Melaka, Malaysia: Discover the culture and history of this UNESCO World Heritage city
The city’s best museums, by comparison a five-minute walk away, include the Muzium Rakyat (People’s Museum), which houses the governor’s personal painting collection, and the sometimes gory Museum of Enduring Beauty. Note: it’s ‘lasting’ as in ‘suffering’, not ‘eternal’ – think cultural body modifications. The Maritime Museum traces the growth of the city from the Malay Sultanate via Portuguese and Dutch colonization to the arrival of the British, and it is housed in a full-size replica of the Portuguese ship Flor de la Mar, which was looted and wrecked in 1511. The Baba & Nyonya Heritage Museum depicts the history of the Chinese Malays, who are locally referred to as ‘Baba’ or ‘Nyonya’ (depending on their gender) or ‘Peranakan’, through displays of porcelain and ornate furniture. The genealogical differences between these descendants of early Chinese settlers and the descendants of later immigrants are summed up in the local phrase “orang Cina bukan Cina” (“a non-Chinese Chinese”).
When revealing that Melaka was to become a World Heritage Site, UNESCO noted that the city has “a unique architectural and cultural cityscape unparalleled in East and Southeast Asia”. The only surprise about this announcement was that it came as late as July 2008; at that time, Melaka had been a bastion of cultural confluence for 500 years, dating back to its proximity Singapore was little more than a fishing village.
According to the story, during the struggle for power on the Malay Peninsula in the 14th century, Prince Parameswara of Sumatra fled to the mouth of the Bertam River. His son, Iskandar Shah, was hunting near present-day Melaka Hill when a local mouse-deer rose up to fight the hunting dogs and threw them into the sea. This act of heroism inspired Shah and he asked his father to found a colony there, named after the melaka tree under which he had rested. After a whirlwind tour of Melaka’s cultural onslaught, sitting under a nearby tree can be a great idea for any visitor.