What You Don’t Know About Malacca Town
The area in Malacca Town has several top tourist attractions such as Dutch Square, Christ Church, Stadthuys, Clock Tower, St Paul’s Church and A’ Farmosa. We will be exploring them one by one.
This is where the locals call ‘the red square’. The first thing that will catch one’s eye is the bright red paint on the buildings around Dutch Square. Contrary to popular belief, the Dutch did not paint this place red. In fact, the buildings were actually built with open-faced bricks, but the bricks began leaking, so the Dutch covered them with plaster and painted them white. Later, the British painted them bright salmon pink, and now the Malacca town council painted them with the red.
But theories still abound as to why the place is painted red. Some are pretty amusing. One says that they were painted red to copy the red brick stone houses in Holland because the Dutch missed their homeland. Another says that the British wanted to separate British buildings from Dutch buildings, so they painted them red. Yet another was that the locals hated the colonial Dutch and pelted the building with betel nut, which discharged red juices, so the building had to be covered in red paint.
Whatever the origin is, the red colour attracts many young newly wed Chinese couples in Malaysia who use the Dutch Square as a background for their wedding photos. In Chinese culture, red symbolizes prosperity.
All around, there are plenty of colourful trishaws, making the entire place lively and bustling.
The fountain nearby is the Queen Victoria Fountain, built by the British in 1901 to commemorate the Diamond Jubilee. Walk around it and one will even see a carving of the queen.
Christ Church, the imposing red building right in Malacca Town is the oldest Protestant church in Malaysia. It is also the oldest surviving Dutch church built outside the Netherlands.
It was completed in 1753 after 12 years of construction. The church uses conventional Dutch church architecture; a rectangular plan, massive walls, red granite blocks, and Dutch roof tiles. The bricks are specially imported from Zeeland, a province in the Netherlands. The church was built to commemorate Dutch rule in Malacca as well as to provide a place of worship for the Dutch. In fact, the road where Christ Church stands is called Jalan Gereja or Church Street.
One will not miss the striking white cross and the bell on the top of the church. The bell and weathercock were actually added by the British after they took over Malacca temporarily from the Dutch. But there is an unusual fact about the bell- the inscription dates back to 1698, 55 years before this church was built, suggesting that it could have been used for other purposes before it was hung here on top of the church.
Inside Christ Church, look out for the handmade pews that date back more than 200 years. Don’t miss the huge overhead beams holding up the roof; they were actually cut from a single tree and have no joints. On the walls, you will also see some decorative fanlights and plaques to remember those who have died in this tropical country. The strange thing about these plaques is that they are Catholic in nature but placed inside a Protestant church. Historians think that the highly religious Dutch could not have done that, and speculate that they could have been installed there by the British instead. There is a wooden plaque to commemorate local planters who died during the World War Two, many with Armenian inscriptions. Two of them read: “Greetings! you who are reading this tablet of my tomb in which I now sleep. Give me the news, the freedom of my countrymen, for them I did much weep. If there arose among them one good guardian to govern and keep, vainly I expected the world to see a good shepherd come to look after the scattered sheep.”
Another reads: “I, Jacob, grandson of Shamier, an Armenian of a respectable family whose name I keep, was born in Persia near Inefa, where my parents now forever sleep. Fortune brought me to distant Malacca, which my remains in bondage to keep. Separated from the world on 7th July 1774 A.D. at the age of twenty-nine, my mortal remains were deposited in this spot of the ground which I purchased.”
The brass bible that has the first line of the gospel of John in Dutch engraved on it. And lastly, a replica of the famous ‘The Last Supper’ painting is also to be found.
This church used to be attended by Dutch Lutherans, but is now attended by Anglicans.
Standing at the fountain facing Christ Church, on the right is the Stadthuys.
Built in 1650 after the Dutch captured Malacca from the Portuguese, it acted as the official residence of the Dutch Governor. It was modelled after the former Stadthuys of the town of Hoorn in the Netherlands, which is no longer there today. The Stadthuys is believed to be the oldest Dutch building in the East. Until the end of the Dutch administration, the building also served as the civic centre of the town. When the British took over, they continued to use it as a civic centre. Many important decisions that affected the history of Malaysia were made within the four walls of the Stadthuys. It now houses the History, Ethnography and Literature Museum.
Recently an excavation revealed that there used to be a Portuguese settlement under the Stadthuys. A drainage system was discovered, and you can actually see it the moment you step inside. There were also sea stones and a well, thought to be from the Portuguese. In fact, if you can find the car park in front of the Stadthuys, historians believe that the original parts of the A’ Farmosa Fort are located beneath it.
