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16th May 1999
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Ports of callQuaint little town in step with modernity

Once a world-famous port filled with hundreds of ships, Malacca's harbour today is silted up. Tenders are needed to ferry passengers from visiting cruise ships to a crowded wooden jetty in the Malacca River.

The run up the river reveals surprising scenes. On the right bank is a new settlement of architecturally-designed apartments and offices, part of "Malaysia for the New Millennium." In front of it local cargo boats crowd the river bank discharging goods and people. A replica of a Portuguese Imagegalleon dominates the shore. Then the river narrows and, by the first bridge across the river, passengers scramble ashore.

It is like arriving as refugees by the backdoor since there seems to be no customs or immigration control for cruise liner passengers. Trishaws are on hand and these gaily decorated conveyances pedalled along by cheerful Chinese cyclists are ideal for exploring this quaintest of Malaysia's port cities.

The first impression is of Toy Town come to life. The puce red brick of Christ Church, built with stones from Holland in 1753, at one end of the cobbled square, is complemented by the bole blush-pink frontage of the Stadthuys alongside it. Opposite stands the British-built clock tower, also in a trendy designer-colour perhaps best described as "sunset rose."

Built in 1650, the Stadthuys was the official residence of Dutch governors. It has been restored and now houses museums that display relics of the city's past, ranging from traditional bridal costumes to mementoes of the "Three Jewelled Eunuch", an ambassador from the court of the Ming Emperor who visited in 1405.

Although Malacca was founded by the Malays - and despite its occupation by the Portuguese, the Dutch and then the British - it is the Chinese who became the masters of the wholesale and retail trades. Its quayside was once lined with warehouses bursting with goods such as silks and spices, tea and opium, gems and ceramics, and exotic merchandise from both East and West. 

Malacca's history began with its foundation in 1400 by an exiled prince from Sumatra. In 1511 it fell into the hands of the Portuguese who were ousted by the Dutch in 1641. From 1826 it was ruled by the British East India Company based in Calcutta, lumped with Singapore and Penang under the Straits Settlement administration.

After World War II, anti-colonial sentiment resulted in the proclamation of Malaysia's independence being made at the padang pahlawan (Warrior's Field) at Bandar Hilir, Malacca on 20 February 1965. Maps now refer to it as Melaka. The port's importance in Malaysia's history is recorded by the history books yet it is a pleasantly laid-back town for visitors to explore.

Cross by the bridge from the right bank of the river where colonial buildings emphasise the gracious spaciousness of former days, to the concrete jungle of ancient Chinatown on the left bank. Ancient it maybe, but cars swirl around corners with a surprising swiftness so visitors need to be nimble footed to survive.

Jonker Street, known now as Jalan Hang Jebat, is an extraordinary cross of up market antique shops and down market cafes. There are some florid facades above some shops, representing traditional Baba-Nyonya architecture. This derives from the names given to the offspring of the original Chinese settlers who intermarried with local Malays. The men were known as Babas and the woman as Nyonyas, hence Baba-Nyona culture.

The shop houses have tall, arched windows permanently shuttered and covered with rococo wrought iron. Downstairs their depths are given over to collections of Chinese antiques, much of doubtful provenance, but delightful as souvenirs of the mysterious east for curious tourists from the west. 

In the front of one old house, with room-dividing arches matching the interiors of many colonial buildings in Colombo, a silversmith worked in the traditional manner passed down over generations. Jonker Street has not condescended to visitors.

However, other streets in this small town are less immune to modern philosophy. A T-shirt shop bears a bright red sign with white hand painted lettering proclaiming "Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression. This right includes freedom to hold opinion without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers."

Look at the small print and you see you are reading Article 19 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Nearby, outside a disco, is a more urgent message: a sign saying "Free entry: play safe, use Malaysian rubber." 

It proves that behind the facade of Malacca's engaging quaintness, lurks a 21st-century pragmatism.

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