Malacca: World Heritage in Malaysia
Exploring the city's European colonial architecture
Exploring the city's European colonial architecture
Malacca, a city in Malaysia, is a popular destination for tourists - especially for Singaporeans, it is a nice weekend getaway. European tourists also find their way to the coastal town. Malacca has a rich but turbulent multicultural history, a lot of which is tied to a number of colonial buildings which are painted in vibrant red.
These striking, distinctly European-looking buildings are in the historical centre of the city around Bukit St. Paul Hill, located on across the river from the old town. Both the old town and the red buildings have been recognised as World Heritage Sites by UNESCO since 2008.
Why the buildings - some from the 20th century, others constructed centuries ago - are a deep red colour is a mystery. To shed some light on this, we must look at their history.
Malacca started as a small fishing village, but would grow out to become a successful pivot in the Middle East and the Far East. In the 15th Century the Sultanate of Malacca was founded, marking the growth of its esteem and the start of improved trade relations with other countries such as Ming China. Throughout the 15th and 16th centuries, Malacca grew in importance as a capital and port, with Arab and Indian suppliers walking its streets. Thanks to the arrival of the Chinese admiral Zheng He, contacts with China intensified.
In 1511 the Portuguese colonised Malacca, making it part of Portugal's wide network of trade.
This heralded the start of European influence and acculturation in Malacca. The Portuguese built a fortress (fortaleza) on Bukit St. Paul Hill during their rule, on top of the pre-existing wooden Malay fortress. The walls and bastions of the fortress were built using Laterite, a rock with a ruddy red colour that is often used in the region.
In 1641, a Dutch colonial fleet took control of Malacca, after which it became an important port of call in the network of the East Indian trade. Until 1795, Malacca would be occupied by the Dutch East India Trade Company (VOC).
When the Dutch took Malacca from the Portuguese, they added a stately town hall built after the example of the Dutch city of Hoorn. Soldiers and enslaved people started construction on the town hall in 1641, finishing it in 1660.
The Portuguese Catholic Church on Bukit St. Paul became a Protestant Church under Dutch rule. To celebrate 100 years of occupation by the East Indian Trade Company in 1753, the VOC built a new church. The church on the hill would henceforth be called the Bovenkerk (the Upper Church), while the new church was named the Benedenkerk (the Lower Church) and is now known as Christ Church.
In the 19th Century, the East Indies trade started to dwindle, and with it the importance of Malacca as a trading post. The Dutch state officially ceded Malacca to the British in 1824. It took until 1957 for Malaya to gain its independence.
Under Dutch rule, all buildings were painted a stark white: the Town Hall, the Benedenkerk, the offices and warehouses of the VOC. We know that this colour changed sometime after ceding Malacca to the British in 1795. But when exactly?
John Turnbull Thomson painted the town hall in 1848 using different shades of grey:
But in this picture of 1885, the old Dutch buildings are still, or once again, painted white.
Another photograph of Christ Church in 1910 shows the church painted white.
In the 1920s, a photograph of the town hall shows white walls, as well as the newly constructed clock tower.
Finally, in the 1930s, a photograph shows the clock tower, Christ Church, and the town hall in what looks to be a red colour, although we can't be sure from this black and white image.
Online travel blogs have several different explanations as to why the buildings are painted red today.
Some say the East Indian Trade Company painted them red because every time it rained the red earth of Malacca spattered onto the originally white walls, which looked unseemly. In Malacca a lot of people also chew sirih pinang, or betelnut: a seed that has stimulant properties when chewed. Chewing betelnut makes you need to spit a lot, and your saliva changes colour to a bright orange-red. The story goes that Malaccan people would purposefully spit on the colonial building walls as a form of protest against the colonial rule.
So maybe the buildings were painted red to avoid visible red betelnut stains on the walls?
A third theory comes from the idea that Malacca's old town developed into a sort of Chinatown district under British rule: this would explain the red colour which is often used in Chinatowns, traditionally bringing good luck.
On the Bukit St. Paul Hill, however, the buildings were still white in 1935, as this photograph shows.
In 2006, Malacca was awarded Unesco World Heritage status. In 2013-2014, the multinational company AkzoNobel aided in the 'restoration' of this heritage, painting all the buildings on the town hall square red, the same colour that the British had painted these buildings for a small part of the 20th Century. Even though the buildings on this square had been white for more than 300 years, the red colour introduced in the interbellum makes the square a striking place of heritage to visit and experience.
The real reason for painting the buildings red in the 1930s might forever be lost to time, but they have contributed to the pull of tourists to Malacca. Despite their unhistorical red colour, these buildings make Malacca stand out as a very attractive destination.
Mirjam van Immerzeel worked and lived in Malacca in 2007-2008 as a correspondent for Dutch and Belgian news media, and still often returns to the city. She is now working for Dutch daily Het Financieele Dagblad in the Netherlands. Her search for the multicultural history of Melaka has already taken her to archives in Riga, London, Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur.
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