Discovering the stories of Melaka

by Karen Woo

On 27 February 2020, 14 participants from Museum Volunteers Batch 34 (Patricia, Katya, Grazia, Cen, Melissa, and Annie) and Batch 36 (Debbie, Veronika, Fazlin, and I) with our friends (Yvonne, Ryoko, and Melissa’s two children) made a day trip to Melaka. We gathered at the car park of the National Museum at 6:30 am. From there, our chartered van made its way to Melaka. Traffic was smooth and we arrived in Melaka at the Dutch Square at about 9 am where we met up with our guide, Colin Goh. Casper and Marliza (from Batch 36) also joined us during the tour in Melaka, making it a group of sixteen.

Colin introduced everyone to the history of Melaka from its founding by Parameswara, to the development of the Malay Sultanate of Melaka, and the important contributions made by its maritime laws to international maritime law. However, this followed with the decline of Melaka, to its conquest, first by the Portuguese, then the Dutch, and subsequently the British. 

Following the introduction, Colin showed us the sites in Melaka, some of which were already familiar to us, accompanied with stories told from his local perspective. A visitor to Melaka cannot miss visiting the Dutch Square where Stadthuys, Christ Church, Melaka Clock Tower, and water fountain are prominently located. However, interestingly, apart from Stadthuys and Christ Church, both Melaka Clock Tower and water fountain were not constructed by the Dutch but were proud contributions by the people of Melaka. The clock tower was erected by a Melakan Baba who made his fortune in Singapore, whilst the water fountain was built by the people to celebrate the anniversary of Queen Victoria.

First on our list of stops was Christ Church. The Christ Church, which was planned as a commemoration of a centenary of the Dutch occupation of Melaka in 1641, was only completed in 1753. Inside the church, the original pulpit and lectern were the only two remaining Dutch artefacts.  Colin also showed us the oldest Christian tombstone, which is part of the floor of the church. It is dated 1562, and it is for a lady by the name of Giomar.

The tombstone dated 1562 of Giomar found inside Christ Church

The famous Stadthuys was the office of the Dutch Governor and Deputy Governor, and it was later extended to provide residence for other high officials. The lower level was also used as a warehouse for the VOC. The Stadthuys would subsequently be occupied by the British; it is a museum today.

From there, we made our way up to St. Paul’s hill. It was a nice, shady walk with an elevated view of the Dutch Square, the vast area of reclaimed land (and buildings) with a glimpse of the replica of the Flor de la Mar in the far distance.

The view on the way to St. Paul’s hill with the replica of the Flor de la Mar in the distance

Our story continues on St. Paul’s hill. It is said that in 1521, upon deliverance from calamity in the high seas, a Portuguese captain, out of gratitude, built a small wooden church on the hill. Later, when St. Francis Xavier arrived, the Portuguese authorities gave him the piece of land to build a school and the small church was also enlarged. St. Francis Xavier used this location as a base for his missionary journeys to Japan and China. From this historical event, today, this church has established a friendship with a church in Kagoshima in Japan, and there have been exchanges between them.    

The white church on top of St. Paul’s hill served as a strategic landmark for navigators sailing down the Straits of Melaka. Upon spotting it, they would know that they were approaching Melaka.  These days, one could still see the white church peeping out from behind the Ramada and Emperor hotels.

St. Paul’s Church with statue of St. Francis Xavier on top of St. Paul’s hill

Apart from this, St. Paul’s Church had other important roles, including as a burial ground for the Dutch and the British and even as a hanging gallows. There were many tombstones on display inside and Colin regaled us with some interesting stories. My favourite undoubtedly is that of the wife of Jan Van Riebeck, founder of Cape Town in South Africa. He was posted to Melaka for two years. During that time, his wife passed away and was buried in this church. Later, a memorial was built in Cape Town for Jan Van Riebeck and the authorities requested for the tombstone of his wife. The British agreed, and today, a plaque marked the spot where the tombstone used to be. This is such a nice story, and today, the couple’s tombstones are reunited in the memorial.

The plaque to mark the spot of the tombstone of the wife of Jan Van Riebeck in St. Paul’s Church

With that, we bid farewell to St. Paul’s Church and made our way to our next must visit spot, the Porta de Santiago (of the fortress). However, did you know that this gate was not part of the fortress? It was actually known as Bort’s Gate (to the Dutch) or Old Gate (to the British). Nevertheless, those who used the gate called it Porta de Santiago. 