Looking at the Stadthuys, it is not hard to imagine the governor standing at the balcony while the smartly uniformed Dutch troops stood in attention at the square and presented their salute.
The Stadthuys is the perfect starting point to learn more about the historic city of Malacca. Inside, there are displays of Malacca’s glorious past including Malay and Chinese influence. One can also see the deep influence of the three main colonialists of Malacca- the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British. One can also see the Dutch Governor’s room inside.
Inside the Stadthuys is the statue of Admiral Cheng Ho on the courtyard on the right. He was a famous seafarer from China who led Chinese expeditions to the far reaches of the world.
The Stadthuys is now declared as National Heritage Site.
St. Paul’s Church
Climbers towards the top of the hill will see the white statue of St. Francis Xavier greeting them as they climbed to the top of the hill. St. Francis used to climb up this hill to pray in this church in his 11 years of missionary in Asia. He was credited with many miracles including raising the dead right in this church. One story tells of St. Francis Xavier, greeting the locals upon his arrival in Malacca, and began calling out names of children who surrounded him. There was also an account that he was in a boat in the Malaccan sea when a storm broke. The saint took out his crucifix and dipped it into the sea and the storm immediately died down. However, the crucifix slipped out of his hand and fell into the sea. The next day, when they arrived safely at the shore, a crab came out of the sea, ran towards the saint carrying his crucifix upright between its claws. The saint fell on his knees in prayer before the cross bearing crustacean ran back into the sea.
Sharp tourists will notice that the statue’s right arm is missing. Built very recently in 1952, the statue was to be consecrated one morning, but a tree fell on the arm and broke it off. Until today, it stands there in front of St. Paul’s Church without its right arm.
St. Paul’s Church was built by a Portuguese Captain, Duarte Coelho in 1521. It used to be called ‘Nosa Senhora’ or ‘Our Lady of the Hill’ and was used as a chapel. When the Dutch took Malacca from the Portuguese, the church was used as a praying place for 112 years until they built Christ Church at the bottom of the hill. It was the Dutch who renamed Nosa Senhora to St. Paul’s Church. After Christ Church was built, this place was no longer needed as a praying place, and became a burial ground. When the British took over Malacca in 1824, the St. Paul’s Church lost its tower. However, the British added a lighthouse in front of it. And instead of being used it as a place of worship, the Church became a convenient storehouse for British gun-powder.
Inside, are many tombstones with Dutch words engraved on it. These are the tombstones of many Dutch colonialists who left their homeland to settle on this strange and tropical land. Many of them are prominent Dutch and Portuguese settlers. One will also see an open grave, now covered with grills. This was the temporary nine-month burial place of St. Francis Xavier before his body was brought to Goa in India. It was said that his flesh was fresh as it has been and blood even flowed out of his fingers when it was accidentally cut while he was dug out. In order for him to be canonized as a Saint, the Church needed a relic, so his right arm was cut off. It was said that when it was cut off, again, fresh blood flowed out.
Now, remember the statue on the way without its right arm? A mere coincidence? I’ll leave it to you to decide.
Around the church one will see the Straits of Malacca. Where once Indian, Arabic, Chinese and other trading ships jostled for space, and later, Dutch and Portuguese military ships arrived in menacing numbers, today one might catch a glimpse of a solitary oil tanker.
The Porta de Santiago, or in English, the Gate of St. James is the sole remaining gateway of the massive fortress called A’ Famosa that the Portuguese built after capturing Malacca in 1511.
Using forced labour, and with the disturbance of many graves and the flattening of many buildings, the A’ Famosa, took five months and many lives to build. Originally the fortress had four towers and the walls were 2.4 metres thick. 70 cannons were placed all around to protect it. But not even that could stop the Dutch from invading after a long siege. Finally in 1641, the Dutch stormed the fortress, rebuilt it and placed their coat of arms above the gates, which you can see till today.
But back in the Netherlands, all was not well. Napoleon had invaded the Netherlands and Prince William of Orange fled to London. There he asked the British to help protect all Dutch settlement to prevent them from falling into French hands. As a result, the British gained control over Malacca. But the British were not keen to keep it, as guarding Malacca would mean straining their manpower. Hence, the British governor at that time ordered the demolition of this fortress stone by stone. But the forced labourers could not demolish it and there were endless stories of workers seeing spirits of those who died building this wall preventing them from tearing it down. Stories of sickness, accidents and death began spreading among the workers and finally, the governor ordered the walls to be blasted with gunpowder.
News of the demolition reached the ears of a young British civil servant by the name of Stamford Raffles. He tried to persuade his superiors to keep the fort, but eventually only managed to preserved this gate.