- 2008/11/01 Treasure hunt Strait from the days of the spice traders

Christina Pfeiffer searches museums and antiques shops of the 14th century trading port of Melaka.

'My family has run this business for more than 40 years," says the head waitress as she puts our plates of food down on the table in front of us.

We had dodged cars, trishaws and scooters to make our way to the popular Hoe Kee Chicken Rice Ball eatery which is tucked away in a historic terrace in the heart of Melaka's town centre.

The chicken rice balls are the size of golf balls and are served with an aromatic plate of steamed chicken flavoured with soy sauce and sesame oil.

The restaurant is on Jalan Hang Jebat, a long, narrow street with weathered terrace houses that have survived centuries of history.

These old terrace buildings are a delight to explore and reveal many secrets about this trading seaport that was founded by a Sumatran prince.

Everything about Melaka reflects its roots as a thriving centre for spice traders from China, India, the Middle East and Europe.

We discover old furniture, porcelain, silverware and brassware ornaments as we flit through dimly lit, dusty antiques shops stacked full.

I spot an old abacus and wonder about the fate of the Chinese trader whose fingers once caressed its dark beads. Did that brass lamp light the cabin of a Portuguese sailor? Did that porcelain vase once grace the room of a Chinese princess?

In the spice shops, packets of nutmeg, cinnamon, cardamom and dry chilli are stacked in wicker baskets.

Art galleries with displays of modern art as well as traditional oil and Chinese paintings sit side-by-side with Western-style cafes, bars and eateries. There are shops jam-packed with souvenirs, sandals and clothes.

One shop, the Crystal House, has an assortment of bric-a-brac, a blackboard advertising muffins and juice for $1 as well as internet access for 90 cents an hour, while another sign points to Uncle Sam's foot reflexology centre at the back of the shop.

Besides boutique shop-houses Melaka is bursting with museums, many of which are constructed within historic buildings that represent its Chinese, Portuguese, Dutch and Malay past.

The newly launched Cheng Ho Cultural Museum occupies the original government depot that was built by Admiral Cheng Ho when he arrived in Melaka with his armada of several hundred ships from China.

Cheng Ho - China's version of Christopher Columbus - sailed the oceans in search of treasures on behalf of Ming Dynasty emperors. British Royal Navy submarine commander Gavin Menzies recently released a controversial book which had world historians in an uproar.

The book, 1421 - The Year The Chinese Discovered The World, suggests that Cheng Ho might have predated Columbus in discovering America and that New Zealand's Maoris may have originated from China.

Most historians, however, are in agreement that Cheng Ho sailed to Melaka several times and during one of his voyages brought with him a gift from the Emperor of China in the form of a princess - Hang Li Po - who was married off to the Sultan of Melaka.

Bukit China or China Hill has the largest Chinese graveyard outside China with 12,000 graves, many dating right back to Princess Hang Li Po's followers.

At Melaka's Baba and Nyonya Heritage Museum, we follow a Singaporean school group through the ancestral home of an early Chinese trader.

After political ties were forged with China, many Chinese traders flocked to Melaka, married local women and set up homes.

The Portuguese also left an indelible legacy in Melaka. It is a warm day as we climb up the steps of St Paul's Hill to the ruins of the Church of St Paul while below us visitors swarm through the remains of the Portuguese fort, A Formosa. Unfortunately for the Portuguese, the fort only managed to protect their position in Melaka for 130 years before it fell to the Dutch.

The Dutch rebuilt the town centre with distinctive red colonial architecture that continues to provide Melaka with a Dutch flavour that is unique within Malaysia.

Tired of walking, we head for one of the gaudy, colourfully decorated trishaws and haggle furiously with the rider. When we finally agree on a price (which is less than half of what he originally asks), we fall thankfully into the trishaw.

That evening we find ourselves dining to foot-tapping music at a seaside restaurant in the Portuguese Settlement, as brightly dressed Portuguese dancers swirl and twirl to a cheerful harvest dance.

As I gaze at the Straits of Melaka and reflect on the wealth of treasures these dark waters brought to the port, I conclude that the best gems of all are the unique cultural traditions that have developed in this jewel of the seas.

The writer, Christina Pfeiffer, was a guest of Tourism Malaysia.

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