Where Victoriana meets the Orient

Harriet O'Brien, travel writer of the year, is stirred by the melting pot of Chinese, Malay and European Cultures in Malaysia's most cosmopolitan city
There was a cheerful element of pandemonium at the temple. Small children darted through the crowds, dexterously avoiding being trodden underfoot; their parents, meanwhile, were lighting incense, praying, and diligently clattering fortune-telling sticks in bamboo cylinders to find out if their supplications would be granted. Through the smoke that spiralled from guttering candles, tables groaning with flower, mangoes, plump packages of cooked rice and other offerings, were dimly visible. More people arrived, squeezing their way past the ornately carved temple doors, with more children, more food, more flowers.

It was a public holiday. And it seemed as if a good half of Malaysia's Chinese population had descended on the Cheng Hoon Teng temple in Melaka as part of a grand day out. It is a colourful jazz band of a place: red paper lanterns swing down from the brightly painted roof, which crawls with an intriguing array of carved mythical beasts; gilt glistens from the hardwood panelling; Buddha images smile fatly at the throng of visitors. Dating from about 1646, this is the oldest of the country's Chinese temple - and one of the most venerated.

I looked on, bemused at the activity - and politely ignored by the worshippers. Then a sudden tropical downpour sent people scurrying, picking up their children and making for the inner recesses. An obliging Chinese lady who was heading out of the temple offered me a half share of her umbrella. We parted damply at a nearby coffee shop, a decidedly modern European addition to the city's old Chinatown.

Melaka (now only rarely Anglicised to Malacca) is a true melting pot of Malaysian culture. Visit this absorbing old trading centre and you neatly take in most of the salient contributions to the country's make- up: Portuguese, Dutch, British, Chinese and, of course, indigenous Malay.

On one side of the Melaka River the Europeans squabbled over the territory in subsequent waves and set up shop uphill, literally overlording the bustling commerce of the Chinese and Malays below. Remnants of Western imperialism are scattered around the eastern side of the waterfront. The weatherworn gateway of the Porta Santiago is all that remains of the fortress the Portuguese established after their arrival in the early 16th century. The hot-pink Stadthuys was built as an imposing town hall by the Dutch after they ousted the Portuguese in the mid 17th century. Today it houses a sizeable ethnographic museum. On the hill above it is the roofless ruin of the church of St Paul, also dedicated to St Mary. Signposts in English somewhat charmingly announce the way to "Our Lady of Enunciation".

At the Stadthuys museum you learn that the desecration was a British contribution: a grubby bit of colonial powerplay. When the French occupied the Netherlands during the Napoleonic war, the British, as allies of the Dutch, took temporary charge of Holland's colonies, Melaka among them. Some friends the British were. At pains to stymie any potential power the Dutch might have when their territories were restored, the British set about demolishing the trading post (they even used the remaining walls of St Pauls as a gunpowder magazine). They were stopped from total destruction by Thomas Stamford Raffles (then British governor of Java, and later founder of Singapore). It was undoubtedly a wise move: in 1824, just six years after the Dutch resumed control of the area, Holland did a swap with Britain and exchanged Melaka for the British colony of Bengkulu in Sumatra. The British settled in to Melaka, converted the demurely Baroque Dutch parish Church of Christ for Anglican use (as it remains today) and, apart from the Japanese occupation during the Second World War, stayed there until Malaysia was granted independence in 1957.

As you watch young Chinese and Malay daytrippers posing for photographs at the Dutch tombstones at St Pauls and by the old Portuguese gate of Santiago, it seems that Western colonialism has simply become a curiosity of the past. But the quarters of the Chinese and Malay traders remain a part of living history.

In Tanjung Kling, on the northern outskirts of the city, you can still wander through traditional Malay kampungs - villages made up of old-fashioned bamboo-thatch houses with neat little balconies at the front. Meanwhile Chinatown, its narrow lanes lined with an appealing array of shops (garage mechanics side-by-side with herbalists and smart antique boutiques), stretches east of the Melaka River.

Whatever the continuing unease between Malaysia's Chinese and Malay peoples, in Melaka at any rate there was some integration. Baba-Nonya, the intermarriage between Straits-born Chinese traders and Malays, became a significant Melakan culture. And a very profitable one. Food, architecture, artefacts: it's an intriguing mix not only of two Eastern cultures but of a prevailing 19th-century Western influence. Victoriana meets the Orient.

At 48 Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock in Chinatown, you can take a tour of an old Baba-Nonya house - guided by the smiling descendants of the clearly very well-to-do merchant family who once lived there. Behind a modest and austere looking street front, this is a mini palace of rich surprises, opening out into quiet courtyards complete with ponds and small fountains. There are boudoirs with intricately carved Chinese beds, sitting rooms with stiff, Victorian-style chairs and a proud collection of early manual typewriters, and a vast kitchen with an eclectic mix of Eastern and Western cooking implements.

On a less formal level, you can get a good taste of Baba-Nonya life at Jonkers on Jalan Hang Jebat, an expensive antiques shop fronting a very reasonable restaurant. Here you sit in the cool courtyard of another old Chinese-Malay mansion with subtly spiced dishes, drinking fresh lime juice and wondering at the curious mix of cultures that has made up Melaka - and Malaysia.