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Five-foot ways

Penang and Melaka

View Asia 2008 on Wardsan's travel map.

Penang and Melaka both enjoy enviable strategic positions. If you want to sail from India to China, you have to go through the Melaka Straits on the west side of the Malaysian peninsula, unless you want to go around Sumatra, adding hundreds of miles to the journey. So the strait is a good place to set up a trading post, with access to the markets of India, China, Vietnam, Siam and Java, and the jungle products of Borneo and Sumatra.

Penang was an English development. In the eighteenth century the island, at the northern entrance to the Melaka Straits, was very sparsely populated. Capt Francis Light thought it would be an ideal place to built a staging post for English ships sailing between India and China (England controlled the silk trade at the time). He obtained permission from the sultan to build a base there.


Capt Light hired some locals to build a fort at the point where he first landed, in 1786. It was the East India Company’s first base in the region. The first version of the fort was built, in 1793, in palm. Light named the fort after Cornwallis, the Governor-General of India, best known now as the man who surrendered at Yorktown. Around it grew George Town, now the capital of Penang. It is now a city rather than a town, but a few monumental buildings of the colonial era - the town hall, city hall, the museum, and Fort Cornwallis - survive.


This is the town hall.


This is St George’s church, built in 1818.


An old cannon, cast by the VOC, points over the walls of the fort. Local women now visit it to pray for fertility. It is a hefty cannon.


Penang, like those other trading towns Melaka and Singapore, has a large Chinese population. As in those cities, Chinese immigrants formed themselves into families or clans. Each clan had a kongsi, a building where people could meet; also a temple. In Penang, for example, there is a temple, built in 1924, for the ancestral deities of the Yap clan, originally from Fujian. It is guarded by lions, of course.


The clan has 700 members in Penang. The Yap name dates from 439 BC, when Shen Zhu Liang defeated the Qin army and helped to restore the Chu dynasty. He was awarded a title and a piece of land called Yap district, so he took Yap as his surname. Rather like the Windsors.


The Khoo clan also has a kongsi, the largest and finest in the city.



In the central hall are some lovely pictures.


Next to the central hall of the Khoo temple are two halls of fame. Any Khoo with a foreign qualification gets a shiny board on the wall; there are quite a few Khoos at Middle Temple, which is my Inn, and one or two at the other Inns of Court.


There are other Buddhist temples in town, too: a Thai one and a Burmese one. This is a columbarium at the Wat Chaiyamangkalaran.


And here is the Buddha at the Burmese temple.


George Town and Melaka are the two “Historic Cities of the Straits of Melaka”, which recently obtained a World Heritage Listing. The reason they are historic is that they have a lot of old shophouses. (The style is not unique to Penang and Melaka. There are a fair number in Kuala Terengganu, and some in Kota Bahru, as well as in Singapore.) But Penang has 1,700 of them.


The style is said to mix Portuguese, Dutch, Malay and Chinese influences. I could not discern anything Portuguese. Shophouses are two-storey trading houses, the ground floor open to the street. They are built on a simple plan with a rather plain façade, introduced by the Dutch, with more elaborate motifs coming from Malay and Chinese styles. As in Vietnam, the plot is long and thin. The living quarters and the kitchens are at the back, with an air-shaft in the middle.


The first floor typically has three louvred windows. (We were told in Melaka that there was once a tax on glass windows, but I’m not convinced.)

In George Town it is possible to group them into styles:

    • Early shophouse style, 1800-1850. Two-storey, built right on to the street edge with a recessed ground floor forming a pedestrian walkway. Usually simple and small in scale, the upper storeys sometimes no more than four feet high. The upper wall has continuous panelled or louvred shutters. The upper floor is timber and roof tiled.
    • Early Transitional, 1840-1900s. Built with a five-foot pedestrian walkway. The balcony is simply decorated, eg glazed green vents. Tuscan or Doric pilasters. A continuous range of shutters above.
    • Early Straits Eclectic, with glass in the shutters for the first time. The shutters are no longer continuous. The roof overhangs become wider after 1900, because of the availability of reinforced concrete.
    • Late Straits Eclectic, 1920s-1940s, notable for spectacular ornamentation. Three windows, with very little wall space in between. Columns or pilasters of stucco, with Chinese panel frescoes.
    • Neoclassical, influenced by Anglo-Indian architecture, high ceilings, large porches, portico, colonnade, cupola, strict classical orders.
    • And finally there is some Art Deco from the 1930s to the 1950s.



One of the buildings in George Town was the headquarters of Sun Yat-sen’s Tung Meng Hooi party, which in 1910 plotted the Cantonese uprising. (Dr Sun duly became president of the republic in 1911.)


In George Town the buildings are used, in general, as they always were - as shops. In this respect George Town has the advantage over Melaka. It feels real.


But Melaka, to the south, has the history. Unlike Penang, Melaka was an extremely wealthy and thriving port before the Europeans came. In fact it has the most interesting history of any town in the peninsula. Melaka is at the meeting point of the southeast and northeast monsoons. Merchants could wait in Melaka for the monsoon to change. Between April and October, the southeast monsoon blew ships towards China and Japan; between November and April, the northeast monsoon blew them back.


Melaka is on a river, home to huge water monitors, tiled like the Hôtel de Dieu in Beaune. We went on an enjoyable boat trip along the river and were regaled with entertaining but questionable history along the way. Dilapidated godowns still flank the river.


The town was the base of the Melaka (Malacca) sultanate between 1400 and 1511. The founder was Parameswara, a Sriwijayan prince from Sumatra. He embraced Islam in 1414 and called himself Raja Iskander Shah. Like the conversions to Christianity in eastern Europe towards the end of the first millennium, this seems to have been a political decision: he needed allies. Islam then spread from Melaka throughout the Malay world.

