- 1999/03/19 Essence of a colonial past infuses neglected Malacca

In a country where "old" is often defined as pre-1970, this city with its hibiscus-red colonial buildings and ornately carved facades is an oasis of history.

As progress and development have marched across Malaysia, one small corner of the country seems to have been spared. Still intact are Malacca's centuries-old shop-houses, its church built in 1753 and the ruins of a fort erected by the Portuguese about 450 years ago to secure the once strategic port.

As one ambles through the streets of the city, it is difficult to fathom Malacca's crucial role in the region's ó and indeed the world's ó commercial history. An adage from the early years of European colonialism in Asia perhaps says it best: "He who is lord of Malacca has his hand on the throat of Venice."

Malacca was the gateway to the spice islands, an entrepot for cloves, cinnamon, pepper and nutmeg. The narrow straits off the city, still some of the busiest shipping lanes in the world, held the key to the lucrative spice trade for Europeans, who began their trips to the region in the early 1500s.

It was only in the last century, when the British moved their regional headquarters south to Singapore, that Malacca lost its strategic significance.

Today, the city's charm is its neglect. The local government has done little to polish the appearance of the historic district, a series of streets packed with sometimes rickety, narrow shop-houses. Local officials refuse to pay for renovations of the 18th-century church ó the Dutch government paid the last time, in the 1980s ó and talk of building a pedestrian promenade beside the oldest houses has remained just that.

The result: Many parts of the historic center still function independently of tourist dollars. Dilapidated buildings replete with elaborate tiles and carvings house barber shops, loan sharks, funeral parlors and furniture shops. Local patrons of tea stalls mingle and converse oblivious of the tourists who walk past the shops' marble-top tables and distinctive wooden chairs.

The hidden splendor of these buildings has not gone entirely unnoticed. Singaporeans, among others, are buying up the old houses and converting them into boutique hotels and cafťs to complement the art galleries and trinket shops.

But history in Malacca resides not only in the rows of old shop-houses and nearby fort and church. There are gems throughout the city, although many are lost in Malacca's sometimes ugly and congested streets.

One is tucked away behind the fort: a small cemetery that speaks of the history of early colonists and their travails. Amid tombstones of former governors and military officers is the grave of Edward Hugh Massy, the 1-year-old son of a British lieutenant stationed in Malacca in the early 1800s. His grieving parents left a little piece of poetry on his gravestone: "This lovely bud so young and fair called hence by early doom just came to shew how sweet a flower in paradise would bloom."


Signposts of the past

It is through such tombstones that Malacca betrays the identities of its past and present inhabitants. Few cities in the world can claim such an eclectic heritage. Malacca was founded by a Sumatran prince in the 14th century and saw successive waves of Portuguese, Dutch and British colonists met by traders from India, China and Java, among other places.

Some groups, like the Chittys from India and the descendants of Portuguese settlers, formed separate communities that remain today. Each race and culture has left its mark on the city ó whether it is the spicy Portuguese food or the Armenian inscriptions on the floor of Christ Church. Indeed, part of the challenge for visitors to this old port is to try to disentangle the city's European and Oriental influences.

Visitors today range from Singaporeans who drive here on weekends, to the droves of Europeans who, as their ancestors did, often come in groups.

Malacca is halfway between Kuala Lumpur and Singapore ó two cities that have clearly succumbed to concrete and steel ó making it an easy destination for a day trip.

Visitors who stay the night have choices among four and five-star hotels or boutique hotels in the historic part of town, a neighborhood recently made more lively with the addition of bars that stay open late.

At the heart of the historic area, next to the Dutch-built Christ Church, is the creaking State Historical Museum, housed in the former Dutch governor's house, and filled with dioramas, furniture and period costumes. Next door is the Youth Museum, a dark and puzzling series of rooms filled with sports trophies and dedicated to the not-so-youthful politicians who built it.

Not to be avoided is a nightly outdoor historical performance, derided by Malaccans as the sound, light and mosquito show.

But no visit to the city is complete without a journey to the top of St. Paul's hill, where the ruins of a fortress mix with the giant, 17th-century tomb markers of fallen Dutchmen.

In the distance, plying the muddy straits, are the outlines of container ships that all but ignore once-mighty Malacca.
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