sandwiched between a towering hospital and some shophouses while overlooking the glistening Malacca River.