Greetings from the warm Malacca Straits. I am in the rose red beautifully preserved city of Melaka and it just feels great here. This is the heart of the elusive, but dazzling Baba Nyonya culture and Perankan liveliness has never been more vivid. It’s been a warm sunny day and I have come to Melaka from Kuala Lumpur for some R&R. KL can be exhaustively metropolitan and work is difficult in Malaysia’s muggy heat. This is my umpteenth trip to Melaka and I never fail to visit this lovely erstwhile Portuguese and Dutch colony whenever in the Malaysian mainland. So, what draws me here endlessly like magic, you may ask? And the answer is endearingly simple. Melaka is sweet, if ever that adjective can be applied to a city and it is the best place to let your hair down (at least in my eyes).
The name sounds mellifluous, rolling off the tongue easily, it’s UNESCO World Heritage City Center is a touristy delight and the Melaka river is soft and lazy. The city is well maintained, offers great shopping and the food is to die for. All these attributes make Melaka the perfect getaway spot and then there’s the enticingly layered, elusive history. Melaka has a daredevil, vigorous history which belies it’s present day laid back charm and the city has centuries of bloody rifts behind it. In fact, it’s birth is shrouded in legends, which heightens Melaka’s allure and the port city, which had been catapulted to prosperity by its reigning Sultans, has originated from a sleepy fishing hamlet. Inhabited by local Orang Laut Malays, Melaka had been discovered by Parameswara, the last Rajah of Singapore (the then Tamasek) in the 1400’s.
By then, the Javanese and Thai kings of Ayuthaya, had already realized the trading potential of the Malay Strait and furious rifts had ensued between the two. Parameswara, himself had been a victim of those fierce struggles of domination and he had allegedly been a Sumatran prince, before fleeing to found the new establishment of Tamasek or Singapore. The Javanese however had not left him in peace and they had eventually forced him to take refuge at a place north of Bertam. The simple local people had welcomed the exiled royal and he had settled his family there too. One day, when his son, prince Iskandar Shah had gone hunting near the modern day Melaka Hill, a fleeing mouse deer had led him to the sea. Iskandar had the immediate sense to foresee the spot’s trading potential and had asked his father to seize the opportunity. The old ex rajah had faithfully worked on the good omen and had established a brand new settlement there. Iskandar had named it, Melaka after a tree under which he had been sitting on that fortunate day and the rest they say is stuff legends are made of.
Melaka had flourished from its very conception and the ruling sultans had soon turned it into an international port. With co operation from the local sea faring Orang Lauts and scattered pockets of individual Malay maritime merchants, they had built safe and reliable warehouses, facilities and firmly established fair trade. Soon, a wealthy and cosmopolitan town had sprung up around the port and it had become a major trading hub of textiles and spices between Indonesia and India. Wealth brought ambition to Melaka’s rulers and its territorial expansion had eventually spread as far as Perak, Singapore and parts of Sumatra. Culture had flourished too and soon the merchant town became a hotbed of fine language, dance, literature and formal royal court etiquette. Melaka became a queen and her fame spread far and wide. The smell of money by then, had lured the Chinese traders and expeditionaries and soon formal relations had ensued. The Chinese royals and traders had intermarried with the locals of their social strata, adapted to the South East Asian practices and languages and this gave rise to the bedazzling Perankan culture.
Perankan loosely denotes a gorgeous melting pot of ethnic identities and today this word refers to many socio cultural groups in Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia. Although, they have branched into Perankan Dutch, Perankan Chitty, Perankan Jawi etc, Melaka still remains the birthplace of this unique culture. That’s why the city is a treasure house of Baba Nyonya origins and many beautiful museums display its glories. Baba is a honorary title given to a Perankan man of means and his Chinese ancestry as well as local residence in the Malay straits go back to centuries. Nyonya is Baba’s female equivalent and this invaluable title is not handed out to Chinese immigrants of recent times. Vintage Baba Nyonya photos show exquisite people dressed in formal garbs and they are a gorgeous mix of ornate Chinese styles with South East Asian vibrancy. Their cuisine too is ravishingly delicious and it had been the blend of both that had first attracted me to Melaka.
I had bumped into Baba Nyonya’s intricacies, when a pair of beautifully hand beaded Perankan slippers had caught my eye in Singapore. It had come with a heart stopping price tag along with the genuine vintage Perankan label and this had piqued my interest in the culture. Perankan ladies had been much famous for their artistic excellence and handicrafts and beaded goods had been one of their specialties. One thing had lead to another and finally, the Perankan trail had made me visit Melaka for the first time. I was still flying at that time, when a KL layover had made the day trip possible. Located around 2 hours away from KL, Melaka is easily accessible by bus, car and train and I had slipped away to the rose red city on an early spring day.
My interest at that time had centered around the Baba Nyonya culture (read shopping) and I had dreamed fantastic Melaka visions all the way to the city. Upon my arrival, however, Melaka had revealed a whole new dimension and its rich colonial history had immediately transported me to a preserved, quaint quasi European town. War ships, beautiful cemeteries, windmills, gardens, churches and flea markets had popped up like beautiful surprises and Melaka had intoxicated me at first sight. I had loved its UNESCO World Heritage City Center, the gorgeous preserved merchants’ houses and delicate Perankan floral tiles had bedecked the buildings like delicate ornaments. The lanes had been winding, strung with Chinese lanterns and vivid street art had thrown in a startling modern touch. Even the sun had felt friendlier there and the local Eurasian’s unique Creole language had fallen pleasantly to my years.
It had been a gorgeous day, albeit one which had left me a bit restless and I had applied for back to back KL layovers just to explore Melaka’s richness to the core. Today, as I sit at the sidewalk table of the popular Geographer’s Cafe, crunching on an icy cendol, memories from my first visit come back to my mind like shiny pennies. That had been around more than half a decade back, when a wide eyed naive girl had fallen hopelessly in love with an age old Oriental enchantress of a city and even today, I am entangled in her charms. Melaka is irresistible and she has the curious power of getting better with time. Presenting a few postcards from Melaka, the original “pearl of the Orient”.
RESPONSIBLE TRAVELING-BECAUSE I CARE