With a lighted lantern and quiet canals, narrow streets filled with decades of temple and a row of old shop houses, not many places in Southeast Asia create a romantic image of the past as effectively as Melaka, Malaysia’s oldest city. The former colony of Portuguese, the Dutch and the British, Malacca World Heritage site which was recognized by UNESCO has attracted so many tourists who are fascinated by the architecture and cuisine, which reflects the foreign influences that have been established for centuries.
The hub of Malacca’s civic colonial sites is Dutch Square — also called Red Square because of the color of its buildings — where tourists pose in front of the century-old Queen Victoria Fountain and trishaws festooned with plastic flowers gather. Nearby are the ruins of the A’Famosa fort, one of Asia
’s oldest European-built structures, erected by the Portuguese 500 years ago, and the imposing Stadthuys, or town hall, built by the Dutch in 1650 and later painted salmon red by the British, Malacca’s last foreign rulers, whose reign lasted until 1957.
On the west side of the Malacca River, which flanks the square, along the old center’s narrow, atmospheric streets, are hundreds of lantern-hung shophouses, some distinctly Chinese in style, others bearing geometric Art Deco trademarks, and grand residences with ornately tiled stoops built by wealthy families of the past. For centuries, these streets served as the town’s commercial and residential center.
Malacca’s eclectic charm, with some help from a Unesco World Heritage designation
in 2008 and its reputation as one of Malaysia’s most exciting culinary destinations, has resulted in a steady growth in tourism. Last year 12 million visitors came
, an increase of over 17 percent from 2010, according to a state tourism committee.
While some heritage buildings are still occupied by generations-old family businesses — silversmiths, watchmakers, dim sum purveyors — others have newer identities. At Temple Street, a shop run by a local artist, watercolors and hand-painted tiles depict idyllic street scenes. In another building, Nancy’s Kitchen, a no-frills restaurant known for its local Nyonya cuisine, sells addictive delicacies like buttery pineapple tarts and onde-onde, glutinous rice balls filled with Malacca’s famous palm sugar, known as gula Melaka, and covered in fresh coconut.
The Baba Nyonya Heritage Museum, in a grand, preserved residence on Heeren Street (officially known as Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock), pays tribute to Peranakans, a group of wealthy, sophisticated families that arose from the intermarrying of Babas, or Chinese traders, and Nyonyas, or local residents. The Peranakans forged a distinct East-meets-West culture that represents much of what makes Malacca so fascinating: a racial and religious multiculturalism that’s been cultivated and honored for centuries.
This rich cultural heritage is also being celebrated in new lodging options. In 2009, a 100-year-old residential property down the street was converted into the 14-room Courtyard @ Heeren hotel, which blends era-appropriate furnishings with modern amenities. At the Snail House nearby, a charming French-Malaccan couple, Serge and K. C. Jardin, rent rooms in their carefully restored century-old home, with an open courtyard, a grand spiral staircase and high ceilings, offering travelers the chance to appreciate the nuances of Peranakan architecture.