Exploring Malacca: A Nyonya Town
January 1, 1970
by Lilian Tan
While I have visited Malaysia several times, I have never truly seen the beauty of Malacca until this trip.
The quaint city of Malacca has often been overlooked in comparison to the overwhelming flavors of Penang, the breath-taking scenery of Cameron Highlands, or the cosmopolitan skyscraper views of Kuala Lumpur. Yet, Malacca boasts of such rich heritage and history that one could soak in during their stay. In my opinion, Malacca is unique in its Nyonya flavour and preserving the traditions of the heritage.
The adventure began with a five-hour bus journey from Singapore to Malacca. While it is only a couple of hours’ drive from Singapore, traveling by bus is part of a backpacker’s (as well as a broke college student’s) experience. Frugality is part of the travel experience, and it is satisfying to get the most out of an experience under a budget.
We arrived in the late afternoon at our hotel (many thanks to the kind bus driver who gladly dropped us off at the main road near to our hotel instead of the destination point), and were ready to explore the historical city, and its food. But first, we had to exchange our money into local currency. It is advisable for travelers to exchange their money prior to arrival in a foreign land, yet it slipped my mind this time despite my many years of traveling.
It was bad luck for us that we arrived just minutes after the bank has ceased its operations for the day. Thankfully, we met a businessman who offered to exchange money with us (at a better rate than the bank’s too!) upon knowing our plight. He offered us a ride to town in his car, and even went the extra mile of giving us a mini-tour of Malacca.
Notably, the museums, places of heritage, and hidden food gems are centered upon Jonker Walk. It is hard not to notice The Stadthuys (also known as the Red Square), that is cladded in a striking red colour. From the Red Square, one could either take a stroll along the Melaka River and head to the shopping mall district, or explore the food haven of Jonker Walk.
A Nyonya Taste
Apart from the mix of colonial heritage, Malacca is unique for its Nyonya cuisine. A close definition of Baba and Nyonya refers to the Straits-born Chinese, also known as Peranakan. Significantly, the Peranakan is not officially recognised as an ethnic group yet it has a strong cultural identity throughout Southeast Asia. Our first stop for a Nyonya cuisine experience is at Restoran Nyonya Suan (along the main road of Mahkota Parade). While there are no distinctive characterizations of Nyonya cuisine, it is notable that the Nyonyas love their food to be spicy. If anything, each dish reminds us of the comfort of home-cooked food. To our surprise, each portion is more than enough for two to share, and thus left us with a fulfilling experience as well as a very full stomach.
As my travel companion came halfway across the world from America, it is hard not to complete the night with an Asian dessert experience. We arrived to the quiet streets of Jonker Walk in search for cendol – a sweet dessert made up of coconut milk, sugar, cendol and shaved ice unique to Singapore and Malaysia. It is hearsay that Malacca’s cendol is a definite must-try as it is disputed to rival against that of Penang’s (another food haven in Malaysia), and I have got to admit, this myth is indeed true.
It was a night of unfortunate timing redeemed by the kindness of strangers. Once again, we arrived as the shops were closing for the night; yet the kind owner of Bibik House is willing to extend his business hours just so we could have cendol. I’ve got to admit, the one at Bibik House tastes way better than the famous cendol on Jalan Penang. #thereisaidit
The next morning, we tried Nyonya dumplings at East and West Rendezvous, and it is truly one of the best in town. According to a Swiss friend’s observation, a restaurant’s ambience and decor does not half matter in Asia as long as they serve delicious food. While it may not be a fact, it is indeed true that the unassuming interior of the restaurant is not noticeable once the heavenly sweet dumplings are served on the table. We tried both the original Chinese dumpling, as well as the Nyonya dumpling that is tinted with blue colouring. The latter has a sweeter taste and melts in one’s mouth easily.
It is part of my duty as a friend to provide a fulfilling Asian tour experience for my American friend; and food being so integral in Asian culture (Malaysia and Singapore especially), is a definitely a huge factor in the experience. Over the three days in Malacca, we also had several local delicacies unique to Malaysia such as chicken rice ball, putu piring, and lok-lok to name a few.
Jalan-jalan in Malacca
Food aside, it is time to explore the city for what it’s worth. Jonker Walk, albeit touristy, has plenty of hidden gems. It is an easy walk from one end to another, with small lanes in between. Fun fact: Jalan refers to the main road and Lorong to the smaller lanes adjacent to the main road. There are plenty of museums to explore, ranging from historical, cultural and to futuristic themed museums.
The History and Ethnography Museum in Malacca is definitely highly recommended to spend half a day learning about the rich history of Malacca. Located central at the entrance of Jonker Walk, the three storey high offers an extensive curation of the city’s political history, as well as its cultural and social history. The entrance fee for foreigners is only RM10, and it covers the entrance fee to other museums as well. Fun fact: The longest colonization that Malacca experienced was under the Dutch rule, followed by the British, then the Portuguese. As a history major student, I enjoyed the interesting layout of the exhibition that is specially designed for visitors to walk through Malacca’s timeline of colonization, by linking one hallway to another. While we did not have the luxury of time to visit other museums in Malacca, this one definitely sets high standards of museum experiences.
Notably, many of the past colonial influences can be evidently seen in the streets of Malacca. Along the picturesque Melaka River of Portuguese-inspired architecture, one is reminded of Venice. Unfortunately for us, we missed the river cruise along Melaka River as the weather was not in our favour. However, I can imagine that it would be a breathtaking cruise during sunset.
During our short time in Malacca, we experienced the warmth and welcome of this city and its people. Unlike other cities, the natives (born and bred) of Malacca assume a strong sense of pride in their heritage and city in a humble manner. This city easily leaves a good impression in our hearts, and warrants another visit in the future!