Focusing on the top of Porta de Santiago, Colin pointed out the Dutch emblem which comprises of a rectangle that is surrounded by battle weapons. Within the rectangle, a lady holding a stalk of wheat is placed on the left and a soldier bearing a shield with the words “VOC” is on the right, separated by a shield in the centre. On the front side of the Porta de Santiago, the year “1670” can also be clearly observed.

The Dutch emblem with the year “1670” on the front side of the Porta de Santiago

Colin also shared that some believed secret tunnels existed and connected the fortress to St. Paul’s hill and to St. John’s fort. The theory was that after the banishment of the Knights Templar in Europe, their remnants went to Tomar in Portugal and that order evolved into the Order of Christ. When the Portuguese came to Melaka, the Order of Christ, consisting of engineers and builders, also came along. Though the existence of the secret tunnels has not been proven, it certainly adds an air of mystery and intrigue to Melaka.

We then continued the next part of our tour to Bukit Cina by van. On the way, we passed by the Sacred Heart Convent, the Convent of Infant Jesus primary and secondary schools, and the previous site of the first Malay College in the country (before it was transferred to Kuala Kangsar). The graves in Bukit Cina date back to the Dutch era. At the foot of the hill, a temple was built for the descendants who visited the graves to perform their filial rites. There was also a famous well, Perigi Raja, that used to serve the best quality water, so much so that the Dutch built a wall, with guard posts, to protect the well, and water was delivered on a daily basis by bullock carts to the fortress.

Now, we come to the story of Li Poh. According to the people of Melaka, Li Poh was the daughter of a captain, rather than a Princess. This land was given to Li Poh and her people. Subsequently, the Dutch granted the land title to Cheng Hoon Teng temple, the oldest Buddhist temple in this country.

We were then dropped off close to Jonker Street heritage walk for the final part of our tour. Colin showed us the different styles of architecture left behind by the Dutch and the British. For example, there were some shop houses with Dutch frontage, which have no walkway, as opposed to others with the British walkways. We could also observe these changes by walking through the back lanes. This could be seen through the extension of the shop houses and the different styles of cramps used – the “C” kramp for the Dutch and the “X” cramp for the British.

The mirror image “C” kramp can be observed

Jonker Street itself went through changes – it used to be a bustling street that was a commercial and residential area for the working class. However, nowadays with the commercialisation of the street, the residents have moved out and the old-style coffee shops have also been replaced by cafes.  

Nearby is Jalan Tukang Emas (or Goldsmith Street), which used to house the goldsmiths from India during the Dutch colonial time.  Today, this street, which is also known as Harmony Street, is home to a Hindu temple, a mosque, and a Chinese temple, all located within close vicinity to each other.

After such a long day and being out in the hot sun, we were ready for our next adventure – lunch at Nyonya 63. The air-conditioned restaurant with its lovely oriental ambience was a welcome and pleasant interlude. Lunch was an absolute delight to our senses – we had chap chay, cincaluk omelette, assam fish, nyonya fried chicken, prawns cooked in prawn gravy, and buah keluak chicken. One of the group’s favourite was the prawns cooked in prawn gravy as the sweetness of the pineapple lent its flavour and mellowed the taste of the curry.  Buah keluak chicken, being a Nyonya speciality, is an acquired taste, highly recommended for everyone to try. We ended with the all-time favourite desserts, cendol, and ondeh-ondeh, courtesy of a friend of Annie’s.

After lunch, we had about an hour of free time before bidding our farewell to Melaka and its secret charms to make our way back to the National Museum. We had such an enjoyable time and were making plans for a return visit to Melaka. Would anyone like to join us for round two of Melaka? 

The 16 of us, peering from behind our hats and sunglasses, with Porta de Santiago and St. Paul’s Church in the background


Author: Museum Volunteers, JMM

Museum Volunteers, JMM Taking the Mystery out of History

3 thoughts on “Discovering the stories of Melaka”

  1. Hi, Karen,
    You gave us a very interesting account about Melaka from your special dimension.
    Had been to Melaka for a number of times as a hopping tourist, finishing the tour by taking pictures, browsing shops at tourist area.
    It was not until 2 years ago, we had a more in depth trip venturing by ourselves.
    Pls accept my applause by sharing this wonderful article with us. In our future trip to Melaka, we’ll try to explore the mentioned places.

    1. Hi Alexis,
      Thank you for your kind comments. I am glad that you have been to Melaka a few times. I hope that your next visit to Melaka would be full of wonderful discoveries, stories, and memories.

      Cheers and regards,

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