On the tranquil grounds of the Cheng Hoon Teng Temple, Malaysia’s oldest Taoist house of worship, late afternoon visitors bowed and offered burning wands of incense to a gilded statue of the Goddess of Mercy, the deity for whom the temple was founded in the 1600s. Tourists quietly watched or focused cameras on the structure’s ornate, figurine-covered roof.
The placidity was interrupted by the muezzin’s call from the nearby Kampung Kling Mosque, an amalgam of Corinthian columns, Portuguese tiles and Hindu carvings, built by Indian Muslims in 1748. And down the street at the 230-year-old Sri Poyyatha Vinayagar Moorthi Temple, the country’s oldest Hindu temple, bare-chested and barefoot men in pastel-hued sarongs and garlands made of yellow blooms gathered to pray.
It was another seemingly sleepy afternoon in Malacca, Malaysia’s oldest city, just two hours south of Kuala Lumpur and about four hours northwest of Singapore. But underneath that sleepiness, its foundation of vibrant multiculturalism, which dates back centuries, is very much alive and increasingly accessible, as it welcomes a handful of hotels and millions of international visitors a year.
“I just love Malacca — its laid-back, slow pace of life and the history in the buildings, the people, the culture,” said a local resident, Colin Goh, 66, at Cheng Hoon, surrounded by a pair of red-and-gold sedan chairs and black-and-white photos that chronicled decades of the temple’s religious festivals. “Everything you touch that is not new is old.”
With his mix of Portuguese, Dutch, Chinese and “God only knows what else” heritage, Goh, a retired civil servant who now manages 8 Heeren Street, a restored 18th-century Dutch shophouse, embodies the city’s colonial past. Founded around 1400 by a Malay-Hindu prince, Malacca, within a century, became Southeast Asia’s most important trading port, luring an international cast of colonialists and merchants seeking a piece of the region’s lucrative spice trade.
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.