As I stroll past Melaka’s Buddhist temples, the Muslim call to prayer drones in the distance. I push my way down the crowded, market-lined Jonker Street and cut up the second lantern-lit alleyway. To my left, I peek into a chain of converted storefront living rooms. Veranda walkways link former shop houses, offering a framed peephole into the bare-bellied home life of Chinatown’s denizens. Storefronts give way to Temples and Shrines, beggars and monks, and the ceremonies of a distant religion.
The artfully preserved streets of Chinatown morph into a history book diorama. Portuguese forts along Sungai Melaka spring into the oldest Dutch buildings in the East at Town Square. Watching the boats float down Melaka River, I swear I am in Venice. But this is Melaka – a time capsule caught in a web of Eastern gods and Western greed.
In the 14th century, Melaka came under the control of Parameswara, a Hindu Prince from nearby Sumatra. A long sought after port along an ancient trade route, in came the Chinese in the 15th century, the Portuguese in the 16th, and the Dutch in the 17th. This intricate and calculating game of chess had its end by the close of the 18th century when Melaka finally seeded to the Brits. Each group left their ultimate mark on the city, formulating a hodgepodge of peoples, cultures, and ideas.
Downtown Melaka is a cemetery of foreign architecture. The fractured statue of St Paul stares out over the city from its perch high upon the hill. His forlorn eyes look away from the crumbling remains of his namesake church. Built in 1521 by a Portuguese sea captain, St Paul’s Church grows old above the sturdy remains of a Dutch fort. On the streets below this lone hill, modern Melaka’s mix of mosques and temples glisten with importance as its colonial history fades into artifact.
A few wizened westerners still roam the rubbled roads like wrecked relics of a failed colonialism. Others, drawn to Southeast Asia for cheap luxuries and darker pleasures, hobble like fallen kings in their own saddening happiness. The sudden, shocking affordability of your cost of living and necessities combined with your bad habits formulates a tendency towards invincibility. The old, barefoot men drinking Tiger Beer at 10:00 am in the backpacker ghettos sit stunned, rambling in the fourth rumination of a long-lost fantasy.
Out of Melaka’s rich and varied history emerged the Nonya culture, comprised of Chinese/Malay, Indian/Malay (known as “the Chitties”), and babies born of European love affairs. Returning to Chinatown’s bountiful side-streets, I find myself on J. Tokong at Woh Hop, an unassuming storefront with four tables and a corkboard full of praise. The simple, dry erase menu hides the beauty and complexity of its food. The predominantly Chinese/Malay culinary fusion of Nonya evolved over hundreds of years, incorporating sweet flavors of coconut, coriander, and dill form Indonesia. It is this cuisine that Melaka is famous for and price is no judge of quality. Down the thin alleyways of Chinatown are pockets of food stalls with some of Nonya’s finest cooks.
“Come in” urges the chef at Woh Hop. It is raining in an equatorial fury so I oblige. Suggesting that it is cold outside and that I may need some soup to warm me up, he insists I try his Malacca Laksa. I am wet, hot, sweating, and in no mood for soup but the ingredients sound intriguing, so I agree. I watch as he prepares the soup in front of me: two kinds of rice noodles, coconut milk, green curry, shrimp, fish balls, boiled eggs, and a host of mysterious spices that bring on a whole new round of sweat. This is the best meal I have had in ages (and it cost a dollar).
Expecting another masterpiece I return the next day. It’s sunny, so he offers traditional iced tea and Meehoon Siam, a noodle dish similar to but more complex than Pad Thai. It does not disappoint. To finish the meal, he suggests Melaka’s famous dessert and I come to see how it’s made. Cendol (pronounced chen dill) begins with a mound of freshly shaved ice. On top are red beans, a leafy green noodle, and a chunky brown sugar made only in Melaka. This enjoyable mix of sweet and savory is topped with coconut milk and must be eaten fast as the ice melts instantly.
That night, I wind through Chinatown’s lantern-lit alleyways to Woh Hop for dinner. The shop is closed. I head to a similarly plain looking restaurant where the chef asks if I have made a reservation. Unfortunately, the four fold-up tables inside are booked all night. It seems there are a lot of not-so-secret Woh Hops in Melaka.
Melaka’s charm dwindles as the river approaches the sea. Pushed to the outskirts to preserve its pickled perfect streets, a maze of mega malls house a majority of Melaka’s merchants. The biggest malls in Malaysia, half bazaar and half up-market, transport me into a new realm of Asian sweets, fetishes and material desires.
Traveling towards the mouth of the Melaka River, abandoned blocks of windowless concrete and littered parking lots stretch south as fishermen cast their reels from upturned rubbish bins. How this section of town with the most potential (along the Straights of Melaka) became its darkest shadow is perplexing.
While Western nations dreamed up a melting pot, Malaysia’s cultures grew in a separated unity. Nowhere is this more evident than mysterious Melaka – a city of many cities. A modern mix steeped in historical complexities. Melaka, like a mound of clay, was passed amongst competing architects, molded to fit each taste and left forever spinning on the potter’s wheel.