To Malacca and back
30.12.2008 - 30.12.2008
With only a couple days left in Singapore, and Malaysia only a short bus ride across the Straits of Johor, it made sense to hop across the border and at least take a look around, if only for a day. After briefly considering the options available, I settled on Malacca, on the west coast of peninsular Malaysia, due to its rich history as a long-time center of commerce in the region. Established by the Malaccan Sultanate in the year 1400, its rapid ascension in power and prosperity ushered in a century-long golden age for Malay culture and civilization in the region. As the city's fortunes faded, however, it passed into the possession of the once formidable Portuguese and Dutch colonial empires, before winding up in the hands of the British for much of the 19th and 20th centuries. My cab came to a stop outside the rose-red façade of Christ Church in the middle of town, built by the Dutch in the mid-18th century to replace an older Portuguese structure, and I spent the afternoon walking the city center's ancient brick lanes and alleyways, a tangle of roads and pathways stretching from the distant past to the modern present.
I began my day in Dutch Square, the plaza that surrounds Christ Church, and from there it was a short walk to St. Paul's Hill, the historically significant promontory around which much of the city was constructed. When the Portuguese first overthrew the sultanate in the 16th century, incorporating Malacca into their lucrative Asian trade network, they immediately began construction of a fortress compound. The fortress, now known as A Famosa, was built on St. Paul's Hill, and it stood guard over the city for almost three hundred years, before the British tore it down in a neat bit of 19th century geopolitical maneuvering. It was only the last minute intervention of Sir Stamford Raffles, the founder of Singapore, that preserved its last remaining feature - the tiny gate house known as the Porta de Santiago. At the summit of St. Paul's Hill lie the ruins of Nossa Senhora da Annunciada, a former church and burial ground of the Portuguese and the Dutch. It's an easy climb to the top, and within its crumbling walls you can still see some of the tombstones marking its colonial-era graves. Large, brick-lined windows provide a clear view of the city below, and I took a moment to take in the scene before heading on down to re-enter the fray.
At the foot of St. Paul's Hill, beyond the Porta de Santiago, is the Malacca Sultanate Palace Museum. The Sultanate Palace, I was a bit disappointed to learn, is a reconstruction of Mansur Shah's palace, and not the actual historical structure - it was built in the ancient year of 1985. Still, its a beautiful building, all dark woods and swooping roof lines, and it gives a glimpse at the lives of the native Malaccan nobility before the onset of European colonialism. Somewhat regretfully, I rushed my way through the museum inside, as my time in Malacca was running short, and I was, quite frankly, more interested in what I could see at street level. My last hour or so was spent in and around Chinatown, a legacy of the vibrant Chinese and Peranakan population throughout Malacca's history, before calling it a day and hailing a cab back to the bus terminal on the outskirts of town. As I settled in for the cab ride, the driver tried out a bunch of different Chinese dialects before striking gold with Cantonese, the language I grew up speaking at home, though I'm far from fluent. We chatted about where I was from and his own family history in Malaysia, and I remember thinking how odd and comforting it was to be conversing with a stranger in Cantonese, as a tropical shower pitter-pattered against the car windows. I made it back to Singapore in the evening, and after spending New Year's with Nicole and her family the next day, my time in the Lion City had finally come to an end. On the 2nd of January, I boarded a plane back to Hong Kong, not knowing where I would end up next.