The Malay sultanate imposed a 6% ad valorem tax. Melaka was at its busiest between December and March, when ships from both west and east Asia arrived. Boats came from Java and the Spice Islands during the northern hemisphere summer. Traded in Melaka were especially textiles from India, commodities from east and west Africa, and Chinese silk and porcelain. Eighty-four languages were said to be spoken in Melaka.

Zheng He stopped here several times in the early fifteenth century, and built a trading post – he may also have converted Iskander Shah - and there have been Peranakans (Chinese) here ever since Hang Li Po arrived in, perhaps, 1459 to marry Sultan Mansur Shah.

From the Malay perspective, it was downhill after the Portuguese arrived. Vasco da Gama reached Calicut in 1498, where he heard about Melaka, and it took very little time for the Portuguese to discover the rest of Asia. The Portuguese arrived in Melaka to trade in 1509 and conquered the town by force in 1511, initiating the process of European colonisation in southeast Asia. The sultanate moved elsewhere. Paradoxically, it was the Portuguese capture of Melaka that triggered the Islamisation of the entire region.

The Portuguese imposed a government monopoly system. Naturally, they tried to monopolise the trade in nutmeg and mace from Banda, pepper from Kedah and tin from Perak. Many local merchants therefore went elsewhere, to Aceh, Brunei and Johor. The Portuguese also imposed an ad valorem duty of at least 5%, with 10% on Chinese goods, and 8% on goods from Bengal. (The exposition in the Maritime Museum was highly political, hugely pro-Muslim, and quite confused on the economics. It is certainly not obvious why the sultanate’s VAT was good and the virtually identical Portuguese VAT bad; or why both a monopoly system and free trade should have been the very thing designed to destroy Melakan trade. The real reason was probably that the Dutch and British simply wanted to base their trade elsewhere, at Batavia and Singapore respectively, because by they came into possession of Melaka they had already established these latter towns as their trading bases.)

The Dutch took the town in 1641 from the Portuguese after a siege. By then they had made Batavia the political and trading centre in the east, and they imposed heavy taxes on shipping in Melaka and diverted ships towards Batavia.

In the late eighteenth century the Dutch had to retrench, because the country was occupied by the armies of France, and in 1795 the British moved in, effectively holding it on trust for the Dutch for the duration of the war. But, like the Russians in Georgia recently, the British blew up the Dutch fort, so that when the Dutch came back they would not be able to defend it. The Dutch never came back, though, and under the Treaty of London 1824 the British swapped Bercoolen (Benkulu) in Sumatra for Melaka.

The British remained in Malaya until 1957, not counting the three years of Japanese occupation. They neglected Melaka, since Singapore was their commercial base in southeast Asia; Penang to the north was also more important. Certainly trade in Melaka diminished rapidly around the time Singapore was founded. Melaka dwindled and became a small, dilapidated town. The estuary silted up. In the nineteenth century Melaka had to start focusing on agriculture, and became an exporter of green pepper and rubber, as well as livestock, rattan, timber, gold dust and fish. No-one after the Melaka sultanate made any money out of the place.

Melaka has the oldest buildings on the peninsula. In its original version, the church of St Paul’s dates from 1521, when it was called Nosa Senhora. It was enlarged and renamed after the Annunciation in 1556, and then renamed again and turned into a Protestant church by the Dutch. St Francis Xavier, who visited regularly, was buried here for nine months before his remnants were transferred to Goa. (There is a miracle associated with this if you are into that sort of thing.) A number of old Dutch gravestones remain.



The Dutch built Christ Church opposite the Stadthuys in 1753, after which they stopped using St Paul’s, which fell into ruin. The pragmatical Brits used the church to store gunpowder.


St Paul’s is faced, as the fort was, in laterite, which is a concentration of insoluble minerals resulting from erosion of rock by heavy rainfall and given its colour by iron oxides. The other old buildings of the town are painted dark red to mimic it.

The Dutch also built the Stadthuys in 1660, which now houses a history museum, worth visiting if it is raining.


One interesting place to visit in Melaka is the Flora de la Mar, a 110-foot long replica of a Portuguese nau, fat and tall like a three-masted galleon, but less stable. The Flora de la Mar sank in January 1512 in the Straits of Malacca on her way to Europe. The replica was inaugurated as a maritime museum in 1994.


What was the nationality of the first person to sail around the globe? Malay, perhaps. Ferdinand Magellan purchased Panglima Awang as a slave in Melaka in 1511, and he accompanied Magellan back to Europe. He was christened and named Enrique. Magellan then mounted an expedition to sail around the world, and Panglima Awang went along as interpreter. As I mentioned before, by the time the ships reached Cebu in 1521, Magellan was dead; but Panglima Awang had sailed around the world.

There are still quite a few trishaws, bedecked in flowers, in Melaka, but they are an expensive way to get around, catering solely for tourists. In Indonesia they remain an important medium of public transport in most places outside central Jakarta.


The first floor overhangs the street by a few feet. In Penang and Singapore, the overhang is supported by pillars, and since the plots are contiguous this creates a sidewalk: a five-foot way. Since both commercial and family life takes place largely on this patch, it is not always possible to walk down it.


But in Melaka, for reasons that remain occult, the front patios are often separated by walls with portholes. The patios cannot be used as a path, so you have to walk in peril in the narrow streets, which carry heavy traffic.



In Melaka, the five-foot ways are confined to a fairly small Chinatown area. Many of the premises are now given over to touristified souvenir shops and restaurants. These masks are not Melakan.


It’s less satisfactory than George Town or Singapore. Melaka has the most interesting history in Malaysia but perhaps the least interesting Chinatown. In any case, the place is worth visiting for the food alone.


Posted by Wardsan 05:40 Archived in Malaysia

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